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Three Test Prep Tips You Probably Haven’t Thought Of

Over the course of this blog, we’ve covered ACT and SAT preparation strategies ranging from the obvious to the obscure. We’ve addressed test prep fundamentals, common test prep mistakes, and even outside factors that might impact your score.


For this week’s lesson, we’re going to cover three important components of ACT and SAT test prep that you probably haven’t considered. These tips involve mistakes or omissions that a significant number of my own ACT and SAT students have made while preparing for the test.


Practicing with Answer Sheets

A significant component of successful ACT or SAT preparation is making practice tests as much like the real exam as possible. One aspect of simulating the tests that students often overlook is transferring their answers to the “bubble sheet” that comes with all official practice tests. Because this sheet is what will actually be graded, it is important that students incorporate the process of filling the sheet in into their practice sessions. Student who omits this step while practicing risk running into problems on the real test ranging from running out of time to accidentally filling in incorrect numbers.


Practicing in Pencil

You can use only standard no. 2 soft lead pencils (no mechanical pencils!) on the ACT and SAT. In spite of this, I’ve found that students will usually default to using a pen on practice tests unless explicitly told not to. It’s surprisingly common for students to show up for test prep lessons with pens only or for a student to do his or her test prep homework entirely in pen.


Completing practice tests only or mostly in pen is a bad idea for the same reason as not using answer sheets is: it creates a less authentic test-taking experience. The differences between writing in pen and pencil are especially important if you are planning to take the essay section. Some of the most popular types of pens, such as the gel ink and roller varieties, need very little pressure while writing. Pencils, on the other hand, require substantially more pressure to create a dark, clearly-visible line. At the same time, you have to be careful not to press down too hard or the pencil tip will snap off and/or your hand will cramp up.


The resistance of the pencil on the page is also very different from the relatively-smoothly flowing experience of writing with even the cheapest of ball point pens. Furthermore, the writing experience with a pencil changes as that pencil wears down. You might find that you need to subtly-alter the amount of pressure you are applying, and even adjust your grip, as the pencil tip becomes progressively blunter.


Having Someone Else Proctor and Grade Your Practice Tests

As with the first two tips, having someone other than yourself administer and grade your mock tests will help create a more authentic test-taking experience. The temptation to “go easy” on the test taker is just far too great if you are also the test administrator. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself thinking “I’ll just finish this one question” when time runs out or to give yourself a 10 minute break where you should have a 5 minute one. Likewise, it’s possible to convince yourself that you really meant to put down a different answer when you get a question wrong.


The ACT and SAT are long tests, so it probably won’t be feasible to have another person administer every mock test you take. However, you should do everything in your power to make sure that the last practice test you take before the real exam is proctored by an individual who will be as strict with the test rules as the person administering the real test will.


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