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The SAT is a standardized multiple choice test that is required for admission to American universities. You can also choose to write the ACT, but most universities require you to write one or the other. This category is a collection of articles that outline how to study for the SAT.

The SAT is a skill based test, which means that it is not testing specific knowledge. There are 4 sections, plus an optional essay section. The Writing & Language section mostly tests grammar rules, the Reading section is testing reading comprehension, and the two Math sections require numerical problem solving skills, both with and without a calculator.

Because the test is likely different to anything you’ve done before, it’s important to consider how to study for the SAT. The best method is to familiarize yourself with the content and style of the test, then brush up timing and knowledge as needed, through extensive practice. These articles will guide you more specifically on how to study for the SAT.


How do I stay focused for the ACT or SAT?

How do I stay focused for the ACT or SAT? published on

This article is the result of a question that someone asked me recently. They said that they found their mind wandering and struggled to stay focused for the SAT, even on time pressured sections. I realized that there’s a lot of people who might be finding it hard to stay focused on the ACT or SAT!


If you find it extremely challenging to focus on the ACT or SAT, you may want to consider getting assessed by an educational psychologist to see whether you have ADHD. Note that one of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD is that you have a hard time staying focused on tasks that you enjoy, so if this is a problem specific to the ACT or SAT because you find it boring, that is not ADHD.


Regardless of whether or not you have formally diagnosed concentration issues, there are a number of strategies you can use to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Even if you do have a diagnosis, it’s vital to recognize that you need to make good use of learning strategies to work around your problem.


The tips I’ve got below are specific to things you can do to improve your focus and concentration for the ACT or SAT on test day – if you’re looking for ways to stay motivated in your preparation, check out this article. Read these strategies now, practice them to see which ones work for you and help you to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Then read through them again before you walk into the test center so that you remember to apply what you’ve practiced.


study focus act concentration tips strategy


Top 10 tips to stay focused on the ACT or SAT

  1. Stay active while you’re doing the test. This is especially applicable to the reading and scientific reasoning sections where your mind could wander as you read the passage. Try to use your pencil to underline parts of the passage as you read. If you don’t actually want to underline, just doodle in the margin or fiddle with a spare pencil. Many people find that keeping your hands active is the key.
  2. Make sure you’re filling in the bubble sheet after every passage (and after every 10 questions for math). This is the most efficient way to do it anyway, but if you’re having concentration problems, it has the added benefit of breaking the section down into smaller parts.
  3. Try to do some physical activity during the break between the math and reading sections. There’s lots of evidence that physical activity aids concentration. I know it would be a bit ridiculous to start doing jumping jacks in the test center, but you might be the kind of person who doesn’t care what other people think! If you can go outside and get some fresh air then do. Don’t do anything that will jeopardize your test though! In the same way, you might be able to do little stretches at your desk while you’re doing the test to help yourself stay focused.
  4. Make sure you’re actively thinking about what you’re doing. Ask yourself about what you’re reading – after each paragraph (even if you’re just skimming), ask yourself what the point of the paragraph was, how that characters feel, whether the previous paragraph is in agreement with the one before it, etc.
  5. In less time-pressured sections, you may find that you can actually allow yourself 2-3 minutes of not focusing during the test without it hurting your performance. Take a break after the 3rd passage and just stare at the ceiling and let your mind wander. Take deep breaths, and don’t get so distracted that you take 10 minutes! This is an important one to practice, in case you do find that you accidentally take a 10 minute break.
  6. Write instructions to yourself at the top of each page. Don’t spend ages doing this, but it may be helpful to have a visual reminder that you need to stay focused on the ACT or SAT.
  7. Practice positive self-talk. So many students, with or without concentration issues, have negative thoughts running through their minds on test day. This is so unhelpful, and it’s been shown that your performance on a test is partly correlated to your expectations of yourself (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Focus on the questions, and what you’ve studied and prepared for. Put your fears to the back of your mind. Tell yourself that you will think things through after the test is finished.
  8. Practice plenty of full tests under test conditions. Don’t listen to music or white noise. I know this is a concentration aid, but you won’t get it on test day, so make sure you’re not relying on it. Make sure you’re not interrupted when practicing, and give yourself a break after the first two sections only (true for both the ACT and SAT).
  9. When you get to the test center, you might find that you can choose your seat. If not, it may be worth asking the proctor whether you can sit either near the front or the back of the room. Think about whether you are more likely to be distracted by noises behind you or visual activity in front of you, and choose accordingly.
  10. Use a timing marker! This is particularly helpful for reading and scientific reasoning. Let’s say the reading section starts at 10.06. You should be halfway through the reading section by 10.23 (i.e. 17 minutes after the test begins). So the first thing you should do when the test begins is find the 3rd passage, and write the current time plus 17 minutes at the top. Then start the test at the beginning. By the time you get to the third passage, you’ll know if you are ahead or behind your time, and you can re-adjust your pace accordingly. If you don’t know that you’re behind on time until halfway through the last passage, it’ll be impossible to catch up! You can use this idea of timing markers wherever you like. Just don’t use too many (I’d say 3 maximum), otherwise you’ll waste time putting them in. If you need more timing advice, check here.


Applying those 10 tips should help you to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Remember that practice is key – both for applying your concentration strategies and generally getting familiar with the test.

What should I read to improve my reading score?

What should I read to improve my reading score? published on No Comments on What should I read to improve my reading score?

Here’s the thing. In order to improve your reading score on the ACT or SAT Reading sections, you must already be good at reading. Aside from timing (which is more relevant to the ACT than the SAT anyway), you can’t improve your reading score that much unless the basic skill is already there. I’ve written before with a few basic tips to improve, but what you really need to do to improve your reading score is to just do more of it! When I was a kid, the books in my school library were color coded according to reading level. If you’re preparing for the ACT or SAT, chances are you’ve moved beyond this by now!!

books shelf reading levels color coded improve your reading score
Remember this?!


But … it’s still true that your reading progresses when you read harder material. If I were to do a reading hierarchy, it might look something like this:

  • Easy: kids’ books, some magazines, “top 23 things” type internet list articles.
  • Medium: some teen fiction, popular adult fiction (think the kind of paperbacks you buy in airports), accessible non-fiction (stuff that aims to introduce a topic that’s not familiar to the audience), typical news articles.
  • Hard: “serious” adult fiction (the kind of stuff that wins literary awards), classic fiction, specialist non-fiction, analytical news articles, op-eds, popular science books.
  • Ridiculous: scientific papers, legal documents, government policy papers.


Ok, so before anyone criticizes this list, and I know I’ve put some controversial things here, I’m NOT suggesting that any of these categories are more or less valuable. There is a place for Buzzfeed articles, kids’ books and popular adult fiction!! I read all of those things, and enjoy them. It also doesn’t mean that the writing is poor. For example, the Harry Potter series would fall into the medium category here – but it’s incredible writing and storytelling. Which is why it’s so successful. There’s nothing good or bad about any of these categories – they all have their place. But, reading some of the easier material probably won’t help you improve your reading ability overall, because it’s not stretching you.

