Guest Post: SAT/ACT Test Preparation from Kate Ketcham

Kate Ketcham

Kate Ketcham

Note from Katie: Today's guest post is written by Kate Ketcham, a friend from my college days. Her post is informed by her work as a teacher and tutor at Kaplan Test Prep, but she also keeps busy working at the Gluten Free Goddess Bakery, is a Continuing Education Coordinator at the University of Southern California, and is increasingly involved in art and film making in LA (hopefully on a paid basis in the future!). She studied English & Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary before working as the office coordinator at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College, which is where I met her (and is one of the people I was referring to in my post on the importance of getting to know the office staff). She is an example of someone who is pursuing multiple passions in a focused and exciting way, and I'm thrilled to include her experience and advice here on the blog.

You can find her art/photo website at Also check out the site for the Indiegogo campaign she also currently managing for the independent film All is Forgiven

Test Prep

Hi! My name is Kate, and I worked with Katie when she was a college student at the University of Oregon. Remember when she told you to talk to staff people? One of the staff people Katie talked to was me. (And she’s right, you should talk to us, we love students.)

I have a long history working in college administration, as well as teaching and tutoring students for the SAT and ACT with a professional test prep agency. Right now I do both of these things part-time. (I also work in art and film, but don’t get paid for that - yet.) I can talk at length about many facets of college preparation and college admission – for this post I’m going to focus on how to approach standardized tests.

Make Specific Goals

Don’t just assume you need an incredibly high score. You want to do your best, sure. But you also don’t need a perfect score. Every school has a range of scores listed on their website - look it up for the schools you are interested in. An admissions counselor can tell you to select schools that will definitely accept you, that will probably accept you and that might not accept you. Safety, match and reach schools. Look at all of their ranges and figure out what your goal score is. Then take a practice test and see how you do.

Test scores are just one piece of the college admissions puzzle - if you are a strong athlete and your favorite school has a program that could use you, then great, that works in your favor! But test scores ARE something that you can control and prepare for, unlike some of the more subjective parts of the evaluation process. So start early, and study.

Plan Ahead

Don’t put off the SAT/ACT. Your senior year is going to be completely packed with stuff to do, the last thing you want is a test hanging over your head. There is no one more miserable than a high school senior stuck taking the January or worse, the March SAT. Don’t be that person!

A lot of people end up taking tests more than once. For the SAT, in particular, this can be very advantageous, because most schools look at something called a "superscore," which takes the highest score you’ve gotten on each section of the text and adds them together. Say you took the test twice and got a 600/540/300 and a 300/600/540. Your superscore is 600/600/540, or a 1740.

If you might have to take the test more than once, the test isn’t offered every month and you might want to prep for a few months after you take it the first time … these things add up, and this is how people end up taking spring tests their senior year. Again, don’t be that person. Deal with this your junior year. Look at the CollegeBoard/ACT calendar and make a plan on which dates you will take the test, with several back-ups in case you don’t like your score. Enjoy your senior year.

SAT vs ACT - what's the deal?

Okay, so you can read about the differences between the two tests in many places - here are my two cents.

The ACT feels more like a test you take in school. It asks more content-based questions that want you to synthesize data that the test gives you. The ACT is shorter than the SAT, though it is still a substantial test. The ACT has slightly higher-level math (matrixes, trig and logs), and a science section.

The SAT is 4 hours long, and has 10 sections. There is no trig on the SAT, just geometry and algebra. The SAT is testing your logical reasoning skills more than it is testing a set content. It does not feel like tests you take in high school. Students often feel like the test is trying to trick them. (It is not.)

In my experience, students who are big concept thinkers prefer the SAT and students who are more detail-oriented prefer the ACT. Most schools accept either test, and don’t care which one you take. So which test you take is up to you – try them out, and pick the one you are the most comfortable with. This is an opportunity to pick the test that is best for you!

Kate Ketcham wonders "Should I prep?"

Kate Ketcham wonders "Should I prep?"

Should I prep? How?

How much you need prep, and how much value you get out of it is really down to you. Again! If you take a practice test and find that you already have the score you want - you probably don’t need to prep. Hooray!

If you are on a very tight budget and are really good at teaching yourself, then get a book and see how you do.

 BUT, if you can afford to prep with a pro, or need external structure to learn, then it can be a really good thing to do.

A classroom test prep program is good for someone who is more of a social learner, and enjoys discussion. However, classrooms have to try to teach all the students in the class equally, and if you sit in the back and don’t ask any questions, this might not be your best choice.

One-on-one tutoring can be very helpful if you need someone to really work with your specific needs and questions. The perk of tutoring is that it can be whatever you need it to be.

Keys to Test Prep

Here are the key steps to test prep, regardless how how you choose to prepare:

1) Get used to the test.
Both the SAT and the ACT have their own quirks and foibles. The more you practice taking the test, the more you will be comfortable with it. You want to both practice the whole test multiple times and also to build your stamina and skills by practicing a section at a time.

With the SAT in particular I always liken this to training for a marathon. You have to build up your ability, first in small bits and then bigger until the whole is no longer daunting.

2) Identify areas you are weak.
Once you’ve taken a practice test, look over the test and look for patterns in what you missed. This will be what you want to study first. Is vocabulary an issue? Complex geometry? Grammar? Start with the topics that give you the most trouble, as you have the most to learn there. When you’re tired, practice things you are more comfortable with.

3) Figure out why you missed what you missed.

You can be good at English and still not do well on Critical Reading questions. Figure out why. Chances are you are approaching things from the wrong angle. Learn to think how the test is thinking. This will allow you to predict the correct answer accurately.

Materials from test prep companies can give you some insight into how to think like the test, if this is hard for you to understand. This is their specialty.

4) Set a study schedule.

It should be a regular thing. 30 minutes a day is great. An hour every other day. Whatever works for you schedule, but keeps things regular. The sooner the test is, the more you’ll want to prep (an hour a day rather than 30 minutes, say), but you want to practice in increments that won’t overwhelm you.

5) Do not cram. I repeat, do not cram.

Both the SAT and ACT tests are so long and inclusive, that cramming in short-term knowledge will do more harm than good. All it will do is jumble up your head and confuse the things you already know. If you have done all of the things we discussed, you shouldn’t need to cram. You should actually not study at all for at least 3 days before the test. You’ve learned what you are going to know. In the last days before the test you want to relax and make sure you get plenty of sleep.

And that’s all for now. Best of luck with the tests, and the rest of the college admission process!

High schoolers--have you started your ACT/SAT prep yet? College students--any personal stories or additional words of advice? Leave your comments down below. Good luck to you all, and happy studying!