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MUST Have Items for ACT, SAT & PSAT Prep!

This summer I’m working on posting a couple short videos to the College Prep Results Facebook page each week. I’m sharing tips from my college visits (with my 16 year old!) and answers to common test prep questions.

If you haven’t already, follow the College Prep Results Facebook page where you can ask questions and find more test prep and college planning resources. (https://www.facebook.com/CollegePrepLLC/)


Here’s a quick video explaining the must have materials to prepare for the ACT, PSAT/SAT. I also share info on what books to avoid and free options to help you figure out which test is right for you.

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How Much Math Do I Need for the ACT and SAT?

The ACT and SAT are designed for high school juniors. But we know that not all juniors around the world are taking the same math courses. Here’s what students need to know before taking the ACT or SAT.

There is a catch.

Before I declare students are ready for either the SAT or ACT there are a couple caveats:

  • Completion of a course doesn’t always equal retention or mastery of skills. I’ve had students admit they never really learned geometry (or algebra) and just got by on homework grades and cramming. I have other students who are so far advanced (taking Calculus II as a junior for example) that they have forgotten the basics.
  • Both the ACT and SAT are difficult exams written with enough hard questions that not too many students will score in the top 10% (or top 25%.) Math questions are difficult not based on the course sequence, but based on the number of concepts combined into a single problem and the likelihood of making a mistake. In other words, there are hard questions that don’t go beyond junior high school math, but almost no students get these correct due to calculation errors, misleading answer traps, etc.

But there are some basics a student needs to complete before he or she has enough math knowledge to successfully attempt these exams.


ACT math focuses on algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry. In general I find most students are able to adequately prepare for the exam once they have taken high school algebra and geometry.

Some problems (about 4) include basic trigonometry which most of my students have learned in geometry class. SOH-CAH-TOA is all the trig you need. (If you don’t know it, your student probably does.)

Starting in late 2016, the ACT added some harder probability questions and problems that involve more math typically taught in Algebra II. While Algebra II is not required for success on the ACT, a junior taking Algebra II might want to make sure he or she has a solid understanding of Algebra I. (In some cases a few months of Algebra II is the perfect review for the necessary skills.)


The redesigned SAT (starting in March 2016) goes much deeper into Algebra II concepts than the old SAT or the ACT. In order to be adequately prepared for a majority of SAT math, I’m recommending students complete Algebra II before preparing for the exam.

This means juniors taking Algebra II might want to give serious consideration to the ACT which does not test as many Algebra II concepts or wait until mid-spring to take the SAT.

Tips for math review

I’ve found the free SAT review lessons from Khan Academy to be a good place to start for students taking either exam. You can start here.

For a general overview, skip the diagnostic quiz and scroll down to the videos and practice problems. Start with the basic video for any concept. I like to pause a couple second into the video and see if I can solve the questions quickly and accurately on my own. If I can, I usually fast forward to the end to double check I got it right. Move to the harder example then test your skills on the practice problems.


Whether a student takes the ACT or SAT, it is important to have a solid understanding of the math concepts tested in order to make the most of any additional test preparation activities you may pursue.

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How to Plan for Junior Year Tests (PSAT, ACT & SAT)

Hi Megan,

Your newsletter is helpful as always! I had questions about your test prep schedule.

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year? Or a different time?
  • Is August too early for a junior?
  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes?

I guess I’m just trying to figure out what is an ideal class and exam schedule and how to work it all in around marching band. I don’t want my daughter to be overloaded but I don’t want her to be behind either.


Great questions!

A lot of sophomores and their families need to work through this same ideas before school starts next year. Here’s a quick visual of the decisions you need to make: (Click here to see full size image.)


The PSAT Is the Deciding Factor

Why? The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. (That’s why all the paperwork has NMSQT on it!) Only juniors can qualify for National Merit recognition and it is worth the time and effort to prepare if your student can score high enough.

For more information on National Merit read “Frequently Asked Questions About the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships.”


For National Merit Contenders

Those high scoring sophomores who might score well enough to earn National Merit recognition as juniors NEED to prepare before the October PSAT.

The PSAT is only given once a year. Students only have one chance to qualify which is why I offer some advice that often sounds backwards. Students preparing for the PSAT should plan to take the August or October SAT. (August 27 is a new test date added in 2017!)

Yes, you heard me right. Students should take the SAT to prepare for the PSAT. The SAT can be taken multiple times and colleges look at a student’s best scores, so this first test is more of a dress rehearsal for the PSAT. Even before scores are released, the student will know how he or she did with pacing and what, if anything, he or she needs to study before the PSAT.

