A Guide to Realistically Defeating Standardized Tests in Six Steps

Step one:

What are the ACT and SAT, why do I have to do them, and which one should I take?

Both tests are used by colleges to determine admissions and merit-based scholarships. Standardized testing is useful for colleges because it is said to level the playing field and give a more “accurate” representation of what students know. Every year, more research is proving that these tests are not as accurate as we believe them to be, especially impacting people with test anxiety. However, in today’s collegiate world, standardized tests are still a requirement at many institutions and it is in your best interest to get the highest scores you possibly can.

The ACT: has a math, reading, English, science, and optional writing section. The standard test takes approximately 3 hours, but with writing it is 3 hours and 40 minutes. Each section of the test can get a score of 1-36. The composite score is found by adding each section’s score together, and then dividing that number by 4. The average score for any section (and therefore average composite score) is 20.

  • Reading section contains 4 reading passages, followed by questions to test your comprehension of the passages.
  • Science section tests your critical thinking skills (not your specific science knowledge).
  • Math section covers arithmetic, algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and trigonometry. A calculator can be used on all questions of the math portion.
  • Optional writing tests how you evaluate and analyze complex issues.

The SAT: has math, reading, and writing and language sections with the option to take an essay portion as well. Test takes 3 hours without essay or 3 hours 50 minutes with essay. It is scored on a scale of 400-1600, with the average score being around 1000.

  • Reading section consists of five passages.
  • No labeled science section.
  • Math section covers arithmetic, algebra 1 & 2, geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis. Some math questions do NOT allow you to use a calculator.
  • Optional essay section tests your comprehension of a text. 

To know which test you should take, first look into your high school requirements and admission requirements for the colleges you are interested in. If one or the other is required, go with that one. If there is no set requirement, try taking a practice test for each test. See if one feels easier than the other, and consider sticking with that one. Here are some other factors you should keep in mind when determining which test to take:

Considering taking the SAT if:

  • You panic when faced with time limits
  • You have an compulsive need to finish every question
  • Have a hard time spotting details when you read
  • Struggle with geometry (or struggle with memorizing math formulas)
  • Excel at writing analytical essays

Consider taking the ACT if:

  • You have excellent time management techniques
  • You feel comfortable skipping a hard question and coming back to it if there is time
  • You struggle with vocabulary
  • Are intimidated by doing math without a calculator
  • Prefer knowing what subject you are working on (SAT integrates subjects)
  • Like to give your opinion in writing and defend it with examples

There are many resources online to help you make a decision!

Take This Quiz to Help You Decide

Step Two:

When should I take them, how much are they, and how do I sign up?

You should take whichever test you prefer when you are halfway done with your junior year of high school. This will give you time to figure out what you can realistically score while still giving you plenty of time to study and retake the tests. Take the January ACT/SAT as a junior, and then retake it in May/June. If you would still like to improve, you can take it again in the fall and winter of your senior year.

Be realistic about when you register for a test. Avoid busy and stressful times in your life (for example, if you are in a fall sport, don’t schedule the test for a weekend that is close to state tournaments for that sport).

Register for either test online (google SAT or ACT registration). Make sure you write down the email address and password you use to set up your account! You will need these again to check your test scores.  Then, be prepared to pick a location and testing date you can commit to (they will charge you to change either of these later). Also be prepared to pay any associated fees for the test.

Keep in mind that you may qualify for a fee waiver (exempting you from having to pay the normal testing fees). You can only get the fee waiver through your guidance counselor, which takes time. Make sure you contact them early so they can confirm your qualifications.

You qualify if:

  • You're enrolled in or eligible for the federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch program
  • You're enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families (like Upward Bound)
  • Your family receives public assistance
  • You live in public housing, a foster home, or are homeless.
  • Your household income level falls below USDA levels for Reduced Price lunches

ACT tests are usually offered about once every other month. Registration for these tests is due about one month before the testing date. Late registration can be done about 15 days before (for a fee), or you can register after this deadline for an even more expensive fee. You’re better off planning ahead so you don’t have to pay extra money.

The standard ACT test costs $50.50 with writing it is $67.

Extra costs: extra $15 to register by phone, extra $30 for late registration, extra $53 for standby testing (past-late registration), extra $30 for test date change (plus late registration fee if past the deadline), extra $30 to keep the date but change test center.

The chart below shows normal and late registration as well as ACT testing dates for the remaining 2018-2019 school year. 

ACT Testing Dates
Test Date Deadline Late Deadline
February 9, 2019   January 11, 2019  January 12-18, 2019
April 13, 2019 March 8, 2019 March 9 - 25, 2019
June 8, 2019 May 3, 2019 May 4-20, 2019
July 13, 2019 June 14, 2019 June 15 - 24, 2019

SAT tests are usually offered about once a month (though they do skip months occasionally). Registration is due about a month in advance. Late registration (usually within two weeks of testing date) is possible, but will cost you extra. After the late registration, it will cost you almost twice the price of the test to take it on a particular day. You are better off reserving your seat early. 

