Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect American schools, I have spoken to thousands of people from all over the country on webinars, and parents and students are overwhelmingly seeking advice about standardized testing strategies in this uncertain time. My advice for the Class of 2022 (students starting their junior year in the Fall of 2021) : I would have them prepare for the PSAT, ACT, and SAT over the summer, before the stress of a busy junior year. The reason I say “PSAT, ACT, AND SAT” is that there is a great deal of overlap in preparing for these three tests. The PSAT is essentially just a shorter version of the SAT (without some of the hardest questions), and much of the content on the ACT and SAT is the same.

One note about preparing for the PSAT: I used to advise students not to prepare for the PSAT. After all, it seems silly to practice for a “practice” test. But I noticed that when students went into the PSAT cold, they scored poorly and it led to a generally negative, demoralized attitude towards these exams. So now my advice to students is to prepare yourself for the PSAT. You will score higher, have fewer mistakes/areas of weakness to focus on, and have more confidence heading into the SAT (and/or ACT.) It is worth noting that in many parts of the country, the PSAT is administered during the school day. If your school does not offer the PSAT, taking a practice SAT exam is an effective way for a student to find out where they can most improve their score.

When a student takes the PSAT (or any practice SAT or ACT), they need to approach it as they would the real exam. Many students don’t take the practice test 100% seriously and therefore, their scores are not accurate reflections of how well they can score. To expand on this slightly, my advice to students has always been to treat these exams like a game, challenge, or brain teaser (pick your favorite.) The tests are trying to trick you, and you are trying not to fall for their tricks. Every time I practiced for these exams and I made a mistake, I asked myself “How was I tricked?” Once I figured out my mistake (or someone explained to me my mistake), I acknowledged that the testmakers beat me and vowed not to let them fool me on that same thing again. Keep in mind that often just one additional question answered correctly on the SAT increases a student’s score 10 points! Students and parents are often surprised to hear this and having this knowledge increases a student’s confidence that they can significantly improve their score.

Humans learn most effectively in smaller doses over a longer period with time in between for their brains to process the new information (rather than cramming for the ACT or SAT in the last two weeks before the exam.) Two to three hours per week is an appropriate amount of time for a student in the Class of 2022 to spend over the summer preparing for these exams. In addition to leading to higher test scores, spending two to three hours per week preparing for the ACT and SAT will mitigate summer learning loss (larger at higher grades and in math) and help a student have a more successful junior year; students frequently notice that something they learned preparing for the ACT or SAT helped them in math or English class. And two to three hours per week of test prep leaves plenty of time for students to pursue the other goals of a productive, well-balanced summer.

My advice as far as which ACT and SAT exams to take in a student’s junior year has always revolved around the College Board’s Question and Answer Service and the ACT’s Test Information Release Service. For 22 years, I have been saddened by parents’ and students’ lack of awareness about these services. In a nutshell, the family pays an additional $18 on the SAT ($22 on the ACT) when they register and the College Board or ACT sends the student a full breakdown of which questions were answered incorrectly and what the correct answers were. It is a highly efficient tool for improving your score on your next attempt. The way I like to describe it is: Imagine taking a four hour test, getting a score you are not completely satisfied with, not being told what you did wrong and then being told to take the exam again. That’s absurd! It makes more sense to review/learn from your mistakes before you take an exam for a second time. 

The College Board offers the Question and Answer (QAS) Service on the March, May, and October SATs and the ACT offers their Test Information Release (TIR) Service on the December, April, and June ACTs. Therefore, I recommend that 11th graders take the December ACT as their first attempt so they can order the TIR Service. I also recommend that 11th graders take the March SAT so they can order the QAS Service. Once a student has taken each test once, use the official ACT/SAT concordance tables to determine the test on which the student scored higher and take that test a second time. Many students score about the same on the two exams, which is not surprising since there is so much overlap in the content of the two tests. In this case, the student should take whichever test they felt more comfortable with.

On a side note, many families express concern that waiting until March of junior year to take the SAT for the first time seems too late. It is not too late. Any student who takes the November or December SAT won’t have the option of ordering the QAS Service to see what they are doing wrong. In addition, students are likely to score higher in the spring of their junior year in part because of the additional math, vocabulary, and grammar they learn as junior year progresses.

To summarize, once a student has taken each test once and determined which test they scored higher on (or if they scored about the same, which test they felt more comfortable with,) they should take that test a second time (no need to take both tests twice.) A logical second attempt for the ACT would be April (TIR is offered again) or May for the SAT (QAS is offered again.) The goal is for the second test to be the final time they need to take these exams. These are long, grueling exams that nobody wants to take more times than they need to. Of course, a student can always take the SAT or ACT an additional time if need be.

So how can a student score as highly as possible and therefore get accepted to more places and earn more in academic merit aid and scholarship money? The first thing every student should do is use the Method Test Prep checklist of 15 minute tasks. Students who follow this checklist increase their SAT scores an average of 150 points and their ACT scores an average of 3 points. The checklist consists of text and audio lessons during which a teacher walks students through every strategy and technique needed to score high on these exams, questions for students to practice on, and video and text explanations so students can watch the fastest way to solve questions. Thousands of students use this checklist each week to score higher on these exams. A second option that parents and students should consider is our $20 live classes every weekday at 8 pm Eastern. Many students take these classes in conjunction with the self-paced checklist because they like the blended approach of live review and independent practice.

If you have questions about this post (or anything having to do with the PSAT, ACT, SAT)  or would like to discuss the most appropriate plan for your son or daughter, email me at tom@methodtestprep.com or fill out our contact form and I will get right back to you.