The number one question I see from students goes like this:
“I currently have [score] on the SAT/ACT, but I need to raise it to [higher score] in the next [X months]. Is it possible? Any tips?”
I’ll confess, whenever I read that question in the past, I did so with no small bit of irritation. It’s not that I didn’t want to help these students. It’s just that I used to feel it was such a lazy question to ask. I mean, what exactly were they struggling with? Like, c’mon, at least provide me some details about your specific situation, so I can advise you properly.
But I’ve realized I was wrong.
Yeah, I said it…I was wrong. Takes a big man to admit that (haha, just kidding). See, I realized it’s not that students are lazy. It’s that they simply don’t know what else to ask. This whole process of college admissions and SAT/ACT prep is so intimidating that they don’t even know the right questions to ask or where to begin.
I stayed far away from this question because, frankly, it’s virtually impossible to answer. I don’t know their specific situation, what they’re capable of, or what their motivation levels are. I don’t know what other activities or commitments they have going on, so at best, any quick response I give would be highly generalized.
If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you know I’m not about general advice. But today, I’ve decided to answer the question once and for all, as specifically as I can.
Let me try to break down what I believe students are really wondering when they ask the question:
1) Can I increase X to Y score?
They want to know if their score goal is realistic. They want reassurance or hope that their dream is possible.
2) In Z months?
They want to know if it’s realistic in a short time frame. They’re interested to know what exactly they have to do to speed up their study process because their time is limited and precious.
3) Any tips?
They don’t know where to begin with studying. They are willing to do the hard work, but they need to know what’s effective and what’s not. They want to know which specific concepts are most important. They are seeking instructions or a step-by-step system to follow. With such limited time, they want to make sure what they’re doing actually works. Someone who can point out the most effective strategies and traps to look out for would be a lifesaver.
POSSIBLE SCORE IMPROVEMENT
Let’s start with the first part—can I increase my score X points?
With the proper instruction and study system, the typical student can increase his or her score by around 300 points on the SAT or 5 points on the ACT. It’s not easy, but it’s realistic. In fact, I’ve helped many students achieve far greater improvements: 400, 500, even 700+ gains on the SAT and 7-9 points on the ACT.
Just keep in mind anything beyond 300 points/5 points is exceptional and not to be expected. It takes a higher level of perseverance and a strong mentality if you really want more.
The biggest determinant of what score is possible for you is your inner psychology. If you refuse to accept below a certain score, you won’t fall below it. But if you can imagine yourself settling for something lower, if you can envision yourself convincing yourself that some lower score is acceptable, then you’re going to end up with that lower score (or pretty close). After nearly a decade of tutoring and 20,000 hours working with students, I have yet to see a single case where a student scored lower than what he or she was truly willing to accept.
The moment you tell yourself, “I’ve tried, but I guess this is just what I’m going to get” is the moment you stop improving. There really is no academic ceiling because you can always learn more, but the psychological ceiling comes much sooner.
I talk much more in depth about the power of mentality HERE.
In short, any score is possible, but the bigger the jump, the more you have to REALLY want it. At times, you have to stretch yourself beyond what you think is your limit. Humans are actually notoriously bad at judging their own actual limits.
For example, I once participated in an online challenge with thousands of people around the world—we were to do 1,000 pushups in a single day. No, not a typo. Of course the goal wasn’t actually to get to hit a thousand pushups. It was an exercise in willpower. It’s not that hard to just force out 1 more pushup…then another…and another…until suddenly, you’ve done far more than you ever thought possible.
The mind is an incredibly powerful thing, but people are too scared to push it—because doing so is frequently uncomfortable or painful.
Bottom line: if you truly desire a top score, it’s 100% possible if you push yourself.
POSSIBLE BY THIS DATE?
That depends. How much time do you have to devote in these next few months? What are you going to do with your time? There’s a difference between quality studying and a large quantity of studying. The latter is not necessarily effective.