So if you want to improve your reading score, you should be comfortable reading material that’s in the “Hard” category above. That’s just the level of material that’s on the test. If you’re not there yet, or (especially) if English is not your first language, then this list should be helpful. Oh, and the other benefit is that you’ll actually learn stuff as well as reading!!!

I know you’re in high school and you probably don’t have time to do a lot of reading. Try 15 minutes per day – before you go to bed, when you wake up, when you’re eating breakfast, on the bus, waiting for the bus, in the car, in a boring class … You can make time!! Also, you’re probably reading this article to help you improve your reading score. But remember to enjoy it! Understand what you read, and learn from it!


The list!

  1. “Serious” adult fiction: Literary awards are given usually once per year to works from modern writers. Various judges read them, shortlist different books and then award the final prize. That doesn’t mean you’ll like the books, of course, but at least they come with some kind of recommendation. Look at the shortlists and choose what interests you. Here’s a general list of award winning fiction since 1990. You can also just look up the shortlists for major prizes such as the Man Booker prize, Pulitzer Prize, Folio Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Governor General’s Literary Award, National Book Award, Bailey’s Womens Prize for Fiction and of course the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  3. The classics: You’ve likely studied some of these in school. They are works of literature that have stood the test of time. They somehow transcend the time and situation in which they were written and are now defining works in our culture and even form the basis of other works. This category is good practice for the SAT, which usually contains at least one passage written before 1900. I’ve found that these are much a matter of personal taste. For example, I like Tolstoy, but don’t get on with Dickens. Both are known for being quite wordy! This is a pretty good definitive list of them.

  5. Analytical news & op-eds: This isn’t news in the sense of ‘something that just happened’, but more like ‘explaining and opinions about the news’. Most of the articles are persuasive in tone – the writer will be making a case for something. 2 of the ACT passages are this type, and usually 3 of the SAT passages. Op-ed means ‘opposite editorial’. The editorial is a section in a newspaper written by the editor themselves. It usually discusses a large ongoing issue, and to some extent represents the opinion or position of the newspaper overall. An op-ed will be a similar type of article, just not written by the editor. On a website, this is usually organised into an opinion or comment section. My favorite news sites are Guardian , New York Times, Huffington post, Economist and New Scientist. All of these have at least some free content. There are lots of other similar sites too. The last one here is one I just discovered, but love. It collects news articles from across major sites and posts links to them. It’s called Arts & Letters Daily.


  6. Popular Science: This would be a good category to talk about in an admissions essay or interview, if it comes up in conversation (don’t make a big point of mentioning it, you’ll look stupid!), especially if you’re looking at a science based major. There are some awesome books in this category. Writers in this category are usually scientists or researchers who are making their work accessible to a more public audience. The field is quite broad and includes medicine, economics, social sciences such as psychology, sociology, criminology, mathematics and the natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology). I own a lot of these books! Since this is more of a genre, it’s easy to find by just putting ‘popular science’ into the search bar of Amazon or another book store. My personal favourites in this category are Freakonomics (Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt), Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), In Pursuit of the Unknown (Ian Stewart), The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks) and The Code Book (Simon Singh).


Get reading!


How to beat procrastination and get motivated!

How to beat procrastination and get motivated! published on

I’ve been thinking about tackling the topic of study habits for a long time. This morning, I decided to sit down and write this article. I sat down in front of my computer. Then I noticed I needed to empty my recycling bin. Then I checked Facebook. Then I picked up the book I was reading last night. Procrastination happens to everyone!

Beating procrastination takes willpower, and willpower needs motivation – if you’re not convinced that you actually need to do whatever it is you’re trying to do, you won’t be able to get started. Ultimately though, beating procrastination and having productive study habits is a tool that will help you for the rest of your life, so it’s worth developing the habit now!

beating procrastination develop good study habits
Procrastination: beat it!

Good study habits are different for everyone. There are some things that everyone must do, some things that never work for anyone, and lots of in betweens! You need to find what’s right for you.


3 things that everyone must do!

  • It’s important to make sure you’re not interrupted, especially if you’re doing timed practice. If this might happen, make a “Do not disturb” sign, and put it on your door or desk. It’s important that whoever you live with supports your commitment to whatever you’re trying to study for.
  • Be disciplined with your phone. Don’t have it on your desk, and put it on silent. If you need to use it to time yourself, put it on airplane mode so you aren’t distracted. If you think this is too hard, you need to consider how much your phone use is distracting you in other areas of life.
  • Also, if you’re working on a screen, you should take an eye break for 30 seconds every 10 minutes. Stay at your desk, but stand up, close your eyes to rest them, and stretch your arms and legs. Then open your eyes and focus on an object that’s far away for a few seconds. This seriously helps your eye health. I learned this the hard way!


The 5 aspects to your study habits

study organize stationary
Get organized!
  1. Your work environment
    • Noise level: If I’m trying to understand something very intense, I need to study in silence. Otherwise, I like white noise. I work very well in coffee shops. If you’re like me, but don’t want to spend a lot of money on coffee, this site surprisingly works pretty well! If you like to listen to music, consider whether music with or without words makes a difference to you. Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t. If you’re putting music on, make sure you’re listening to an album or a playlist. If you have to keep stopping to change songs, that’s very distracting. A big no is watching TV when you study – it’s too distracting, and I don’t think this works for anyone.
    • Mess level: I can work in a messy environment if I’m doing creative work, but if I need to be methodical, my environment must be tidy. I like to tidy my desk before I start studying – it gives a sense of control and organization. This isn’t just me being weird, tidying is psychological de-cluttering as well. Figure out what works for you, just don’t get distracted and reorganize your entire desk!
    • Study spot: I also find it hard to work in bed, or even on the couch. To me, these places are associated with lazing around, so I’m not as productive. I have to use a desk. This is true for a lot of people. If you find yourself studying in bed, make sure you know that that really is as good as sitting at a desk, and that you’re not just doing it because you don’t want to get out of bed!


  2. Structuring your study and break time

    Before you start studying, decide how to structure your breaks. Don’t allow yourself to bargain with yourself about when your breaks are going to be – it distracts from your study. Write your break times down if you have to. Your breaks should constitute no more than 20% of your total study time – e.g. if you’re studying for 3 hours, your breaks should be no more than 36 minutes. This gives you two 15 minute breaks, plus a little extra, so you can break your study up into three 1 hour long sessions, split by 15 minute breaks. You get the picture.

    You also must make sure that you can concentrate for 1 hour at a time. If you can’t do this, you are unprepared for university, and poorly prepared for the ACT or SAT. Both of them have sections that are this length. Your first study habit to develop is to build up your concentration stamina so that you can do this.

    Every time you take a break, make sure you leave your desk, walk around and stretch. This is a must for everyone. You can grab some food, a drink, chat to someone, or use your phone (but don’t start a conversation with someone who is going to keep messaging you when you’re trying to study). If you’re taking a longer break, it’s good to get some exercise. It really helps to increase your concentration when you get back to work again.


