What I Wish I Knew About Taking the ACT/SAT

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3 min read

The following is a guest post written by Tiffany Sorensen, a contributing writer and tutor on the Varsity Tutors platform.

The ACT and SAT are critical components of your college application. Most American universities require scores from one of these tests for undergraduate admissions. Here are a few things I wish I knew about taking the ACT/SAT as a high school student.

I wish I knew the rigor of taking the ACT/SAT

Educators often compare taking the ACT or SAT to running a marathon—and for good reason. High school exams are like sprints—rigorous, but typically over in a short time. The ACT and SAT, on the other hand, are lengthy tests. In fact, the ACT and SAT are likely the longest assessments you have taken to date:

  • The ACT is two hours and 55 minutes in length, plus an optional 40-minute essay.
  • The SAT is three hours in length, plus an optional 50-minute essay.

While knowing the content of the ACT and the SAT is indispensable for earning a high score, your ability to stay focused and motivated throughout the test is also essential. You need both content knowledge and stamina to excel. Since I was not accustomed to staying seated for so long or taking an exam of this length, I found myself getting anxious about halfway through the first SAT I sat for.

The best way to adapt to the protracted format of the ACT and SAT is by taking practice tests. Taking full-length exams will allow you to become familiar with the length of the test and to practice time management techniques. 

I wish I knew not to rely on my calculator for the ACT/SAT

Having a calculator during the ACT or SAT can be both a relief and a detriment. Your calculator should be reserved only for computing large numbers and complicated problems. The issue is that many students, myself included, use their calculator too often.

In many cases, the calculator can end up wasting your time. I was too dependent on it; I was too quick to rely on my calculator rather than doing the math mentally. I think back to how many minutes I spent entering numbers, and I realize I could have advanced through the test more efficiently by using my own brainpower.

When tackling simple arithmetic problems on the exam, avoid using your calculator. Instead, take some time before the test to brush up on your times tables, order of operations, perfect squares, and other basic math principles. The calculator should be treated as a helpful tool to check your math—not as your first resort. 

I wish I knew stress can sabotage your performance on the ACT/SAT

I took the SAT two times. The first time, I let my nerves get the best of me. I was worried for days leading up to the exam. My score the first time was above average, but not what I had hoped. By the second time I took the SAT, however, I had completely changed my attitude. I knew that I had studied hard and was intelligent and capable. I did not obsess over what my score would be. I went into the testing room with the mentality that I would try my best and see what happened. With this newfound mindset, my score increased by 300 points on my second attempt.

The main difference between my first and second exams was the amount of pressure I placed on myself. There are two kinds of stress. Positive stress is a motivating force, while negative stress is debilitating. The first time I took the SAT, I was under negative stress, which ended up costing me hundreds of points. Being in the right state of mind can make all the difference on test day, so take steps to help yourself relax in the days leading up to the exam. Good luck on test day!


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