The best bet is to leave yourself a reasonable amount of time to prepare for the test. I’d say 3 months is a comfortable minimum—it gives you breathing room so you don’t have to rush your studies or sacrifice too many other commitments. 6 months is even better, or perhaps a full year if you really have a lot of other things going on. If you’re taking longer than that, then you aren’t studying effectively. Instead of blindly taking practice test after practice test, you need to leverage every hour of studying better. Squeeze out every ounce of knowledge from that hour.
Once, a senior who had one final shot at the ACT came to me 3 weeks before his test. He needed to raise it from a 25 to a 28 because that’s what the schools required if they were going to recruit him for football. 3 points was completely reasonable, I told him. Not only did he reach 28, but I catapulted him to a 33 in just three weeks (granted, he worked extremely hard but also correctly). So big improvements in a short time are absolutely possible with the right study techniques (check out the “ANY TIPS?” section below).
On the other hand, certain students hardly improve no matter how much time you give them. They’re unorganized. They don’t carefully document their weaknesses and systematically eradicate them. They aren’t interested in truly understanding the nuances behind each question because “finishing” the problem is more appealing. So they rush to answer and make snap judgments. Their review consists of reading an explanation or watching a video, but they never get their hands dirty and go through the process of doing the steps themselves.
Often, they cut themselves too much slack. They brush off careless mistakes or believe that looking up hints when they get stuck still means they got the question right.
For those students, no, it isn’t possible to improve—not until they change their attitude and approach to learning. If you treat practice questions as simply something to get over with as opposed to something to learn from, you won’t improve. That’s the harsh truth.
It doesn’t matter how much or little work your book, online program, or tutor assigns you. If you haven’t hit your target at home, then you need to work more. You must hit your goal at least a few times before your deadline, or it’s unlikely you will magically achieve much higher on the real test.
ANY TIPS TO STUDYING? SPECIAL STRATEGIES OR TRAPS TO WATCH OUT FOR?
Every section—whether it’s grammar, reading, math, science, or the essay—has its own unique strategies. The key is realizing this: brute forcing your way through the concepts is the worst approach. Don’t feel like you have to know how to solve all the math questions using the traditional math you’ve learned in school. Don’t feel like you have to cram 1,000 vocab words through rote memorization of flashcards.
The right strategies can make light work of even the most difficult questions. For example, did you know that you can get away with almost NEVER setting up complicated algebraic equations to solve? There’s a way to bypass all that “conventional math.” Do some digging around to find the specific strategies for each subject.
I’ve written extensively about such strategies all throughout this blog, which is completely free. The reason I give so many of my best SAT or ACT techniques away for free is because I know tactics or cool tricks alone do not bring the big improvements. Strategies are important, but what’s more important is the right study system, paired with a motivated mentality.
So instead of discussing specific SAT/ACT strategies here, I’m going to give you the right framework for studying, which universally applies to all students.
You have to know WHEN, WHERE, and HOW to apply all the various strategies or techniques you learn, whether that’s a new math strategy or reading approach or whatever.
1) Set your target score and secure the right mentality. There’s nothing more important.
2) Take an initial diagnostic test to see your current score. This will also help you identify many of your specific weaknesses, though not all of them because a single test cannot cover every possible concept the SAT/ACT can test you on.
3) Start creating a hit list of your weaknesses. Keep this list constantly updated. It is your 50,000-foot view—your big picture plan.
4) Start to master one concept at a time. If you really get frustrated with one particular concept, you may choose to focus on 3 concepts at a time, but no more than that. If you try to spread your attention too thin across too many concepts, you will not gain the deep mastery necessary to do well on these tests. The goal is to become a master of SOME concepts, rather than mediocre at all concepts. This is the key to improving your score quickly—you focus on the things that matter more first. Only after you’ve mastered the big concepts, then you can move onto smaller, less frequently tested concepts.