  4. Structuring your overall study plan

    You also need to be strict about how much study you’re going to do. If you’re preparing for the SAT or ACT, and you’re serious about getting the best score you possibly can, you need to study for 4-6 months at 2-3 hours per week. You can double the number of hours and halve the time (2-3 months at 4-6 hours per week), but you shouldn’t expect to get your best score if you study for less than 2 months. Training your brain takes time. Putting in 40 hours of prep in the week before the test will not get the same result as 40 hours spread over 2 months. If you have a fairly regular schedule, you might find it helpful to set aside a specific period of time every week. If it’s less predictable, you might need to juggle around it a bit. Just make sure it happens. If you’re still planning how to prepare, this article might be helpful to you.


  6. Accountability

    Being accountable to someone for the amount of work you do is the key to sticking to your study habits. That someone could be you, if you have a high level of self-discipline and usually manage to follow through on plans you make for yourself. Some people find this very difficult, so you might need to ask someone to help you. It could be a parent, if you trust them not to pester you. (This would never have worked for me – I hate it when people pester me!) If you have a friend preparing for the test as well, consider making a pact to study each week for a certain amount of time.

    I read a book recently that discussed habit formation and how different people are able to hold themselves accountable and get stuff done. It’s called ‘Better than Before’, and it’s by the writer Gretchen Rubin. She theorises that people fall into 4 categories by whom they feel accountable to. You can take a quiz from her website to figure this out. This might help you to decide who you’re going to persuade into helping you study.


  8. Are you a carrot person or a stick person?

    If you haven’t heard that expression before, it is an old country phrase about how to get a donkey to go where you want. You can offer it a carrot, or use a stick to prod it. Probably neither of those will produce good study habits, but the principle is the same! Consider whether you’re motivated by fear, or reward. If you’re motivated by fear, write a list of things that will happen if you don’t study. Don’t be overdramatic and make yourself panic; if you don’t study a reasonable consequence is that you won’t do well, or possibly you will fail the exam, but it’s not reasonable to assume that you’ll never get a good job! If you’re motivated by reward, withhold something from yourself. It could be a small thing like getting to use your phone in your breaks, or watching a TV show when you’ve done your weekly study. It could be something bigger, like buying a game or clothes. If you’re motivated by fear, maybe just think about this guy! fear motivation



    One last thing… Some people like motivational quotes and sayings. Pin some above your desk if it will strengthen your study habits. I don’t really go in for this, except for one that I think of when I find myself reluctant to do something: “the path of least resistance gets you nowhere”. The easy way out is never the way to achieve anything. Success requires discipline. Make sure you stay strong and dedicated to your goals! There’s no easy route to success.

Should I learn vocab words?

Should I learn vocab words? published on

What I really think about learning vocab…

Ok, so I believe this may be my first rant type post! I couldn’t tell you the number of times someone on a forum or in person has asked me ‘Should I learn vocab words for the ACT/SAT’. It used to be a bigger deal because the SAT Critical Reading (old format) tested it directly, but the only way it’s now tested on both the ACT and the SAT is vocab in context questions. They’re not common on the test (maybe one or two on every reading section), but I’ve posted about these before. I like these questions.

But I hate the idea of vocabulary questions done any other way.


sculpture letters words sky
It shouldn’t be this confusing…


Firstly, it’s not actually a test of your language skills. Those vocab in context questions are – they test whether you understand what you’re reading without knowing the exact meaning of a specific word. Anyone who reads remotely challenging material is using this skill all the time, so it’s a great thing to test. Being able to understand the function of a word in a sentence without knowing what it means is a fundamental reading skill. It’s actually why you can’t always define a certain word, even though you can use it in a sentence.


So why is “learn vocab words” such popular advice?

  1. It’s very easy for a test prep company to claim that they’ve got some magic list of words that will come up on the SAT or the ACT, and that if you learn vocab words, your score will increase. That is complete rubbish – if that list is publicly available, any test maker will also have it, and could easily choose to avoid those words. Also, there are just too many words in the English language. You’d need to learn vocab words by the thousand to have a decent chance of seeing the words you know come up on the test.
  2. A lot of people have a strange perception of what ‘smart’ means. Someone who uses big words is not necessarily smart. You might be able to learn vocab words that sound impressive and drop them into conversation or an essay, but that doesn’t make you smart. You might not even be using them correctly! Someone who spits out random facts is not necessarily smart either.


This is the same mindset that thinks that studying for 12 hours a day is a good idea. It is not. Sure, you should expect to in exam period (maybe), but if that is your regular routine, that’s a problem. I am a great believer in working smart, not hard. I have worked with too many students who think that learning is about cramming all the knowledge in and knowing all the little tricks and tips and getting through the exam. This is not learning, and if you do this, it will not help you outside the classroom. Don’t take this as criticism – take it as a warning. This attitude usually comes from the culture of your family, school or perhaps country, and it’s very hard to go against the grain. If your teachers believe that this is the way to learn, you will have a hard time getting around that. But true learning stays with you, and it’s something that can be applied to new situations.


Why I really hate being asked ‘Should I learn vocab words?’

I find that the students who ask me this question are often struggling on reading type sections. This can be because they are an ESL (English as a second language) student, or because they have difficulty reading at speed. In either case, learning vocab words it touted as a quick fix solution.

There is no quick fix solution to reading comprehension . Again, this is something I’ve written about before. In my experience, I can help a student raise their English or Math score quite significantly – maybe even 10 points on the ACT. But reading is much harder. It’s a skill you’ve built up over a long period of time, and if you haven’t been reading challenging material in English for long enough, you just won’t have this skill. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to improve – there is. But it won’t happen overnight, and you should steer well clear of anyone who offers you a quick fix solution.

As a side note, if your reading comprehension is your weakest point, the SAT will likely be a better test for you than the ACT. Your time limit is more generous, and reading comprehension is also tested on the Scientific Reasoning ACT section, for which there is no SAT equivalent.

Rant over! In all seriousness though, I hope that this has helped you understand a little more about how standardized testing is supposed to work, and what you can do to make a genuine improvement.

My top 5 timing strategies for the ACT

My top 5 timing strategies for the ACT published on

I’ve been working a lot recently with students preparing for the upcoming September ACT. A lot of the time, they wrote the test in June and want to practice in the summer break to improve their score. I think this is a great strategy, because you can write the test in June along with all your other exams while you’re in exam mode, see how you do, and use the summer to refine your skills.

Almost everyone has more time in the summer than in the school year, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to get in enough work to get the score you need in September and then have an ACT free school year! While working with these dedicated summer-sacrificers, I’ve noticed a common theme – everyone needs good timing strategies for the ACT.

This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this of course! It’s one of the hardest things about the test.


Many open books lying flat before a blue background with various formulas and letters.


Everyone should watch the clock

For the English section, because it’s so predictable and methodical, you might be able to get away with it, but in Math, Reading and Science, EVERYONE should watch the clock. Don’t become obsessive about it, because that’s a distraction, but you need to make sure you’re on pace. I’m emphasizing everyone here because I think everyone should have a specific plan for how to deal with the timing on these 3 sections.

