"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success."
While Alexander Graham Bell may not have been referring specifically to the SAT or ACT, his words ring as true for these tests as for anything else. Scoring highly on the SAT/ACT is all about preparation, and luckily you have plenty of time to prepare if you start early. If you haven't started already, let's discuss some reasons why it's useful to start prepping as a freshman and the best ways for doing so.
Why Are the SAT and ACT So Important?
Most colleges require applicants to send their scores from the SAT or ACT. Colleges consider these two tests equally, so it's up to you to choose and determine which test will better strengthen your overall application.
As college admissions get more and more competitive every year (sorry, but it's true!), a strong SAT/ACT score goes a long way toward making your application stand out among the thousands of other applicants. While your curriculum and experiences in schools may differ across the country and the world, the SAT/ACT are meant to test students on an equal playing field.
Some schools have adopted test optional and test flexible policies, so you'll eventually want to make sure you're aware of your college's requirements. But it's safe to say the majority of you who are applying to 4-year schools will be taking the SAT or ACT.
The SAT is considered to be more of a critical reasoning test that tests your skills in math, writing, and reading comprehension and analysis. The ACT also has a math, English, and Reading section, but it additionally has a science section. The science section is almost more like critical reading than a science class pop quiz, which I'll explain in more detail below.
Both of these tests cover material that you've learned over the years and skills you've developed by 9th grade. Before delving deeper into the content of the tests, let's discuss why test prep is so important for the SAT and ACT .
Test Prep and the SAT/ACT
While you gain knowledge and develop fundamental skills in and out of school, most students also must do a lot of focused, test-specific preparation to perform well on the SAT/ACT. This is because the tests are unique in the way they time you and ask questions, so you must pair strategy and specific time management skills with your knowledge and understanding.
Through practice and studying, you can become familiar with the structure and types of questions in each section, how to best approach them, and what rules of math, grammar, and literary terms will be tested. You can figure out exactly how to read the SAT passages or the ACT passages with time to spare, what approaches will boost your score in math, and what exactly is tested on the ACT science section, to name a few examples.
Rome wasn't built in a day, as they say, nor can you become an expert in the SAT or ACT overnight. Freshman grade is the perfect time to start prepping for the SAT/ACT, reinforcing concepts you need to know, and taking official practice tests.
If you're having trouble getting started, remember that you'll be doing Future You a favor. By taking time to prep now and diagnosing exactly where you need to improve, you'll be able to be more relaxed when you're in the thick of college applications and more intensive classes, like honors and AP classes. Junior Year You will really appreciate all the help you can give him/her now!
So how can you start to prep? PrepScholar's online program offers customizable test prep that diagnoses your strengths and weaknesses, plans your study schedule, and keeps track of your progress along the way. This means that PrepScholar doesn't assume you're a junior in high school, but meets you at your level.
You can also start with SAT Questions of the Day and ACT Questions of the Day, which are a quick, easy, and convenient way to start getting familiar with the types of questions you'll see on the tests. You can find online sample questions on the College Board and ACT websites, as well as download and print official practice tests for the SAT and ACT. If you start studying now, you'll become an expert on the test by the time you register for your first test date.
Not only will SAT/ACT test prep help you score high on these tests, it also will help reinforce what you're learning in school and may help you get better grades in your classes. Let's check out how the tests and your classwork line up.
SAT/ACT and What You're Learning In School
Even if you are just starting high school, you've already learned a lot of key skills and concepts that will help you on the SAT or ACT. You may not have encountered all the vocabulary or math concepts yet, but you probably know a lot more than you realize.
Some students who wait until junior year actually feel like their classes have gotten more advanced than what they see on these tests, and they have to go back and review material from past years. By taking the time to prep now, you can really make sure you've reinforced this knowledge and have a clear sense of how you can apply it to one of the tests. Let's break down exactly what I mean by this in terms of each major subject. First, let's consider math.
Some students have already taken an algebra class by the time they get to 9th grade, or are at least familiar with the related concepts of a pre-algebra class. Algebra and geometry make up the majority of the math questions on the SAT, as well as on the ACT. The ACT gets a little more advanced by covering some trigonometry.
As I mentioned above, some students are already in more advanced math classes by the time they take the SAT or ACT, like in pre-calculus or calculus, and may have gotten rusty with their algebra, geometry, and probability. Apart from reinforcing the concepts you already know with SAT/ACT practice problems, you can also get a headstart on 10th and 11th grade by introducing yourself to new math concepts. You might find detailed explanations and practice problems that will help you learn these concepts independently of class, which can be especially helpful for students who work well on their own and want to set their own pace.
If you're surprised that you already know a good deal of the math you'll need to do well on the SAT/ACT, you might also be intrigued to realize you already have some key reading skills, too. Let's take a look at what reading skills you'll need.
While there are some differences between the SAT Reading and the ACT Reading sections, there are more similarities. Both include a series of passages (including one pair), with questions about each, though the exact type of passages and style of questions varies slightly.
The passage-based questions on both tests want to make sure you understand the general purpose of the passage, as well as its tone or style. You'll be asked to interpret a word or phrase in context, along with demonstrating your understanding of details. These are all skills of reading comprehension and analysis that you'll have developed throughout your years of English classes in middle school and 9th grade.
