Seasoned test-takers share their secrets to attaining flawless SAT/ACT scores

By Victoria Slater, ’12

31. 1508. 26. 2130. While most may see these numbers to be a random display of digits, to the average high school upperclassman they signify much more. They are test scores—SAT and ACT scores—which could make or break a college acceptance letter, scholarship or award. While impressive scores supposedly require inhuman intelligence, the true key to test success exists simply in proper preparation.

According to UAHS college counselor Mark Davis, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) both offer colleges a static approach to compare an individual student to the entire pool of applicants. Davis explained that it is vital for students to take advantage of these testing opportunities in order to demonstrate accumulated knowledge and academic skills.

“It is the only thing colleges have on a student that is going to be a comparison from one school to another,” he said. “Every high school has its own GPA system, but a score on an SAT or ACT, no matter what school you go to, shows your level of knowledge in the areas in which you’re being tested.”

Senior Grant Shisler, who along with 14 fellow seniors was named a National Merit Scholar semifinalist last September, emphasized the notion of equality in standardized testing such as the SAT and ACT.

“[These tests] allow colleges to compare students from all across the nation on an equal basis,” he said.

As noted by the National Merit Scholar Corporation web site, a semifinalist must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of the junior year, and attain a score in the top one half of one percent of all participants. In addition to achieving this honor, Shisler noted that he scored well on his subsequent ACT and SAT, reaching into the 95 percentile on both examinations.

For students to mirror such success, Davis insists that preparation is key.

“The bottom line is practice,” he said. “Practice the materials published by the testing center, like the College Board. Anything they put out that is a practice material will include actual test questions from former tests.”

Tutoring is another approach to thorough test preparation students could consider. There exist a range of SAT/ACT classes for students, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, which include weekly coursework meant to augment test-specific skills and factors such as time management. Junior Emma Tsao said that she participated in a Princeton Review SAT prep class and found the experience both instructive and enjoyable.

“The class I took was with the Princeton Review, and it was motivating,” she said. “We played games and won candy. [Their] vocabulary flashcards are probably the most useful thing for the SATs. The reading section was always the lowest score on my practice tests so I worked the hardest at it.”

While such courses may be beneficial with their skill-building aspects, several programs, Princeton Review in particular, cost upwards of $1500. However, Tsao asserted that her success on the tests was worth the expense.

“[The classes are] most definitely worth it. They actually gave me a 300 point increase,” she said.

In addition to tutoring and individual preparation, Davis suggests that before testing, students should research what scholarships their choice colleges offer based on certain test scores and GPA, and using this information, generate a hypothetical score they wish to achieve. Once completing the tests, those students who did not reach their score goals should consider retaking the tests once or twice more.

On the day of their ACT/SAT, Shisler advises test-takers to enter with a level, well-rested and well-nourished mind, together with sufficient preparation.

“I made sure to go bed really early the night before the test,” he said. “It also helped me to wake up pretty early the morning before the test not only so I could eat a healthy breakfast, but also because it helped give me some time for my brain to wake up and start thinking.”

While Davis claims that standardized testing remains a “hierarchy” in regards to the applicant review process, Shisler asserts that the SAT and ACT should not distress or overwhelm students.

“I feel as if kids go into the test stressed out and then don’t do as well since they’re worried, when they really don’t have to be,” he said. “It’s important for people to make sure to relax; it’s just a test.”

SAT/ACT Prep Courses


° Six three-hour sessions with three to five other students

° Four full-length tests will be provided along with flash cards, videos, a lesson book and over 3,000 practice questions

°Averages $1100 per course

Princeton Review:

° 24 hours of instruction with up to four other students, over 40 hours of preparation

° Four full-length practice tests

°Free admission to financial aid seminars

°Averages $1500 per course