A High School Junior's Guide to SAT/ACT Success

Our partner William Ramsdell, the Director of Advantage Testing of Austin, shares his guide for high school juniors as they work to succeed in their testing:

Q: When should I take the SAT/ACT?

A: Twice in 11th grade: once in the late fall and again in early spring. Most students reach peak performance after 3-6 months of preparation, so that means you should start studying in August or September of your junior year. This isn’t early—it’s a perfect time. Avoid taking the SAT/ACT near the end of junior year, when you should be focusing on finals, AP and IB exams.

Tip: While you can take exams during the summer and early in your senior year, that time may be better spent on life experiences, for internships, for college courses, and for taking serious time to draft and redraft the most phenomenal, most jaw-dropping essays of a student’s young life.

Q: SAT vs ACT?

A: Put simply, the ACT has easier questions but puts you under more time pressure, while the SAT gives you more time to do challenging, multi-part math problems and analyze sophisticated reading passages. Let’s get one thing straight—you need to try both exams and see how you feel about them. Don’t write one of the exams off without trying it. After trying both, you will almost certainly have a strong feeling about which one you like more.

Important: Don't take official exams “just to see how it goes”. Official exams are for sending to colleges, not for practice. Instead, use freely available practice exams to gain experience or buy one of the official prep books.

Free SAT Practice Exams

https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/practice/full-length-practice-tests

Free ACT Practice Exams:

https://blog.prepscholar.com/printable-act-practice-tests-5-free

Q: ACT has a “Science” Section?

A: This is really a data analysis or ‘charts and graphs’ section. You are rarely expected to recall facts from school classes. Instead, you will answer questions about trends in data and about the design of experiments. This is an extremely time-intensive section that rewards skimming and approximating. Students who try to use scientific knowledge or who read every word will struggle.

Q: Math Sections - should I be worried?

A: No. Math is hard...but it's coachable and improvable. If you put in the hours and months and do the work, your math scores will rise. Furthermore, exotic and advanced mathematics aren’t being tested here. Instead, basic algebra and geometry skills will be needed to solve problems in clever and creative ways.

Study Tip: While some Algebra II and Pre-Calculus questions do appear, Geometry and Algebra I questions make up most of the test. Therefore, ensure you have the basics down (percents, geometry, exponents) before studying advanced topics (matrices, unit circle trigonometry, complex numbers, vectors).

Q: Reading Sections - should I be worried?

A: Yes. Reading is difficult to improve upon. Reading skills—hearing tone, perceiving logical structure, employing active reading—are skills that develop over years, not months. However, reading periodicals like The New Yorker, The New York Times, or The Economist will help.

Q: English Sections - should I be worried?

A: No. This ‘grammar’ section is the most learnable section on both SAT and ACT.

Q: What are SAT Subject Exams?

A: Subject Exams test topics like chemistry, biology, physics, world history, US history, English, and foreign languages. Each exam is one hour long and is administered on the same day as the regular SAT.  Most colleges don’t require Subject Exams, but the more selective a college is, the higher the chance it will require or recommend Subject Exams. The ideal scenario is for a student to take a subject exam right after they complete the corresponding course in school, so May or June are perfect times for Subject Exams. Most colleges will only request two subject exams. A score of 750+ is a good goal.

Q: What about the PSAT?

In the 10th grade, the PSAT is just extra practice. No big deal. As a junior, the PSAT is still no big deal unless you can beat a 1450 for National Merit Scholarship.