Just a note: In general students should not take the SAT (or ACT) without preparation. This can have some serious implications (read here). But when I tell my PSAT students to take the SAT a few weeks before they take the SAT, I know a few things:

  • The student has already been studying for the exam (the SAT and PSAT are almost identical)
  • The student has proven test taking skills
  • The student will take the SAT seriously and try for a top score

Following this “practice” SAT dress rehearsal, students may alter some aspects of their study plan to be 100% prepared for the PSAT in mid-October. PSAT scores won’t be back for months, so after the PSAT, it is wise to finish with college admissions testing. (Don’t wait on PSAT scores.)

Most of my PSAT clients like to retake the SAT. These are often kids who are just a few points away from their next goal—a perfect score, a 750, or a 700. One more crack at the test is often enough to make these small (but important) score improvements.

Then these students are D.O.N.E! They don’t need the ACT. They don’t need to spend all year chasing a perfect score. They need to reach a point where scores are “good enough” so they can get back to the important work of school, sports, extracurriculars, community service, family, etc.


Not a National Merit Candidate?

Great news: you have a lot of flexibility. Unlike the National Merit crowd, you get to make the decisions for your testing plan.

I strongly advise students to finish all SAT and ACT testing by the end of their junior years. Yes, it is possible to re-test as a senior. SAT and ACT are even making that easier by adding earlier test dates; SAT added a late August test starting in 2017 and ACT is adding a July test in 2018. But seniors need to focus on applications and that is so much easier when the SAT and ACT are out of the picture.


ACT or SAT? How can we decide?

I could write a series of articles on this topic. You can start by reading this one.

The short answer is to take the official SAT and official ACT practice tests at home and compare scores. (Just a quick reminder to NEVER take the real test for practice. Here’s the link from above and an episode of my podcast explaining the risks.)

Compare scores using the ACT / SAT concordance table here.

Which one did your student like better? Are the scores clearly higher on one test? Are there any other factors to consider (extended time for learning differences, strengths or weaknesses, schedule conflicts for one exam)?


Fall or Spring? When is the best time?

The best time is a personal decision. There is very little a student might learn at school that would improve his or her results on the SAT or ACT—with one exception.

When the SAT changed in March 2016, they began testing concepts that are found pretty far into the Algebra II curriculum. This means juniors who are taking Algebra II should wait until the spring semester to take the SAT. Or, better yet, give serious consideration to the ACT.

There are two factors I consider when planning the best time to test:

  1. When will a student have the most time to prepare?
  2. When will he or she be most motivated?

To answer the original question above, a student involved in marching band may not have any extra time to prepare for fall exams. Once she finishes practice and does her school work, she may not have any time or energy left. Additionally, I’ve heard of many uncompromising band directors who prohibit students from taking the ACT or SAT on certain Saturdays in the fall because of conflicts with a major performance. And it is not a good idea to stay out with the band until midnight because of a high school football game and expect to be thinking and processing at your best by 8:00 am the next morning.

A lot of my clients begin by eliminating their busy season for sports, activities, competition, performances, etc. Then they pick an exam date where they will have a better chance of studying and getting to the test day before they burn out from exhaustion.


My Two Cents

I was a fan of the SAT for decades. I preferred it to the ACT and found it more interesting and coachable. I do not like the new SAT.

It is a necessary evil for the ultra-high test takers who seek National Merit Scholarships. But they are already great at test taking basics and know the content backwards and forwards, so when I work with these students we are just perfecting their understanding of the questions, trying to master the three to eight questions that stand between them and a perfect score.

Regular and struggling test takers aren’t so lucky. The new SAT often “feels” easier to these students. It doesn’t help that the scores on the new SAT are inflated. Most students need to score 100 points higher on the new test (you need a 1200 now to be like a 1100 before.) To me this is sales trickery—like the high-end boutique selling dresses with a smaller size on the label just so I can flatter myself because I got a “better number” when I purchased that dress than the one down the road with a bigger size on the tag.

In the past 12 months, I’ve found that most test takers can get better improvement if they study for the ACT. The format of the test is less exhausting. And most students do better on math when they are allowed to use a calculator. (That no-calculator section of the SAT / PSAT is not good for the typical test taker.) So I’ve been teaching more ACT classes and encouraging more of my private clients to consider the ACT.



There is no simple answer to the question about when a student should take the SAT or ACT. So to give a brief response to the original questions:

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year or a different time? It depends. I will start classes in August. If your daughter needs to take the PSAT, I’ll see her then. If not, you might wait until early spring when band season is over.
  • Is August too early for a junior? Absolutely not! Each year I have dozens of students who are 100% done with testing in the early fall (September, October, November.) There is no better feeling than crossing this off your college to-do list.


  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes? I’m offering one PSAT class because only the super-high scoring students need to take that class (top 5% by scores) and that isn’t a majority of the test prep market. I’m offering more ACT classes through the year because I like it better, see better results, and think it is the more coachable test. I’m also finding demand for ACT classes outpaces demand for SAT review.



