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Tips from tutors on how to ace the SAT and ACT

Posted by Leslie Anderson  September 27, 2013 02:03 PM

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Fall is here, which means two things: pumpkin spice lattes and college admissions tests. But before you start panicking about the SAT and ACT, here are tips from two experts, Neil Chyten, founder and CEO of Chyten Premier Tutoring and Test Preparation, and Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

When preparing for the tests, Gruenwald suggests the following:


1) Understand what you’re trying to accomplish. The sole purpose of the ACT and SAT is to gauge your readiness for college, and it’s important to take ownership of the tests.

2) Understand the tests. Don’t just show up – know how it’s structured and how the scoring works. For example, the SAT has a quarter point penalty for wrong answers, while the ACT does not.

3) Set a study schedule early on, and base it on when the test is, the score you’re aiming for and where you currently stand. Take several practice tests so you know how the test works and how you respond to it. There's a strong correlation between how much you practice and how well you do on test day.

4) Be physically ready. The night before, do something that will stimulate but not exhaust you, whether that’s going for a run or simply filling in a crossword puzzle. On test morning, eat a healthy but normal breakfast – don’t go out of your way to eat a massive meal if that’s not your normal routine. Don’t load up on caffeine drinks because you don’t want your blood sugar to crash halfway through the test, but have a cup of coffee or tea (or orange juice) if it’s your usual morning beverage.

5) Know about the writing portions. The writing section of the SAT is mandatory. The essay section of the ACT is not. For the SAT, don’t think that not knowing the prompt is an excuse to avoid studying, because the section tests how strong a writer you are, not necessarily the facts or your opinions. The same goes for the ACT's writing section. For the ACT in particular, know whether the colleges or universities you plan to apply to require it. Keep in mind that the writing section of the ACT is scored separately and doesn't affect your cumulative score, but it's something schools will see. Gruenwald’s recommendation is to take the Writing section of the ACT, as chances are good that at least one of the schools you will apply to require it and it's a good way to show off your writing skills.


1) Don’t plan to cram. Leaving everything to the last minute just hurts your chances, and there is far too much content for that to work. The tests are intentionally different from regular high school classes because there is no defined amount of information you need to know

2) Don’t stress out over the test, either physically or emotionally. You need confidence, a positive outlook and what Gruenwald calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy mentality.” Staying up until 4 a.m. won’t help, so don’t sell yourself short on rest or on nutrition. Plan to take the test at the best time for you – if you have several sports games or recitals or other activities, maybe another test date would be more convenient.

3) Don’t wait until test day to figure out where you need to be and what you need to bring. Have an appropriate ID, approved calculator and route to where you’re going laid out in advance.

4) Don’t study things that aren’t on the test. Calculus is not tested, and there are very few trigonometry questions. Instead, variable manipulation and plane geometry are far more important topics to study. Similarly, the ACT Science section covers some science knowledge, but it is actually predominantly science reading comprehension.

5) Don’t lump these tests in with every other test you’ve taken. The SAT and ACT gauge how strong a college student you will be. As a high school student, you’re used to being tested on what you know and can memorize. These tests will examine your ability to think about and respond to new information.

During the tests, Chyten recommends the following:


1) Be extremely careful when you’re down to the last two answers in a multiple choice section. In many cases, test writers want to lead you down the wrong path.

2) During the reading section, don’t read the passage or the questions first. Instead, read the question, find the answer, and then move onto the next.

3) For the essay, don’t restate the prompt in your introduction. If you want yours to stand out, make it different. And don’t be afraid of using literary devices like alliteration – just use them well. About 10 strong vocabulary words are a good number to aim for, but don’t make them sound forced.

4) The writing section is essentially a grammar section that tests verb tense, comparisons, subject-verb agreement, diction and idioms, and sentence structure. Focus on those aspects.

5) In the math section, take advantage of the fact that the answers for multiple choice are in numerical order. Start with checking if “c” is the answer – if not, you know whether to move down to “d” or “e” or up to “a” or “b,” doing a maximum of two computations.


1) The English section is passage based, not sentence based. In almost every case, answers that sound wrong are wrong, so keep that in mind.

2) The English section tests punctuation more than the SAT does, so brush up your knowledge of commas, colons, semi-colons and dashes.

3) The math is pretty straightforward, but make sure you know your formulas. Unlike in the SAT, you won’t get the formulas, so know your SOHCAHTOA, Pythagorean theorem, and other algebra, geometry and trigonometry functions.

4) Also in the math section, note that all the figures are drawn to scale. You can use the diagrams to help solve the problem at hand.

5) Science tends to be the most problematic section, with 35 minutes to complete seven passages, each with 5-7 questions each. The best strategy is to understand how information is organized in graphs, charts and passages. One passage presents the conflicting views of two scientists and asks you to find similarities and differences. Survey the text quickly, circling key points, because there is not enough time to read closely. The biggest challenge in this section is finishing on time.

Feel more prepared now? For more information, you can look on Chyten and Kaplan’s websites, in addition to other resources such as The College Board. Good luck!

Shandana Mufti can be reached at

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