Standardized Test Preparation


Standardized tests can be daunting to think about. In this section, we'll share what you need to know from why tests matter and how to understand which test you need to take, to effective preparation techniques and the testing resources you need to be successful.
COVID-19 and the impact on the SAT and the ACT
The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted the availability of open test sites in 2019 and 2020. As a result, the number of colleges requiring the ACT and SAT dramatically decreased. Concurrently, the SAT announced that the SAT Subject Tests would no longer be offered in the U.S. and the optional essay would be eliminated in 2021. For a current list of test-optional schools, go to
What does this mean for you? First, it is important to know the difference between test-optional and test-blind. Test optional schools allow you to choose whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of your application. If submitted, the school will consider your test scores. Test-blind schools do not consider test scores even if submitted.
These new policies bring up several questions to include, “If a school is test-optional, would you recommend that I still take and submit?” or “How has this changed the admissions review process?” For answers to these and other questions, we invite you to view the panel discussion where senior admissions officers answer these and other questions. The video is available at

Why tests matter

Your grade point average (GPA) and test scores provide admissions officers important data points for evaluating your ability to thrive at their university. For a veteran candidate, your grades and test scores will be taken as part of your total application, alongside your professional and life experiences and application materials. While your GPA and test scores may be less critical to evaluating future potential than those of a high school applicant, you want them to be as high as possible to maximize your chance for success.
In the age of Covid-19, some universities have been waiving their college entrance exam requirement, and at some institutions, this policy will be here to stay. Knowing whether a standardized test is required (and which test) for each school to which you are applying will save you time and stress. Check with your choice schools to learn their specific requirements.
Finally, while test scores do not categorically guarantee (or prevent) admission, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with the average SAT or ACT scores for the most recent entering classes at the schools you hope to attend. This will arm you with an initial understanding of what competitive scores will be for your target schools. Colleges and universities look at a collection of data on applicants, of which a standardized test is a single component, however, standardized tests represent an opportunity through preparation and study to strengthen your application further.

Understanding which test to take

You can take either the SAT or ACT to satisfy the testing requirement most universities have. While there is no bias for one test over the other in college admissions generally, some universities will only accept one —know this before you start down the path of choosing which test to take. When you decide which test to take, you should recognize that there are notable structural differences between the SAT and ACT tests.

How are the tests different?

Here are the basics, courtesy of Study Point (
Content-based test
Type of Test
Content-based test
Reading: 1, 65-min section;
Math: 1, 25-min section (no calculator) & 1, 55-min section (w/ calculator); Writing & Language: 1, 35-min section; Essay: 1, 50-min section (optional; the College Board will no longer offer the essay section after the June 2021 administration of the SAT)
Test Format
English: 1, 45-min section;
Math: 1, 60-min section;
Reading: 1, 35-min section;
Science: 1, 35-min section;
Writing: 1, 40-min essay (optional)
Reading, relevant words in context, math, grammar & usage, analytical writing (optional)
Content Covered
Grammar & usage, math, reading, science reasoning, and writing (optional)
Questions are evidence and context-based in an effort to focus on real-world situations and multi-step problem-solving
Test Style
Straightforward, questions may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher
Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing are each scored on a scale of 200-800. Composite SAT score is the sum of the two section scores and ranges from 400-1600
English, Math, Reading, and Science scores range from 1-36. Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections; ranges from 1-36
No – you do not lose points for incorrect answers (this is a new policy!!)
Penalty for Wrong Answers?
No – you do not lose points for incorrect answers
Yes – you can choose which set(s) of SAT scores to submit to colleges. However, some colleges require or recommend that students submit all scores. Students should review the score-reporting policy of each college to which they plan to apply.
Score Choice?
Yes – you can choose which set(s) of ACT scores to submit to colleges. However, some colleges require or recommend that students submit all scores. Students should review the score-reporting policy of each college to which they plan to apply.
Math questions generally increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section. Reading passage questions generally progress chronologically through the passage, not by difficulty level. Writing & Language passage questions do not progress by difficulty level.
Difficulty Levels
For the English and Reading sections, the difficulty level of the questions is random. For the Math section, questions generally increase in difficulty as you progress through the section. For the Science section, passages generally increase in difficulty as you progress through the test, and questions generally become more difficult as you progress through a passage.
Arithmetic, problem-solving & data analysis, heart of algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, and trigonometry; formulas provided
Math Levels
Arithmetic, algebra I and II, functions, geometry, trigonometry; no formulas are provided
Seven times per year: March or April, May, June, August, October, November, December (note that some states offer the SAT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)
Offered when?
Seven times per year: February, April, June, July, September, October, December (note that some states offer the ACT as part of their state testing requirements; these tests are not administered on the national test dates)
Typically about four weeks before the test date
Registration deadline?
Typically about five to six weeks before the test date
More Information
$55 (exam only); $70 (exam with optional writing test included)
*Remember that there are numerous scholarships and other funding programs to help with testing costs. Ask your Ambassador or a S2S team member if you need help.

