How to Start SAT Prep in 8th-10th Grade

Whenever students take the PSATs – whether it’s PSAT 8/9 taken as early as fall of 8th grade, or the traditional PSAT/NMSQT taken in October of junior year – the scores and tests are posted on the student’s College Board account within two months of the test. That’s a great study tool for the next step – the SATs. Or the ACTs. I strongly recommend all students review their PSAT results, going over the questions they got wrong using the online tools, redoing them and then looking at the correct answers and explanations. It’s good to do that before too much time goes by so it is still instructive and students remembers more of what they were thinking when they did the test originally.

Eighth grade and freshman year are early for formal test prep: Students have not yet been taught all of the math skills tested, particularly for the ACT. In reading and writing, the difficulty of the test passages and vocabulary is high for younger students. Nevertheless, students can and should begin to build skills specific to the tests. 

Here are 3 specific actions 8th -10th grade students can take to build a solid foundation for the SAT and ACT:

1) Add a daily regime of challenging periodical reading, starting with The New York Times or other sophisticated daily newspaper. (News aggregate newsletters are not recommended because it is important to build skills in sifting through the material and choosing for oneself.) 

– Read at least 10 minutes/day: short articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post are ideal.

– Read a sampling of the top stories and at least read the headlines – especially in those topics that are more difficult, e.g. politics. 

– Then read whatever topic in the paper interests you and also the opinion pieces (editorials, reviews of movies, etc). Movie reviews can be fun and easy for students to relate to if they’ve seen the films. This type of writing is very helpful in building vocabulary and rhetorical skills and comprehension.

2) Start a formal regimen of vocabulary-building, 1-2 new words/day. Many students find the free Visual Vocab CORE app a great way to start! Other excellent vocabulary building tools include the Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop series and SAT-level word lists at

3) Use official CollegeBoard practice PSATs to build math skills, tackling only those topics that are within range of subjects you’ve learned in school. Rather than tackling an entire timed section in Math, do individual problems, reviewing the answers and explanations afterwards. Advanced students may want to purchase PWN the SAT Math text to get a head start on test math – and take advantage of the challenging quizzes offered to textbook owners. 

When should students begin their test prep in earnest? Summer between sophomore and junior year is the best time to do a formal course or tutoring program, continuing at a lesser pace or with a break during junior year, depending on when tests are scheduled. That is the time, as well, to choose between SAT and ACT. Much earlier than that, students really haven’t studied enough of the material that is on the tests for the comparison to be valid.

Reminders for the night before the ACT

OK, students is it – ACT this weekend. I know you may be nervous, but don’t be: If you are a junior, this is early in the game and you can consider this test a practice test. Seniors, you’ve probably got some “keeper” scores for your composite and Saturday’s test gives you a chance to raise one or more of them. For everyone, it’s just win-win.

Juniors (and seniors who think you might take the test one more time): you should bring a notepad and as soon as the test is over, instead of rushing out of the hall, stop and jot down whatever you remember RIGHT AWAY. Once you leave the room or the building, it will be much harder to recall. Note any math topics that were new or hard, science questions that were surprising, reading passages that were difficult due to topic or style and whatever else you can think of.

* Did you guess on a lot of questions in the Math? What kinds of math questions gave you trouble?
* Did you run out of time on the Reading or Science – and if so, on which passage?
* Can you recall any vocabulary words that you were unsure of?

On the way home, continue to try to recollect what you missed and JOT THEM DOWN. This will be a real help in guiding your study for the next test, should you choose to retake it.

Your checklist to get ready for exam day:
– Review your techniques and the test format overall, but stop studying for this test by Friday afternoon or early evening, at the latest. No cramming!
– Collect all your test day essentials by late afternoon on Friday:
– a half dozen sharpened #2 pencils
– fat eraser to cover the answers in Reading section!
– calculator with fresh batteries and some backup new ones for your pocket just in case
– tasty, energizing and filling snack and beverage (Energy drink or other caffeine-containing drink ONLY if you usually drink it for school or study. Don’t try anything new on your body for test day.)
– ticket for the test, ID
– wristwatch for pacing!
– Get a good night’s sleep!  <– This is the single most important thing you can do to raise your scores!
– Set a couple of alarm clocks so you can’t possibly oversleep and won’t have to worry about doing so.
– Make sure you confirm – by looking at your ticket – where you will be taking the test, know how to get there and allow enough time in order to get there a half hour EARLY. If you are hoping to get a seat standby, definitely be early so you can be first in line.

In the morning:
– Eat breakfast, then take a few minutes to do one easy problem in each section of the test from a textbook – even a problem you’ve already done is ok, just to warm up before you go.
– Dress in layers in case it is too warm/cool in the test center.
– Pack tic-tacs (take them out of the noisy plastic case, put directly into your pocket), chewing gum or other surreptitious snack that you can pop discretely when your attention flags.

At the test center:
– Try to get a seat that has a minimum of distractors around it (other students on all four sides, windows, fishtank, etc)
– Don’t let others distract you even during break time. They’ll all be talking about how some question was hard, or whatever. Ignore them! You will be in YOUR ZONE, focussing on eating your snack, and psyching yourself forward – not reliving the past!

Remind yourself: You did great work preparing for your test and you are going to be rewarded with great scores and soon enough you’ll get to choose your next adventure – your college! (And know that wherever you go to college, your dedication to preparing for this exam will serve you well.)

Good luck this weekend!

The Real ACT Test Prep Guide 2016-2017: Deeply flawed but indispensable

As a long-time ACT and SAT tutor, I was excited to hear that the ACT people were finally updating their “Real ACT Test Prep Guide.” For too long, they offered a single book with a measly 3 practice tests, eventually upped to 5, while the College Board had many more resources. In Fall of 2015, the ACT essay was suddenly changed and a new “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” appeared, but it actually was just a new publisher and cover with no new content! Seemed underhanded of them but it was almost surely just clumsy timing. The ACT has, until recently, not been subject to the heat that the College Board has historically felt to be responsive to the public. The ACT website was corny and lame (just a few years ago, they promoted an annual student video contest and the winners’ video showed students asking each other what to bring to the exam. Super creative!) and their services were generally a step or two behind the College Board’s for the SAT. That is starting to change now as the ACT has become a major player and is competing head to head for the same students as the College Board.

But when the first true new edition of the “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” came out in 2016, it was a disappointment. This book has been widely panned by tutors and test prep teachers: Once again, the ACT is down to only 3 full practice tests and much of the material is recycled from previous exams (that are readily available from multiple sources online)! As for the new essay format, although the essay questions given are new, there are zero scored essays for guidance and, in fact, the scoring system has changed again since the book was published.

The book is a deeply flawed, overpriced, recycled resource. However, it is the only real ACT resource with answer explanations from the company that makes the test. Also, math is the one section that is not completely recycled, and it does show evidence of harder questions and math topics that have not appeared previously, confirming the rumors that the math section is getting harder.

Btw, now that the book is published by Wiley – publisher of the “Dummies” series – purchasers can access some freebie resources from the Wiley website, using a code given under a scratch sticker in the inside back cover of the book. The extras are not terribly useful, however, and I would recommend that students seeking extra study resources check out the Applerouth textbook for the ACT (only available from their website here). For advanced Math students, Barron’s Math and Science text is useful (the math section more so than the science).