What Can 9th and 10th Graders Do To Prepare for the SAT / ACT?

It is summertime. (Yea!!!) Many families are looking for activities to help students get ahead academically, or at least not turn into computer or TV watching zombies.

Rising seniors should be working on college lists, essays, and applications. Rising juniors can start preparing for the ACT or SAT, but it is too early for 9th and 10th graders to begin serious test prep. What can 9th and 10th graders do this summer to help them prepare for future success in school and on admission tests?

Too Early

First, I am not one of those test prep coaches who believes students should start as soon as possible. In fact, I have seen “early prep” backfire more often than it helps.

Over the years, I’ve had students come to me after completing multiple review programs. They still weren’t meeting their score goals. Here are the problems

  • The student is burnt out (Sometimes willing, but frustrated; other times grudging.)
  • Most quality materials have been used. (There are a limited number of official tests for practice. When students use up good material early on, we are left with few resources when it counts.)
  • Too many contradictory strategies make score improvement challenging. (Trying to combine test prep strategies from multiple sources is like trying to follow 6 different diet plans at once. Hint: you don’t get 6x the weight loss or score improvement this way!)

In an ideal world, students would come to me for test prep (classes or private tutoring) sometime between the end of 10th grade and the start of 12th grade. They will have actually learned the content from school, particularly grammar, algebra, geometry, vocabulary, and critical reading / thinking. We could then spend 4-10 weeks focusing on test structure and strategies.

More Than Test Prep

Notice how my ideal client comes to me in 11th grade with a solid academic foundation? 9th and 10th graders could use the summer to improve their knowledge and skills in these key areas. For some students this means maintaining learning. For others, summer is a time to go back and actually learn things that were missed or barely touched on the first time around.

Summer learning will help ACT / SAT scores, but it can also help a student in all academic areas. The student who has strengthened his or her vocabulary, reading comprehension, math skills, or grammar, will do better in school for years to come.

Reading & Vocabulary

Both the ACT & SAT include reading sections that test a student’s comprehension. The student who reads a wide variety of challenging texts, fiction and non-fiction, current and historical, will be best suited to excel when given test specific strategies.

Both tests include questions designed to test college-bound vocabulary. While the structure of the questions has changed over time (no more analogies or sentence completion questions), students with stronger vocabularies will find the tests easier.

What to do: Read. Read a variety of material. Work on checking understanding / comprehension as you read. Look up and learn unfamiliar words.

Bonus level: after reading an article take time to examine issues beyond the main idea

  • How was the article organized?
  • What type of evidence was given?
  • Why did the author use particular types of evidence? (What was he or she trying to do?)
  • Were the points well supported?
  • What was missing? (Weaknesses, issues not addressed, lack of evidence)

Students who can critically read and question material are developing skills that will help long after the ACT and SAT.


Both the SAT and ACT include math questions that range from basic skills (middle school math) through algebra, geometry, basic trig, and data analysis.

What to do: Start by filling in any weaknesses or gaps in knowledge (think about what wasn’t learned in 2020 when schools shut down!) Make sure you know how to operate your calculator. Both ACT and SAT allow students to use graphing calculators, so now is a good time to become proficient with yours.

There are plenty of resources to help with math. Khan Academy is a free resource with pretty good lessons in a wide variety of subjects. The idea is to build math vocabulary, understanding, and skills.

Bonus level: You can go back to your PSAT and review math questions you missed. (Keep in mind some of those questions are hard and the test writers don’t intend for more than 5% of test takers to get them right.) You can also look at some of the sample questions from College Board / Khan Academy or ACT, but don’t start working on any of the full-length practice test yet.

  • Do you understand all the easy and medium questions?
  • Are there any terms you need to look up?
  • Should you view some review lessons on certain topics?

SAT and ACT used to offer a question of the day service which was ideal for this type of practice. The key here is to keep your work with actual test questions very casual (low pressure) and limited.


Both the SAT and ACT include sections on grammar (“writing” on the SAT and “English” on the ACT.) Beyond preparing for a test, we want all college-bound students to develop effective written communication skills.

What to do: If your high school provides in-depth writing and editing lessons, you may not need to do much. However, we expect English teachers to teach literature, analysis, critical thinking, research, and writing all in one class. Too often, the grammar component gets shorted. Take a little time to review the basics using online lessons. (Again, you can find this on Khan Academy and other sites.)

Bonus level: I strongly recommend two books for students who want to take their knowledge and ability to an advanced level:

  1. “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White. This is a short book, but worth reading and highlighting. Probably the biggest drawback to this guide is that it assumes some level of proficiency. Students who have not had a strong background in grammar and usage may find some parts difficult.
  2. “Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students” by Mignon Fogerty. I like the examples and clear presentation in this guide. It is user friendly and full of tips to make any student a better writer.


The final area for improvement is focus. This isn’t a graded section on either the ACT or SAT, but both exams require students to pay attention to very detailed material for about four hours. Students who struggle with focus issues will have trouble.

What to do: If you have a student with a diagnosed issue impacting his or her ability to focus (ADD/ADHD, anxiety, etc.) make sure you speak with your school counselor about applying for testing accommodations.

If you have a student who is a nervous test taker, this summer might be a good time to develop some strategies to manage this. I like this guide from Brown University: https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/managing-test-anxiety

I’ve also had some good reports on many of the anxiety workbooks for teens that you can find on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

In general, all students should work on building focus and endurance. This might be practiced over the summer by sitting and reading a challenging book or non-fiction article for 30+ minutes without stopping to check one’s phone, get a drink, take a break, etc. Any of the activities for math, grammar, or reading can be done in a way designed to practice and build focus.


Focused test prep is best done right before the exam, much like training for a race or rehearsing for a performance. 9th and 10th grade students can spend this summer building key academic skills that will help them on the ACT/SAT and in college.

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