PSAT-SAT-ACT Test Taking Strategies, Tactics, Techniques, and Rules

PSAT-SAT-ACT test taking strategies might not be the most  popular approach to studying for the PSAT-SAT-ACT but they have been proven to be the most effective.

When I ask students what their test taking strategies are, I usually get, “I guess I sign up for the test and take it.”  When students ask their School Counselor about test taking strategies, they get a different response – “Sign up for the test, do some practice, and take the test.”

Not much “strategy” in these statements, are there?

When I ask parents, I get a completely different answer… “I don’t know.”

I have been preparing students for the PSAT, ACT, and SAT since 1991.  I specifically use the term “prepare” because there is a lot more to test preparation than simply taking a practice test before you take the actual test.  Indeed, most test “preparation” isn’t preparation at all; it’s “practice.”  Most prep courses, particularly those provided by schools, are little more than supervised practice sessions where students gain some orientation and familiarity with the test, but not much more.

Although this is better than nothing, it’s not much better.  Practice in good, but it has to be the right practice.  If you have poor testing habits, practicing will only help you get better at poor testing habits.

In the process we developed, we have four levels of training and application (practice to get better):

  1. Strategies are the macro view of long term test preparation.
    • Start Early. Start taking real SAT and ACT at test centers freshman year.  Take one of each test each semester.
    • Get Rid of Emotional Excuses. Problems with these tests are more emotional than intellectual.
    • Go Through the websites. Most students only go there to register and miss a lot of resources.
    • Use Only Official SAT and ACT tests and material. Knock-offs prepare you to do well on knock-off tests.
    • Pick Optimal Test Dates. Some test dates are better than other test dates because you can get an actual copy of your test and your answers on specific test dates.
    • First We Will Become Good, Then We Well Become Fast. Don’t try to time yourself when you start prep.  Learn to answer the question correctly first, then work on speed.
    • Practice Properly. Learn from your mistakes, correct them, and improve.
    • Triple Test Strategy. Take each practice test three times.  Grade them each time and see if you get better.  Seeing the same material helps your brain recognize patterns in the questions.
    • Avoid Bogus and Worthless Prep Courses. Most prep courses are really “practice” courses that do little to train you to do better on the test.
    • Get Expert Advice. Seek out experts who have both scored well and have a reputation of helping others score well.

2.  Tactics are what you do on the test and what you practice when you prepare. These include how you approach each section, pacing (transferring answers in batches), timing, calculated guessing, etc.  This also includes training and improvement tactics – the things you do to learn and train to score higher on the next test.

For example, we train students to use the Process of Elimination (POE). This is one of our greatest test taking strategies. Instead of looking for the right answer, look for characteristics of the wrong answer to determine which ones to eliminate.  Most often, even if you can figure out the right answer, if you use POE, you get the correct answer because what you do know can help you with what you don’t know.

  1. Techniques are how you answer questions in each different section. There are specific techniques for the Math, English/Writing, Reading, and Science sections of the tests.

For example, for the Reading section, our Technique is to skip the passage and go directly to the questions.  Then, determine the “level” of each question: is it a “cheap” question (Level 1) where it tells us which lines the answer is located, is it a “scan” question (Level 2) where it gives a word or phrase to scan for (…Bill heard the knock on the door…) or a general location of the answer (…in the first paragraph…), or is it a “skim” question (Level 3) that asks a general question about the entire passage.  Answer the “cheap” questions first because they are the easiest and each question counts the same.  Then we answer the “scan” questions, and, by the time we have those questions answered, we have a good enough grasp of the passage that we can answer most or all the general questions and “skim” if we need more information.

  1. Rules are how you answer a specific type of question. We apply specific Inductive and Deductive Reasoning to specific types of questions to make it easy to identify wrong answer and eliminate.  In Math, you would use the “Bikini Rule” for fractions because, like a bikini, fractions have a top and a bottom, and identifying certain characteristics the correct answer needs to contain will allow you to eliminate wrong answers and lead you to the correct answer faster.  We use the “SAME Rule” in English/Writing grammar questions: SAME person, tense, number, etc.

For example, in the Reading section, we use deductive reasoning on some questions.  Here are the answer choices:

  • John got angry with his father and John left
  • John’s father got angry with John and told John to leave
  • John got angry with his father, but apologized later
  • John’s father got angry with John, but apologized later

From these answers, we can deduce that someone got angry and someone left or apologized.  So we “scan” the text to read where someone got angry – figure out if it is John or his father, and what happened next.

Oh, by the way, we haven’t even read the question, but already know how to find the answer.  That’s how this rule works… Better, Faster, Easier…!

So, to get to the point we know how to figure out who got angry in this question, we have to start with the right strategy.




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