Being successful on the SAT and ACT is all about the preparation you put into it. While you probably know it's a myth to think you can't study for these tests, you might not realize that the reverse is true - studying is exceptionally important for doing well on the SAT or ACT.
That's why it's a really smart idea to prep for the SAT/ACT as a sophomore. Let's talk about why prep is so important for these tests, what you can do in 10th grade, and what your most helpful study schedule should look like over the school year and beyond.
First, when will you be taking the SAT or ACT?
When Should You Take the SAT/ACT?
When you should prep has a lot to do with when you're planning to take the SAT or ACT. Typically, many students choose to take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the fall of junior year. That way they can take it again in the spring of junior year to improve their scores. If they still have room for improvement, they can take it again in the fall of senior year.
Since your college deadlines are probably in the fall or winter of senior year, that last test would be your last chance to improve your scores. That can put a lot of pressure on those three test dates. If you want to leave yourself more available test dates to improve your scores, or even get the tests over with before senior year, you might choose to take the SAT or ACT even earlier, like in the fall or spring of sophomore year.
Whether you take the SAT/ACT for the first time as a sophomore or junior, you definitely want to take advantage of sophomore year and the summer after to prep for the SAT/ACT. At least 40 hours of test prep is a good idea to start, but working your way up to 100 or more hours of test prep will really benefit you and help you reach your target scores. Rather than pushing this off and cramming in the weeks before your first date, you'll be best served by spreading out this test prep over the course of sophomore year. Let's take a closer look at why prep is so important for these tests.
Prep and the SAT/ACT
The SAT/ACT are probably not like any tests you take in high school. While they relate to the skills and knowledge you've developed in your classes, like reading comprehension, math, and writing, they are unique in the way they word questions, present information, and impose strict time limits. These two tests also have some key differences from each other.
Focused test prep with official sample questions will help you in a number of ways, as well as raise your score hundreds of points above what it would be if you took the tests without prior studying. You can use SAT and ACT Questions of the Day, download official SAT and ACT practice tests, and try sample SAT and ACT online practice questions. PrepScholar customizes its online test prep for students at all grade levels and helps you with weekly progress reports and the added option of a one-on-one tutor. Finally, many students also use SAT books and ACT books to review concepts and try practice questions.
Studying will help you master the content, learn vital time management skills, and identify and drill your weaknesses. All of this takes months to accomplish successfully, so the time to prep is sophomore year, if not even earlier. Let's go through what it takes to do really well on these tests.
Prep to master the content.
Master the Content
As mentioned above, the SAT and ACT are unique in their timing and the way they word questions. Luckily, there's a ton of information out there explaining the content and format of the tests. By familiarizing yourself with the tests, you can know specifically how many Critical Reading questions you'll answer in how many minutes or exactly what you need to know for the ACT Science section.
If you prep for 2 to 3 hours a week throughout sophomore year, then you'll be able to review the concepts, apply them to practice problems, and fix any patterns of mistakes or confusion. Besides reviewing content, test prep will also help you answer questions quickly and efficiently over time.
Take Control of Time
Besides the often tricky, unique wording and material on the tests, they also are challenging because of their strict time limits. You probably aren't accustomed to having such short time for math, reading, or writing. That's why taking practice tests under timed conditions can help you get better and better at pacing and answering questions both quickly and thoroughly.
You can learn and try out the best techniques for drafting an SAT essay in only 25 minutes, or learn the best approaches to read and answer questions on 4 ACT Reading passages in only 35 minutes. As you prep throughout sophomore year, take the time to sit for a practice test under simulated timed conditions. Sit in a quiet space with no distractions, and make sure to abide by your time limits. Try out different strategies and figure out what works for you. As you determine your best strategies, you can also be on the lookout for your strengths and weaknesses.
