There are plenty of lists out there with the "Do's of SAT and ACT Prep," but what about the "Don'ts?" Here are the top seven mistakes students make preparing for and taking the SAT and ACT.
1. Taking the test cold
I often get the same phone call from concerned parents: “I just want him to take the SAT this fall to see how he does. Then we’ll decide how much study he needs.” Hey, while you’re at it, why don’t you have him submit a rough draft of his essay with his college application? I’m sure the admissions officers would love to see his spelling errors and comma splices.
I don't really get sarcastic, but I want to. The idea of taking an officially-administered SAT as a practice test is ludicrous. Instead I politely explain to these well-meaning parents that if their sons or daughters take the test and return a sub-par performance, the college applications will take a hit. “Well, he’ll just use Score Choice,” they reason. Umm, yeah. Yale University—one of the most prestigious and oldest colleges in the country—will totally change their policy requiring applicants to submit ALL scores just because you ask them to.
While this might be a great plan if all of your prospective colleges accept Score Choice, many colleges still require that you send test scores from every official administration. Plus, most universities will superscore your results, meaning admissions officers take the highest section scores from different tests to compute the best composite score. So say Johnny Junior gets a 520 Math, 660 Reading, and 600 Writing in March, and he turns in a 630 Math, 630 Reading, and 650 Writing in May. His super score is a 630 Math, 660 Reading, and a 650 Writing. If you utilize Score Choice, you limit your own potential. (To find out how colleges use scores, check out this report published by the College Board).
When you take your first official SAT or ACT, be sure that you are 100% prepared and ready to master the test. Discover your initial practice score on a practice test, not on the real thing.
2. Using simulated tests to compute a practice test score
The College Board has released 10 official tests in The Official SAT Study Guide and the ACT has published 5 tests in The Real ACT Prep Guide. Buy these books. Work through the tests. Compute your scores. If you need more tests, you can find free official tests in our Free Help Area.
But do not buy books written by test prep gurus with “complete practice tests.” While simulated questions are good for teaching and practicing specific concepts, they are poor for helping you compute an accurate practice score. The authors of these tests are not likely psychometricians, those PhD-wielding statistical-loving educational psychologists who write standardized tests, nor are they psychometric employees of the College Board or of ACT. They can guess at what goes into a full-length test and at its resulting score curve, but they cannot know for sure and they cannot accurately predict your real score.
3. Cramming the day before the test
Intense studying the day before the SAT or ACT is akin to an athlete running 50 miles the day before a marathon. Professional athletes taper their workout in the days before competition, and you should taper yours, too. If this idea causes panic or anxiety, then flip through your Vocabulary or Math Flashcards one last time the day before the test, but do not strain your brain. It needs a 24-hour break in order perform at its peak ability on test day. After all, if Johnny Junior follows our advice about preparing for the SAT or ACT, what he’s learned in the months prior to the test is not going to be forgotten in a single day off.
4. Sleeping through the test
Several years ago I taught an SAT class in which one student explained to me why he was there. “I can’t submit my ACT scores now because I bombed it. I stayed out the night before until 5:00 am and fell asleep during the test. Now I have to take the SAT.” Sigh.
I know none of you plan on staying out until 5:00 am before your test, right? Hasn’t your mother told you that nothing good happens after midnight? And even midnight is too late of a bedtime the night before the SAT or the ACT. The tests are up to 5 hours long, and if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you are guaranteed to fade just over halfway through. I know that many high school social and athletic events occur on Friday nights, but think about the events you might miss out on at the college of your choice if you don’t get the test scores needed to attend there.
5. Letting your stomach growl
I admit it: I’ve been that person in a testing room whose stomach has growled and distracted everyone in the room. Not only did I lose focus because I was hungry, but also because I was embarrassed by the sounds emanating from my core. Since then, I don’t take the SAT or ACT without eating breakfast and packing a snack to eat on my break. It’s a proven fact that breakfast increases your concentration, mood, and memory, so pick a healthy meal to help you get through the test. Food that is high in protein will keep you full longer, although if you don’t usually eat a breakfast bean burrito, the day of the SAT is not a good time to start. Choose an innocuous protein bar if you are not normally a breakfast eater.
6. Finishing early
Every time I take the SAT or ACT, without fail, several students finish a section and put their heads down. The teacher in me wants to get up and shake them, but the competitor in me inwardly smiles because they instantly become a lower statistic on the percentile rankings. It is SAT and ACT suicide to assume that you are so intelligent you selected all of the right answers on the first pass through a section. I consistently score in the 99th percentile, and I consistently find mistakes when I go back and check my work when there is time remaining. Remember, the questions are designed to take advantage of your assumptions and your inattention to detail, so reviewing your answers will either confirm their selection or help your see the trap into which you fell.
7. Misbubbling your answer sheet
If you skip a question on the SAT, you must also skip that bubble in the answer booklet. It is imperative that you be meticulous in bubbling in your answer sheet if you omit questions. “There are 20 questions but I’ve only bubbled in 19! Where did I go wrong????” You know the signs: mad page turning, frantic erasing, and hasty re-bubbling. Avoid the panic by being painstaking in your transfer of answers.
If you skip a question on the ACT, lightly bubble in answer choice (A) or (F) in your answer booklet before moving on to the next question. There is no penalty for wrong answers on this test, so putting a “placeholder” answer will not affect your score. It will, however, keep you from misbubbling.
Photo: "warning:_____" courtesy of Jason Eppink