How to Prep for the SAT and ACT

Busy students are just now getting back into the swing of things with the new school year underway. As many high schoolers are making plans for how to tackle their core subjects, the thought of tedious college preparation looms in the minds of students and parents alike. One of the most important aspects of any college application are standardized test scores, including STAAR results for Texas residents considering in-state university and college options.

Both in-state and nationally, colleges look to SAT and ACT scores to determine how prospective students might be able to perform in the classroom once admitted. James Mazzo, General Academic’s Programs Manager, sat down to explain to parents what they should expect in helping their students prepare for the two exams.

GA: What do both exams cover?

JM: The SAT is split into 3 sections including math, critical reading and writing. For the math section, it mainly covers sophomore-level (grade 10) concepts, especially algebra and geometry. Critical reading is based on reading and answering questions about passages the test provides, while also focusing on vocabulary. The writing section covers English grammar rules, organization and has an essay component.

The ACT has 4 required sections including math, English, reading, science. The ACT also has an optional writing test, but since most colleges require the writing test, we highly recommend completing it. The math section covers concepts learned up through junior year (grade 11). The English section measures standard written English and rhetorical skills, while the reading section by itself measures reading comprehension. The science section covers interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning & problem solving skills necessary in most upper level natural science studies. The ACT’s writing test measures writing skills taught in high school English classes, with some additional college level composition skills measured.

GA: What are some basic ways students could prep for the SAT test?

JM: For both tests, students should extensively practice the material. If students struggle with the math section, they should practice the specific content troubling them, especially focusing on spending lots of time with problems offered out of a workbook. We would recommend using the College Board Official SAT Study Guide.

They should understand why they may have missed a problem and search for solutions and strategies to combat similar problems. For reading and English sections, they should patiently work through each passage and practice especially difficult or complex vocabulary words. Students can find sample passages online through the College Board’s website, or

As for writing and essay sections, it’s important to learn the grammar rules taught in class, and review any they may have missed, especially punctuation and common topics, like subject-verb agreement, word choice or tenses. You should also consider organization when prepping for essay sections.

GA: When should students take either test?

JM: I’d recommend taking the SAT or the ACT in the winter of a student’s junior year, at the earliest. Most students applying for colleges take the test in the spring of their junior year, and then re-take the test in the fall of their senior year, if they aren’t pleased with their initial scores.

Most college applications are due at the beginning of December of the student’s senior year, with early applications often being due at some point in November. Students should give themselves enough time to study well for the test and take it, so that their scores will be ready to be sent to the schools of their choice before applications are due.

Students should get plenty of practice before actually taking the test. I’d say that if you waited until the week before the test to start studying, you probably haven’t given yourself enough time for preparation, and your scores may reflect that. Make sure the official test isn’t your first time seeing the material.

GA: How can parents help their student with SAT/ACT prep?

JM: Provide them with some sort of prep material, whether it’s a book, a tutor or finding a prep course. Again, the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide is a great start. It has test taking strategies and offers sample tests to identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses regarding the test.

Encourage them to visit their school’s college counselor for additional resources, if possible. It’s especially important to help your student with time management, as high school is an especially hectic time with school studies and extracurricular activities. Make sure you help them carve out extra time specifically for SAT/ACT prep, and be sure to follow-up with them about their progress.

GA: Typically, you may see two types of students in preparing for these exams – the motivated and the unmotivated. What advice would you give to a student who may be overly nervous for the exam? And conversely, how would you suggest parents help less than motivated students?

JM: For really nervous test takers, or those who think that this test is make or break, I’d remind them that at the end of the day, it’s just a test. You can take it more than once, and more than likely, you will do better the second time. Colleges typically won’t judge too harshly about standardized test scores for well-rounded students, if they see improvement on the second set of exam scores.

For parents of unmotivated students, you should remind your child that these tests help colleges see what students are capable of learning. You do want to take the test serious enough and do well, in order to keep all of your options open when applying for various schools.

GA: There are a lot of different options for standardized test prep. Why should parents choose General Academic?

JM: Our tutors and instructors have scored within the top 1% for both the SAT and ACT. Our comprehensive SAT and ACT courses provide 8 weeks (48 hours) of in-depth teaching and application of content covered on the exam. In total, by the end of our SAT course, students will have gone through 6 practice tests. For the ACT, we will cover 4 practice tests in total. We cap our classes at 8 students, with an average of 4-5 students per class, ensuring your child will have plenty of personal attention and, hopefully, have all of their questions answered.

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