Reading comprehension is a skill best developed through reading widely and often. By prepping for the SAT/ACT as a freshman, along with the reading, writing, and analysis you do in your English class, you'll get better and better at these skills. Closely linked to the reading sections are the writing section of the SAT and the English section of the ACT.
Writing and Grammar
Just like in your freshman year English classes, these tests want you to understand grammar rules, parts of speech, and sentence structure. The essays should generally take the form of a five-paragraph persuasive essay supported with strong examples. Practicing these in class and through test prep will help you develop your English language and writing skills, just like with reading.
One difference with the SAT/ACT essay and essays you write in class might be that you'll be writing for the tests under timed conditions and by hand. Thus you'll have to learn to plan out your essay in just two to three minutes and draft it fast. Practicing this could be another useful tool for helping you become more efficient with the essays you're assigned for class.
There are specific strategies you can use to draft high quality essays in a short amount of time that will help you on the SAT/ACT and in class. Test prep for the writing sections could help you score highly, impress your teachers, and save time while still writing thorough, well-developed essays.
While the SAT and ACT overlap in terms of math, reading, and writing, there is one major section difference between the two. That difference is the ACT science section.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a science section. This might sound like it requires a lot of memorization, but actually the science section is less about straight recall of scientific facts and more about applying scientific skills, like reading charts and graphs and interpreting data. In this sense, the science section is almost more like the reading section than the math section.
Having some knowledge of biology, earth sciences, and chemistry is helpful, though, for being familiar with the terminology and having lab skills that you can apply to real data. Since a lot of students take biology with a lab freshman year, you'll probably be in a great position to do well on the ACT science section.
Just like with the other sections, test prep on the ACT science can help reinforce what you're learning in class and give you a glimpse into next year. It will strengthen your skills in the context of the ACT and prevent you from getting rusty and then having to reference back to material that you learned years earlier. You might even find you're ready to take the SAT Subject Test in Biology at the end of your freshman year!
As you can see, you're likely already in a good position to handle the SAT/ACT. Prepping can help you do well on the tests and in school. Besides mastering and getting ahead on the content, prepping early also gives you more test dates to choose from.
When Should You Take the SAT/ACT?
Figuring out your SAT/ACT testing schedule as a freshman will ensure you have plenty of test dates to choose from. Since a lot of colleges superscore your results, or take your highest section scores across all dates you took the tests, some students choose to build up their SAT or ACT scores section by section.
You can also usually use Score Choice for the SAT or select which score reports you want to send from the ACT, so you can just send the scores from whichever test date you choose. There are some exceptions, though, so you want to make sure you understand your colleges' policies regarding standardized test scores.
One testing schedule that a lot of students use is to take the SAT/ACT once in the fall of junior year, again in the spring, and then a third time if they choose senior year. Some students may take it earlier, like in 10th or even 9th grade, to give themselves more testing opportunities or achieve their scores and be finished with the SAT/ACT before the busy time of junior and senior year.
Students almost always improve when they retake the tests, having learned more about time management and gained valuable real test experience. Plus if you prep thoroughly and effectively, you can target your weaknesses and do better the next time. So how can you stick to a prep schedule in 9th grade that will help you score highly on the SAT/ACT?
Prepping for the SAT/ACT As a Freshman
As you saw above with the SAT and ACT Questions of the Day, a little bit of prep sustained over time can go a long way. You definitely don't have to spend all your time studying for these tests in 9th grade. I would suggest devoting an hour a week to test prep. This is enough to be useful and help you develop a habit, while also being low-key and manageable enough not to put yourself under undue stress or pressure.
How can you stick to this? Just like with your homework, the best way to stay organized is to use an assignment notebook or planner to write down your plans, goals, and assignments and keep track of them. Some planners even break your day up hour by hour, so you could devote a specific time to test prep, like every Tuesday from 6 to 7.
Making something a regular routine is the best way to remember it and incorporate it into your life. This will help you in all aspects of your academic life, along with setting and working towards your own personal goals.
To Sum Up...
By prepping early, you'll see your SAT/ACT scores go up and up. Your effort will pay off in a huge way over time, especially if you maintain test prep as a regular part of your routine. Your motivation and discipline will positively impact other aspects of your high school career, too.
Test prep will help you improve your math, reading, writing, and science skills, plus it will aid you when you take the PSAT. You can root out your strengths and weaknesses and figure out what you need to learn and where you should put in extra effort. Finally, it will remind you that all of your high school career is important for getting into college and help you start laying the groundwork for your future after graduation.
What's a good SAT/ACT score for 9th graders? If you're taking the SAT or ACT as a freshman, you can figure out your target scores here.
The best way to prep for the SAT is with official College Board SAT questions. Download official SAT practice tests here.
If you're taking the ACT, you want to try some sample ACT questions from previously administered tests. You can find printable official ACT tests here.
Besides prepping for the SAT/ACT, should you think about taking the PSAT as a freshman? Read about the most important considerations for signing up for the PSAT in 9th grade.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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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.