Test Prep: Methods of Study

February 21, 2018
Written by:
Tasha Swearingen

Test Prep: Methods of Study

Odds are, your teen is in the thick of test prep for the SAT and the ACT – or just one – soon. As a homeschooler, you’re probably used to being your student’s main teacher. This SAT and ACT stuff, though, may have you completely stumped. How are you supposed to help your teen prepare for this monumental test that can very well make or break college admission decisions? We decided to scour the internet as well as test prep books created by the makers of the tests themselves for the best ideas. Here, we’re speaking directly to your teens to give them the most advantageous tips.

Crack the Reading Comprehension

There’s no doubt about it: reading comprehension is critical for both the SAT and the ACT. For the SAT, there are five Reading Comprehension passages for you to plow through while the ACT has four Reading passages. What can you do to get through them successfully? If you haven’t done so already, start by practicing with reading something perhaps not all that interesting to you. It’s easy to breeze through a novel you enjoy, but when was the last time you looked forward to learning about the reproduction habits of phytoplankton or a dry piece of writing from the 19th century? While these may not tickle your fancy, they’re exactly what you can expect to come across on both the SAT and the ACT.

So how do you prepare? By familiarizing yourself with the question types you can expect to see on the tests.

On the Reading section of the SAT, you can expect to see questions such as (after reading a passage about a genetic mutation and a new medical breakthrough):

  • Which of the following does the author suggest about “female sheep” mentioned in line 31? (The lines for the reading passages are numbered for you.)
  • The author’s attitude toward genetic mutation is best described as one of…?
  • According to the passage, which of the following is true of genetic mutations?

On the Reading section of the ACT, you can expect to see questions such as (after reading a literary narrative): 

  • According to the narrator, which of the following did she like to do with her grandfather by moonlight?
  • The last two paragraphs establish all of the following about the narrator EXCEPT that he is:
  • It can be reasonably inferred from the passage that the narrator thinks his mother is:

Note: one of the four reading passages on the ACT will be science-based and is designed to test critical thinking skills. No specific science knowledge is necessary.

Work on Your Grammar

Grammar gurus will likely score very well on the Writing and Grammar section of the SAT or the English section of the ACT. But what about those who don’t spend long nights pouring through copy editing books for fun? You folks can best prepare by brushing up on your grammar skills, such as learning when to use a semicolon, apostrophe, comma, and colon. You will also do well to remember the rules for making plurals; understand the importance of a hyphen; know which pronoun takes the place of the antecedent (and learn what an antecedent is); and understand what impact specific parts of a sentence have on the sentence as a whole.

Should Your Teen Take the SAT or the ACT?

On both the SAT and the ACT, it will also be important that you follow the passage used for Writing/Grammar as a whole. This means paying attention to the sentences as one collective passage because both tests ask questions that rely on you doing that. Additionally, both the SAT and the ACT ask you what effect a new sentence will have if inserted at a specific point in the passage.


Ramp Up Your Vocabulary

The newly designed (as of 2016) SAT got rid of the analogies and fill-in-the-blank questions of yesteryear, but you still need to have at least a medium level of vocabulary. As for the ACT, these “vocabulary in context” questions usually pop up in the science-related passage.  Don’t worry; there is no obscure scientific vocabulary you’ll need to memorize. But, both the SAT and ACT expect you to be able to use context clues to determine the meaning of words. Example words from the SAT include “expert,” “state,” and “low.” On the ACT, examples include words like “popular” and “read.” In both cases, the words can have various meanings depending on the context, and you’ll need to have read the passage in its entirety to pick up on that context.

Master Your Math

This is another subject you absolutely cannot escape on both the SAT and the ACT. For the SAT, you’ll need to have a working knowledge of Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Data Analysis. For the ACT, while you “only” need to know Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, and Trigonometry, there are usually several questions related to charts/graphs (Data Analysis). So while that may not formally be in the test description, you do need to be able to compute such things as line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts.

Write Well

For both the SAT and the ACT, there is an optional essay you can write. That will add an extra chunk of time to your exam (roughly another hour), but if you can write well under pressure, it might be worth it to you. It’s also possible that it’s required by the college you’ve chosen, so double check before taking either test. On the SAT, you’ll be given a reading passage followed by a prompt and will have to write an essay in response to the prompt. For the ACT, you’ll just be given a writing prompt (no reading passage precedes it) and will write your answer. For this section of the exams, the best way to prepare is to write under actual test-taking conditions. The internet is full of example writing prompts for both tests and you should practice writing your responses in an area free of noise and distractions and with a timer. Ideally, you’ll do that after three hours of studying since you’ll have just spent three hours immersed in either the SAT or the ACT on test day.

Watch Out for Traps!

While the makers of both the SAT and the ACT don’t have any underlying desires to see you fail, they do purposefully and strategically insert answer choices that are trap answers. These answers often have qualifiers such as “always,” “never,” or “all” in the Reading sections. In the Math sections, you can expect trap answers to be incorrect computations and things you might come up with if you’re off by one number or perform the wrong function. For example, if you see 10^2, you must multiply 10×10. However, you might think you’re supposed to multiply 10×2. The test-makers are counting on you to make that simple mistake, which means “20” would be one of the answer choices to a problem like that. (Not that the tests actually have problems that easy!) Reading Comprehension questions are based on the passage(s) at hand only (and maybe some inferences). Writing and Language/English questions might have something as small as one comma in the wrong place.The bottom line: pay careful attention to exactly what the question is asking.

Both the SAT and the ACT are standardized tests you can certainly prepare yourself to take. The best way to do this is to go into the test knowing exactly what is on it, especially since test prep is known to raise student scores by as much as 200 points. Familiarizing yourself with the test content well before the big day is a proactive way of mastering these standardized tests.

Online Practice for the SAT and the ACT

For practice online, visit the following sites:

  • Khan Academy is the only official SAT prep online – and it’s FREE! Here, you can connect your College Board account with Khan Academy to receive customized practice (based on how well you score on the Khan Academy full-length SAT Practice Exam. Be sure to also download the app to your phone for daily SAT practice test questions!
  • The PrepScholar blog has loads of information on the SAT and ACT. Using their resources on a regular basis will keep you informed about what’s to come with these high-stakes tests.
  • Prep Factory gives you a chance to practice skills related to the SAT and the ACT as well as some other standardized tests you may come across.
  • CrackSAT.net provides test practice for the SAT and the ACT. We love how you get your results right away and can practice in just one section at a time, instead of being required to complete a full-length test before seeing results.

Tasha Swearingen

Tasha is a homeschooling mom to 5 and has been homeschooling for 14 years. Currently, her children's ages span from toddler to young adult. Tasha has a Bachelor's of Science degree in Social Sciences from Florida State University and is working on her MBA through SNHU/Berklee School of Music.