For many teens, the ACT or SAT tests are the first task they undertake that has the real potential to shape their future. While test scores are just one of many parts of the college admissions game, they are often an integral piece of the college applications that will shape your child’s path in higher education. For students who perform well on them, doors will open. And for others, sometimes doors will close.

We at CollegeVine know how stressful this sounds, and while these tests are indeed important, don’t worry. Your teen doesn’t have to go through this stressful experience all by him or herself. There are many ways that you can help, and there are lots of opportunities to build a team of other supporters too. With some basic knowledge of the SAT and ACT studying preparation process, you can help to support and guide your child through this process too.

Here are nine things every parent should know about SAT and ACT prep work:

1. Your child needs to choose one test and focus on it.

It’s easy to assume that because there are two tests accepted by colleges and universities, your child should prepare for both and then submit whichever scores are best. We hear this a lot, but it’s not the best strategy.

Remember, preparing for the SAT or ACT is hard work and it exacts a toll in energy, time, and stress. Prepping for two separate tests when you intend to submit scores from only one of them is a waste. Instead, your child should choose which test to take early on, and focus his or her energy on preparing for that test alone.

2. There is no “better” test, so choosing between the SAT and ACT is a personal choice with no one-size-fits-all answer.    

True, the SAT and ACT are very different tests. For starters, the ACT includes a science section, its essay portion is structured differently, and overall it requires students to move from one question to the next at a quicker pace. Meanwhile, the SAT has undergone recent changes so study materials are still being adapted for the latest version, and many commercially produced study guides are now out of date.

Additionally, there is a regionality to these tests of which most people (parents and students alike), are unaware. The ACT is actually a graduation requirement in many Midwestern states, resulting in 100% participation rates. Meanwhile, less than 30% of graduating seniors took the ACT in Northeastern states in 2015, with only slightly more participating along the West Coast.

While the SAT has by many counts built a bigger name simply by being associated with a host of other standardized tests from the College Board (PSAT, PSAT 8/9, etc.) and by having a century-old history, in 2011 the number of students taking the ACT exceeded the number taking the SAT for the first time, and it continues to gather a bit more momentum each year.

This is all to say, there is no one test that is better than the other. To choose which test is the best choice for him or her, your student will need to research the tests and should ideally take a practice test from each one to decide which feels more comfortable while also considering which yielded a higher score. 

3. To get started studying, your child needs a good idea of where he or she is starting from.      

All solid study plans begin not at an arbitrary starting point, but rather with the student who is embarking on the studying himself. With study guide in hand, you and your child might be eager to jump right in, but this isn’t the best use of your time. In order to determine where he or she is starting from and where to go from there, your child will need to take some kind of formative assessment.

To read more about the importance of formative assessments and why we use them, read CollegeVine’s What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

To find a free practice ACT test, look here. Or head over to CollegeVine’s free diagnostic SAT that comes with a customized score report and action plan. 

4. Encourage your child to set a realistic goal score.

It can be difficult to gauge an appropriate goal without any data, so your child should enlist all the help he or she can get when setting this goal. First, use the diagnostic test as a starting point. Consider what your child scored on this test, and encourage him or her to set a goal that represents significant improvement without overextension.

To get a better idea of an appropriate goal, consider talking to a guidance counselor, SAT tutor, or private college adviser, available through the CollegeVine Mentorship Program. Obviously, the lower the score, the more room there is for improvement, so a goal of improving up to 200 SAT or 5 ACT points can be feasible if the starting score is under about 1100 (SAT) or 22 (ACT). If the starting score is higher, the margin of improvement may be smaller, but it can still be significant.

When setting the goal score, also consider the range of scores accepted at target colleges. For safety schools, your teen’s goal score should fall above 75% of the range of acceptable scores. For target schools, it should fall at least around 50%, and for reach schools your teen should aim to fall above 25% of the admitted score range.

5. Even students who are “bad test-takers” can do very well on the SAT or ACT with the right preparation.

Although your child may not excel on tests in school, or even on previously taken standardized tests, the SAT and ACT are a bit different. These tests don’t measure knowledge gained and don’t require the rote memorization that many other tests do. Instead, they focus on measuring critical thinking skills and how a student is able to apply their knowledge in unique or complex ways.

Because these tests are so different from the other tests that students typically take, there is really no such thing as a “bad test-taker” when it comes to the SAT or ACT. Instead, there are prepared test-takers and unprepared test-takers. Learning how to perform well on the SAT or ACT is a skill in and of itself, and preparing specifically for these tests is important. Many smart, high-performing high school students will find that they do not perform as well as they expected simply because they took their performance for granted and did not prepare specifically for the test.

