People often want to know “the secret” to a higher score on the SAT or ACT, and they’re often unhappy about the answer.
In the world of test prep, there are basically four categories of students:
- Students who do little or no practice and receive no strategic coaching
- Students who receive strategic coaching but do little or no practice
- Students who do a great deal of practice but receive no strategic coaching
- Students who receive strategic coaching and do a great deal of practice
All other things being equal, that is also the order of scores students will earn from lowest to highest.
What’s the big takeaway from that list? Practice is more important than coaching. Of course, it helps to have a well-informed tutor who teaches you how to attack the test with skill and strategy, but that’s never a substitute for practice. This list of options also reveals the secret to earning a higher score on the SAT or ACT:
The more practice you do, the better. Most students don’t even complete the first two practice tests in the official SAT prep book, of the eight that are offered. When they ask how to do better, the response is simple: Eat tests. Chew your way through the prep book and you’re bound to improve.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to do full-length practice tests all the time. You can also do five-minute drills from a math section, single passages from reading sections, or other small drills. Consistent, regular practice is essential for convincing your brain to care and walking down the mastery path for these exams. Also, giving yourself permission to do small doses of practice will, ironically, help you do more practice in the long run. Aim for 5-25 minutes per day, and try not to miss days. Apply the “shoulds before have-to’s” strategy and do it before your homework. And occasionally sit down for a full-length practice test to build your endurance.
Last year, Glencoe High School junior Nisala Kalupahana got perfect scores on both the SAT and the ACT – a tremendously rare feat.1 In an interview about the accomplishment, he explained that “‘The secret is doing practice tests. … It’s learning how the test works. Because the test doesn’t test subject content as much as how good you are taking the test itself. It’s a skill in itself.’”1
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Rollins, Michael. “A Glencoe High student’s secret to a perfect SAT, ACT score.” KGW8. September 18, 2018.