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What to Expect if You Take the ACT or SAT Cold

Taking the ACT or SAT for the first time is an eye-opening experience for many students. This is especially true if you go into either test “cold.” While we generally advise against taking the ACT or SAT without any preparation, doing so does have the advantage of producing an accurate baseline for improvement. With that in mind, here is an idea of what you can expect to happen if you take the ACT or SAT without studying first. Use this information to help make an educated decision about whether taking ACT/SAT cold is right for you.


Expect to run out of time

Each section of the ACT and SAT has a fairly strict time limit. The SAT time limits tend to be a little more forgiving than their ACT counterparts. However, it is shockingly easy to get hung up on a difficult question and lose enough time that you cannot complete the rest. Just getting oriented on the format of a new section can easily cost you several minutes. Expect to run out of time on at least one section of the test.


Expect to feel tired

The ACT and SAT are, at a minimum, three hours long. Because of their length, test fatigue is a serious problem with both exams. Expect to begin to run out of steam somewhere around half to two-thirds of the way through the test.


Expect to feel nervous

Even if you are a good test-taker, some degree of nervousness and anxiety is natural the first time you take the ACT or SAT. If you find that your nerves do not calm down or actually get worse during the exam, you’ll want to incorporate strategies for reducing test anxiety into your study regimen for the second time you take the ACT or SAT.


Expect to see unfamiliar concepts

The ACT and SAT cover some concepts that most high school students spend little, if any, time on. On the writing section of the exam, there’s a good chance that you’ll be struggling to remember obscure grammar rules. On the math side, some topics, such as trigonometry, are stressed to a higher degree than in equivalent high school classes. If you take the ACT or SAT before or early in your junior year, expect to see at least a few math concepts that you haven’t covered in school yet.


Expect to see familiar concepts presented in unfamiliar ways

The ACT and SAT are notorious for testing familiar material with an unfamiliar format. The verbal sections of both exams demand a greater degree of precision with and literal understanding of the English language than many students are accustomed to. The ACT Science section is probably the worst offender in this regard, testing primarily data identification/interpretation and little actual science.


Expect not to do your best

A “cold” ACT or SAT exam is all but guaranteed to produce your lowest score. Regardless of whether you score below, at, or well above the benchmark, you with almost certainly have room for improvement if you take the test again. Use these scores and your initial ACT/SAT experience as a roadmap to study for the second test.

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