Choosing the right test for you

Beyond the basic structural differences between the tests, there are many more subjective perspectives on the differences between the ACT and the SAT. It will be helpful to read a few of them to get a general impression of each test through reputable sources, for example:
However, don't go down a rabbit hole reading online opinions about the tests. In the end, there is no substitute for developing your own perspective, so you may find it worthwhile to pick up a test book and take both practice tests to see if you find one that is more comfortable for you.
Finally, as you decide what test to take, remember that you must know the requirements for the schools to which you are applying, and understand the structural and qualitative differences between the tests to determine which may work better for you.

How to Prepare

Have you ever heard of the Seven P’s? A common saying in some military circles: Prior Proper Preparation Prevents Pitifully Poor Performance. The Seven P’s can very well be applied to the SAT and ACT tests, as preparation and study can significantly improve your scores. Broadly speaking, there are two common approaches: self-study and formal test prep courses.


Self-study usually takes the form of reading and practice test taking through one of the many test prep books published on your desired test. Two of the most well known options include Kaplan and Princeton Review. This approach can be particularly beneficial for being low cost, easily fit into a busy schedule, and for providing the option for more focused study if you only need to review a particular testing area (e.g. math). However, this may not be the best option if you want a structured environment to learn, particularly if it has been a long time since you had to study on your own. If you choose this option, at a minimum, you should budget several months for intensive self-study with test prep books.

Formal test prep course

The other option is a formal test prep course. Test prep courses are thorough, covering every aspect of the test including effective test taking approaches. More than just test coverage and analysis, the test prep companies aid many military applicants because they provide a structured setting, either in a classroom or online. There are three common concerns about a formal course that we need to address:
First, due to the comprehensive nature of the curriculum, some courses may provide material that is too basic or moves too slowly over topics that an applicant already understands. This may be a worthwhile tradeoff for formal instruction in the areas where you need help.
Second, fitting a formal course into your schedule, particularly if you work or are still on active duty can be challenging. However, there are a number of formal courses that are self-paced and online, so do not assume a course won't work for you.
Third, you may be concerned about cost. Many test prep companies offer a military discount, so be sure to ask. S2S applicants also have access to a variety of discounted or even free prep options, and we highly recommend them. But even if you have to pay full fare, a good test prep program could still be worthwhile in the long run, because a good prep course can significantly improve your test scores and make you a more competitive applicant at your dream school.

Choosing your approach

As you consider the best test prep approach for you, consider the following carefully:
  • Your approach may depend on the college: The college may have a preference for a specific test; make sure you prepare for the right one. Some schools may care less about test scores if the applicant is a veteran, and if that’s the case, they will tell you so. If the college seems to prioritize test scores, then it might behoove you to shell out some extra money for a test prep class.
  • Take a practice test to gauge your current score: Taking a practice test will give you a ballpark sense of how well you will do on the real thing. Comparing a practice test will give you a rough score to compare with competitive scores at your target schools. Learning how much room you have to improve, and identifying any specific areas for improvement will help you find the right approach.
  • Consider how much time and money you have to prep: Your specific circumstances matter as you balance your priorities to get the best score you can.
  • Ask for help: You're not doing this alone, so reach out to your Ambassador or S2S if you need help getting financial assistance for test prep or thinking through the right approach for you.