Strong mathematicians should pace themselves so they don’t rush and make stupid mistakes. If your target is to get the first 30 questions done in 20 minutes, don’t move on to question 31 until 20 minutes is up. Slow down, pace yourself, and check your work. I mean it!

If math is not a strength for you, make sure you are moving fast enough through the test to get through all the questions you’re intending to get to. I’ve written more on math timing strategies for the ACT here – if you don’t have a plan, check this article out! Similarly, you should pace yourself for reading and science.


Use timing markers

This is particularly helpful for reading. I find that when I give my students one reading passage at a time, they usually finish in eight and a half minutes. But when we start putting all four together, they really lose track of time and end up only having 3 minutes for the last passage. This usually ends up lowering a reading score by about 4 points, so it’s critical that you have a good timing strategy for the ACT reading!

Let’s say the test starts at 10.06. You should be halfway through the reading section by 10.23 (i.e. 17 minutes after the test begins). So the first thing you should do when the test begins is find the 3rd passage, and write the current time plus 17 minutes at the top. Then start the test at the beginning. By the time you get to the third passage, you’ll know if you are ahead or behind your time, and you can re-adjust your pace accordingly. If you don’t know that you’re behind on time until halfway through the last passage, it’ll be impossible to catch up!

You can use this idea of timing markers wherever you like. Just don’t use too many (I’d say 3 maximum), otherwise you’ll waste time putting them in.


Skip a passage

Warning: this is not a strategy you should use if you want above a 28 in that section. It’s very hard to get a great score if miss a whole passage, especially on the reading, but if you’re pushing from the low 20s to the high 20s, and always run out of time by a large margin, this can work. Make sure you practice this strategy before test day! You need to have tried it several times to see if it produces a score improvement for you, since there’s a very good chance that it might not work.

For reading, you should have planned already which passage you’re going to skip. Most people find one of the passages much harder than the others – maybe you hate prose fiction, or maybe you hate humanities. Skip that one.

A good, less extreme timing strategy for the ACT reading is to partially answer that ‘skip passage’ – just do all the questions that are about a specific line in the passage. If the question says ‘According to lines 56-58 …’ you stand a reasonable chance of getting it right without having read the whole passage.

For science, it’s a bit harder to decide which passage to skip. If you haven’t studied physics since grade 9, but you’ve done biology and chemistry recently, then skip a physics passage. If you don’t do well with large blocks of text, skip the research summaries passage. If you find it hard to interpret graphs, find the passage with the most complicated looking graph and skip that! Again, you should decide what you’re going to do before test day, and practice it so that you don’t waste time getting stressed out over your decision.


Choose your skip questions

This is one of those timing strategies that works for almost everyone. Some people might skip 10 questions, others only 2, but if you find that you’re spending more than two minutes on a question and not getting any closer to the answer, skip it. Put a star by it so you can come back to it later though. Likewise, if you have no idea how to begin a question, you should skip it. If you find that you have no idea how to begin a question in Math, and that happens more than 15 times across the whole test, that’s an indication that you need to study more. Be careful that you don’t abuse this strategy and just do the questions you like.

When you’re practicing, these skip questions should be the ones you should focus on most; they’re an easy area for improvement. Skip doesn’t mean ‘give up’: it’s a way of playing to your strengths under timed conditions.


Do some untimed practice

This might sounds really counter intuitive, but because you’re putting so much stock into timing strategies for the ACT, this can become your foremost concern. Maybe once every 3 or 4 practice sections, take your time. Focus on getting every question right. It’s easy to become so caught up in timing that you forget about content and answering the questions. You need to strike a balance.


Comment below with your favorite timing strategies for the ACT!

Want to see how I plan and structure the SAT essay?

Want to see how I plan and structure the SAT essay? published on


So today, I introduced one of my students to how to write and plan the SAT essay for the first time. Generally, it’s a pretty straightforward beast. You have to analyze a persuasive text, and say what devices they use to built their argument. If you’re not sure what I mean, read this article where I discuss literary devices in the SAT essay.

I made 2 copies of the essay – my student annotated one, and I did the other. You can see what I’ve picked out, and what I’m going to write.

Here’s a great tip: before I started reading, I found the thesis of Carter’s argument by looking at the box on the end of the essay. In this case, it’s ‘the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not be developed for industry’. Knowing that this was what the passage was going to be about helped me to pick out persuasive devices right from the start of the text.


plan the SAT essay persuasive devices

plan the SAT essay persuasive devices


I’m going to write a 4 paragraph essay using the following plan:

  1. imagery – the imagery of the first three paragraphs contrasts with the fourth
  2. patriotism and non-partisan appeal (phrases such as ‘national heritage … frontier America’)
  3. structure, and how the writer builds emotional appeal before backing it up with facts later
  4. appeals to the timeless nature of the Arctic Tundra and contrasts it with the ‘short term’ economic benefit

This should give you some idea of the scope of what you can write about!


How long should my essay be?

This mostly depends on you and how fast you can write. You do have 50 minutes, and the planning process is quite straightforward, so I think most students should be aiming to write an essay with 3-4 body paragraphs. Try to pick 4 persuasive devices as you’re reading. This way, if you’re only writing a 3 paragraph essay, you’ve got a spare idea, and you’re still fine if you have time left over and can write 4 paragraphs.

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions published on


Are you struggling to tackle those vocabulary in context questions? Fortunately, they are the only type of vocabulary questions to appear on the ACT and SAT now. No more memorizing long lists of obscure words in the style of the old SAT. If you are doing this, you are wasting your time – STOP! (Arguably, you were wasting your time in the first place!).


Strategy for vocabulary in context

The best way to tackle these questions is to think of your own synonym (word with the same meaning) for the word in the sentence. Choose something really simple – even a short phrase will do. This way, you get your own idea of what the question means before you look at the answer choices. Make it as simple as possible, and be clear in your mind exactly what the word means before you answer the question. Otherwise, you’ll be falling into the trap of being accidentally persuaded by the answer choices.

What does the vocabulary in context question look like?

The type of question you’ll now see looks like this:

Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government.

Q1: The word “modes” most nearly means:

A. acts
B. reasons
C. methods
D. averages

Q2: Which of the following is not an acceptable synonym for “closed”?

A. removed
B. shut
C. prevented
C. disallowed

The first question asks you about a word you may not know the meaning of, and then to confuse you, throws in the most likely context in which you know it (mode as an average), which would be incorrect here. Think of your synonym, which in my case would be ‘ways’. Now I can clearly identify that ‘methods’ is the right answer.

For the second question, my synonym would be ‘stopped’. That’s the same as prevented and disallowed, and in this context is the same as ‘removed’. ‘Shut’ and ‘closed’ are normally interchangeable, but not in this context.

Let’s try a harder one:

“The Limes,” which had come to him by inheritance without any accompanying provision for its upkeep, was one of those pretentious, unaccommodating mansions which none but a man of wealth could afford to live in, and which not one wealthy man in a hundred would choose on its merits. It might easily languish in the estate market for years, set round with noticeboards
proclaiming it, in the eyes of a skeptical world, to be an eminently desirable residence.

