The Secret to Cutting Your SAT/ACT Prep Time in Half

I’m a cautionary tale of what NOT to do.

SAT/ACT prep doesn’t have to take forever, but it easily can if you approach it the wrong way. It took me over 5 years in middle/high school to finally score higher than 1500 (out of 1600) on SAT.

If someone had shown me the proper way, it could have been done in just a few months. And the thing was, my parents actually signed me up for SAT classes! I vividly remember being crammed in a room with dozens of other students every Saturday morning AND afternoon for 8-hour days (because Asians in my town tended to believe more is better).

But even after a whole year and thousands of practice questions, I still wasn’t getting the score I wanted. My SAT math instructor told my parents, “Peter can definitely get an 800 in math!” Except I was barely even getting 680 at the time.

I knew how to do the math problems because they all made sense to me conceptually, but somehow, I just wasn’t hitting the 800 my instructor was so convinced I could achieve. He certainly wasn’t giving me any new strategies to break through my sticking point.

It took me a year more of self-practice and gruesome trial and error on my own to finally crack to code and earn my perfect 800.

My SAT English instructor laughed, “You’re really creative…too creative!” She was talking about my “creativity” in adding my own (wrong) interpretations to the reading passages, which was destroying my reading score.

Yet she couldn’t help me consistently see the flaws in my reasoning, so I always felt like I was stuck between two answer choices that both felt right. Of course, I’d pick the wrong one. Even after a year of classes, I still felt like I was flipping a coin to decide my answer.

Finally, I said enough! I quit the class, since my instructors were simply assigning more problem sets, more practice tests, and more class lectures in the misguided hope that more practice would eventually get me there.

But more practice DOESN’T lead to better results…not when all that practice is done in the WRONG way. Clearly, going over each individual question and listening to my teachers explain the correct answer wasn’t helping me see the light.

Frustrated, I began losing hope, and even I began entertaining thoughts that my non-competitive score would be good enough. Discouraging times.

It wasn’t until I became a professional SAT/ACT instructor myself and worked for 4 other test prep companies that I realized why most SAT/ACT classes simply don’t work! They just focus on delivering informational lectures and endless practice sets/tests.

I founded Young Prodigy on the philosophy that more practice is NOT automatically better. Don’t get me wrong; you still need significant practice, but it’s got to be the RIGHT type of practice. I believe in a strategic, laser-focused, and methodological approach, which has helped thousands of my students finally reach their goal.

It’s extremely common for students who have been through INTENSE summer boot camps (we’re talking 1-2 practice tests every week, 20+ hours a week) for months on end or even years to come to me when they still haven’t reached their goal. By that point, they’re utterly defeated, not wanting to try this SAT/ACT prep thing anymore because it hasn’t worked for them.

But once they see how I approach test prep completely differently, they begin to regain a sense of hope. Parents tell me how they wished they could have heard of me earlier, so they wouldn’t have had to waste so much time, energy, and money. Often, it’s the student’s last shot before college apps are due, but after hearing about my approach, they’re ready to give it one more go.

So what’s the issue with typical SAT/ACT prep? Most test prep programs fall into two camps, sometimes both:

  1. Brute force method (the terrible way I studied for the SAT/ACT myself in high school)
  2. Sloppy studying (haphazard, untargeted, un-strategic studying)

Brute force is just forcing yourself to do more and more practice. It’s this belief that 5+ hours of SAT/ACT prep a day is the best way to improve. It’s the idea that taking one, two, or even three practice tests per week (especially during summer) is beneficial.

It does work…eventually. But by the time it works, it may be too late. With brute force, you could easily spend 5+ years practicing because doing MORE of the wrong thing won’t help you improve quickly.

And since school does NOT align well at all with the SAT/ACT’s concepts, many students are lacking the fundamental skills in reading comprehension, grammar, and math needed to excel on these tests. 

Even if you do reach your score before college application deadlines, it took you far longer to get there than it should. That means the opportunity cost was high — lost time you could have worked on a passion project or improved your extracurricular activities or even improved your GPA.

My goal is not simply to help students improve their SAT/ACT scores; it’s to improve it enough that it matters AND to do it fast enough, saving you dozens if not hundreds of hours that you can spend improving your life elsewhere.

The second mistake is sloppy studying, which is when students don’t take the time to develop and follow an organized study plan. They just open up a book and work through the chapters or take a bunch of practice tests. But every question you get wrong on a practice test is likely a different concept, so spending a few minutes on that before moving onto the next concept and the next doesn’t allow enough time to truly master that concept, much less all of its variations and traps.

