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By: Nancy Schatz Alton of Your Teen Magazine

I recently learned that even just discussing the SAT or ACT can bring forth a tidal wave of feelings. My daughter cried while talking about taking the test during a meeting with her high school guidance counselor. More tears were shed after her first test score showed she needed to study a lot before the next exam sitting. She was calm yet determined as she asked for a tutor to help her get a handle on the prep work. Finally, she was gleeful and proud while submitting final scores to the schools of her choice.

We know that standardized tests can play a crucial role in giving your child a boost in the college/university admissions process and putting them on track for merit aid. While I can’t promise it won’t be an emotional journey for your teenager, too, I can give you 5 great tips to help your student prepare for these important exams, courtesy of Emily Levitt, vice president of education at Sylvan Learning.

1. Take Both Tests Early On.

Every school in the United States accepts either SAT or ACT scores, so choosing which test to take is based on which format your teen prefers—and which one he or she does better on. However, your teen often won’t know until taking both, which is why it’s wise to sit for each of them early in the process, such as fall of junior year.

Says Levitt, “If there is a clear gap between overall scores on the two initial tests, a student should plan on retaking the one on which they scored higher. If they score relatively evenly, they can choose the format they prefer.”

2. Understand the Difference Between the SAT and ACT.

While the exams essentially cover the same skills, there are some key differences. The ACT has a dedicated science section, while the SAT weaves science into some of its other questions.

“The ACT offers less time for each question, and has four or five options per question, while the SAT has four, giving students slightly better odds in guessing on the SAT,” says Levitt.

Also note, the SAT has two math sections, one of which students must complete without a calculator. New in 2020: As of September 2020, ACT students are able to retake just the section(s) they wish to improve, after they have completed one full battery of tests.

3. Take the Chosen Test Two to Three Times.

Most students will want to take the test once as the “practice,” a second time after some concerted study, and then possibly a third time if they are convinced that more prep can improve their score enough to hit a specific scholarship target or get closer to the median score at a college/university they are striving for. If your junior took it in the fall, then it’s likely a good idea to test again in the spring and if needed, once more in the fall of senior year.

“There are some benefits to studying over the summer, too, when there are fewer academic pressures and extra-curricular distractions than during the school year,” says Levitt.

4. Help Your Student Prep.

Before you start any test prep, talk to your teen about his or her concerns.

“Sometimes it’s content-based, which means they should seek out extra practice from a prep book or workshop to boost specific skills,” says Levitt. “But other times they need test-taking strategies because they are not sure how to decipher different types of questions or aren’t sure if skipped questions count against them.”

She advises to start prep 8-10 weeks out and take lots of practice tests. Study in small chunks of time instead of cramming like crazy. Plus, get a good night’s sleep before the test, eat a good breakfast and take a deep breath.

5. Give It Your Best, Then Let It Go.

Levitt’s final piece of advice is this: “Tell your student to give it their best shot, but don’t fret that their whole future is riding on this. School admissions departments look at the whole student, not just test scores.”

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