Q3. The word ‘languish’ in the passage above most nearly means

A. bask
B. remain
C. droop
D. rise

A simple synonym here would be ‘stay’, because that’s clearly what’s intended by the meaning of the sentence.

You might be tempted to pick ‘droop’ or ‘rise’, since they are opposites, but don’t be! ‘Droop’ is inappropriate personification for a house – how can a house droop?. ‘Bask’ is also inappropriate personification for a house. ‘Rise’ is the opposite meaning to what’s intended, so ‘remain’ must be the correct answer.

I’d be really interested to hear other strategies for tackling these questions. Comment below!

Why you should write the SAT or ACT more than once!

Why you should write the SAT or ACT more than once! published on

I strongly recommend writing the test more than once (ideally 3 times), to maximize your chance of getting your best score. Think of it like this:


You might give up after 2 attempts, because your score dropped, but really your average score is closer to your first test. The one you actually want to submit is your third test, but you need to know where that score falls on your personal scale before you decide whether to write again or not.

In my experience, students’ test scores vary around their mean score. So let’s say your mean ACT score is a 27. The first time you write, you get a 24. Then a 26, followed by a 28, then a 27. You need to know what your mean score is, otherwise you won’t know what your highest possible score could be. Each test is different, so one test could suit you more than others for a totally random reason. If you only write once and get a 28, that could be your highest possible score, but statistical variation in the test could get you a 30 the next time you write.

Also, you’re more likely to be motivated if you’re only 2 points away from the score you need to get into your dream school. The other thing about only writing once is that students who are doing this are usually doing it on their last possible test attempt, which means added pressure – if you write more than once, you always know you have another chance, which really lowers stress levels in a timed test!

One of my students, Allen, wrote the SAT twice, with only a month in between. He didn’t do any work in between because he was studying for end of year exams, but his total score improved by 100 points. This isn’t a huge difference, but it’s worth giving up a Saturday morning for! There are two possible reasons for this: either one particular test happened to suit Allen more than the other, or studying for his school exams helped his score as well.

Some people think that admissions officers are expecting you do get a great score first time around. This isn’t true – achievement takes perseverance, and I’ve heard admissions people say that they may even look positively on multiple test attempts if the student improved. This might not be true in all situations, but it certainly is in some! Be warned though. There’s nothing to gain from writing a test 5 times. Don’t keep writing the test and expect things to improve when you haven’t done anything in between. Generally, a large number of test attempts is not looked on favourably. There’s a balance to be struck, and two tests attempts is a good idea for almost all students.

I took a diagnostic test – what do I do with the results?!

I took a diagnostic test – what do I do with the results?! published on


Many people start off their prep by taking both tests, or a diagnostic test. If you’ve done this, this article will help you work out how to interpret your results. I know that many diagnostic tests provide some interpretation of their results, and some guidance about which test you should take based on your results, but here’s what I would say to you if you’re trying to interpret your diagnostic test, or your scores on a practice ACT and SAT.


What even is a diagnostic test?

Diagnostic tests are basically shortened versions of a real test. They contain all the same types of questions as the real tests. Some companies sell these as the introduction to their prep schemes. This is definitely a good idea, but you should also know how to get the most out of the test.

A warning: My biggest concern about diagnostic tests or just taking both the SAT and ACT without studying is that there are many things that can cause your score to be a poor reflection of your potential score if you’re unprepared for the test. You could forget a small formula, for example. You could miss the point of a whole passage just because it wasn’t what you were expecting. Mistakes like this will make your 4+ hours writing the tests completely useless. You should absolutely definitely familiarize yourself a little with the tests (2-4 hour study on each one) before you rely on a score from a diagnostic test. This is not common advice, but I strongly believe in it, and it’s what I do with all my students.

Some pointers for starting your study:

  • Look at the summary sections for the ACT and SAT.
  • Know how much time you have! Be aware that the ACT reading and scientific reasoning are tough on time
  • Practice ACT Scientific Reasoning. It’s different to anything you’ve seen before. If you’re trying to figure it out in the middle of your diagnostic, you’ll do worse than if you know about it beforehand
  • Get some formula sheets for the Math sections – or make one from your math notes. You need to know things like slope of a line, area of triangles, sine and cosine law etc
  • Expect data based reasoning on the SAT Reading. It can be a little weird the first time you see it, but you’ll get used to it


I’ve already taken the diagnostic, what should I do?

Firstly, compare your scores. I’ve got an article that nicely explains the College Board’s concordance table (currently the only thing that you can use to compare scores). You should note that the ACT has officially disagreed with this document, but right now it’s the only thing out there that compares the ACT with both the old and new SAT.

If you score much better on one test than the other then your decision is easy. I would define ‘much better’ if your ACT score is more than 3 points higher than your converted SAT score, or if your SAT score is more than 80 points higher than your converted ACT score. If, like most students, the difference is not that large, then you really need to consider which test you prefer, or which you’d find easier to study for.

If you’ve found this helpful, I suggest you read my comparison of the ACT and SAT to give you more information.

Persuasive devices in the SAT Essay

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ideas space essay writing text SAT
No idea what to write? Fear no more…

The SAT essay is an analytical essay: you are presented with a passage of persuasive text, and asked to analyze how the writer effectively persuades his or her audience.

You can read more about how to write the actual essay, the format and scoring here , but if you’re struggling to identify how exactly the writer persuades the audience, look for the following things that are likely to crop up in persuasive writing.

As a general rule, you should pick 3 of these things that you can identify in the passage, and write a paragraph about each of them. If you want to practice picking them out, read the opinion columns in a newspaper. There are always plenty of these devices to be found there!


Top 10 persuasive devices for the SAT essay

  1. One of the most powerful literary devices, repetition is a good persuasive tool.
  2. A good argument uses powerful examples to prove the point
  3. Using an analogy (likening a situation to another that the audience may be more familiar with) helps to illustrate the point, or make the opposing argument look ridiculous.
  4. Metaphors and similes. You should already know what these are and why they’re persuasive. If not, ask your English teacher! These can be especially effective if the argument opens with them, as the audience is expecting a discussion of one topic, but the writer opens with another, seemingly completely different topic, and then shows that they are in fact related. This works well with analogy too.
  5. Asking a rhetorical question (a question that everyone knows the answer to) is a powerful way of making people agree with you in their heads. You know what I mean, don’t you?
  6. Appeal to your audience. Anything that makes the audience feel good about themselves, or feel particularly united as a group will encourage people to support them. Look out for things like the writer/speaker describing the audience’s characteristics, praising them for being hardworking or dedicated, thanking them for their support, or even using the word ‘we’ a lot. I know you guys are intelligent enough to pick up on this strategy wherever it’s used.
  7. Likewise, empathizing with the audience is also powerful. If the speaker or writer shows that he or she understands the plight of the audience, they will be more supportive.
  8. Using inspirational words like ‘action’, ‘meaningful’, ‘hope’, ‘freedom’, ‘future’ and ‘change’ are all powerful persuasive devices.
  9. Ridiculing the counter argument by either making the opposing side look stupid, or dismantling the counter argument in a thorough, structured manner. Depending on the tone and context of the passage, this could also involve humour
  10. Soundbites: short phrases that summarise your point help people to remember, and thus agree with the writer.

