In the presence of COVID-19, many highschoolers are beginning to ask the same question: Do college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT still matter to the college admissions process? Select universities around the U.S. have marked scores as an optional addition to your application, but for most of those applications, they instead require AP exam scores or that applicants be in the top 25% of their graduating class.
Not only that, but grade-point averages have also gone up dramatically over the last several years, making it more difficult for universities to decipher which applicants truly stand out above the crowd. You wouldn’t want your application to be put aside just because another comparative applicant does have an ACT or SAT score and you do not. So, the short answer is yes, college admissions exams still carry a lot of weight on your college applications even if it is not a requirement. As they differentiate among applicants, college admissions exam scores give universities another piece of information about who you are as a student. Here are three ways you can effectively prepare for your college admissions exam so you can distinguish yourself from everyone else.
1) Get cozy in the atmosphere.
Start by taking a full-length SAT or ACT practice test. Taking the whole test will open your eyes to what you’re good at as far as time-management and subject area. I wouldn’t recommend starting with any type of preparation until you have a clear idea of what you need to work on.
Take a full-length, timed test in a quiet space. Simulate the real test as much as possible so the atmosphere of a high-stakes exam isn’t completely unfamiliar to you. Inflated results won’t help you accurately prepare. Become familiar with the testing experience so you have an honest assessment of where your skills are and, more importantly, areas where you need to improve.
2) Choose what to master.
After taking a full-length practice exam, the next thing you should do is create a reasonable plan. Set a target score for yourself and hold yourself accountable. Create a plan that revolves around how much time you have before exam day, your target score, and where your natural abilities lie. Get specific, and realistic, about how much time and effort you will devote to SAT or ACT test prep, then—whether you plan to study for 20 minutes every day or for an hour twice a week —tell friends and family about your plan. From my experience, telling people about your plan will hold you accountable for carrying out your plan because you won’t want to let them or yourself down.
Creating an effective plan also involves assessing your strengths and weaknesses. It’s common to think that if your weakness is math, you should spend more effort gaining confidence in that area, but that’s not always the case. You might get more bang for your buck by blowing one area out of the water rather than cramming for your weak subject. It all depends on what you’re trying to score. If you’re trying to get a perfect score, you’ll need to attempt to master everything. In that case, you won’t want to come across a question you can’t get right. If your goal isn’t a near-perfect score, you won’t want to sacrifice time on your weakness and have your strong subject score suffer.
3) Avoid gimmicks and use one, high-quality resource.
After you have a plan and have experienced a practice test, invest in a quality learning tool to help you effectively prepare for the real thing. If you get a reputable resource, you won’t need to buy multiple products. One source should do the trick.
An SAT or ACT test-prep product likely isn’t quality if your gut is telling you it’s trying to sell you an impossible ideal. There’s no easy way to get a 1600 or 36. Avoid gimmicks, because there’s no way to cheat the exam.
Whatever resource you’re using, it’s helpful to keep a journal of your mistakes, your improvements, and what you’re struggling with. Going back and assessing what works and what doesn’t for your particular learning preferences will help you overcome obstacles in your preparation process.
Make sure your learning tool includes practice questions that are continuously updated according to what’s currently on the test you’re preparing for. The ACT and SAT are constantly changing, and your tool needs to keep up in order to be effective. Online resources are able to be updated to reflect changes in a timely way, making sure you always have the most up to date content. Questions that mimic the real exam will limit the number of surprises you’ll encounter once you’re in the exam room.
Another feature to look for is explanations to every answer that teach you the concept behind each question—whether you got it right or wrong. If you got it wrong, the explanation can address any misconceptions that you have and encourage you to actively practice this concept and master it for future preparation. If you got it right, the explanation should reinforce your success and encourage you to dive deeper into what you already understand. If you’re shopping around for different online learning tools, be sure to look at the answer explanations they offer. Explanations should be easy to read, take you through each problem step-by-step, and include a visual aspect to help you understand.
Taking the time to formulate a plan, assess yourself with an ACT or SAT practice test, and choose a test-prep tool that builds comprehension and retention will give you the best possible chance of hitting your target score on exam day. If it is safe to take the test, even if your dream school doesn’t require a score, you’ll hit submit knowing your application might be held in higher regard by decision-makers.
Philip Bates is a former school principal turned content director for UWorld, an online learning tool that helps students achieve their target score on high-stakes exams. Philip holds a Master of Education from the University of North Texas and both a Texas Education K–12 lifetime certificate and Principal Certificate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with UWorld at @UWorldUnivPrep.