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I have a secret.
The SAT and ACT is not a test of natural born intelligence. It is just a test, like any other test, that anyone can ace with enough practice.
And yes, that includes you.
It doesn’t matter if English isn’t your first language.
It doesn’t matter if you only have a few weeks before you have to take the test.
It doesn’t matter if you scored hundreds of points below your target score.
You can do it.
How, you ask?
I know that sounds too good to be true, but it is. Think about it. When you have a math test at school, what do you do?
You go through all the practice problems you can get your hands on. And then you do it again and again and again until it becomes second nature.
The SAT and ACT are long tests, but the same principles apply. Like a math test in school, they are testing for specific types of knowledge and thinking, and they rely on the same types of questions and techniques over and over and over again.
What You Need to Do
If you want to ace one of these tests, the secret is to know them inside and out.
And the best way to do that is to take as many practice tests as you can.
There are hundreds of them out there.
Sit down at home with a timer and take the entire thing, just like you would on the day of the real test. Give yourself the same amount of time per section as you will have on testing day. Do the whole thing in one sitting. Do everything you can to simulate the real experience.
As you go through, put a star next to any question that you find challenging or for which you are unsure of your answer.
When you are done, go through the whole test again start to finish. Review every question you got wrong as well as any question you marked with a star. Don’t just read the right answer. Figure out exactly why it is the right answer so that the next time you a see a similar question, you’ll know what to do.
Then do this whole thing again and again and again. Take as many tests as you can get your hands on (or at least until you are meeting your target score in a practice round). For some students, that might only mean taking two or three tests. For others, you might be looking at twelve or more.
The time you put into this will pay off.
It is a lot of work. And it can be hard sometimes to not only motivate yourself to go through all these tests but also to deconstruct why something is right or wrong.
Sometimes you might need to turn to Google to figure out how to solve a certain kind of math problem. And that is fine. If you are motivated and comfortable with that, great. Save yourself some money and prepare on your own. If you can stay committed and are willing to put in the time to use the free resources online to figure out what you don’t know, great!
But I know that sometimes you just want to have someone to talk to who can help make sure you understand the concept inside and out.
And that is why a lot of students like to do test prep courses that give them access to training resources and SAT and ACT coaches who can answer their questions and explain tough concepts.
They also help can help you stay motivated enough to stick with a grueling study regimen.
There are dozens of companies that can help you. And many of them do a pretty good job. In some cases, you can go to a local testing center and work with people in-person. Other times, especially if you are an international student coming from a country where few students study in the US, this may not be an option.
No matter where you live, though, you have options. The key is to pick the kind of program that meets your needs.
Self-Paced Online Programs
Self-paced online programs are a great way to supplement taking practice tests via self study. They can make your studying more efficient and effective and in some cases give you access to a personal coach who can explain any concept you are struggling with.
One program that is good for both domestic and international students is Magoosh, which offers some of the most affordable but high quality online prep programs for the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL (starting at $19 for TOEFL and $79 for SAT/ACT).
Magoosh has video explanations for how to approach each type of question, allows students to work at their own pace and tailor the content they view to their needs, and has a score guarantee. One thing I really like is that they have online coaches who can answer your questions if you need additional support.
Intensive Guided Programs
Intensive Guided Programs are highly effective, and many of the companies that offer them have been doing this for decades. They have score improvement down to a science. One of the most recognized and effective companies that uses this model is Kaplan Test Prep.
Kaplan uses an intensive preparation model where they will take you through everything you need to know start to finish starting with an 18-hour training course followed by practice tests and one-on-one coaching. It is a great and comprehensive course, but you will definitely pay for the depth of their service. Their best value course (offered both online and in-person) is $1199.
What Kind of Program Should You Choose?
Highly self-motivated students can do great studying on their own. The resources to ace the test are out there. And if you are motivated enough to sit down every day, and dig into Google, The College Board’s website (and resources available at Khan Academy), and other blogs/websites to deconstruct anything you don’t know, studying on your own is a perfectly sufficient way to reach your goal score.
On the other side of the spectrum are in-person courses or highly intensive guided programs like Kaplan that take you through each step of the way. If you want someone to hold your hand every step of the way (and can afford it), Kaplan or an equivalent program can be a great choice.
In my experience, most students fall somewhere in the middle. They know how to sit down and take a practice test and check their wrong answers, but could benefit from having a coach to reach out to if they need to ask questions. An online self-paced program like Magoosh that combines a flexible platform with access to real people, is ideal.
No matter what path you choose to prepare, take heart in knowing that the SAT and ACT are highly trainable tests.
While you will need to put in serious work to get where you want to be, attaining higher score is within your reach.