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ACT & SAT Test-Taking Strategies: 3 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Performance

Posted by Julia Wasson

Jul 2, 2014 1:43:00 PM

ACT & SAT test taking strategiesWe’ve all been there. Test day comes and so do our worries about whether we’ve studied the right materials and practiced our test-taking strategies enough to score well. Then, test-taking anxiety and self-doubt start to creep in as multiple-choice answers for the first question all seem to be kind of correct.

Throughout elementary school, junior high and high school, your child has endured standardized testing. But college entrance exams are a different beast altogether. The SAT, for example, is a massive set of subtests that take four hours to complete (let alone complete well). That can be daunting.

As your child prepares for the SAT, ACT or PSAT, he or she is — maybe for the first time ever — tasked with getting ready for a singular test that directly determines the course of the future. Those are high stakes, indeed.

Fortunately, by learning effective test-taking strategies, your child can feel confident and conquer the ACT or SAT test. Help your child avoid being one of the many fear-stricken students who let the pressure get the best of them with the following SAT and ACT test-taking strategies and ACT/SAT test-anxiety tips. They’re proven ways to improve your child’s performance on either college entrance exam:

Test-Taking Strategy #1: Ensure Your Child Has Adequate Content Knowledge

The SAT and the ACT test are designed to determine your child’s readiness to handle a college academic workload. These college entrance exams require relatively high levels of content knowledge, core academic skills and cognitive ability.

Encourage your student to sign up for challenging courses early in high school. By taking the regular sequence of classes, your child will gain the knowledge necessary to score well on an ACT or SAT test.

The only way to truly know if your child has adequate content knowledge is to take an ACT or SAT practice test. But just practicing isn’t enough; it’s also important to examine the answer explanations to understand the reason for any mistakes.

Side note: When colleges consider a student’s readiness, they take into account the student’s college entrance exam scores, grades, and coursework. If the student’s coursework reflects college preparatory classes, this is one of three central indicators that he is prepared to be successful in his college curriculum.

Test-Taking Strategy #2: Help Your Child Choose the Test that Fits His or Her Learning Style

Currently, the ACT and the SAT college entrance exams are different enough that some students score better on one than the other. But if your child will be a junior in 2016, you’ll want to note that the SAT is changing to be more like the ACT.

One of the best test-taking strategies is to know the difference between the tests:


  • The SAT test involves three different subject areas – critical reading, writing and math. The essay is required.

  • The ACT test involves four different subject areas – English, math, reading and science. The essay is optional.


Both the SAT test and the ACT test focus on reading and language arts skills, but the SAT places greater emphasis on vocabulary words and their uses in context. Also, both the SAT test and the ACT test cover pre-algebra, algebra I and II and geometry. However, the SAT math section also contains some probability and statistics questions, while the ACT math section contains four trigonometry questions.

If your child is better at reasoning than recall, or is especially strong in math and science, the ACT may be a better fit than the current SAT. While the SAT test has nine sections and requires students to answer questions in short bursts, the ACT test offers broader sections so students have more time to be thoughtful about their answers.

Contrary to popular misconception, all U.S. four-year colleges that accept ACT scores also accept SAT scores. So consider having your child take both, then submit the score that reflects his or her best efforts.

Test-Taking Strategy #3: Help Your Child Reduce His or Her Test-Taking Anxiety

Familiarity is an important factor in entering the testing room with confidence and ease, so ACT or SAT prep make a positive difference.

Figure out what triggers your child’s test-taking anxiety. Is it a trouble with focus, time ticking away or tough questions? Once you have the answer, you may systematically help your child overcome test anxiety .

If your child’s test-taking anxiety is paralyzing, encourage her to try these test-anxiety tips to help her relax:

  • Trouble with focusing – If your child has trouble focusing, help her learn to talk herself through it by planning ahead and visualizing how she’ll minimize the distractions from those around her. Mental rehearsal can make a big difference in an athlete’s performance; the same is true for a student’s test performance. Help her learn to use those same techniques for conquering her test-taking anxieties.
  • Intimidated by the clock – If your child fears time slipping away, help her practice better time management. To do this, use practice exams and set a timer for each subtest. With practice, your child will learn to think more quickly and manage her time more efficiently. Having her take a prep course that teaches time-management strategies specific to each subtest will also give her a distinct advantage.
  • Getting stuck on difficult questions – Hard or easy, every question is worth the same. Coach your child to skip the problematic questions and come back to them later if time allows. The key is to not waste time fretting over impossible questions when she could be answering questions she’s likely to get right.

Following these tips should help your student enter college entrance exams relaxed and focused. However, it’s always best to take ACT or SAT prep classes to truly prepare for the big day. The right online tools or in-person instructors will offer your child proven test-taking strategies and instill the confidence to do his or her best under the pressure of time.

Ready to learn more SAT and ACT test-taking strategies and techniques to ensure the best possible outcome for your child on test day? Click below to download Raise Your Score: Tips for Success on the ACT and SAT.

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Topics: test taking strategies, standardized testing

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