Even though we’re a tutoring company, we’re not going to tell you that you have to pay someone to help you with standardized testing. You’re not required to take a course or hire a tutor, although for some students those will be good options.

Instead, the key to standardized testing success is to have a good plan and solid strategy for tackling that plan. Otherwise, students tend to either put off studying for these tests until it’s an emergency, or retest over and over in the hope of getting a score that’s “good enough,” without having defined what “good enough” actually means. Today, we’ll lay out some key principles of test prep, and then set forth a plan that you can walk through one step at a time.

Principles Of Good Preparation

Put in consistent effort over time. Ideally, this looks like spending time on standardized testing daily or every other day over the course of a few months, not a few weeks. Here’s a useful comparison: think about preparing for a musical or athletic performance. Cramming at the end won’t do much to improve your skills, but daily practice will take you far.

Emphasize skills as well as knowledge. Learning new material is part of standardized testing, but your performance during the test itself is also critically important. You need to be able to deploy your knowledge in challenging and unpredictable circumstances (i.e., not knowing exactly what the questions will be), and develop the vital skill of pattern recognition.

Use quality materials. While third-party materials can be beneficial, you’ll get the best results by using materials sourced directly from the SAT or ACT sites. Both provide diagnostic tests and other materials free of charge. Third-party resources (we like Barron’s and Princeton Review) may be useful if you need additional information, but should never stand in for actual test material on practice exams.

Learn from mistakes and work on the hard stuff. Reviewing practice problems is critical to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes over and over. Once challenging areas have been identified, carve out specific study times to focus on those kinds of problems, and seek help if needed. Targeted, focused effort can go a long way toward improving your score.

Set a clear goal and have a strategy for getting there. Work toward a goal score instead of just aiming for “doing as well as you can.” To do this, you’ll need to have an action plan for reaching that goal score. Read on for what that looks like...

Making Your Standardized Testing Plan

1. Get a benchmark score and choose either the SAT or the ACT. The SAT and the ACT are the two standardized tests that are equally accepted by all universities. Although the tests cover the same general topics, they do have some differences (structure, types of questions, skills prioritized). As a result, you may perform better on or prefer one test over another.

In our experience, 50-60% of students will score roughly the same on both tests. For 20-30% of students, the test they choose will make some difference on their final score. And 10-20% of students will find that choosing the right test can have a massive impact on their performance.

To establish a benchmark, you should ideally take a full-length practice exam for both the SAT and the ACT. Since the tests are scored differently, you can compare them using a concordance table. You’ll also want to factor in the exam experience, asking which test felt easier; this may indicate that you have more potential on that test. For more details, check out our blog post on choosing between the SAT and ACT.

What about using your PSAT from 10th grade as a diagnostic? This can be a good stand-in for the SAT, but it’s not as ideal as a full-length test. Plus, you took the PSAT a year ago, so there’s a good chance your abilities have improved since then, which means the scoring might not be completely accurate.

Remember to only use real materials for diagnostic tests, which are available on the SAT and ACT websites. We offer some additional tips on how to take and assess diagnostic exams.

2. Set a goal score. It can be difficult to set a goal score before you know where you intend to apply to college. At the same time, not having a goal score means you’ll never know when you’re done with standardized testing!

We recommend doing some basic research on test scores, looking at the average scores for colleges that interest you. The SAT & ACT v. GPA Charts that we send out can also provide valuable information. While the specific college list in this attachment is a bit dated, it still provides a solid overview.

As a rule of thumb, you can expect to improve your diagnostic test scores by 100-200 points for the SAT and 1-3 points for the ACT. Anything more will require significant effort and coaching, although it is possible. All of these factors can help you and your family determine a goal score for the SAT or ACT.

3. Choose a target test date. We advise students to plan for two test sittings, ideally one in late fall/winter and one in early spring. First sittings can be nerve-wracking, and students often score significantly better the second time around without much additional effort. This timeline not only gets standardized testing out of the way before finals and AP exams, it also allows you to get additional help and test again later in the year or over the summer if needed. Remember that you should be committed to either the SAT or the ACT for both test sittings.

4. Create a test prep plan. We dive deep into the study plan for standardized testing in other posts. Your test prep plan should definitely include one to three full length, timed practice tests and a structured curriculum that addresses specific sections and assigns specific times when you plan to work on them. As we mentioned above, test prep should focus on steady and consistent effort to achieve the best results.

Keep in mind that part of test prep is tracking and reviewing your performance. Review the questions you got wrong and go back to basic concepts in order to improve your proficiency in the areas that present challenges.

Bonus Section: When To Ask For Help

Many parents and students will look at this plan and feel in over their heads. That’s not our goal! It is totally possible for you to go through this process very successfully on your own. However, it can be challenging for families to pull together the requisite time, motivation, and expert resources to create and execute a test prep plan. That’s when you may want to turn to outside help.

A tutoring company such as Signet can not only help craft a testing plan, they can also work with you to strengthen specific skills or build knowledge in areas that need improvement. Third parties also provide a ton of accountability, because not only is your family making a concrete investment in your future by retaining a tutor, but you are agreeing to a specific course of progress with someone who is not your parent, thus sidestepping the potential drama of combining academics and familial relationships.

What about test prep courses? They can certainly help some students, and are a nice way to create structure because they require showing up at an appointed time on a consistent basis. However, by their nature, courses will be general rather than targeted to your needs. Their ability to be effective will really depend on what specifically you are struggling with (as well as the instructor). Although we don’t offer test prep courses at Signet, we can certainly provide recommendations.

It would be dishonest to tell you that every student needs to work with a tutor or be in a class to do well on standardized testing. But when it’s the right fit for you, outside help may not only create significant improvement on test scores, but also significantly reduce stress and tension in familial relationships.

If the thought of putting together a test prep plan overwhelms you or causes friction with your family, or if diagnostic testing reveals you are struggling with specific skills or subject areas, please reach out to us. We are happy to discuss all the available options to ensure that you get the assistance you need.

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