Tackling test anxiety

Tackling test anxiety published on

I don’t know why I haven’t thought to tackle this topic before now! Test anxiety is pretty common. But could it be a good thing?

rocket confidence test ACT SAT
So many cheesy metaphors I could put here…

You should expect to be anxious before a test. Some people are confident test takers, and even need the pressure of a test in order to perform at their best. I have students who are too relaxed taking practice tests, and do much better in a real test situation! If this is you, then you probably don’t need this article.

On the other end of the scale, anxiety can completely derail all your hard work on test day. This is when it becomes a problem. For you, the anxiety has taken over, and become irrational. You need to take back control! This will take a lot of practice, but it is within your power.

First, make a study plan that will prepare you for the test. Check it over with a teacher, parent or tutor so that you’re confident it covers everything. Then follow it. Once you’ve followed it, your task is to convince yourself that any anxiety you feel is irrational, so learn to do things to calm yourself down – say ‘I’ve prepared, and I am ready’. Take deep breaths, listen to music, or do something else to calm yourself down, and only listen to your ‘rational head’. Ignore anything that tells you you are not prepared – you know that you are! Practice this way of thinking on tests you take in school – even small quizzes, so that you know your strategy works. Then you can apply it to bigger tests, such as end of year exams, and even the SAT or ACT. I didn’t personally have this problem in school, but I definitely used all these strategies to pass my driving test!

If you can, talk to a teacher about your test anxiety problem. They may be able to help you address it, by providing accommodations (like extra time) to help you tackle your test anxiety. Here’s a tip though – don’t go to them and say ‘I need extra time on tests’! Instead, say ‘I get really anxious about tests, and I’m really trying to fix this problem so that I can get through next year/university – can you help me?’, then later in the conversation say ‘I think that if I can take the next 3 class tests with extra time, that will allow me to use the strategies I’m practicing during the tests. Then I can go back to doing them in the normal time. I’m willing to stay into lunch or after school if that helps’.

The helpful thing about the SAT or ACT is that you can take them more than once – unlike exams in school! Make sure that your study plan includes room for multiple test attempts so that you can also tell yourself on test day that this specific test doesn’t matter all that much. You get to decide whether it matters after the test when you get your score.

Stay calm and good luck!

How can I improve my reading comprehension?

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Reading comprehension is hands down one of the hardest areas in which to improve your score. You’ve been building your reading skills since age 4/5, so you can’t do much in 2 months to make a difference! If you’re only looking for a small score improvement, or you’ve got more time, you can probably make some difference. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but you must be realistic about what you can achieve or you will end up demoralized and possibly wasting your money too!

books reading study skill practice comprehension ACT SAT
Is this you?! The more you read the better.

For a short term fix (something you can do in less than a month), see this post. For a more long term target (2 months – 1 year), try these suggestions.

  • Set yourself reading goals. You might want to complete a certain book, a certain number of books, or read newspaper or a magazine (anything where the articles are longer than 500 words, or most of a page is good practice). Good places to look for articles like the ones on the ACT/SAT are magazines like The Economist, National Geographic, or comment/opinion sections in the newspaper. My personal preference for news articles is The Guardian.
  • Discuss what you read with someone. If it’s a book, look at discussion of it online, or talk about it with a friend who has read it. Look at what you found interesting, what you think the meaning is, any symbols or metaphors in the book.

I know that these strategies sound difficult to apply, and also quite generic, but in my experience, students who read because they enjoy it always do well on reading comprehension. To me, saying you don’t like reading is like saying that you don’t like breathing!

Top 10 Reading Comprehension Strategies

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Here are my favourite strategies for reading comprehension. This applies to the SAT, ACT, PSAT and most standardized tests.

Know how you’re going to approach the passage. Here are some suggestions. Which one you choose depends on whether you struggle to finish in time or not.

  • Skim read the passage, then answer the questions. If anything takes longer than 30 seconds, come back later. With this strategy, you should have time t the end of the test, so go to the passage that you best understood from your skim reading.
  • Read the questions first, underlining parts of the passage that are specifically referred to in the questions (e.g. first or fourth paragraph, lines 23-25).
  • Read in detail then answer the questions. This is the ideal strategy, and it is the easiest way to achieve a high score, but it will only work if your reading skills are up to scratch.

If you’re trying to improve your score, try a new strategy. Do 3 practice tests using it before you evaluate whether or not it is better. If it’s working for you, continue to practice using it. Don’t try a new strategy on test day – you’re almost guaranteed to do worse!

Look carefully at how specific the passage is and compare it to the level of detail in the answers. You should try to pick the closest match. For example, there are often two answer choices that say the same thing, but one is more general. Pick the one that’s closer to what the passage expresses.

Practice skimming and stating the main idea/title. Learn to identify the point of the passage by finding a thesis in the introduction or conclusion (this won’t always work, but it does about half the time).

Learn to recognize the question types:

  • What is the main point of the passage/paragraph?
  • What does this small detail mean? Where in the passage was the following detailed mentioned?
  • Inference: What would the author most likely feel/say about about the following hypothetical scenario?
  • Vocabulary: What does this word or phrase mean in the context of the passage?
  • Purpose: is the text persuasive, informative, an account, a dramatization, a discussion etc? (This often isn’t the actual questions, but it is implied).

Always be able to reference evidence in the passage for each answer that you choose. Don’t make assumptions that can’t be backed up by the passage. There is usually a wrong answer choice that relies on you doing this.

Make list of your mistakes and why you made them. Also remember to take up questions that you’re not sure about (put a star by them when you’re doing the test).

Train yourself to be faster. First, do a completely passage by reading it fully and answering the questions. Compare the time you took doing this to the time it should take (8.5 minutes for the ACT). Gradually reduce your time by 30 second increments until you can do a passage in 30 seconds less than the time you actually have.

For the ACT, the passages always come in the same order, so you might know that you always do worse on one particular one. Do this one either first (to ensure your full attention on it) or last (to focus on doing well on the others). Try this both ways around so that you know what works best.

Before reading the answer choices, come up with your own answer to the question. Cover them up with your hand, then uncover them and pick the closest one.

If the two passages are related, think about how. Spot specific lines that refer to the other passage, or points of similarity or difference between the two passages.

Know when you’re going to fill in the bubble sheet. I suggest after every passage.

There are actually 11 things in here, but I just couldn’t cut it down to 10!

What is the new SAT essay?

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One of the biggest changes to the SAT is the format of the new essay. Instead of writing an essay commenting on a semi-philosophical statement, as you’ve been required to in the past, you now have to produce an analytical essay. This is a very different beast – you need to demonstrate that you understand the argument, but whether or not you agree with it is irrelevant. Instead, you must look at how the writer uses certain devices to build an argument. You have 50 minutes to do this.

The prompt consists of an extract of persuasive text. This is sometimes from a speech (often a famous politician), or sometimes a magazine article, aiming to prove a point with facts and figures.