Get a good study program, book, etc. The good ones will tell you which concepts show up most frequently. For example, functions on the SAT Math are one of the most common types of questions. And verbs and pronouns are two of the biggest grammar issues. If the book/program you’re using doesn’t list out which concepts show up more frequently, consider using a different resource.
5) Do ALL the drill questions on a particular concept to expose yourself to as many variations of the concept as possible. Just because you know how to solve “If f(x) = 2x, what is f(5)?” doesn’t mean you know how to solve “If f(x) = 3x – 5 and f(p) = 7, what is the value of p?” There will be easier and harder versions of the same concept, and sometimes, they will ask the question in an unexpected, roundabout way. Again, do ALL the questions of a particular concept.
If you’re really gung-ho, you should even seek out MORE questions of that type, since most books don’t provide enough practice questions. Google is your friend to find these additional practice questions.
6) Self-gauge your mastery. True mastery is when you can get through the ENTIRE question on your own without stopping too much to think and without doubting yourself. If you have to look up a hint, even if it’s just a tiny fact or formula, then you have not yet mastered the concept. Do not cut yourself slack here. You are not doing yourself any favors if you just brush it off and say, “Yeah, I understood it 99%, so that pretty much means I’ve mastered it.” Remember this: 99% right is still 100% wrong! There is no partial credit on the test.
The litmus test of true mastery is when you can ask anyone to throw you a question of that concept and feel absolutely 100% confident that you’re going to get it right. If you’re even a little bit scared you MIGHT not be able to get a hard level question of that concept correct, then you have more work to do.
Generally, mastery comes anywhere between 20 to 100 questions of the same concept (different variations though). It’s imperative that you find a good resource that provides dozens of practice questions of each concept.
Another way to ensure you’ve truly mastered a concept is to teach it to a friend who struggles with it. If you can’t help him understand it, then you don’t understand it well enough yourself.
7) When you’ve mastered a good number of new concepts—say 5 to 10 concepts—take another full practice test or practice section (just math, for instance). Time yourself strictly, according to the time limits. And use the actual watch you will use on test day, NOT your phone or computer. Turn off Facebook, your cell, your computer, and put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign if you’re taking the test at home. Don’t let your parents, friends, siblings, or pets bother you during this time. Take your practice seriously. Too many people allow interruptions to occur, which means their scores are not an accurate indicator of their true performance.
8) Correct your practice test and update your “hit list” with new concepts. If you see that you’ve now truly mastered some concepts, go ahead and cross them off. But if you missed even one question of a particular concept on the practice test, do not cross that concept off of your list. Add new concepts to your list if you see additional concepts you need to work on. Be specific about the concepts. Don’t just say “geometry” or “reading comprehension.” Instead, record down “30-60-90 degree triangles” or “inference question” or “main idea.”
9) Repeat steps 4-8 over and over until you have mastered all the concepts on your hit list. If you don’t get to ALL of them, that’s okay too. You should be seeing good improvement every few concepts you master.
10) Do not stop studying until you’ve reached your target score at least 3 times in a row before your real test. No exceptions. If you are 1 point lower than your target score, you’re not done yet. This is the step I see most people giving up on, and it’s the singular biggest reason why they don’t reach their goal. Again, it goes back to mentality – how badly do you want this?
TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ?
Any score improvement is possible, but 300 points on the SAT or 5 points on the ACT is a good realistic goal for most students. The most important factor is mastering your inner psychology–you have to resolve to want this, or nothing else matters.
To improve in a short amount of time, you must leverage your studying. Don’t waste time doing busywork or blindly taking practice tests. You must use the right study method.
The right method: identify your SPECIFIC weaknesses (write a “hit list”), then master them one by one. That means doing dozens of drill questions until you’ve mastered every variation of each concept. Take a full practice length every so often to ensure you’re improving, and continually update your “hit list” of weaknesses.
Rinse and repeat.
Good luck, intrepid student!