Preparing for the SAT/ACT is no joke. You may have heard the horror stories of months and months of studying, thousands of practice questions, and dozens of practice tests. It’s no wonder millions of students dread studying for these tests and why so many families feel huge relief at the trend of test-optional colleges. But before you rejoice, you may want to consider why it’s probably still in your best interest to take the SAT/ACT.
But let’s say you’ve decided to take the test. You’re committed to doing well, maybe even excited and motivated at the start.
Then time goes by. You’ve dived into test prep and realized it’s not as easy as you hoped. You knew you’d have to practice consistently everyday, but you just can’t seem to get yourself to complete the work.
Everything else seems to urgently need your attention: finals, AP exams, a history paper, a calculus test, baseball practice, rehearsals for the school play, volunteering, summer programs, and a mountain of other things.
So you put your SAT/ACT work on the backburner, hoping to get to it before you head to bed. But as midnight rolls around, you just don’t have the energy for an hour of SAT/ACT prep. You feel a little guilty, but you tell yourself the test isn’t for another several months, so it’s okay…you’ll do it tomorrow or over the weekend.
But the procrastination drags on, and eventually you realize your test is in 2 weeks, 1 week, or even just a few days. By then, it’s impossible to catch up, so you decide to cram a bit, but you know you’re going to have to sign up for the next test.
High school these days can be brutal with its onslaught of never-ending activities, responsibilities, and advanced classes. How are you ever supposed to find the motivation, discipline, or time to properly prepare for the SAT/ACT?
The key to motivation and discipline is to taste some real success. Otherwise, it’ll feel like grinding with nothing to show for your efforts. Could anything be more demoralizing?
Productive studying comes down to having the right learning approach, which will not only optimize your time (so you don’t have to waste hundreds of fruitless hours), but also maximize your retention (so you actually remember what you studied). Yes, it’s possible to see dramatically higher scores in relatively few hours…if you follow these tips.
- Identify your enemies and prioritize. Most students just open up a SAT/ACT book and start going through the chapters and problems. Or they take a practice test and go over the explanations for all the questions they missed. Wash, rinse, and repeat. But that’s disorganized and un-personalized, so these students end up taking much longer to reach their goal (if they ever do).
It becomes massively difficult to maintain motivation or discipline when hours upon hours, months upon months of studying turn out fruitless.
Fortunately, there’s a faster, more encouraging, more productive way! Once you begin seeing some progress, you’ll naturally feel more motivated to continue learning. It begins by identifying your enemies (your list of tricky concepts), then prioritizing which concepts you need to master first.
Not all concepts are tested equally, so don’t spend equal time studying each concept. Some concepts will show up on 5+ questions per test, while other concepts might not even show up once for a particular test.
You need to evaluate where your current strengths and weaknesses are too. If you’re already good at a particular concept, then don’t put too much time there for now. Pick the low-hanging fruit first, the concepts that show up frequently (and you’re weak at) but are relatively easy to learn. It’s critical to prioritize the concepts you need to study in the correct order for you.
Now the problem with prep books is that they have no idea what that proper order should be for each individual student. If you’re not sure how to prioritize the concepts, a good SAT/ACT instructor or program can help you identify your strengths/weaknesses. A good tutor or program also knows which concepts show up most frequently, so he/she can design a personalized study plan.
- Write down a SPECIFIC comprehension plan. Now that you’ve identified your enemies, it’s time to deal with them. The average student just goes through practice drills on a particular concept. Their goal is simply to get through a certain number of hours of practice per day or per week.
But different students learn at different speeds, so the number of hours doesn’t really matter! If you put in 15 hours of studying today, but all you learned is one concept, then you really didn’t learn much. If you put in 1 hour of studying, but you mastered 3 concepts, then you’re making rapid progress. If it takes another student 20 hours to master those same 3 concepts, well, that’s still progress, which is what counts.
Rather than counting the hours, some students plan to get through a certain number of questions per day or per week. But the number of questions doesn’t matter either; only actual learning matters. If doing 5 questions is all it takes for you to master a concept, then awesome — 5 questions was enough for you. But if it takes you 50 or 100 questions before you master the concept, then you need to do that!
Don’t worry about the number of hours or questions; commit to actual learning and mastery…whatever it takes.
The most successful students don’t bother with “vanity metrics” like number of hours studied or number of questions done. Those numbers can make you FEEL productive and help you get nagging parents off your back, but they don’t actually help you improve and increase your score.
For actual score improvements, you need to commit to mastering specific concepts each week. Your hit list of challenging concepts for you provides you a bird’s eye view of all the work you’ll need to do. Pull out your calendar and write down which specific concepts (not the number of concepts, but the NAME of the concepts, like “functions” or “subject-verb agreement” or “main ideas”) you plan to master by a specific date.
But be realistic. You won’t know for sure exactly how long it’ll take for you to master a concept, so give yourself some room for error. If you think you can master a particular concept in 3 days, give yourself a full week instead. If it turns out that you do master it in 3 days or less, then go ahead and move up your study plan and add additional concepts.
Your goal is to keep doing questions until you’ve MASTERED the concept in all its forms. It doesn’t matter if it takes more hours or more questions than you anticipated. You simply need to do whatever it takes to master it by your planned deadline.
The reason people lose discipline is that they don’t actually schedule SPECIFIC GOALS and TIMES into their calendar. At best, most students just mentally promise themselves that they will study for 2 hours today, but they don’t plan when (like 4 – 6pm), much less what specific goal they intend to achieve during that time slot.
The secret to actually doing the work? “What gets written gets done!” Literally write down the specific time slot you’ll do the work and the specific concept you will master, along with a specific deadline. Use a paper planner, Google Calendar, or iCal — it doesn’t matter. Just write it down; mental promises don’t work when it comes to studying!