You then get the following statement:


As you read the passage below, consider how the writer uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.


Write an essay in which you explain how the writer builds an argument to persuade his audience that [whatever the argument is]. In your essay, analyze how the writer uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with the writer’s claims, but rather explain how the writer builds an argument to persuade his audience.


I know you tend to skip over these sections because it’s the part of the prompt that you’ve seen before, but it actually gives quite a lot of clues. Firstly, you’ve got suggestions for your 3 body paragraphs! Those 3 bullet points at the top are great for the basis of your paragraphs, since nearly all persuasive texts have those. They also encourage you to do that further down in the prompt. Most of the sample essays have done it, so it’s a pretty safe choice.

Remember that they are looking for an analytical essay. This means it’s not too creative, so don’t worry about having great ideas, hooks, or metaphors in your essay. Analytical essays are basically technical and boring, but they are quite easy to grade reliably. I’d rather be graded on this essay than on the new ACT essay to be honest!

The College Board has released two sample essay prompts on their website (as well as 4 more if you buy their book), along with 8 sample essays to read online. These are real student produced essays, and they are actually really useful – well worth a read (except maybe the really low scoring ones).

I recommend reading the 444 essay (i.e. a perfect score in each category). Then read the 413 (low score in analysis). My guess is that quite a lot of essay writers will fall into the trap of the 413 essay. The writer has basically summarized the essay instead of analyzing it: the paragraphs spend too much time describing what the author says, rather than looking at why he says it and how it is effective. This leads to a weak score in analysis. I’d really like to to tutor this writer and explain to them how they can improve!



Each of the high scoring essays is structured in the same way (big clue here!). The students pick 3 specific things that the author has used to build their argument (often the 3 things suggested in the prompt), and then said how they are effective. Each one of the three things forms a short body paragraph. So the structure is pretty easy to figure out. Your 3 ‘features’, if you’re not using the suggestions, are things you already know from English class – metaphor, anecdotes, humour or maybe something more dramatic – pathetic fallacy, dramatic imagery etc. Remember that you don’t need to be too creative. I have a great article about the different devices you can write about.

Your essay should still have a thesis. It should look something like this: ‘The writer effectively uses the devices of x, y and z to make a strong case for a or b’.



Two markers score you out of 4 in each category (reading, analysis and writing). This gives you a total score out of 24. You can read the rubric here if you want.

  • The reading category measures your understanding of the text, what it sets out to do, and how it uses ideas to support its point. To prove your skill in reading comprehension, you can quote from the passage (not extensively, do it effectively to support your points, not replace them) or summarise the argument. This can be done as your thesis statement or elsewhere in your introduction.
  • Analysis is what you say. It’s an analytical essay, meaning that you have to figure out how the writer uses ideas in their argument. This is the probably the hardest category to score highly in, because it’s the most dissimilar to the old essay format. All of the paragraphs in the high scoring analysis categories state the device that the author has used and then how and why it is effective. Read the samples to get the idea.
  • The writing category is how you say stuff. It’s grammar, sentence structure, transitions, organization and vocabulary – all the technical stuff. You probably already know whether you’re ok at this or not.

Comment and let me know your thoughts and questions on this new essay format.

Should I use a tutor to help me prepare?

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books tutor study ACT SAT

Here are my top reasons to get a private tutor for the SAT or ACT, and how to find a good one.

Reasons why you should get a tutor:

  • I have a score below 21 on the ACT or ~1090 on the SAT. These are the average scores, and they are also considered a minimum benchmark for entry (depending on the school). You’ll struggle to get into most schools with these scores because the indicate that you might not be able to cope with the challenging material in at least some areas of your course. A tutor can identify your weaknesses and help you to fix them. In this situation, a good tutor will teacher you for the test as well as improving your educational skills generally – which your score is suggesting is necessary!
  • I don’t think I’ll be motivated to study. Being accountable to someone else for your work could be the motivation you need. If you always leave studying until the last minute and you find yourself pulling all-nighters to study, bear in mind that you can’t do that for the ACT or SAT. Again, a tutor will help you develop this skill so that you can apply it later.
  • I need to improve my score by a big margin (5+ points on the ACT, 300+ points on the SAT). A tutor can identify what you specifically need help with. Be careful with anyone who guarantees you a score increase, especially if they haven’t worked with you. I’m not talking about people who offer money back if you don’t get a score increase – this is just a selling tactic, and it’s based on the average student. You should be careful if anyone promises that they can certainly improve your score before you’ve told them what your score currently is, or how long you’ve been prepping. It’s not always possible to make a guarantee like this!
  • My score in one section is a lot worse than my score in the other sections. Again, you have one or two specific weaknesses, which is the perfect situation for a tutor to work with.


As with any approach to preparing, make sure you allow enough time to make improvements – at least 6 months. A good tutor can really help you, especially if you struggle in school, but you’ll get best results over time.


How to find a good tutor:

Go on a recommendation! This is by far the best way to find a good tutor. Ask friends and family, or find a few businesses and google them. Ask teachers, older students, school counsellors – anyone who will give you an honest opinion.

If you can’t get a recommendation, book a lesson and see how it goes. A good tutor should have a plan for your preparation. It shouldn’t be set in stone, because you also want it tailored to you. Ask ‘what do you normally do to help students prepare?’.

A good tutor won’t force you to set a schedule that you don’t want, or can’t afford to keep to – for my students, 2 hours every 2 weeks is the minimum I will see them for (otherwise we just don’t have enough time to cover everything we need to, so it ends up being a waste anyway). If they suggest a schedule that you don’t like, ask them why. They should be able to give a good reason.

If you have a specific budget, be upfront about it. If I know that a student is willing to spend $2000 on tutoring but no more, I can come up with a plan that works around that and makes best use of our time. If they don’t tell me that they have a budget, but just quit after a certain number of lessons, I will plan differently, and they won’t get the best out of the time they pay for. A tutor should be able to accommodate a reasonable budget.

For students outside the US, a tutor is also a good idea, as they will know the differences between your curriculum and the US curriculum (trust me, the difference is significant even for Canadian students). They may also be a valuable source on information about taking the test, subject tests and other parts of your application that you won’t get help on in school.

Comment if you have questions or suggestions!

Choosing the right way to prepare

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There are so many different options available to you that it’s hard to know where to start! I’ll hopefully help here by outlining the different method, and pros and cons of each. Maybe you have a year to prepare, maybe only 2 months. Your two main considerations are your goal (target score), and how long you have to reach it.


5 most important facts to bear in mind:

  • No method is going to produce results instantly
  • The more tailored your program is, the quicker you should see results
  • You need time to practice. 4+ months is ideal
  • Be realistic about your target score


Most of your improvement will depend on you – be motivated and study!

It's a key choice ... ha ha ha.
It’s a key choice … ha ha ha.