Assess Your Strengths
All of the skills tested on the SAT and ACT take time to pinpoint and develop. Plus good studying involves a certain amount of self-reflection. Ask yourself, What am I good at? Where are my weaknesses? Do I keep getting tripped up over dangling modifiers, or do properties of triangles confuse me every time? Once you've taken the time to identify your areas of improvement, you can make sure to fill in any knowledge gaps and drill them with practice problems.
Because this kind of thorough prep takes time and effort to undertake, it's definitely a good idea to start sophomore year. You won't be caught up in the rest of the college process, and you probably won't have a caseload of as challenging classes as you take junior year. Plus if you're taking the SAT/ACT in the fall of junior year, you don't want to walk into totally unprepared. A really low first score could look bad to colleges if you have to send them all your score reports, plus it could raise red flags to the College Board/ACT.
Putting off preparing for a test only leads to more stress and pressure later on. Instead of procrastinating, you can get started on test prep now in 10th grade when it's not so urgent and you can take a more relaxed approach. Not only will prepping for the SAT/ACT help you perform well on the tests and not get overwhelmed in 11th grade, it also will likely reinforce your understanding of and dedication to your 10th grade classes. Let's take a look at how the SAT/ACT are connected to your sophomore year classes.
Excel in Your 10th Grade Classes
While these tests are unique, they do test a lot of the material you're learning in 10th grade. If you're in algebra or geometry, for example, both of those subjects will be on the tests. You also are almost certainly reading and analyzing works from various genres in English classes, as well as mastering the 5 paragraph persuasive essay.
Practicing these skills in the context of the SAT/ACT could kill two birds with one stone. You'll reinforce your understanding in your classes, while at the same time get yourself prepared for these important tests.
You could also try to get a headstart on concepts you'll tackle junior year. For instance, the ACT covers some trigonometry. By reviewing these concepts and trying practice problems, you'll be ready to dive into a trigonometry class in 11th grade.
Preparing for the SAT/ACT in 10th grade will allow you to feel ready and confident when you take the test, likely in the fall of junior year. While I've touched on the reasons prep is so important, I'll also suggest a plan of attack for accomplishing all this - mastering the content, managing your time, identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and reinforcing the lessons you learn in class.
Sophomore Year Plan of Action
So you know prep is important, and you have a sense of when you're going to take your first SAT or ACT. How can you design a sufficient study plan, and how can you make sure you stick to it?
At the bare bones minimum, students should devote at least ten hours of prep before taking the SAT or ACT. However, this won't give you much more than a basic familiarity with the format and timing of the test.
As mentioned above, 40 hours is a good baseline for reviewing concepts, but 100+ hours will get you deeper into content and your own strengths and weaknesses.
There are about 40 weeks in the school year, so if you are able to devote 2 to 3 hours of test prep a week, then you'll easily meet this goal of 100 hours. Of course, this depends on how busy your schedule is. Other students prefer to start slow, with an hour here or there, and then ramp up their test prep at the end of sophomore year and over the summer. This can work if you have extra free time over the summer and are able to keep up the discipline to study during summer vacation.
The best way to stick to your study plan is to make it a part of your routine. Setting aside a specific time for test prep on a certain day every week and writing it down in your assignment notebook or planner will help you make it a habit. Plus an added benefit is that your time will really add up. Instead of getting overwhelmed with a ton of test prep at the last minute, you'll slowly build up your skills and knowledge and be able to approach the tests with confidence.
To Sum Up...
Sophomore year is the time for test prep. Most students take their first SAT/ACT in the fall of junior year. Since these tests require a good deal of prep to do well on, you can spread out your prep over the course of 10th grade and the following summer.
Take the time to review concepts, keep up in class, and make SAT/ACT prep a part of your routine. Instead of procrastinating and running out of time, do Future You a favor and put in the effort now to meet your goals later. Dedication and commitment to your goals will help you improve on the SAT/ACT, as well as grow in other aspects of your academic and personal life.
Are you also taking the PSAT? We've collected free PSAT practice test pdfs for you to download and use for test prep.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.