Simulate Test Conditions and Eliminate Areas of Weakness

Whether you decide to self-study or enroll in a test prep course, it is important to balance studying with test taking. Taking numerous tests without focusing on weaknesses is a poor management of time. However, practicing on sample problems to hone overall ability can lead to a false sense of security, as doing so eliminates the “time stress” of test-taking under simulated test conditions. It’s satisfying to keep doing the problems you get right, but that isn’t a good use of your time; you need to pick up as many additional points as you can, and that means spending your energy on the ones you miss during your prep and your practice tests, and understanding why you got them wrong. It is imperative to find and study questions that have been used in previous exams to simulate actual test conditions. While test prep companies often provide their own questions, the best questions are those previously administered by the standardized test companies. You can also buy books of previous tests and sample test problems—they are readily available online.
‌You should take practice tests to find your weak areas. Once you do, you can focus on those areas of the test, while also making sure to practice for every section—even the ones you feel most ready for!

Plan Ahead and Prepare Early

Allocate enough time to study for the test. Ideally, start studying at least six months ahead of the test date. We would actually recommend getting closer to a year’s jump on things, so that if you end up taking the test and don’t achieve the score you’d like, you’re ready and prepared to take it again.

Avoid Test Fatigue

You can only take time to rest if you have planned accordingly. That is why it is really important that you allot plenty of time for test preparation. Allowing several months to prepare means you can take the necessary steps to avoid test fatigue.
First, you need to take breaks between practice test and test prep session. Taking a three- to four-hour test or studying for hours can be mentally and physically draining, particularly during an already stressful period of applying to colleges. Ensuring you balance intense study with recovery time (sleep, exercise, and breaks in study time) will pay dividends in maximizing your test performance, managing the personal stress of test and college prep, and maintaining healthy relationships with your friends and family.
Second, preparing methodically will help you figure out the right ways to manage test fatigue while taking the test. Food and hydration are critical. When taking practice tests, experiment with water and healthy snacks that will help sustain your body through several hours of test taking. Also, pay attention to when you start to feel burnout during the test and build in micro-breaks to rest your eyes, take a breath, and keep going. Come test day, you will have a ritual to ensure that you get the nourishment you need to take the test.

Only Use Trusted Resources

There are many great websites that provide strategy and helpful hints on how to “defeat” a test. These sites also are great places to share “war stories” about how one did or how one is feeling. However, don’t waste too much time on these websites. Some advice given at these websites should be taken with a grain of salt. While websites geared towards a test or graduate school can be fun and entertaining, they can also include misleading statements from anonymous “experts”.

Test Resources

Service to School

Service to School has several webinars available that can help you with everything from the college essay to finding the school.

Universities and Test Prep Companies

Another important way to get access to the proper materials is to call the admissions offices of the schools you’re interested in or visit their websites. Many of them will offer links to test prep on their websites. Websites for top test prep companies like Princeton Review ( and Kaplan ( are highly used resources.

SAT and ACT Resources

Your main resource for the SAT and ACT tests will be College Board ( and ACT Student (, respectively. We advise you to create a login for your choice test if you haven’t already. That website will give you access to future test dates and tips for preparation. If you’ve already taken the SAT or ACT test, but never logged in before or forgot your login information, you can contact the test company via their website for help.
We also suggest that you start with the testing companies (College Board and ACT Student) when looking for study guides and test prep material. Since those companies create their respective tests, it is safe to assume that you can get the most out of using their test prep materials. They also offer free practice tests online.

Recorded Webinars

Hear from admissions officers at University of Notre Dame, the The University of Chicago, and Carleton College as we discuss the impact COVID-19 had on the admissions process for the 2020-21 admissions cycle.