Going solo: If you know you’re pretty motivated, and you won’t have trouble committing to 4 hours work per week when you’re not accountable to anyone for it, this is probably the route for you. There are loads of great online resources and practice books that you can use. This method is obviously the cheapest, but the results depend entirely on you, so make sure you’re being realistic about your goals. If you have less than two months to prepare, if your target score is more than 10 points away on the ACT or 400 on the SAT, you’ll find it hard to hone your skills that much by yourself in a short time. This is also not the route for you if you’re scoring below a 21 on the ACT or 1000 on the new SAT.


Private tutor: This is probably the most expensive way to prepare, ranging between $100-$1000 per hour. Look for someone with experience, and get recommendations from friends and family. Good tutors can survive solely on word of mouth.  A tutor is best if you haven’t got long to prep – they can show you the areas you need to work on most quickly and will have access to resources that you won’t on your own. A tutor is probably the best way to get you through a large score gap too – more than 10 points on the ACT or 400 points on the new SAT.  I would also use a tutor if you are scoring under a 21 on the ACT, or under 1000 on the new SAT. In this score range, you’ll have a tough time assessing your weaknesses on your own, and a group course could be pitched too high. You may have a specific weakness in one area (for example reading), so a tutor can help you with that outside of the test as well.


Group prep course: These are great ways to get a general introduction to the test. There are some big name companies which will give you a pretty good return for your money. I would choose this route as a compliment to solo prep – don’t expect one of these course to get your all the way to your target score (if it does, consider aiming a little higher!). I have never taken one of these courses, but I’ve spoken to several students who have, and they usually come out with an improvement. Typically, their next step is to go to a tutor, either to improve in one specific area, or to push up their composite by 2-3 (ACT) or 50-100 (SAT) points. It usually works, and they come out with the score they want.


Online prep: I’ve never taken one of these courses – but I’ve seen several extracts from different course materials and been on the receiving end of their marketing materials a lot! I think these courses are good for the motivated student, and also you should probably treat them like group courses. They should be part of your prep program, not the whole thing. When you’re choosing a course, make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for (including whether there is a refund period). Get a recommendation from a friend, or look for online reviews that prove that the program gets results. There are some companies that have fancy marketing but poorly designed programs which don’t reflect the tests. Also make sure that they do what they say they do in terms of personalizing your program to you: some companies say they will do this, but don’t. You might as well buy a $20 practice book in this case. Online prep also needs you to be highly motivated on your own, since you’re not accountable to anybody. If you think you can handle this, then that’s good.


Let me know your experience about various prep methods below!


How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT?

How do I know whether I should take the ACT or the SAT? published on

How should I choose whether to take the SAT or ACT?

First things first: despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t matter to colleges whether you take the SAT or ACT. All schools accept either test, and neither test is preferred (some schools are also test-optional – check out their website admissions pages). Some schools are not accepting the SAT for students applying in 2017, because of the format changes, but this won’t be a permanent move. A few schools accept the ACT instead of subject tests, so that’s worth knowing too, before you make the decision.

Neither test is actually easier, but some suit different students differently. There are some key facts that make a difference between ACT and SAT, however. As a rule of thumb, the SAT is better for strong Math students, because half your score is Math based, compared to a quarter of your score on the ACT. The ACT is better for strong readers, because the Reading and Scientific Reasoning sections both rely heavily on fast and accurate reading comprehension. Don’t make the decision just on that basis though, there are other factors.


take the SAT or ACT questions choice decide prepare study
It’s a big choice!


Here are the factors that help my students to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT:

The ACT… The SAT…
Only asks vocabulary questions in context, and usually less than 2 per test The new SAT will not test vocabulary, except in context, like the ACT (the old SAT did).
Contains a science section – you do not have be studying science to do well on it, it’s more about drawing conclusions from information. I’d call it ‘data-based reasoning’ Contains data based questions in Math, Reading and Writing & Language (basically everywhere!).
Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end Has 4 sections plus optional essay at the end
Total test time is 3 hours 25 minutes Total test time is 3 hours 30 minutes
Extensive documentation needed to get testing accommodations such as extra time Accomodations often approved automatically based on what you get at school
Has one math section Has two math sections, making up half your score
Essay is 40 mins to discuss a “current issues” type topic, based on perspectives given (new structure as of Sept 2015) Essay is 50 minutes to analyse a persuasive text.
One math section, for which you can use a calculator Two math sections, one without a calculator
Requires you to work very quickly for the reading and scientific reasoning sections Has a much more generous time limit for reading comprehension, although you do have an extra passage to read. Also the passages are slightly harder – of the 5 passages on the SAT, usually 2 or more were written before 1900.
Contains more curriculum based math – some of the questions will look more familiar to you Contains much more data/statistical math than the ACT.
No penalty for getting wrong answers, so you should fill in every circle on your bubble sheet. Also no penalty (note that this is a change from the old SAT).


You might already have an idea of which test you prefer, based on reading about the difference between ACT and SAT. To really know for sure, you should get a practice test for each, and take the SAT or ACT under timed conditions and compare them. Diagnostic tests work for this too, but they are often made by prep companies, so they are variable in quality, and never as good as the real thing. They also may be shorter than the real test, meaning that you’re less likely to feel the test fatigue that you do when your take the SAT or ACT for real.

If you’ve done this, and got results from both tests, you can read about how to compare them here.


Here are the main points I would ask my students to consider when choosing whether to take the SAT or ACT:

  • Did you prefer the timing of the ACT or SAT? You can only really know the answer to this question if you’ve done the full tests. For the ACT, the reading and scientific reasoning sections (third and fourth in order) must be completed at a fast pace. This means that you’re working faster at the end of the test, which may not be ideal for you. On the SAT, the reading is first, and takes 65 minutes. Math is at the end of the test.
  • Do students in your area mostly take the SAT or ACT? In some places, most students take the ACT, whereas in other areas, it’s the SAT. If, because of where you live, you have easier access to help on one test or the other (tutors, prep programs run at your school, or just friends to ask for advice), that is important to consider in your decision.
  • Which test did you enjoy more? You’ll do better on the test you feel more confident with. You’ll also be more motivated to study, especially if you’re doing all your prep by yourself.
  • Math represents half the SAT, but only a quarter of the ACT. If you’re a strong mathematician but aren’t so good at reading fast, the SAT is a good test for you. If you can read fast, but your math isn’t so strong, the ACT is better for you. ACT reading is quite well correllated with ACT science (as opposed to science scores being similar to math scores, as you might expect).
  • Writing and Language (SAT) is virtually identical to English (ACT). So you have to do that regardless – it shouldn’t be a factor in your decision to take the ACT or the SAT!
  • Although the essay portion represents a big difference between ACT and SAT, I wouldn’t make it a factor in your choice. Usually essay scores do not matter as much as the test score itself, because universities have lots of other ways to assess your writing ability.


Don’t spend too much time picking a test. Some people just write both to see which they do better on. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just takes more time. If you are going to decide on one test, bear in mind that the ideal timescale for prep for either test is 6 months or more, so make sure you’ve made your decision at least 6 months before you plan to write the test for the first time. I said first time because I strongly believe you should write a standardized test more than once to maximize your score. Here’s why.

Good luck in your choice!! Comment below and let me know how you decided whether to take the ACT or the SAT.