Tips for taking your first SAT/ACT

Pencil and shavings

You are getting ready to sit for your standardized test. You have decided on the SAT or the ACT. You have registered, circled the date on your calendar and it is coming up fast. How do you make sure that you do your best?

Understand the test rules


The SAT is broken into 2 main sections: reading and writing, and math. Each of these is scored between 200 and 800. Then they are added together to get your final total. There is an essay portion that is now optional. 


The ACT is broken into 4 main sections: Science, Mathematics, English, and Reading. There is also an optional essay portion. Your right answers on these sections are turned into scale scores ranging from 1 to 36. Your total score is the average of your 4 sections rounded to the nearest whole number. 


For both tests, a higher score is better. A higher score represents a better test no matter which one you took. However, you cannot compare an 1100 SAT score directly to a 24 ACT score so don’t get too bogged down in it.

Visit the location

If you attend a small school, the actual test may not be held at your high school. Instead, it may be at a larger neighborhood high school or tech school. Not knowing your way around the campus or feeling uneasy because you are in unfamiliar surroundings can contribute to testing anxiety. Visiting the location beforehand will at least give you one less thing to stress over. 

Have everything you need on test day

You should have exactly what you need prepped and ready to go the night before test day so you are confident that you haven’t forgotten anything. So what should you bring?


  • #2 pencils
  • Calculator
  • Photo ID
  • Your printed admission ticket


  • Watch
  • Snack

CollegeBoard gives information on what photo IDs are accepted and detailed instructions on printing your admission ticket. You can check there for more information about what to expect on test day. Your pencils must be #2 and mechanical ones are not allowed. It is also wise to bring a calculator however, check on the CollegeBoard website to verify that your specific type of calculator is allowed. 


If you are like me, you might not want a snack even though you are given a break during which a snack is allowed. Also, a watch is to help keep you aware of how much time you have left as you complete sections. Some testing sites have clocks in the rooms but do not rely on being able to see them from your seat. 

Now for the Good Stuff – Tips

Neither test counts wrong answers against you. You will not be penalized for guessing. When in doubt, fill something in. 


Use a big pencil. Remember those pencils from kindergarten that were like writing with a crayon? Use one of those. There is no need to take 30 seconds to fill in a bubble. Use a big dull pencil and draw a big gray line through the answer bubble you want to mark and go on. 


Do not freak out about erasing marks. Teachers, the test instructions, andd everyone will tell you to erase marks completely if you fill in the wrong answer. Don’t worry about it. Why? Because the test also says that you have to fill in the bubble completely and darkly if you want the answer to be counted by the machine that grades them. There is no way that the machine can pick up every little mark on the paper as an answer and still need you to fill in the bubble perfectly. So one of those things can’t be true. Don’t waste your precious test time obsessively erasing answers. 


After every 5 questions stop and make sure that your answer matches up with the number in the book and the number on your answer sheet. It is way better to figure this out after 5 mistakes than at the end of a section of 25 questions where you have one more answer and 2 more bubbles. 


Take a deep breath before the start of each section. Relax your shoulders and tell yourself you are going to do well. Sounds corny but it works. 


Take the test early. A huge part of taking these tests and doing well is simply knowing what to expect and not psyching yourself out. One of the best ways to combat that is to take the test multiple times. So don’t wait and take the test 2 months before graduation. Take the test as a sophomore. Take it multiple times as a junior. You will generally improve each time even without massive study just due to being more relaxed.


Take both tests. Make time to take both the SAT and the ACT at some point before applying for colleges. You will most likely favor one over the other. This tends to just be because of how people learn and which subjects they like. This means that one of the tests may lend itself to a higher score for you without you having to do much extra. Might as well capitalize on it. 

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