- Commit to comprehension, not just completion. The average student just strives to complete the problem set, the practice test, or the assigned homework. But no one knows better than you how well you actually understand the questions you’ve done.
The goal is never to simply finish the chapter or test. The goal is to actually learn, which means you must honestly reflect whether you fully grasped the concept. In fact, go further and ask yourself if you would know how to solve the question if it were a little different — maybe a number were changed, or a condition for the math question were different, or they asked a different (but related) question altogether.
For example, a probability question might ask you the odds of picking a green scarf out of the box, but do you also know how to calculate the odds of picking a red scarf?
- Break down large goals into smaller, specific, and measurable tasks. Give yourself achievable milestones. Many years ago, I worked with a few different anti-procrastination coach. The main takeaway was that our brains are designed to protect us, even if the “danger” is ourselves. What that means is whenever we imagine a massive project or goal (like significantly improving on the SAT/ACT), it feels so far away that it becomes overwhelming. The goal is too daunting, so we become paralyzed.
That’s why my coaches hardly wanted me to talk about the “big picture.” They had me give them 3 hyper specific tasks that I could finish that day. Since the tasks were so small, they didn’t feel intimidating, and I felt more motivated to begin. One small step led to the next, and within a month, I had written several hundred pages and designed an email campaign for my project.
But by realizing that every goal or achievement, no matter how great, is just a series of smaller tasks and accomplishments. Getting a 300-point improvement begins by getting a 10-point improvement. Do you think you can earn 10 more points? Of course you can!
Large goals require strategic planning and approaches though, so don’t just go trying to run a marathon (26 miles) by diving in and simply running. That’ll lead to shin splints, shortness of breath, and the stinging taste of disappointment. You’ll develop bad habits that block you from success.
Instead, how about running 1 mile first and perfecting your form, breathing, and pace? Slowly build up your endurance and then increase the miles.
It’s the same with SAT/ACT prep. Break down your tasks into S.M.A.R.T. goals, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
The most crucial part is being SPECIFIC. For example, instead of giving yourself the goal of “improving by 100 points by the end of the month by doing lots of practice tests,” your goal should be something more like “in the next 30 minutes, I’m going to complete these 20 math questions on 3D geometric shapes and review my mistakes until I’ve mastered them.”
Even though a goal like “improving by 100 points” sounds specific, it’s really not because there are too many sub-steps to getting that. Are you supposed to do chapter 3 or chapter 5? Or should you take 2 practice tests instead? Or maybe watch this SAT video?
You need to give yourself the exact task you’ll do. “20 math questions on 3D geometric shapes” is specific.
Measurable means your goal can be objectively quantified. You can measure your progress. Think about specific numbers because these measurements are proof of progress. But remember, the ultimate goal is NOT the number of hours or questions you do. However, in your small goals, it’s fine to strive for a specific number of questions. But after you finish them, make sure you actually understand and remember them. Completing and reviewing the questions once is not enough. Maybe the next measurable small goal could be “redo the 12 questions I got wrong from the 3D geometric shapes chapter and ensure I can solve them all under 1 minute each without any hints.”
Achievable means the small goal feels possible. This is so important! If the goal feels too far off, we won’t want to even start because our brains are protecting us from the pain of disappointment. That’s why making the goals specific and measurable is essential to feeling like your goal is achievable. Being able to imagine yourself achieving the goal is highly motivating because it makes you feel capable. So don’t make your small goals too unrealistic; keep them small enough that the thought of starting on the task doesn’t fill you with dread. If you’re feeling dread, that’s a sure sign the goal you’re focusing on is too big–break it down smaller.
Relevant means your goal is moving you closer to your ultimate goal of an excellent SAT/ACT score. Don’t waste time doing tasks that feel productive but aren’t. The biggest culprit is blindly taking practice tests. Don’t just take a test every week because you think that’s just what you’re supposed to do to improve. You need a more relevant task, one that will methodically help you gradually improve. A relevant goal will, by definition, be specific to you, so that might be “memorize the comma and semicolon rules for combining independent and dependent clauses.” A non-relevant goal would be “memorize 100 idioms or vocab words” when you’re still missing far more frequently tested grammar and punctuation concepts or you already have a strong vocab.
Time-bound means you must give yourself a specific deadline. Have you ever heard the saying, “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done”? Deadlines give you a sense of urgency, motivating you to finish up. That’s why sprinters tend to speed up on the final stretch of the race. That’s why students put the final touches on their project or final edits to their essay the night before it’s due. And that’s why you’re going to finish your task.
Free-floating goals with no deadline will just get kicked down the road until it’s too late. You won’t work as rigorously on the task. A time-constraint gives your mind focus. Psychologist Cal Newport pioneered the concept of “deep work,” which is the idea that even a short period of highly focused work is more productive than hours/days/months of casual, unfocused work. Time-constraints compel you into “deep work” mode, so take advantage of it!
You can even try out the Pomodoro Technique, but don’t just give yourself a TIMEFRAME. Also give yourself a DATE by which you commit to completing your small goal.
Motivation is a fleeting feeling, which comes when we feel excited, encouraged, or inspired. But discipline is a habit, so it helps you get stuff done even when you’re not feeling it. The tips above can help you hone your discipline, which leads to motivation as you begin to see tangible success by getting more questions correct. It’s a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle!
- Identify your enemies and prioritize.
- Write down specific plans on your calendar/planner.
- Commit to comprehension, not just completion.
- Be S.M.A.R.T.
Let me know how it goes!
And if you need support or guidance on the SAT/ACT, feel free to reply to this email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I offer 1-on-1 SAT/ACT programs year-round, my upcoming SAT Ascension program (a small group 100-hour SAT summer intensive limited to just 10-15 students), and college admissions consulting/essay editing programs.