Learn how to approach testing in 2021 and discover the best ways to study for the SAT and ACT
If you’re a high school junior, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about college entrance exams recently. This year, with everything that’s happened as a result of COVID-19 and the test-optional college trend, preparing for the SAT and ACT has become more confusing and uncertain than ever.
Depending on where you live, your local SAT and ACT testing sites might still be closed. Will you be able to test this spring? Is it necessary to submit test scores to colleges? And if so, how can you study for the SAT and ACT to earn your best scores?
Keep reading to decide if taking the SAT or ACT in 2021 is the best choice for you and learn how to prepare for the SAT and ACT the right ways.
Is it important to take the SAT and ACT?
If you asked me this question at the start of 2020, I could’ve given you an easy answer. Generally, it’s been the consensus that college-bound students should take the SAT or ACT to improve their admissions odds and have a wide range of college options.
But this is 2021. While I still say that yes, it’s probably in your best interest to take the SAT or ACT, this question now warrants a more in-depth conversation.
Many colleges have now adopted (at least temporarily) test-optional admissions policies. But “test-optional” doesn’t mean you can’t submit SAT or ACT scores to colleges. If you do choose to share your test scores, colleges will consider them when they decide your admissions status.
This means that taking the SAT and ACT might improve your admissions odds at test-optional schools—if your test scores add value to your application. So how do you know if your test scores will add value? Here are the best two guidelines to use:
- If your scores are above the average SAT or ACT scores of the college’s most recently admitted class
- If your scores balance out a low GPA that doesn’t represent your ability
On the other hand, if your SAT or ACT scores are below average or don’t accurately match your ability, it’s better not to submit them to test-optional schools. The tricky thing is, you won’t know for sure what your scores will be until after you take the exams.
That’s why I still encourage you to take the SAT or ACT at least once during your junior spring semester and another time in the fall. Once you receive your scores, you can decide if it’s in your best interest to submit them.
But of course, when discussing the SAT and ACT in 2021, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room—will you be able to safely take these tests in the near future? If you live in an area that’s highly affected by COVID-19, you might have difficulty finding an open testing site. Or maybe you don’t feel safe or comfortable testing in person.
I would never urge you to risk your health to take the SAT or ACT. You must use caution and talk to your family to determine what’s best for you. Colleges have proven they will be understanding and won’t penalize you for situations outside your control.
The best thing you can do right now is to wait and see how things progress. Plan to take the SAT or ACT at the end of the semester if you feel safe, but pay attention to what’s going on in your area and follow testing updates closely.
In the meantime, prepare yourself for success by intentionally preparing for the SAT and ACT to ensure your scores will represent your abilities and add value to your college applications.
What are the best ways to study for the SAT and ACT?
If you’re still with me, that means you’re planning to take a college entrance exam this year. But you want your time and effort to be well-spent. Preparing for the SAT and ACT will help you earn a meaningful score and improve your admissions chances.
There are multiple ways to study for the SAT and ACT, but the first thing you want to do is take an online practice test. This will reveal which specific areas you need to improve.
For instance, maybe you’ll discover you’re already doing great on the Math portion of the SAT. Then you can focus your SAT test prep on Reading and Writing. It’ll save you time and help you improve your scores significantly.
Once you know where to devote your attention, you can prepare for the SAT and ACT in one—or more—of the following ways.
1. Free online SAT and ACT test prep
College Board offers free online SAT test prep through a partnership with Khan Academy. Similarly, the ACT works with Kaplan to provide online ACT test prep through free practice tests, prep classes, and quizzes. These are great options you can access at no cost to you or your family.
What’s more, there are many test prep apps you can use to supplement your online practice. That way, you can study for the SAT and ACT wherever you are.
The key to using these self-paced options to prepare for the SAT and ACT is to create a consistent study schedule. Block out at least 30 minutes every day to devote yourself to preparing for the SAT and ACT.
If you start now and do this faithfully, you can acquire nearly 100 study hours before you test in May or June! That’s enough time to give your test scores a meaningful boost.
2. SAT and ACT test prep books
If you prefer the old-school way of preparing for the SAT and ACT—with a physical book in your hand instead of using a screen—test prep books are the best option for you.
You can go with the official test study guides offered by College Board and the ACT. But there are many other test prep books out there, as well. You might ask around and see if your high school has any available in the library. Or browse through the highest-rated options on Amazon to find one that fits your style.
To study effectively with a test prep book, you’ll need to once again set a consistent study schedule and stick to it. You might even coordinate test prep schedules with a friend so you can keep each other accountable and arrange joint study sessions.
3. SAT and ACT test prep courses
You might worry that you’re not cut out for self-paced test prep. After all, preparing for the SAT and ACT on your own requires plenty of self-discipline and motivation. If you crave a more structured approach, you might enroll in an SAT or ACT test prep course.
While these are often held in-person, many SAT and ACT prep courses have been moved temporarily virtual. You can look around in your area to see what’s available.
When evaluating if a specific SAT or ACT prep course is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
- How many students will take this course with me?
- Will I receive individual attention from the course instructor?
- Is the cost of this course affordable for my family?
- How do past students recommend or critique this course and instructor?
There are plenty of test prep courses out there, and not all of them are worth your time and money. Don’t settle for the first option you find. Instead, do a bit of research to make sure you’re preparing for the SAT and ACT effectively.
4. Individual SAT and ACT tutoring
Hiring an individual tutor for the SAT and ACT is the most expensive option on this list, but it’s also the most tailored and specific way to prepare for these exams. A tutor can help you pinpoint and improve your areas of weakness, which will meaningfully boost your test score.
But just because someone advertises themself as a tutor, doesn’t mean they’ll be effective at preparing you for the SAT or ACT. Like you would with a test prep course, make sure you thoroughly research any tutor you’re considering.
Look at reviews of past students who worked with the tutor. Were they pleased? Does the tutor offer a score improvement guarantee? Are they associated with larger, well-respected tutoring companies? Do they possess the temperament and experience you want in a tutor?
If you put your SAT and ACT results in the hands of someone else, you want to be confident you’re making the right choice.
Final thoughts about preparing for the SAT and ACT
It’s important to remember that your SAT and ACT scores are one of many factors colleges use to evaluate your application. While I think studying for the SAT and ACT is important, I don’t want it to become your biggest concern.
Make sure your SAT and ACT test prep doesn’t interfere with your high school GPA, your meaningful extracurriculars, or your mental health. If you prepare the right way—using one of the approaches I shared—you’ll be able to perform well while still thriving in the other important areas of your life.
I’d love to hear from you! What are your biggest concerns about preparing for the SAT and ACT this year? Which study methods are you planning to use? Drop a comment below to share your thoughts.