Cracking Standardized Testing | Carolyn Cui
It’s that time of year again when all the SAT and ACT prep camps creep out from their hiding places to snatch kids from their summers.
Just kidding. Except not really.
Canyon Crest Academy has an incredible reputation when it comes to competition–all the surrounding schools know, the parents know, and the SAT and ACT camps know. The average SAT here is 1395. The national average? 1059. How about the average ACT? 28.2, and the national average is 20.9.
At CCA, if you get a 1500 on your SAT or a 34 on your ACT, people will pat your back.
The SAT and ACT prep companies know this, and they’ll take their every opportunity to capitalize on the ever-expanding market of nervous children. But preparing for the SAT and ACT isn’t always the best choice. Local companies like Hamilton have indeed constructed a tried-and-true method to help kids score higher and score better. However, not everyone has the money or the time to spend.
There are lots of resources online to help improve your score or help you prepare for a first try. There’s all sorts of tips, tricks, and studying resources. But do you need a hand from a fellow student? We’ve got one for you here too.
Here’s a secret right off the bat: studying is the best way to improve. When people say “study” for these tests, they really mean “study.”
During the school year and as a general rule, aside 20-30 minutes a day to review material. Normally, you will not have sufficient time to take a practice SAT in one sitting; it is about 3-4 hours depending on whether or not you decide to write the essay.
Make sure to spread out your studying over a few months so that it doesn’t impact your regular studies and so that the material can take root. Practice regularly if possible so you don’t forget what you’ve learned. If you’re taking math or English classes alongside your SAT studies, it can help significantly, as you will constantly be completing exercises in these subjects and therefore won’t fall out of practice.
If you miss a few days though, worry not! Missing out on a few days of test prep isn’t going to tank your scores. When you feel like you need a break, take one.
Over the summer and school holidays, take advantage of the time to complete practice tests. Take many practice tests, including the essays, and then self-grade. Take breaks in accordance with the actual SAT: there is a 10-minute break after the Reading portion and a five-minute break after the Math section. Or, don’t take breaks at all and power through the entire test. Refrain from splitting up the test into multiple parts and make sure you are taking it in an environment that is free from distractions. After all, come testing day, you won’t be in a cozy room; you’ll be in an unfamiliar classroom, surrounded by a dozen nervous students.
Popular free tools for SAT prep include Khan Academy, PrepFactory, 1600.io, and our friend College Board. Popular ACT prep materials can be found on the official ACT website, PrepFactory, and Number2. Khan Academy is also an excellent choice for the ACT even though there’s no section devoted to it specifically; however, many content areas will overlap and there are plenty of general resources for math, English, and science.
So let’s break down the tests, starting from the SAT.
Sections: Reading, Writing / English Language, Math (with and without Calculator), Essay (optional)
Total Time Allotment, with Essay: 3 hours 15 minutes (incl. breaks)
Total Time Allotment, without Essay: 4 hours 5 minutes (incl. breaks)
Time Allotment: 65 minutes
The Reading section is the first section you will encounter on the SAT, and it’s also a section that many struggle with, partly because they may not have had much experience with analytical reading and only rote memorisation. It may be difficult to suddenly convert from one mindset to another–which is, again, why it’s important to split up studying over several months to let it all sink in.
It includes five passages that you will have to read over 65 minutes for an average of 13 minutes per passage.
You’ll want to practice analyzing texts and practice reading faster while absorbing the same amount of information. It’s not as much of a time crunch as the ACT, but taking your sweet time also won’t be in your best interest.
When you get stuck on a problem, learn how to eliminate answers rather than look for the best answer. You can quickly increase your odds of getting it right by twofold if you can just eliminate two choices. If you’re really stuck, move on but put down your best guess–you may not have time later to mull on it.
Time Allotment: 35 minutes
Writing is much more straightforward than Reading, but you will want to maintain the same mindset of reading quickly. Make sure to answer questions as you read; don’t let them pile up. Brush up on rusty grammar skills and do plenty of practice. While vocabulary isn’t as big as it once was, there are still questions that will ask you about word choice, so it can be good to do some vocabulary practice as well.
No Calculator: 20 questions in 25 minutes
Calculator: 38 questions in 55 minutes
The SAT math section requires the ability to make quick mental calculations, especially on the no-calculator portion, which you will take first. However, the SAT does not really go into topics beyond Integrated Math III, so review topics through that subject; brushing up on advanced math doesn’t hurt, but it may not affect your chances at scoring better. In fact, it might hurt your chances, since the math is relatively basic.
