ACT and SAT Tips: Ten Minute Test Prep

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If you’re like most high school students, Concepts of missing pieces, problem-solving, and slow delivery Minute hand of analog electric clock carries two pieces of jigsaw puzzle (selective focus).jpegthere isn’t a lot of downtime in your day, let alone time to study for something other than your normal homework. Yet the ACT and SAT loom in your future, and you keep hearing about how you need to start studying for them months—maybe even years—in advance. How can you fit ACT and SAT prep into an already overloaded school day? The solution is simple: study in 5- or 10- minute segments. Even the busiest teenager has a few minutes to spare—whether riding in the car, waiting for practice to start, or sitting in the dentist’s office—so there are no excuses: start prepping for the ACT and SAT now. And we're here to help you figure out how to do that.


1. Read a boring article.

The ACT and SAT test makers select dry, difficult passages for the reading comprehension questions. Get prepared for such utter boredom by reading similar articles, which you can find our suggested magazine reading list. Print a few to take with you, and whenever you have a few minutes, read! Concentrate on the main idea of the article and how the author feels about that main idea.

2. Learn 5 vocabulary words.

The SAT has (mostly) banished arcane and obscure words like arcane and obscure (which obviously aren't that arcane nor obscure, since I just used them). But both tests--and particularly the SAT--assess your knowledge of "Tier II Vocabulary Words," a fancy Common Core way of describing common academic words. While we no longer suggest that you spend hours pouring over vocabulary lists, it doesn't hurt to go through a list of Tier II words and familiarize yourself with ones you may not know. You can find lists of Tier II words on the internet, or check out our list of "Repeat Offenders" in The ACT and SAT Reading Bible (complete with definitions and context sentences). If you have 5 minutes waiting in line in the school office, pull out the Repeat Offenders and learn 5 words. These short study sessions will add up over the school year, and before long, you’ll have a profound SAT vocabulary. And if you don’t know what profound means, then you’ve proven just how badly you need to review Tier II words.

3. Classify some questions.

The best way to understand a test is to take it apart. Despite my background in education, I was not a test prep expert until I studied multiple tests and dissected the questions, one by one. You can do it, too. Find a test (online here) and flip to the reading section. For example, take a look at these sample SAT questions. Don't read the passage--we're looking only at the questions in this exercise. The first question asks about the "main focus;" we classify this as a Main Idea question in The ACT and SAT Reading Bible. We would have to read the entire passage to answer this question. Now look at question 2: it asks what a particular phrase is meant to convey. This is a Purpose question, and we would likely need to read the surrounding sentences ore even the entire paragraph to understand the purpose of the phrase. Question 3 asks us to summarize the first paragraph, with is another Main Idea question, only this time it's about a single paragraph instead of the entire passage. Continue this method of examination, hitting 5 to 10 questions at a time, but keep your notes in a place where you can return to them when you have time to look at more questions. You will start to see patterns, and understanding patterns on the ACT and SAT is the key to mastering the tests.


4. Rewrite a math problem.

Know the very best way to learn something? Teach it to someone else. I consider myself a non-math person (put some serious Calculus in front of me and I’m likely to sneak out the bathroom window when you’re not looking), but I can consistently score above the 95th percentile in the ACT and SAT Math sections. Why? Because I have rewritten thousands of ACT and SAT math questions. The College Board does not release its official questions for use by tutors or test prep companies, so authors like me have to create questions for our books and courses. To make our questions as accurate as possible, we use old questions and update them. Then we have to test them to make sure they work. I might run through 20 combinations of numbers before I find a set that make a question work, but in the process, I’ve practiced that question 20 times. So if you have 5 minutes to spare, challenge yourself: can you take a math question from the test and make it work with new numbers? Can you change the question slightly to make it your own creation? 

5. Learn 5 math formulas or relationships.

Check out our ACT Math flash cards. They say ACT, but don't be fooled--the tests are so similar now that you can use them for both the ACT and the SAT. Print them and throw them in an outside pocket of your book bag. When you’re waiting for the team bus before your game, take them out and memorize five relationships that are tested on the ACT and SAT. The SAT provides some basic geometry formulas on the official test, but we want you to memorize them and many others that can help you on test day. And you ACT test takers don't get any help from the test makers, so you have no choice but to memorize all formulas.