SAT tests cost $47.50 for the standard test. It costs $64.50 for SAT with essay.

Extra costs: extra $15 to register by phone instead of online, extra $29 for late registration, extra $51 waitlist fee. 

The chart below shows normal and late registration as well as SAT testing dates for the 2018-2019 school year. 

SAT Testing Dates
Test Date Deadline Late Deadline
March 9, 2019 Feb. 8, 2019 Feb. 27, 2019
May 4, 2019 April 5, 2019 April 24, 2019
June 1, 2019 May 3, 2019 May 22, 2019

Step Three:

Do I really need to study, how do I prepare for them, and where can I get study materials? 

  • Yes, you really need to study. Getting a good test score can not only make you more likely to have colleges accept you, it can also allow you to qualify for more scholarships. A couple hours of studying now to save thousands of dollars in tuition is definitely worth it!
  • Your first step in studying should be taking a practice test (whichever standardized test you are deciding to officially take). Take it as you would on test day- follow the time constraints, only use a calculator when allowed, and don’t use any references or cheat sheets. Then determine what score you would receive if you took the test right now. This is called your starting point, or your base score. Now compare this number to the average test score of the last incoming class for the colleges you are interested in (can usually be found on the university’s website). If your number is at or above that level, awesome! But you should still study so you can qualify for even more scholarships and increase your likelihood of being accepted. If your score was below the average, don’t fret! If you’re following this guide, you have time to practice and improve your score. Now we’re going to develop a study plan. 
  • For the ACT, remember that it is all determined by a composite score. This composite score is an average of all your other sections. Therefore it will take time and work in order to improve your score. On average, expect to work this much for increased points:

●    0-1 ACT Composite Point Improvement: 10 hours
●    1-2 ACT Point Improvement: 20 hours
●    2-4 ACT Point Improvement: 40 hours
●    4-6 ACT Point Improvement: 80 hours
●    6-9 ACT Point Improvement: 150 hours+


  • For the SAT, remember that is a total score out of 1600 where you get points for every question you answer correctly. It will still take time and work to see improvements, but you may be able to better gauge gradual changes as opposed to the ACT. On average, expect to work this much for increased points:

●    0-30 Point Improvement: 10 hours    
●    30-70 Point Improvement: 20 hours    
●    70-130 Point Improvement: 40 hours   
●    130-200 Point Improvement: 80 hours    
●    200-330 Point Improvement: 150 hours+

Neither of these are one stop solutions. If you study for 20 very distracted hours, you will probably not see the improvements you are looking for. Make sure you use your study time wisely without burning yourself out! 

Whenever you schedule your test, take the time to break down how much you will spend per week studying. For instance, if you want 4 points improvement on the ACT and there are 5 weeks until the test, you should be studying roughly 10 hours a week (2 hours a day with 2 days off). 

Make sure to take practice tests periodically throughout your studying routine. Not only will these help you become more familiar with the test, but they will also allow you to see if you are making any progress or not. If you are not seeing results, consider changing your study methods (try a tutor, practice online, talk it out with a friend, take a class, etc). What works for everyone else may not work for you so don’t be afraid to keep trying until you get it figured out! 

How to study will vary on a person to person basis. As previously stated, what works for a friend may not work for you, so keep testing out options until something clicks. No matter what you do, make sure you are taking practice tests as you go to get you familiar with the format and material! This will also help you to gauge the progress you are making.

Some test prep ideas to get you started:

  • Buying a test prep book, or borrowing one from your local library 
  • Doing test prep online (ACT has online version for $40, SAT has personalized, online prep for FREE through Khan Academy)
  • Taking a class (check with your high school to see if they offer one)
  • Getting a tutor 

Learn some test taking strategies as you practice, and use them to fit your individual needs.