At the end of each section, there is a free response part; these questions are generally easier calculations, but these are also the ones you might want to double-check, since there is no “picking the best answer.”
Be familiar with conics, quadratics, factoring, fractions, probability, and the general equations associated with each topic.
Time Allotment: 50 minutes
The essay portion is the only optional part of the test and it will be in the form of rhetorical analysis; you will be given an excerpt or article to read and then you must deduce how the writer builds their argument, not reinforce, explain, or summarise it, which is what many accidentally do.
The test allows for a total of 24 points with eight points max allotted per the three subcategories in grading: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Reading measures comprehension of the text and usage of textual evidence, Analysis is based on the support for your claim and the insightfulness of your analysis. And finally, Writing is reliant on your usage of language and your ability to write cohesively and with style.
Some colleges require this essay, while others do not; if you do not have colleges in mind just yet and don’t know if you need this essay, you can skip registering for it now. On test day, if there are sufficient materials, you may add it onto your test on the day of.
The ACT is similar to the SAT yet also very different. It has 5 total sections: writing, math, reading, science, and the optional essay (which is argumentative rather than rhetorical analysis). It, too, will take about 3-4 hours depending on if you write the essay. Compared to the SAT, it can be much more of a time crunch. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The writers of the ACT know it’s a lot of content in a short period of time, which is why there’s an increased chance that questions on the reading and writing section will be more straightforward.
Time Allotment: 45 minutes
In terms of English, the ACT resembles the SAT greatly, but the time constraint is much greater. You will need to excel at parsing and applying information, and make sure to answer the questions as you are reading to speed up the process. Like the SAT, you may want to do some grammar practice and brush up on vocabulary words.
Time Allotment: 60 minutes
ACT Math can be one of the worst time crunches. It requires an even better understanding of concepts through IM III. There is no free-response section and there is no no-calculator section. But while having a fancy calculator can help speed up calculations, do not be reliant on it; ultimately, it cannot save you, but practice can. More complex topics that are generally not covered on the SAT may appear on the ACT, such as vector math and the law of sines and cosines. Probability on the ACT goes beyond the basics.
Time Allotment: 35 minutes
Due to the time constraint on reading, some questions may be more straightforward, but you need to be very good at quickly reading and understanding information, then applying said information. Analytical reading is still the frontrunner on this test; brush up on vocabulary and practice analysis.
Time Allotment: 35 minutes
Finally, the science section. It’s the single section that doesn’t resonate with the SAT, but it’s basically a glorified reading section with data analysis. Though, of course, you will need background knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, and maybe some earth sciences. As a sophomore, you should at least have had experience with all of the above at some point. If not… well, Khan Academy is about to be your best friend.
Time Allotment: 40 minutes
The ACT essay portion, like the SAT, is also optional, but it is an argumentative essay instead. You will be given three perspectives on a topic and you must write a multi-paragraph essay arguing a perspective (either yours, a combination of the provided perspectives, or a single perspective).
It is broken down into four subcategories that will determine your cumulative, which is the average of your subcategory scores. You will receive two scores for each subcategory, and each score can be at most six points. This will add up to a total of 12 maximum points for each section and a max average of 12.
Although the essay format itself is different, the subcategories are similar: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use. Ideas and Analysis is based on your engagement with multiple perspectives and your ability to break them down and examine them (aka analyse them). Development and Support measures your ability to develop your ideas and your claim with qualifications and reasoning. Organization is how cohesive your essay is in terms of structure–does it have a focal point and is there a clear sense of progression? Language Use is like the equivalent of Writing; it is based on how well you can use the English language–skillful and concise diction and placement of rhetorical devices are two things you’ll want to excel at.
SAT Subject Tests
If you didn’t do so well on either test or if you want to bolster your resume, there’s another standardized testing option. The SAT and ACT can play a role in college admissions, but it’s not the best way to measure college readiness. That’s where the Subject Tests come in–they allow you to demonstrate expertise in a singular subject and reinforce your college applications. However, it does not replace either the SAT or ACT test.
While the format for each test is different, they are all one-hour-long tests, and you can take up to three per testing date. The maximum score is 800, and there is a guessing penalty, unlike the ACT and SAT: 0.25 points are taken off for every incorrect answer, and no points are taken off for blanks.