6. Complete a short math problem set.

In 10 minutes, you can complete 5 math problems and still have time left over to check and review your answers.  Work through 5 questions at a time in an official test. Remember, though, that the key to a score increase is studying what you did wrong, so be sure to review each question that you missed or guessed correctly.



7. Recreate a grammar question.

Just as you should create your own math questions mentioned in #4 above, you should also rewrite your own grammar questions. If you struggle with a question, rewrite it, making the error the same in both questions. Model your sentence off of the one in the question, but change the topic. Additionally, keep a running log of the errors you encounter, such as subject and verb agreement, the placement of commas, and the use of redundant language. This will familiarize you with common ACT and SAT sentence structures, as well as alert you to errors patterns. 

8. Practice a short problem set.

Each ACT English passage has 15 questions, while each SAT Writing passage is accompanied by 11 questions. Answering 15 questions in 10 minutes may seem like it's impossible, but you actually have  only 36 seconds per question on the ACT, meaning you should complete the passage in 9 minutes. This exercise may take an extra five minutes though, depending on how many wrong answers you need to review.

9. Read a grammar book.

One of the most respected books about grammar is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. The original was published 100 years ago, but it was expanded in 1959 by E. B. White,  the author of Charlotte's Web. And although those updates are nearly 60 years old, the content inside is timeless (just like Charlotte's Web, right?). The best part? It's really short. The copy on my bookshelf is only 80 pages long. The second best part? The book is free because it's in the public domain. You can download it here at Project Gutenberg. Nearly all of the content in the book is tested on the ACT and SAT, so take five or ten minutes each day to review some basic grammar skills that will not only pay off on the ACT and SAT, but throughout your career.



(NOTE for SAT test takers: While the SAT does not have a dedicated Science section, it has science questions littered throughout the other three sections--yes, even the grammar section. So you would be wise to follow the suggestions here).

10. Read articles with tables, charts, or graphs.

The Science section and questions are really math and reading questions in disguise. Your knowledge of science is not tested, but rather your ability to read and interpret passages and data. So look for magazine articles that have tables, charts, or graphs in them. You'll likely find many of these in Popular Science, Scientific American, and American Scientist. But don't discount Social Science magazines--you may find infographics in magazines like as The Economist, Foreign Affairs, and Journal of Democracy as well. Study the tables and charts, finding titles, column identifiers, units indicators, etc.

11. Create your own table, chart, or graph.

Recreate one of the tables or graphs from an official test using your own data. I'm not saying you should conduct a real experiment--after all, this is Ten Minute Test Prep. But fake it until you make it. You can even make it funny, if you want. The point of this is not to prove some hypothesis, but to help you understand how tables and graphs are created, and what you may be asked about them. For example, check out the table on this ACT Science passage. Maybe you want to make your own using your five favorite colleges. Instead of molar mass, you could list the tuition. For distance traveled, put the distance from home (again, make these numbers up. This isn't about accuracy, but rather about understanding). For RF, put "Odds of my younger sibling attending here." For spot color, rank the colleges by mascots. Then write one or two questions about your table, modeled after the questions that accompany the official ACT table. When you get done, you'll have a better understanding of tables in general.



12. Solve the ACT and SAT Question of the Day

Every day, without fail, the ACT and the College Board release one random question through a subscription service. Who said they were evil, conniving test makers? The ACT QOTD is here (at the bottom of the page), and the SAT QOTD is here. This simple act of viewing a single question each day will eventually expose you to all of the types of questions on the test and all of the patterns in the questions. You should complete these questions daily. Better yet, print them out and start a library of ACT and SAT questions. You can use them later when searching for specific types of questions or when writing your own versions of questions. Do it. No excuses.

Obviously it’s not ideal to study for the ACT and SAT for only 5 minutes at a time. Most students need to commit to more serious study time, especially in the months immediately preceding the test. But if you are just starting to think about taking the tests or are short on time, these suggestions can help you jump start your training and keep you fresh on the days that just don’t allow you a full study session.


Questions? I'm always here ( Seriously. I rarely leave this desk.


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