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. Many schools have become test optional. 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. Another term you might hear: test-blind. Test-blind schools do not consider test scores even if submitted. These policies are frequently changing, so make sure you do research on whether schools require test scores or not.

If you are applying to a test-optional school, you might be wondering whether you should take an SAT or ACT. The answer depends on how you think you'll do. If you think you will do well because you've always been a naturally good test taker, go for it! If taking an SAT or ACT will cost you consider money, time, or stress, you can skip it.

If you do submit a test score, please know that it will be considered. It is worth your time to look up what the middle 50% of students applying to a college are earning on the SAT or ACT. If your score falls below the middle 50%, we recommend that you do not submit it. If it is in middle 50% or higher, you can safely submit it. Essentially, submitting a poor test score will be held against you, so you only want to send a test score to a college when it can help.

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. Here is a chart with the basic differences between the two.

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.

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).

Other resources for the SAT and ACT tests will be College Board and ACT, respectively. Create a login for your selected test if you haven’t already. That website will give you access to tips for preparation, 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. 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.

Finally, free online resources like YouTube or Khan Academy can help you get up to speed, too.

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. 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.

Things to Consider

  • Simulate test conditions and eliminate areas of weakness. Taking numerous tests without focusing on weaknesses is a poor management of 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.‌ 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. 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.

  • Only use trusted resources. There are many entertaining websites that provide strategy and helpful hints on how to “defeat” a test, but there are no real, proven ways to beat standardized tests. Take these websites with a grain of salt.

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