Some key strategies to remember are:

  • Learn the best way for you to pace yourself on standardized tests.  Do you need to determine how long you can take per question, or is it more beneficial for you to know to take 10 minutes per reading passage? This is a skill you should be able to develop as you work on your practice tests. Find whatever makes you feel the most comfortable and in control and stick with it. 
  • Be aware of the format of the test and answer documents beforehand. Know what is expected on each section of the test, and make sure you plan your answers accordingly. Also make sure to properly mark your answer choice. You don’t want to miss points simply because you did not fully erase a changed answer. 
  • Make sure you read carefully and thoughtfully. Don’t skim over questions or answer choices. Read all answer choices carefully before selecting what you believe is correct. 
  • Skip any questions you may be unsure of the first time around, answering only the ones you feel confident about right away. This is a good strategy, as it allows you to answer the majority of the questions without getting bogged down by a particular one. It also allows your brain more time to think about the material, hopefully sparking something that will lead you to the right answer. On the other hand, BE CAREFUL. If you skip a question in the test booklet, make sure you also skip the question in the answer booklet. Otherwise, all of your answers will not properly match up with the question number. 
  • There is no penalty for guessing on either test. I repeat, no penalty for guessing. Therefore, it is in your best interest to answer every question on the test, even if you are incredibly unsure of an answer. On tricky multiple choice questions, eliminate any answers you are sure are incorrect. This will help your odds. Originally you had 1 in 4 chance of selecting the correct response, after eliminating 1 choice, you have 1 in 3, and after eliminating 2 choices, you have a 1 in 2 shot (or fifty-fifty chance) of selecting the right response. Then just make your best guess at what you believe is the correct answer. 
  • If time remains, double check your work. Make sure you answered every possible question, and that there are no stray pencil marks on your answer document. 


Step Four:

What should I bring on test day, what can I expect upon walking in, and how do I keep my cool? 

Check out the guidelines for the specific test you are taking to make sure you will meet their requirements. Know that if you fail to bring ID to their standards, you will not be admitted on test day.

For both the ACT and SAT, you will need to bring with you:

  • A printed copy of your ticket.
  • Acceptable photo ID (check out website for what is acceptable and what is not)
  • Sharpened, soft lead No. 2 pencils with erasers (no mechanical pencils or pens allowed).
  • A permitted calculator.

For both the ACT and SAT, some helpful, but not necessary, things to bring are:

  • A watch with no sounds to time yourself (helpful to keep track of time)
  • Extra batteries for your calculator
  • Extra pencils/erasers/sharpener

For both the ACT and SAT, DO NOT BRING these items:

  • Anything that makes noise (if your watch beeps during the test, you will dismissed and your test not scored)
  • Cell phones (try to leave it in your car if at all possible, if not make sure it is turned completely and totally off) 
  • You will be dismissed and your test not scored if your phone goes off (rings or vibrates) during test time
  • Any other electronic devices
  • Highlighters, mechanical pencils, pens, or colored pencils
  • Dictionaries or other reference tools

Check out the ACT

Check out the SAT

You can find information for what to expect online. You should find out what time you need to be at the testing center. Make sure you arrive early! Students who are late will not be admitted. Upon entering, you will have to check in using your printed ticket and acceptable form of ID. From there, someone will usually direct you to an assigned classroom and assigned seat. Once all test takers have been seated, the proctor will have to read the directions word for word. Make sure you fill all personal information correctly to prevent any delays in getting your scores. Also make sure you do not open your test booklet before being told to or your scores will not be scored. Once the test has begun, stay within the section you are supposed to be. Looking forward or backward in your booklet will be considered cheating and will also prevent your answers from being scored.

You have practiced hard, are familiar with the test format, and are coming prepared. You don’t need to panic. In fact, one of the objectives the ACT measures is your ability to adapt to new situations (like taking a test with super strict time constraints that feel almost impossible). Therefore, it is imperative to keep your cool.

Some steps you can take to help you are:

  • Find the testing center before the day of the test. That way you will know how much time to give yourself to get there, and should have less problems with getting lost. The last thing you want to do is to start off your big morning by running late.
  • Pack your bag the day before the test and pick out your clothes (consider wearing layers so you’re prepared for all temperatures) beforehand too. Once again, you don’t want to start off your big day by running around like a madman.
  • Try to give yourself a study break for the day before the test. Cramming right before isn’t likely to help you much in the long run, so try to just relax and keep yourself calm. Also try to get a good night’s sleep before the test.
  • Eat breakfast the day of the test, but don’t go too far outside of your routine (for example, if you normally just eat an apple for breakfast, don’t choose test day to eat a large stack of pancakes and bacon. Your stomach won’t appreciate it).
  • Remember that this test does not determine your potential. You will have other opportunities to take the test again should you need to, as well as finding other ways to shine. Take a breath, and do your best. You got this! 

Step Five:

When should I expect to get my scores back, how do I interpret them, and what qualifies as a "good score"?

