How to Prepare for the SAT and ACT as a Freshman or Sophomore in High School
Most students know that junior year is the time to crack down on standardized test prep. There are study groups to join, online tutorials to take, tutors to meet with, and study books to buy. Many students may not realize, though, that there are plenty of ways to extend your standardized test prep into your earlier high school years as well. While you may not be digging into the actual test content or format yet, there are some simple ways that you can get ahead as a freshman and sophomore in high school.
By developing hard skills and laying the foundation for strong work habits in advance, you gain an undeniable edge when it comes to standardized test prep. In this post, we outline five key ways that freshmen and sophomores can set themselves up for standardized test success, even before they begin studying in earnest.
Take Challenging Classes
The SAT and ACT don’t simply test your knowledge of content, so taking challenging classes isn’t going to give you the content knowledge edge that you might think. What it does do, however, is encourage more critical and analytical thinking, both skills that are extensively tested on standardized tests.
More challenging classes are more likely to push your thinking to deeper levels. You’ll gain more experience with recognizing bias, identifying inconsistencies, and connecting pieces of information to place them into context. You will also learn more advanced calculator skills and will learn how to read more in depth scientific writing. Both of these hard skills are also important on standardized tests.
While the content from challenging classes might not seem directly related to the content of your standardized tests, the thought processes that you develop by tackling this more difficult content are integral to these kinds of tests. Taking challenging classes now means you’ll have more time to develop this type of thinking before test day.
Read A Lot
You probably hear this advice often, for a number of different reasons. Want to boost your grades across the board? Read a lot. Want to broaden your vocabulary or improve your writing skills? Read a lot. Want to gain more perspective into other cultures and points of view? Read a lot.
This advice rings true for standardized test prep also, for all of the above reasons. Reading provides a depth of exposure to new vocabulary, new writing styles and genres, and new perspectives. Developing the ability to recognize and use literary devices, identifying tone and point of view, and analyzing bias and forms of persuasion are all relevant skills to practice in preparation for standardized tests. In addition, your exposure to a number of different genres, both fiction and nonfiction, will help to prepare you for the varied and numerous reading passages you’re bound to encounter on them.
Become a Strong Writer
The essay sections on both the ACT and the SAT are now optional. This means that if you can become a strong writer, acing these sections is an easy way to set yourself apart. Think of the essay section as an opportunity to put you over the edge from simply a strong score to a truly impressive one.
The essays on these tests are less about original thought and more about being a great writer. To ace them, you’ll need to showcase all the qualities of great writing. This includes rich vocabulary, tight but varied sentence structures, and strong analytical writing.
You can get started on building your writing skills by paying close attention to the feedback that you get from teachers on your written work. Be extra vigilant about identifying patterns in this feedback so that you will recognize areas in which you can improve. Try dropping in at your school’s writing center if one exists, or attend a writing workshop.
Building your writing skills now, while you’re still a freshman or sophomore, will mean that you have less on your plate later on when you want to focus on content knowledge and test strategies. It will give you an edge on college essays, too!
Pay Attention in Class
This perhaps goes without saying, but paying attention in class is a simple way to gain relevant knowledge for your standardized tests. While the tests themselves won’t measure what you’ve learned, sometimes the SAT or ACT will include a piece of somewhat random content knowledge. Usually, the specific content is unrelated to the skill the question is evaluating, but having some background knowledge in the subject area will make your thought process easier.
For example, you might be asked to evaluate the strength of an argument related to the decision to drop atomic bombs during the second World War. While you aren’t actually being tested on your knowledge of WWII, having some context to place this information in will make your thought process smoother and help you to get straight into the question, rather than spending time weeding through what’s relevant and what isn’t.
Paying attention in class helps with another important skill, too—your ability to focus on the test. There will likely be dozens of other students in the room on test day, and being used to filtering out the background noise around you will allow you focus on the more important priority: actually taking your test.
Develop Time Management Skills
For some students, the most challenging aspect of the SAT or ACT is the pacing. Both require a fairly quick pace, particularly the ACT which is known for rushing some students from one question to the next for fear of running out of time. While freshman and sophomore years are a little early to work on actual test pacing, it’s never too early to develop your time management skills.
Work on quick thinking and not second-guessing yourself. Also learn to recognize if your first instinct on math questions is generally correct. This self-knowledge eventually will go a long way towards helping out on your test pacing.
While freshman and sophomore years are not the time to begin SAT and ACT test prep in earnest, that does not mean that there aren’t important skills you can gain now by thinking ahead with an eye towards these important tests. By developing the skills and work habits that are necessary on the test, you will give yourself a head start and have more time to focus on specific content, format, and strategy later on during your actual test prep.
For more help preparing for the ACT, check out these tips and study strategies:
For more help preparing for the SAT, check out these tips and study strategies:
Want more SAT tips sent to you?
Sign up below and we'll send you expert SAT tips and guides.