If you want to play and study at any level of “the next level”–Division I, II, III or NAIA—you have to take the SAT or ACT. These standardized tests have struck fear in the hearts of student-athletes for decades, but don’t stress. Like any worthy opponent, the SAT and ACT can be beaten if you have the right game plan and are willing to practice.
We reached out to experts who help students excel at standardized exams, they gave us 10 tips that will set you on a path to test-day victory.
1. Have a Specific Goal
A common mistake students make is aiming to get the highest score possible. A better approach is to target the score you need to attend your preferred school.
“Many colleges post the average scores for their incoming freshmen,” says Colin Gruenwald, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of SAT and ACT programs. “With a goal, you can think critically about what you need to get into the school you want.”
2. Do a Dress Rehearsal
Once you’ve found the scores you need to get where you want to go, your next step is to see how you stack up by taking a practice test. “Take a full practice test in one sitting on a Saturday morning to get accustomed to the feeling,” says Alexis Avila, founder of Prepped & Polished, an SAT and ACT test preparation service. After the test, evaluate your results and see where you need the most help.
3. Correct Your Weaknesses
Your practice test results help you develop a plan of attack for the real exam. The area where you score lowest offers you the most opportunity for improvement. “A section where you get a high mark is harder to improve on than a lower score,” Gruenwald says. “The distance from nearly perfect to perfect is a lot longer than the distance from OK to good.”
4. Study Regularly
Both the SAT and ACT provide free daily practice questions and full practice tests (see sat.collegeboard.org and actstudent.org). “When you take a practice test published by the organization, your result will probably be close to what you’d really get,” says Jessica Brondo, CEO of The Edge in College Preparation. Avila adds that students who take a half or full practice test per week for 10 weeks perform best on the real thing.
5. Use Shorter Study Sessions
If you think that long hours and late-nighters will get you properly prepped, think again. “Students remember what they’ve read or studied first and last,” Brondo says. “Most of what they review in between does not get fully absorbed.” Brondo recommends breaking up your studying into 15-20 minute sessions.
6. Do a Dry Run of Test Day
Exams often are held somewhere other than your school, so be sure you know where you’re going. Gruenwald recommends driving to the test location at least once before exam day.
7. Don’t Cram
On the day before your test, there’s not much you can do to improve your score, so relax. “If anything, just do flash cards to sharpen up a bit,” Gruenwald advises.
8. Know When to Guess
Only correct answers count towards your score on the ACT, so it’s better to guess than leave an answer blank. The SAT is more complicated because it deducts quarter-points for wrong answers. “If you can confidently eliminate two choices, then guess,” Avila says. “But if you can’t eliminate any, skip the question.”
9. Don’t Get Hung Up
During an exam, don’t dedicate too much time to a question. The minutes you spend agonizing over an answer prevent you from reaching several (possibly easier) questions later. “You want to answer the most questions—you don’t necessarily have to do them in order,” Avila says.
10. You can try again
While policies vary, many colleges allow you to pick and choose your best test scores for admission. So if you bomb an exam, you can have another go at it later.