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Preparation is Key to Test Success


Preparation is Key to Test Success

Tips for Taking Standardized College Entrance Exams from the Iowa College Access Network (ICAN)


“Just relax,” people say. “You’ll do fine.” Who are they kidding? Don’t they know you don’t just want to do well enough to be accepted by a college? You want to score high enough to be accepted by the school of your choice and to qualify for scholarships and financial aid.


It’s true that taking the ACT® or SAT® exams can be a big deal. After all, your score is likely a large part of the formula schools use to judge your admission and your qualifications for aid, just like your GPA. And, you’ve had four years, not a couple of hours, to work on your GPA.


On the other hand, you don’t need to feel a lot of stress about taking the exams. The best way to reduce your stress level is to be as prepared as you can be. To make sure you’re ready, follow these steps.


Before the test

  •  Read. Read everything you can, as often as you can. The act of reading increases your comprehension and cognitive skills, even if you aren’t always reading the most scholarly book around. (Best-selling fiction can provide new perspective and vocabulary.)
  •  Practice. Practice isn’t just for band or basketball. Take a few mock tests online at or other free sites.
  •  Review. Now that you know the types of questions on the test, look over your old class notes and information. Refresh your memory on algebraic formulas and predicate nominatives. If you didn’t understand it the first time, ask for help; it may make more sense to you now.
  •  Avoid “cramming.” Trying to pack your head full of information two days before the test isn’t going to help you; in fact it may increase your stress to the point where you’ve hurt your chances. Instead, review over weeks rather than hours.
  •  Practice some more. Try taking mock pencil-and-paper tests under real test-taking conditions. That means no music, no snacks and no breaks in a quiet, well-lit area. Check out your bookstore or library for test prep books. Consider at least two types of books: an official guide from the test makers and a more general test prep book.
  •  Strengthen your weakness. Especially if you have limited time to prepare, concentrate on the subject areas you’re weakest in.


Day of the test

  • Sleep well. Try to get eight hours of sleep the night before the test. If you think nerves may keep you up, make an early night of it two days before the test too.
  •  Dress for success. A suit and tie aren’t necessary, but comfortable layers are a good idea. You don’t want to be distracted by being too hot or an itchy waistband while you’re taking the test.
  •  Eat breakfast. Protein increases your ability to concentrate, so have some meat, peanut butter or eggs as part of an energizing breakfast.
  •  Bring the right tools. Bring some soft lead no. 2 pencils with good erasers, not a mechanical pencil or (gasp!) ink pen.



During the test

  •  Neatness counts. Fill in blanks completely without being messy. If you must change an answer, erase thoroughly.
  •  Choose your blanks. Math questions, for example, tend to get more difficult the farther into the test you are. If you find you can’t answer the last few questions, take a shot at them but don’t spend a lot of time. Extra minutes may be better spent making sure you have the correct answers to the questions you do know how to solve.
  •  Make educated guesses. Some tests (like the SAT) take points away for an incorrect answer but don’t change your score for items left blank. While this makes guessing seem like a bad choice, chances are you’ll actually raise your score if you make guesses after eliminating the most unlikely choices.
  •  Understand the instructions. Read instructions carefully so you know what you’re looking for. Test writers know the stress gets to students, and some answer choices may trip up those who rushed through directions.
  •  Watch the clock. Try to be about halfway through a section at half the time given for a test. For example, if you need to finish a 100-question test in an hour, you should have around 25 items answered at 15 minutes and about 50 at 30 minutes.
  •  Keep moving. If a question stumps you, don’t spend too much time on it. Skip it for now and come back when you’ve gotten through easier items.
  •  Know what you’re looking for. Skim the questions for a reading selection first. You’ll be surprised how clear the answers are when you read the selection.
  •  Use all your time. While it may seem frustrating, especially if you had to guess several times, use any extra time to review your answers or fill in any blank items. You may catch a silly mistake or understand something more clearly the second time through.



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