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Key Standardized Tests You May Need This Spring

SAT ACT test taking


Now is a good time to plan all standardized testing for the remainder of the school year. Most families with juniors know it is time to take (or retake) either the SAT or ACT. But there are some other testing issues that may not be so obvious.

Here are some considerations based on your student’s grade level:

Freshman (9th Grade)

Freshman typically have few requirements outside of classroom tests and state-level exams. However, there are some exceptions (and opportunities to get ahead.)

PSAT – If your student took the PSAT in October 2016, you can review scores online at CollegeBoard.org. You may need to create a student login; be sure to save this information because over the next four years you will need it. Your school’s guidance counseling department can help with the information you may need to create a College Board account.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – AP Exams are designed to test students’ knowledge of the curriculum covered in Advanced Placement courses, high school classes that are designed to teach the equivalent of a first-year college course in the particular subject. AP Exams are hard and most high school freshman struggle to develop the analytical and writing skills necessary to do well on these tests. If your student is taking an AP class (not pre-AP, but actual AP), you should hear more from the teacher or guidance counselor about signing up for and taking the AP Exam. This year’s AP exam schedule is available online.

SAT Subject Tests – Very few freshman will find themselves in a situation where they should consider taking an SAT Subject Test this spring, but it is possible. Freshman who are taking AP U.S. History or AP World History should consider taking the Subject Test in May or June. Subject Tests are appropriate for underclassmen when they are taking an advanced course in a subject they will not continue with the following year.

For example, a student taking advanced Algebra would NOT take the math Subject Test because he or she will take another math class in 10th grade. But a 9th grader who is finishing AP World History and will take a different type of history next year may want to take the SAT Subject Test this spring when his knowledge of world history is at its zenith. It is rare for freshman to take other advanced classes that correlate to Subject Tests, but occasionally I will meet one taking AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or language (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.)

To learn more about the SAT Subject Tests, you can read “SAT Subject Tests: Should You Take Them and When?


Sophomores (10th Grade)

Like freshman, most sophomores are still a little early to worry about testing related to college admission, but there are some important exceptions.

PSAT – Like freshman, sophomores who took the PSAT in October should login to their College Board accounts and see their results. Because they will take the SAT as juniors, sophomores should spend additional time reviewing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan for improvement.

Sophomore PSAT scores are key in identifying potential National Merit Scholarship candidates in time to prepare for next October’s exam. If you have a 10th grader scoring in the 90th percentile or above, you may want to give serious consideration to whether he or she can score well enough next fall to earn recognition and, if so, what type of study plan you should follow to pursue this opportunity. For more about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships, read this article.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. I strongly recommend all student enrolled in an AP class take the AP Exam. You do not need to send scores to colleges for admissions consideration, but some universities will accept strong AP results in place of the SAT or ACT. (See NYU’s testing policy as an example.)

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussion of these tests under freshman year. More sophomores may be in a position to take Subject Test exams this spring. As I write this I’m thinking that I need to sign my own daughter up for the May test date. The week before the May 6 SAT administration (SAT Subject Tests are given on the same Saturdays as the SAT.) she will take the AP U.S. History and AP Spanish Language exams. Why not take those Subject Tests while the material is fresh in her mind!


Juniors (11th Grade)

Junior year is full of admissions testing. The sooner you can finish with standardized exams, the sooner you can turn all of your attention to the college search and application process.

SAT / ACT – Every college or university that requires standardized tests for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT—with no preference given to either one. Many juniors have already taken the ACT and/or SAT this school year, but most students take these exams more than once because colleges look at a student’s best score. If your junior hasn’t taken the ACT or SAT or isn’t satisfied with his or her scores, make plans to complete your testing soon.

PSAT – Hopefully you have already accessed your results online and started working on areas of weakness. If your student scored extremely well on the PSAT, you will want to keep your eye out for National Merit communication. Typically National Merit doesn’t release semi-finalist information until the start of a student’s senior year, so be patient.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. Juniors really should be taking AP exams for all of their AP courses. Yes, the tests are hard. No, not everyone will earn a score which qualifies for college credit in the future. But the process of studying for a tough, comprehensive exam is great practice for college.

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussions above, but this is the time to complete all the Subject Tests you may need for fall. This means it is time to take Literature, Mathematics (highest level you can), and any other key subjects or those that may be required by colleges on your list. Students can take three Subject Tests on any test date, but keep in mind you cannot take the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. So many juniors will take Subject Tests in May and retake the SAT in June.

Spring is a busy time for everyone. We all have end of the year activities so it is vital to plan ahead to avoid schedule conflicts.