How to Prep for the SAT or ACT: What Parents Need to Know

For over twenty years, I’ve been talking to parents, students, school counselors, and admission officers about the college application process. In that time, we’ve seen a ton of changes in the tools students use to apply to colleges and universities and the trends in how those schools attract applicants. Many schools have adopted test-optional admission policies, demonstrating their commitment to holistically reviewing applications.

Yet high school students (smartly!) continue to take the SAT and ACT to ensure their candidacy at as many schools as possible, and log their scores for scholarship applications. The SAT has been redesigned twice since 2005 and the ACT has increased in popularity.

One thing remains constant, however: standardized tests are coachable, and effective preparation can lower a student’s anxiety levels and dramatically increase their score. Of course, determining a test prep strategy for your child might raise your anxiety levels!

How to help your teen prepare for the SAT and ACT

Before you start making a prep plan with your teen, here are a few things to consider.

Five Things Parents Should Know about the SAT or ACT

1. Test prep is not as expensive as you think.

Rest assured: There IS a prep solution out there for every student and every budget.

2. Start thinking SAT and ACT early.

I advise students to start preparing for standardized tests the spring/summer before junior year. That means first exploring the ACT and SAT exams by taking a practice test and coming up with a study plan based on your results.

3. Your child might even decide to take both!

It doesn’t have to be either the SAT or the ACT. If you start by taking both tests, you’ll be able make an informed decision about which one best displays your strengths, and work on raising those scores.

4. Prep for a standardized test even if your child’s dream school is test optional.

I can’t stress this enough. When combined with high school GPA, your child’s test scores could qualify them for academic merit-based scholarships even at schools that are listed as test optional. Test optional simply means that students needn’t submit test scores for academic admission.

5. Summer is a smart time to concentrate on test prep.

There’s no school, so take advantage of your lighter workload! The long, lazy days of summer are perfect for preparing for the August SAT (new this year!) or the September ACT test date.

Finding the Best Test Prep for Your Child

I know better than anyone how wide-ranging and varied the options are for preparing for the SAT, ACT, AP exams, and SAT Subject tests. I’ve worked inside an admission office, taught test prep classes, visited countless high schools and college campuses, and published hundreds of books about cracking these tests and getting into colleges that offer the best fit for your child’s goals. I’m going to break down the options so you can help your high school student get the best possible test score for their college application.

The two most important factors to consider while making your test prep plan are your budget and your child’s learning style.

1. Take advantage of free resources and practice questions.

There are so many great (and free!) resources out there to get you started. Khan Academy offers free practice for the SAT, and we at The Princeton Review offer free diagnostic tests for the SAT or ACT. Free tools like these give you a taste of the test format and the skills your child will need to score big.

3. Start a test prep library.

Test prep books are an easy-on-the-wallet way to get familiar with the test of your choice, learn some test-taking strategies—like how to eliminate multiple-choice answers—and practice for the real thing with drills and sample tests. You don’t want any surprises on the big day!

3. Prep online.

If you have a super busy student (aren’t they all?), online prep means lessons and drills are ready whenever your student has time to use them. Adaptive technology, like ours at The Princeton Review, makes online test prep extremely efficient and targeted to your student’s specific strengths and weaknesses.

4. In-person classes hold students accountable.

Let’s face it. What kid is dying to study for the SAT on their Saturday off? Face-to-face time with an expert instructor can keep your student motivated and on track for test day. Plus, student score increases are often guaranteed.

5. Find a private tutor

Private tutoring is extremely flexible with options like one-on-one, online, or group tutoring sessions. The right tutor can help you with anything from managing test-taking anxiety to no calculator math strategies. Focus on specific parts of the test or particular question types to make a big impact.

Of course, The Princeton Review offers all of the above, but with a little research you will find the right environment (and the right price) for your child’s needs and goals. If your high school student can eliminate the unknowns about the SAT or ACT and find confidence as a test-taker, they are already bound for success.


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About Robert Franek

Robert Franek is The Princeton Review’s chief expert on education. He has visited hundreds of colleges over his career and has appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX to share advice about college admissions.

Read more posts by Robert

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