Not Improving on the SAT or ACT? Ask Yourself These 10 Questions


Have you taken the SAT or ACT more than once—before and after doing a bit of SAT or ACT prep, perhaps—and been disappointed with your results each time? It happens more often than you would think. Students who are not improving on the SAT and ACT after beginning SAT or ACT prep lessons or small group classes often feel frustrated, wondering what’s wrong and what they can do to improve. If you’ve taken the SAT or ACT multiple times and haven’t noticed any improvement, fear not. There’s still time to improve. Here are some questions to ask yourself. Ask them honestly, and answer honestly. Remember, your score is up to YOU. Take responsibility for your study program and work twice as hard. When you get the results you seek, you’ll be glad you took a hard look at your SAT and ACT prep choices.


10 Questions to Ask Yourself If You Aren’t Improving on the SAT and ACT


1) Have you completed ALL official practice materials?


The first question to ask yourself if you’ve taken the SAT or ACT a couple of times, perhaps after a bit of SAT or ACT prep, is whether or not you’ve exhausted all of the prep materials available to you. Although companies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review publish SAT prep materials, these materials are NOT official test content and thus aren’t 100% accurate representatives of what to expect on the test. When prepping for the SAT or ACT, you want to be sure you’re using OFFICIAL prep materials. For the SAT, that means the Official SAT Study Guide, and for the ACT, that means the Official ACT Prep Guide. These books have HUNDREDS of SAT and ACT problems, as well as detailed answer explanations. In addition, there are dozens of official SAT and ACT tests available online. Past editions of official books also contain valuable practice problems. If you haven’t completed the prep book for your test, you shouldn’t expect a significant improvement.


2) Do you keep a detailed record of ALL past missed problems?


Too often when we miss a question, we sweep our mistake under the rug and forget about it. It’s not enough to simply miss a question, quickly learn the correct answer and how to arrive at it, and then never think of the mistake again. Smart and pragmatic SAT and ACT prep students keep detailed records of their past missed problems. They classify each problem with its “category name.” For example, they might miss a “Supporting Evidence” question in the Reading section. They might miss a “Comma Splice” question on the Writing and Language section. They might miss a “System of Equations” question on the Math section. The thing to understand about the SAT and ACT is that they test the SAME topics over and over and over. Knowing what SPECIFIC topics you’ve struggled with in the past, and being able to articulate what those topics are, will allow you to recognize those topics when they arrive in the future and handle them with ease.


3) Do you revisit, review, and redo ALL past missed problems?


It isn’t enough to simply circle or star a missed question on SAT or ACT practice materials. It isn’t enough to simply read the answer explanation or have a tutor show you how to do the problem. The likelihood that you’re going to understand the problem perfectly and then REMEMBER how to do the problem weeks from now after only encountering the problem once is extremely low. Repetition and drilling are absolutely fundamental to improvement. There’s a huge difference between short-term and long-term memory. You have to revisit, review, and redo ALL past missed problems MULTIPLE times, and preferably once more the day before your test. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked students to do a problem that they’ve missed in the past only to find them drawing a blank. It isn’t the teacher’s responsibility to make you retain information. It’s your own. Revisit, review, and redo until short-term memory of learning is deeply integrated into your long-term memory.


4) If a friend needed help with a problem, could you teach him or her everything there is to know about the problem and how to solve it?


I love offering this piece of advice to students because it aligns so perfectly with my own experience. Having taught students SAT and ACT prep for years, I’ve done so many SAT and ACT problems thousands of times—and explained them to students thousands of times. Because I’m able to tell students absolutely everything there is to know about a specific problem and how to solve it, you can bet that if I took the SAT or ACT again, I’d get a 99th-percentile score. If you haven’t improved on the SAT or ACT, ask yourself this question: If a friend asked you for help on a problem, could you teach him or her how to do it? Could you tell your friend everything there is to know about the problem. In my SAT and ACT prep lessons, I’ll often use this tactic to make a point to students. “Turn to page 334,” I’ll tell them. “Teach me how to do number 15.” If the student can’t teach me how to do it, there’s no way they’re going to be able to do it themselves with the confidence required for a significant improvement in their SAT or ACT score. Be able to explain EVERY problem and concept on the SAT and ACT to a friend. Find a friend to prep with and take turns teaching one another. TEACHING is a brilliant form of LEARNING.


5) Have you taken any practice tests?


If you haven’t noticed a significant enough improvement on the SAT and ACT, ask yourself: have you taken any practice tests? Believe it or not, there are students who think it’s sufficient merely to attend an SAT or ACT lesson or two and take the official test once or twice. With such limited practice and exposure, it’s no wonder they complain of not seeing a significant improvement. Even if you practice SAT or ACT problems for hours, it’s no guarantee you’ll do well during actual test conditions. You NEED to simulate actual test conditions in order to gain an accurate understanding of how well you perform on the SAT and ACT under pressure. Take practice tests. Time yourself. And then, of course, revisit, review, and redo your practice test problems.