With the appropriate preparation and attention paid to SAT or ACT-specific skills, all students can improve their test scores and be successful on these important assessments.

6. There is no one-size-fits-all preparation method.

Most of your child’s test preparation should focus on test-taking strategies. Of course there will also be some content and core curriculum that needs brushing up on, but the majority of the work to prepare for the SAT or ACT is focused specifically on how to take these tests in a smart and focused way.

Different students will benefit from different test-taking strategies. Your child’s formative or diagnostic assessment will help to highlight areas in need of improvement. Rather than viewing these as academic areas of weakness, though, they should be thought of as unfamiliar question types or strategies.

It is possible for your child to tackle SAT or ACT prep on his or her own. To do this, start with a highly rated commercial study guide or use the free resources endorsed by the College Board and available through Khan Academy. By creating a thoughtful study timeline based on the materials available, your child will be able to learn strategies and content in a focused and timely manner.

Another option for test prep is a tutor or test prep service. Although these services generally cost more than simply buying a commercial study guide, they also provide more insider knowledge than can be provided in a book. Tutors and test prep services are intimately familiar with the test, and have tried and true strategies that they’ve developed with many students over an extended period of time.

Before committing to any paid service, be sure to ask about the specific costs associated with the service, the time commitment that will be required of your child, and the average test score increase that most clients experience.

7. Expect for your child to take the test more than once.    

Even if you begin test preparations well in advance of your child’s first test date, the vast majority of all students will take the ACT or SAT more than once. This is because the test-taking environment can be stressful and, despite thorough preparations, nothing can exactly recreate the actual test day experience.

The first time your child takes the test, it should be thought of as a dry run. If your child happens to get the score he or she was looking for on the first try, that’s great! If not, remember that this first test helps to get your child more comfortable with the testing experience and gets first-test-jitters out of the way. The next test will be a less stressful experience and most students experience the greatest score improvements between their first and second test administration.

8. You know your child. Think about how you can support him or her best.

Different students need different kinds of support and thrive in different learning environments. For example, if you know that your child typically needs one-on-one support to focus and excel, a group test prep class is obviously not a good idea.

You should also keep in mind your child’s individual temperament. Is your child typically self-motivated and puts a lot of pressure on him or herself, or does your child often need external motivation to get started? Does your child get stressed out easily?

You are the parent, and you know your child best. Think about how to support him or her without adding any unnecessary stress, and be careful not to let your own anxiety or worry rub off on your teen.

9. How You Can Help

Developing study routines is something that you can certainly get involved with to help set your child on the path to success. This could take many forms, but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Create a quiet study space for your child. Stock the area with writing utensils, scrap paper, an appropriate calculator, and a dictionary or study guide.
  • Institute a Question of the Day in your house. You can find practice SAT or ACT questions online or in study guides. Take care not to make this a competitive or anxiety-producing experience; instead, try to keep it fun and lighthearted. 
  • Help with time management. High school students are busy. They often have an extensive schedule of extracurriculars following their full day at school. It can be hard to find consistent time to prepare for anything else. Help your child to review a calendar, come up with a weekly study time goal, and commit to specific study times during the week to ensure that he or she finds the time necessary.
  • Help with stress management. Not only are high school students busy, they are also stretched thin, often to the point of stress. You can help by creating a calm and supportive environment at home. Try to be involved without meddling by letting your child know that you’re available for advice or simply to listen anytime.
  • Help with logistics. Your child will need to register for the test, arrange transportation, and make sure that he or she has all the required tools packed and ready to go on test day. These are all things that you can help with. Review the SAT or ACT calendar to become familiar with registration deadlines and put them on your household calendar. Offer to drive your student to the exam, and make sure you know where it is and how you’ll get there. Help your child to review a test day checklist and make sure that everything is packed and ready to go the night before the test.    
  • Finally, make sure your child knows that a test doesn’t define his or her worth. Yes, the SAT or ACT is probably the most important test he or she has taken, but ultimately it won’t change who your child is or what he or she’s capable of doing. Remind your child that although it’s a big one, the test is still just a test. There may be an eye roll in response, but don’t worry, we’re used to that.

If you still have questions about the SAT or ACT, or you are interested in tutoring for your child, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program or ACT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to success.

To learn more about standardized tests, check out these CollegeVine posts:

ACT vs SAT/SAT Subject Tests

Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?

What Should I Bring to My SAT?

A Guide to the New SAT

When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

13 Tips for ACT Test Day

The CollegeVine Guide to SAT Scores: All Your Questions Answered

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist