College admissions officers use standardized exam scores to compare you against thousands of other applicants, based on your mathematical reasoning, reading comprehension, and writing skills. This section focuses on the two major standardized exams that you may end up taking during high school: the SAT and ACT. To help you prepare for either exam, we will also differentiate the good study books from the rest.
- Take your tests early, ideally at the beginning of junior year or end of sophomore year, so that you have time to study and retake. If you happen to be a senior applying to college and have yet to submit test scores, make sure to find out the deadline for sending scores by consulting the webpages of universities you are applying to. It helps to jot down on your calendar the dates of exams, listed on collegeboard.org or act.org, so you never miss a chance at taking your exam.
- Try both the ACT and SAT as scores can sometimes be drastically different between the two tests based on the individual. Some colleges only accept ACT scores, while others only look at SAT scores, and the rest don’t care which exam you take. So, it may be helpful to try both.
- Don’t neglect subject tests and AP exams! Some subject tests are given only during certain months of the year. Be prepared to take them by the end of junior year at the latest. AP exams are administered yearly at high schools across the country. Note that colleges see scores from your junior year and prior when assessing your application.
- One of the best ways to practice for standardized tests is through practice testing. Take multiple practice tests and carefully go over all the answers.
Study Book Recommendations:
General SAT Study Book:
Amazon Link To 'The Official SAT Study Guide, 2018 Edition (Official Study Guide for the New Sat)'
SAT Section Specific:SAT Math Book:
Amazon Link To 'Kaplan Math Workbook for the New SAT (Kaplan Test Prep)'
SAT Reading Book:
Amazon Link To 'Barron's Reading Workbook for the NEW SAT (Critical Reading Workbook for the Sat) 1st Edition'
More Expensive SAT Reading Book But More Thorough:
Amazon Link to 'The Critical Reader, 2nd Edition 2nd Edition'
SAT Writing Book:
Amazon Link to 'Barron's Writing Workbook for the NEW SAT, 4th Edition 4th Edition'
More Expensive SAT Writing Book But More Thorough:
Amazon Link to '3rd Edition, The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar 3rd Edition'
General ACT Study Books:
Amazon Link to 'The Real ACT, 3rd Edition (Real ACT Prep Guide) 3rd Edition'
Amazon Link to 'ACT Prep Black Book: The Most Effective ACT Strategies Ever Published'
I'd recommend buying these two books together as the Black Book works in conjunction with the Real Act. The Real Act is made by the official ACT test makers and the practice tests are real ACT tests. Don't bother with the newer version of this book, though, as it adds very little and is much more expensive.
If you feel like you need additional practice the following two books are useful depending on what score range you are in:General ACT Study Book (better if aiming for a score lower than 30):
Amazon Link to 'Cracking the ACT with 6 Practice Tests, 2017 Edition: The Techniques, Practice, and Review You Need to Score Higher (College Test Preparation)'
General ACT Study Book (better if aiming for a score above 30):
Amazon Link to 'Barron's ACT 36, 2nd Edition: Aiming for the Perfect Score 2nd Edition'
ACT section specific:ACT Math Book:
Amazon Link to 'Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT'
ACT Reading Book:
Amazon Link to 'The Complete Guide to ACT Reading, 2nd Edition Second Edition'
Cheaper ACT Reading Book (less thorough and focused on short daily practice):
Amazon Link to 'Increase Your Score In 3 Minutes A Day: ACT Reading (Test Prep) 1st Edition'
ACT English Book:
Amazon Link to 'The Complete Guide to ACT English, 2nd Edition Second Edition'
ACT Science Book:
Amazon Link to 'For the Love of ACT Science: An innovative approach to mastering the science section of the ACT standardized exam'
Cheaper ACT Science Book (less thorough):
Amazon Link to '500 ACT Science Questions to Know by Test Day (Mcgraw Hill's 500 Questions to Know By Test Day) 1st Edition'
Something as arbitrary as bringing an unapproved calculator can get your ACT/SAT score cancelled, so be sure to check the calculator policies for both tests. Regardless of what calculator you use, practice using it prior to test day and memorize keystrokes to all important functions.
SAT: SAT Calculator Policy
ACT: ACT Calculator Policy
Highly Rated Standard Function Calculator:Amazon Link to ‘Texas Instruments TI-1795 SV Standard Function Calculator'
While on the subject of calculators, I recommend buying a good calculator for school as well. The Ti-nSpire is a great investment as it makes courses like AP Stat or AP Calc more manageable. The nSpire has some more useful functions and a more useful interface than its predecessors (Ti-89 etc).
One thing to be aware of is that CAS (computer algebra system) calculators are only allowed to be used on the SAT and not the ACT.
That being said, the Ti-nspire CX CAS Graphing Calculator is the newest calculator and has the most functional capabilities; the CAS can be useful for everyday math class.
Nspire CX CAS:Amazon Link to 'Texas Instruments Nspire CX CAS Graphing Calculator'
The non- CAS nspire is the one I used through high school and is a great option as well (you also can use it for standardized tests).
CX version (has color):Amazon Link to ‘Texas Instruments TI-Nspire CX Graphing Calculator’
Non- CX version (cheaper):Amazon Link to ‘Texas Instruments TI-NSpire Math and Science Handheld Graphing Calculator’
Is The SAT Preferred Over The ACT or vice versa?
Schools With All Scores Policies
This is something I see students fretting about far more than they should. Some schools, although it isn't common, require all test scores to be submitted. You can look up the score policies of the colleges you are considering.
Do not let this deter you from applying to a school.
Even if you have a low initial test score, it will only show diligence and motivation for you to have raised it. After all, raw intelligence rarely trumps diligence and a strong work ethic. These schools understand that students are not perfect. Don’t take any standardized tests for fun or not seriously and don’t take a content-based subject test without studying at all (Bio, Chem, Physics, etc), but do not let a suboptimal first SAT score deter you from applying to these schools either.
The ‘Once You Hit A Certain Score It Doesn’t Matter’ Myth
It can be comforting to believe that every test score above "X" is equal (X is sometimes around a 1400 SAT or 30 ACT). What is really meant by that is that at "X" your score will probably get you considered (depending on the school of course).
Improving your standardized test score continues to strengthen your application and chances no matter where you are at.
That being said, a 10-50 point increase on the SAT or 1 point increase on the ACT, is not going to change your chances dramatically. So, if you do get a score only one point off perfect for you then work on strengthening the other parts of your application rather than grinding for a very small advantage.
Allocate your time efficiently.
Don’t fall into the trap of ‘every score above "X" is the same,’ because it is not. Know when, though, to stop trying to increase your score.
If your score is near perfect, you have already studied a significant amount, or you have taken the standardized test 3+ times, then you should be spending time strengthening the other parts of your application.
Don’t get hung up on your test score. Do your best and understand where that situates you, but be optimistic; after all, most students won’t know all of these intangibles and nuances like you will.