6) Have you taken as many practice tests as possible?


Maybe you’ve taken a practice test or two. That’s better than taking no practice tests at all. But did you know there are literally dozens of practice tests you can take? Have you taken advantage of them? The students who see the biggest improvements in SAT and ACT scores take AT LEAST four or five practice tests, and ideally, they take eight to twelve practice tests. Don’t have the time? Ask yourself how many hours you spend on the internet, on your phone, and watching Netflix. Make the time.


7) How many official SATs or ACTs have you taken?


If you’ve only taken the SAT or ACT twice, you shouldn’t feel entitled to a huge improvement. Dedicated students take the SAT or ACT at least three or four times, and ideally, they take the SAT or ACT five or six times. If it feels like overkill, it’s not. Think about how many hours of practice goes into mastering an instrument, improving at a sport, rehearsing for a play. Take the SAT and ACT a few more times (while taking SAT and ACT prep lessons, spending hours on your homework, and revisiting, redoing, and reviewing past missed problems) before you worry that you’re not improving as much as you’d like.


8) Have you ordered your test booklet and reviewed your mistakes?


Did you know that you can order the actual test booklet you used on the SAT or ACT and see the exact problems that you’ve missed? This option isn’t available on every SAT and ACT test date, but it’s important that you sign up to receive your test booklet along with your score report on the test dates that offer it. Understanding the problems you missed, inside and out, is vital for improvement on the SAT and ACT. The same is true for your PSAT booklet or your Pre-ACT booklet. Test booklets, along with score reports, are goldmines of information that’s deeply relevant to your SAT and ACT success.

9) How many hours of SAT or ACT prep lessons have you taken?


Have you taken one or two SAT or ACT prep lessons? Maybe a group class? If so, you’ve only spent between 90 minutes and 10 hours studying for the SAT and ACT. A few hours of studying may cut it when you have an exam or a quiz the next day, but it’s NEVER enough for a drastic improvement on the SAT and ACT. Sure, you might improve a point or two on the ACT and fifty to a hundred points on the SAT, but if you’re looking for a radical improvement, you need to put in FAR more work. Sometimes we get students that take four SAT or ACT prep lessons, then take the official exam, then wonder why they “only” improved two points on the ACT and a hundred points on the SAT. You may be able to pull an all-nighter for an exam in high school, but you can’t pull an all-nighter and expect that to be sufficient preparation for the SAT and ACT score you desire.


10) How many hours do you spend on SAT or ACT prep homework?


Students who improve on the SAT and ACT recognize that their SAT and ACT prep lessons are only the tip of the iceberg. An effective SAT or ACT tutor is like a coach: he or she can give you the training you need, but it’s up to YOU to put in the hard work required for an improvement. If your SAT or ACT tutor assigns you homework, and you don’t complete it, or breeze through it 10 minutes before arriving at your lesson, can you honestly expect a significant improvement? Imagine expecting to be fluent in Spanish after four 90-minute Spanish classes. It isn’t going to happen! You have to IMMERSE yourself. You have to prep every day. You’re reaping 100% of the benefits of the score you obtain, so you need to put in 100% of the work. An hour or so a week isn’t going to cut it. You need to prep for the SAT and ACT an hour a DAY at minimum if you want a significant improvement.

You can gain a lot of points by working through the best SAT and ACT prep textbooks. For example, if you want a higher SAT or ACT Grammar score, you need a copy of SAT & ACT Grammar Mastery. If you want higher SAT Math scores, get the best SAT Math prep textbook in the world. And don’t just order them - work through them!


The hard truth


If you’re not improving on the SAT or ACT, you need to WORK HARDER. It’s YOUR job to take responsibility and ownership for your own learning. After all, you’re the one going to college. You’re the one who wants to join the work-force and build a life for yourself. It’s your education. It’s your life. It’s your future. If you want to improve, you’ve got to MAKE it happen. A great tutor can teach you, a great tutor can coach you, but YOU are the one who’s taking the test. You’re the one who’s doing the homework. You’re the one who’s reviewing your mistakes. And you’re the one who’s going to benefit from all of your hard work.


Good luck! And remember, we are here to help teach you and coach you to be the best student you can be. ANYONE can improve significantly on the SAT and ACT with enough time, effort, motivation, and practice. Don’t EXPECT it to happen. MAKE it happen.


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That’s it! For more SAT and ACT prep tips, as well as college admissions advice, check out the rest of our blog. Looking for 1-on-1 ACT or SAT prep tutoring? Want to join an SAT or ACT group class? Contact us today!

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