  • The easiest way to access the scores for either test will be through your online account (which you set up when you signed up for the ACT/SAT).  This was why it was important to write down your email address and password associated with the account.
  • ACT scores are usually released about a month after the testing date. Check out the chart on the following page to determine when your scores should be released. 
ACT Scores are usually released about 1 month after the testing date
Test Date When Multiple Choice Scores Come Out When Complete Scores Come Out
Feb. 9, 2019 Feb. 20, 2019 March 6, 2019
April 13, 2019 April 23, 2019 May 7, 2019
June 18, 2019 June 18, 2019 July 2, 2019
July 13, 2019  July 23, 2019 August 6, 2019
SAT Scores are usually released about 2 weeks after the testing date
SAT Test Test Date When Scores Come Out
March SAT Mar. 9, 2019 Mar. 22, 2019
May SAT May 4, 2019 May 17, 2019
June SAT  June 1, 2019 June 10, 2019


Interpreting your scores can be a little tricky, so we have included some cheat sheets for you! You can also consider talking to your counselor for more help on understanding your scores and what they mean for you! 

The SAT Score Report” helps you decipher your SAT scores.

Understanding ACT Score Reports” helps to decipher ACT scores.

A “good” ACT or SAT score depends on you and your personal expectations of yourself. It may also depend on where you are trying to go to college (requirements for Harvard will be higher than requirements for Stark State community college). The following represents some general guidelines for “good” scores based on how they compare against the rest of the population. 

For the ACT, the average is a composite score of 20. This means that 50% of other students got below this score while the other 50% got above it. A composite score of 24 is even better, meaning that you scored better than 75% of other test takers. Anything below a composite of 16 puts you in the lower 25%. In this case, you may want to re-examine your study habits and consider taking the test again. 

For the SAT, the average total score is 1000. This again puts you in the 50th percentile (meaning you scored better than 50% of others, and worse than the other 50%). To get in the top 25% percent (meaning you score better than 75% of other students) you would need to score a 1200 total. Anything less than a total score of 840 puts you in the lower 25%. Therefore, consider retaking the test after a new study schedule that focuses in on the areas you did poorly in. 


Step Six:

Where do I go from here?

If you are happy with your scores, congratulations! Take some time to celebrate your accomplishments! But also remember that the better you do, the more acceptances and scholarships you will be eligible for. Therefore, consider continuing to practice and retaking the tests.

If you are not happy with your scores, don’t worry! All hope is not lost! Please remember that these scores are not a reflection of who you are and what you can accomplish. Also remember that you can retake the test multiple times in order to increase your scores. Use your score reports to determine what areas you are struggling with. Revisit your old study plan and see if there is something better you could do (for example, if you studied alone before and struggled with it, find someone effective to study with). If you took the SAT, use their online portal to connect with Khan Academy for individualized test prep. Even if you took the ACT, Khan Academy is a great resource to help you learn more. Use it!

If you have taken the test multiple times and still feel as if your scores are not an accurate representation of what you know (for example, if you have severe test anxiety), then consider talking to the schools for which you are applying. Some may allow you to submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher who can attest to your academic abilities. The schools will likely still take your test scores into account, so it is in your best interest to do well on them. However, they also know that standardized testing is not a fool-proof method of assessing student abilities.

Also remember that many (but not all) schools will “super score” your test scores. This means that if you take the test multiple times, they will only look at your highest score in each subject area, and then combine those high scores to create a super scored composite.

For example, say you take the ACT twice. The first time you got an 18 in every single subject (math, science, reading, and English). This gave you a composite of 18. The second time around you got a 20 in reading and a 20 in English, but a 16 in math, and a 16 in science. This would give you a composite of 18 as well. However, the school you applied to super scores tests, so they would only take your top score for each subject area (18 in math, 18 in science, 20 in reading, and 20 in English). This bumps your composite up one point to 19, making you have a better score.

Finally, as I have said before, remember that this test is not a determination of who you are or a measure of your potential. It is simply one tool that some schools use to determine your credentials to get into college. They will also look at things like your GPA, what classes you took in high school, and what you were involved in. A good test score is a great step in the right direction, but it is not everything. Find your strengths and showcase them, identify your weaknesses and work on them. You are going to be great! We believe in you! 

Websites used in the creation of this guide (also great places to look for more information!). Use the test specific sites first, as they are the most likely to be accurate regarding any testing information!

Test Specific Sites:



Costs of ACT/SAT

Cost of ACT

Cost of SAT

Testing Dates/What to Expect on Test Day

Should You Take the ACT or the SAT?


When should you take the SAT or ACT? Best Test Dates.

Future Years' SAT Test Dates Schedule.

SAT and ACT Cost. How to Save Money

ACT Test Center Locator

ACT Test Dates

SAT Practice App

Preparing for ACT Test Day

What to Expect SAT

Taking the ACT Test

Study plans for ACT/SAT

How Long Should I Study for the SAT?

How Long Should I Study for the ACT?

When Should I Start Studying for the ACT?

Studying for the SAT

Understanding test scores

Understanding ACT Test Results (PDF)

Understanding SAT Scores (PDF)

SAT Score - What is a Good Score?

ACT Score - What is a Good Score?