Test Prep Survival: SAT, ACT, and PSAT/NMSQT

Standardized tests play an important role in the college admission process, and you can get through them! Read on, and prepare for test success.

First stop: Acronym City

When it comes to standardized testing, there seems to be an acronym waiting around every corner and the SAT, ACT, and PSAT/NMSQT play starring roles.

To start out, many students take a practice PSAT/NMSQT during sophomore year, which is optional. Wondering why you would elect to take a test? The more you know about your exams, the less apt you'll be to freak during the one that counts. As for the "real" test, you'll take that in October of junior year. (At an "ACT school" you'll take the PLAN during the fall of sophomore year.)


The choice of whether to take the SAT or ACT used to be determined by your school/region. Today, however, most schools accept both SAT and ACT scores, which means that you can decide for yourself.

Although the tests are similar, they have some key differences. On the SAT, the writing section is required, and the essay factors into your overall score. On the ACT, you can choose whether or not to take the Writing section. Another difference is the way the tests are scored. On the SAT, you'll get a small amount deducted for every wrong answer. On the ACT, only right answers count so fill in every bubble. The SAT tests reading comprehension, math, and writing skills, but the ACT also tests science. Don't worry too much, though you don't need to know science facts since it really tests your ability to read and interpret scientific information.

Neither the SAT or ACT is easier or better, but by getting to know each, you can decide which suits you. If you're still undecided about which to take, try a practice test for each. If you find one less difficult, you can shape your prep plan accordingly, and you won't have to take both!

Getting ready

Once you figure out what you're studying for, it's time to get busy. Sadly, prep through osmosis (placing your book under your pillow) definitely doesn't work. We know it's disappointing! So with that out of the way, let's move on to what you can do.


As you prepare, certain strategies can help boost your scores.

The write stuff

While many students are less than pleased about the prospect of writing an essay, it's definitely not the end of the world. It's quite possible that your performance on the writing portion of either exam can work in your favor. In other words, don't assume that you'll bomb it. Besides, the writing section only accounts for about a ninth of your SAT score and the optional ACT essay isn't even counted (though certain colleges require it).

The bottom line

It's easy to get overwhelmed by testing, and by the college admission process in general. However, as long as you stay organized and get prepared, it's nothing to lose sleep over!

Peterson's © 2008

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