Doing random handouts or problem sets, even if they’re organized by concept, isn’t the best use of time either because you are naturally going to be better or worse at certain concepts. Not every concept is tested equally on the test either, so you need to be more strategic about how you distribute your time. You don’t want to spend 10 hours on something that is only going to show up on one or two questions per test. And 10 hours on something that shows up on ten questions per test isn’t enough time to master such a deep concept!

So if brute force and sloppy study are ineffective, then what’s the secret?

It’s honestly nothing sexy.

  1. Develop a mastery mindset. Most students just “kind of” understand or feel they understand “well enough,” but they aren’t at 100%. Sorry, boys and girls, but there’s no such thing “well enough” because you either get the question totally right or totally wrong. You need to commit to COMPLETE COMPREHENSION.

    If you wouldn’t bet $100 (or whatever amount feels high to you) that you got the question correct, then you haven’t mastered it yet. For many students, when they feel they “probably” got the question right (90% or higher chance by their own estimation), they will simply move on from the question. If they ended up getting it wrong, they’ll quickly review the explanation, find their mistake, and brush it off, thinking “oh, yeah, duh, that’s just a small mistake.” NO! Nothing is just a “small mistake.” True masters do not accept small mistakes. Mastery means NO mistakes, which is exactly how the SAT/ACT are structured.

    Without this mastery mindset, your studying efforts will always be thwarted. That’s why countless students can go through seemingly endless studying without any appreciable improvement.
  1. Forget the “new;” instead review! Students (and parents) are constantly asking for NEW questions, NEW practice tests, NEW strategies and tactics. No, no, no! You don’t need anything new when you haven’t mastered the old! I can’t tell you how many countless times students have taken a test, reviewed their mistakes (and fully understood the explanations), and then proceeded to fail the SAME EXACT QUESTIONS a week or two later. That means they haven’t learned from their mistakes. There’s literally no reason to take a new test, learn new concepts, or seek new strategies when you haven’t milked every ounce of learning you can from your old mistakes. Until you can score 100% on all your previously missed questions (or at least 90%, like, come on!), you absolutely should NOT move onto new material.

    I get it though. The novelty of new questions is tempting. Doing new questions FEELS productive. You worry that you’re wasting time doing old questions because you kind of remember the story or the math question or even the answer.

    But you’re not! You’re actually maximizing your study time. Knowing the answer isn’t the real goal. Being able to explain the step-by-step logical process is the true goal. Just because you recall the answer is C doesn’t mean you remember how to arrive at that choice. Do you remember the equation you need to set up and the steps to solve it? Do you remember the logical flaw you made in understanding the story that led you to choice A the first time around?
  1. Practice active (not passive) learning. Most students treat studying as a spectator sport. Who has ever gotten noticeably better at basketball by watching Kobe Bryant or Steph Curry play? Who has ever learned to become more musical by listening to Beethoven? Who has ever created a better dish by watching Iron Chef Bobby Flay? Essentially no one!

    So why do you believe you’re going to become a better student by watching your tutor solve the question for you, watching someone else solve the problem on a YouTube video explanation, or reading a written explanation in the back of the book? It makes no sense.

    You need to get your own hands dirty by diving into the problem. Pretend you need to explain the step-by-step solution to your friend. Can you explain WHY you’re doing each step? Can you explain WHY you crossed off each answer choice? Can you explain the trap? Be honest with yourself. Don’t just brush off a step and dismiss a step with a wave of your hand just because you kind of see the connection to the next step. You must be able to clearly explain HOW and WHY you’re taking each step. Again, remember the mastery mentality.

    Only when you feel confident enough to be able to fully explain the concept to a friend can you say you’ve mastered that question. Reading/watching are never enough; you must DO.

    The problem is that most students trying to review their mistakes believe that reading an explanation is enough to learn that concept. It’s not because it’s too passive! Be active!

When you combine these three elements, you’re going to see the massive score improvements everyone is capable of gaining.

The hardest part is keeping yourself accountable. It’s easy to fall into our default study habits of grinding through problems (brute force) or haphazardly doing practice tests (sloppy studying), but it takes discipline to fully master a question and concept before moving on. It’s not easy to commit yourself to such strict mastery, but it’s necessary if you hope to enjoy stratospheric score increases.

That’s exactly how I mentor my students to ace the SAT/ACT. You can find the academic content anywhere for free (Youtube, etc.) or cheap (various prep books), but the real transformation doesn’t come from more information (the academic concepts, the SAT/ACT strategies, etc.). Real improvement comes from the right mentality, disciplined approach, and strategic and personalized study plan.

And that’s what I offer in my 1-on-1 SAT/ACT programs and my upcoming small group SAT Ascension boot camp (100 hours total), which is limited to 10-15 students max. If you’re interested, just send me an email ([email protected]) and tell me what you’re struggling with when it comes to the SAT/ACT. I’d love to chat to see how I can support you.

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