Standardized Test Taking Strategies

Standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and AP exams can be a major source of stress for many students. However, they are also a great opportunity to demonstrate key critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Practicing a few key test taking strategies can boost a student’s overall performance and help build confidence in this skill set. 


How to Develop Your Own Test Taking Approach

There is no cookie-cutter approach to standardized test preparation that works for every student. We all have different learning styles, after all! Students should develop a strategy informed by their own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few important steps for building that plan:


  • Take full-length diagnostic tests for the SAT and ACT to determine which test to focus on, pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and strategically plan test prep efforts.
  • Analyze the results of each test for patterns of error, which may fall under these categories: content knowledge, test taking strategy, and test day performance.
    • Shore up content knowledge where necessary with independent study and tutoring.
    • Develop and refine test-taking strategies to address areas of weakness.
    • Improve test-day performance by practicing routines and developing a positive mindset to encourage focus and confidence.


Improve Performance on Any Standardized Test

These test taking strategies can be applied when preparing for any standardized test, whether it’s the SAT, ACT, or AP exams.


Develop a time management strategy

To execute timing strategies effectively on test day, students must understand their needs and practice their approach, which requires diagnosing timing issues, developing a plan, and putting that plan into action.

  • The goal is always to answer as many questions correctly as possible, which may mean skipping difficult or lengthy questions in favor of shorter, easier ones.
  • When feasible, start by reviewing all the questions in a passage to determine the order for answering them. Start with easier questions and progress to more challenging questions as time allows.


Take advantage of the multiple-choice format

If the standardized test utilizes multiple-choice answers, be sure to take advantage of this opportunity.


  • Use the process of elimination (PoE). Crossing off answers that are obviously incorrect can be an effective way to arrive at an answer. Even if you only eliminate a few answers, you have already greatly improved your ability to guess correctly.
  • Try to identify the differences between answer choices, which will help you focus on what the question is truly asking.


Maintain focus and attention to detail

While standardized tests can be exhausting, it is important to stay as engaged as possible and resist making careless mistakes.


  • Read introductions and descriptions for passages to develop context.
  • Annotate the test and use scratch paper to stay engaged. Note exactly what you are looking for with each question, and circle key words in passages and details in charts and graphs.
  • Notice when you begin to lose focus or “space out.” Gently guide yourself back to the test and perform a few arm and leg stretches in your seat to help you reset.


Develop a positive testing mindset

Most students don’t enjoy taking standardized tests. But they can still work on cultivating a confident outlook.


  • Have a strategy to address test anxiety and help you “get into the zone.” Try a quick warm up-routine or positive affirmations if you aren’t sure where to start.
  • Do your best to stay interested in the material and avoid boredom.


Simulate real testing conditions when you practice

Practice is key for improving testing performance. One way to ensure all that hard work will come through on test day is to make test preparation as similar to actual test taking as possible.

  • Start practice sessions with a regular warmup routine.
  • Use scratch paper and annotate the test for all practice problems.
  • Follow test instructions carefully so that they are internalized by test day.
  • Complete a few full-length practice tests in test-like conditions (on a weekend morning, in a quiet place without distractions)


Test-Specific Hints for the SAT and ACT

Now, let’s focus on some tips that are specific to different parts of the SAT and ACT.


ACT English and SAT Writing and Language

  • Understand how much you need to read to answer each question. Grammar questions may involve an entire sentence or more. The addition or subtraction of elements may require reading the paragraph in question or understanding the whole passage.
  • Look at the answer options to understand what concept is being tested.
  • Understand what the test writers prioritize. Generally, they will focus on (in order of importance): 
    • Grammatically correct, complete sentences
    • Consistency, including subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and pronouns
    • Commas (when in doubt, leave it out!)
    • Concision and avoidance of repetition


ACT and SAT Math

  • Know that you do not always have to solve problems from start to finish. You can:
    • Plug in the answer choices and work backward.
    • Make up sample numbers to plug in.
  • Practice turning word problems into algebraic expressions or diagrams whenever possible.


ACT and SAT Reading

  • Develop a reading strategy based on reading and retention speed.

    • Focus on skimming the passage first. Read the introductory paragraph, then the first and last sentences of subsequent paragraphs. Try to create a “map” of the passage based on this information.
    • Then move to the questions, prioritizing easier ones that include line references. Save the “main idea” questions for last when you have the most context.
  • Take the time to look for direct evidence, even for inference questions. Do not rely on what you recall from reading the passage without checking.
  • Utilize the process of elimination (PoE). These tests are extremely literal—if the answer isn’t directly supported by evidence or is slightly different, then it is wrong!


ACT Science

  • Start with the charts and data, then move directly to the questions and try to answer them, only reading the passage when necessary.
  • Do easy questions first to build understanding before tackling the main ideas and conceptual questions.


Test Taking Strategies for Other Standardized Tests

When studying for other standardized tests, do your research about the test to tailor your test taking strategies. Here are important questions that may affect your plan for the test:


Is there a penalty for missed questions?


  • Yes (SSAT middle and upper-level test). Be judicious about guessing. If you can confidently eliminate two answer choices, then it is in your best interest to guess. If not, you may be better off leaving the answer blank.
  • No (SAT, ACT, GRE, etc). Always make the best guess possible. 


Do the questions get progressively more difficult in the section?


  • Yes (SAT and ACT Math sections). You may not need to rush through the earlier portion of the test if you know that the material will get more difficult. Focus on acing the easier questions, which are worth the same amount.
  • No (other sections of SAT/ACT). Be sure to prioritize easier questions to ensure you have the time and energy to master them. Skip more difficult and time-consuming questions so you can return to them later. 


How intense is the time pressure for this test?


  • You will want to adapt your approach to comfortably fill your time and allow a few minutes to check your answers. If you speed through and finish each section early, you may make careless mistakes or become bored.


Standardized Test Preparation Support 

Keep in mind that everyone’s test prep plan will vary based on their own testing and learning styles. 

If you’d like additional help developing effective test taking strategies, check out Signet’s recommended resources for preparing for the SAT or ACT, or connect with us to learn more about our tutoring services.

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