Test-Taking Strategies for the SAT/ACT

By  Layton Funk

Published on  May 29, 2019

There are three main test-taking strategies, in my opinion, that you must consider more than anything when taking a standardized test like the SAT or ACT, even more than the content: Timing, Context, and Intent. At first glance, you might think “well, duh” about timing, but then you might wonder what I mean by context and intent. You will say “well, duh” to a lot of this, but it bears repeating and committing to memory and practice. As much as this seems obvious, if you haven’t practiced these ideas and put them into your test-taking habits, the obvious things might not come to you when they’re not right in front of you during the test. There are certainly other factors, concepts, and strategies that you need to think about and utilize while studying for and taking any test, but these stand head and shoulders above the rest, at least in my head. Each major test-taking strategy has its own set of mini strategies to put into practice, basically making each a guideline to follow with some overlap between them, further solidifying my point.


Possibly the most prevalent and looming thought in any student’s mind while taking a test: “oh my gosh, how much time is left? I can’t finish all this. Why don’t they give us more time?” These are all common concerns, but that doesn’t mean they are particularly useful or valid to dwell on. Nothing wastes time more than hurrying or worrying about time. Before you start any quiz or test, take some time to skim through it! Try to find the hardest questions and single them out, leaving them for last. This may seem difficult or impossible (how can you tell how hard a question is by looking?), but with enough practice, you will know what a hard question is for you. What is easy for one person might be the bane of another person’s existence. Once you’ve finished scanning the test (or reading/writing passage. Never leave a passage unfinished if you can help it!), go ahead and start! Don’t keep the time left in mind, don’t look around at the clock, and don’t worry yourself to death over how many seconds it took you to answer this question or how many minutes that awful Charles Dickens passage took to read. Just relax and solve each question as concisely as you can while finding all the relevant evidence needed to prove your answer is the one true choice. Once you figure that out, leave enough time to bubble in your answers (as you go, I recommend page-by-page) and double-check questions that you weren’t sure about.


Here we have a catch-all term that I use to tell students to read everything they can and find every bit of evidence possible! You never know when you’ll miss that sneaky “EXCEPT” or “NOT” in a question. Context goes further than just reading the question, however. You also must read everything surrounding each question, including all the answers. Imagine going to a restaurant and being offered 4 dishes but picking the first one you liked before seeing the rest. You’re going to regret missing out on that filet mignon. Furthermore, using process of elimination is possibly the best way to get a right answer. Each answer eliminated increases your chance of success! There is evidence for the right answer every time and a lack of evidence (or sometimes hard evidence against) the wrong answers in every section. I’ll go through each section in the SAT and ACT and tell you what you need to focus on the most and why.


The reading sections in both are nearly identical and each has several passages accompanied by ten or so questions. Before you even start, as I said in the timing section, go over all the questions first! If possible, mark down where in the passage the question is directing you to (e.g. in line 38… or according to paragraph 2…). Do not, however, try to memorize each question as that will distract you from the reading. What you should do is underline what each question is asking for, which hints to your brain to watch out for anything related to the question while reading the passage. Once you’ve read the passage – or passages, in which case determine which questions refer to each passage and go through them and the reading in order – carefully and completely while marking anything that jumps out to you, do the questions while finding evidence for correct answers. A lot of people say that Reading and Writing are subjective, and you can argue for any answer; I won’t argue with the latter point. However, the questions are written by a person who knows exactly what they’re asking of the student and what concept it’s testing. The other answers will have some merit, but one is clearly the correct answer upon careful consideration! Think about math and how only one answer is correct: it’s the same way with reading. There is direct evidence in the passage telling you what answer is the right one. The same can be said for the writing and science sections.

Writing and Science

I’m going to talk about both the science and writing in the same vein just because it’s not necessary to read every little bit in either section. Every question you read will tell you exactly where to look for your answer. “What should you change about this word in this sentence?” “According to experiment 1, what is this science mumbo-jumbo saying?” I would advise you to read the entire part surrounding where each question directs you; read the sentence before and after in writing and read the entire part of science they ask you to. Process of elimination works here, too. In writing, often if it sounds wrong to you then it probably is. In science, the graphs, figures, experiment outlines, and tables tell a direct story. All that’s up to you is reading and interpreting on a question-to-question basis.


There is much, much less reading in math, but word problems still exist and are there to mess with you! Make sure to underline, just like in reading, what the question wants from you. Does it want the diameter or the radius? Is it asking for x or for y? What units are we talking about here? Students miss too many questions to count based on a small misunderstanding of what the question was asking, just because a student will stop short because they see the right number in the answer choices. You need to follow the entire problem, especially word problems, to their end until you have a number with units that line up to what the question was asking for. Drawing an axis, a shape with labelled dimensions, and writing out the equation a problem gives you (either in words or just plain numbers) helps immensely. Writing something or drawing something reinforces it in your head and seeing it on paper aids you in figuring the problem out. That way, you might find some nice shortcuts or circumvent any tricks the author may have intended for you to fall for.


Speaking of the author, a ton of students don’t think about the fact that a person (or group of persons) wrote these tests. Many just think of these as robotic and factory made. While they are highly regulated and put through multiple guidelines and reviews, the SAT and ACT are ultimately designed and written by human beings. That means that taking these tests comes down to reading into how they wrote the questions, why they wrote them that way, and what concept or idea they are testing. Once you realize that, you can game almost every question using process of elimination and getting into the author’s head even if you don’t know the content. Context clues can help more than memorizing information a lot of the time. Every question has a correct answer, an answer that is pretty darn close to being correct, an answer that is understandable to put but is wrong when you think about it, and a laughable answer. You ever hear another person in the class chuckle or breathe through their nose sharply a few times in a row? Yeah, that’s because they think a question or answer is so easy or so wrong that it’s funny. They know exactly how to take the test and are having fun when they get to a problem that is almost beneath them. Getting to that point is incredibly satisfying. This test-taking strategy of using the author’s intent takes the most practice and intuition to understand and be effective but is often the key to crushing any test. You can transfer this skill (and the others) to other classes, college, and beyond! It’s a lifelong skill to see between the lines, find a shortcut, figure out a trick, and really comprehend what you’re really reading.


Before I bookend this lecture of mine, I do want to say that all of these tips and tricks not only apply to the SAT and ACT, but to nearly every other exam, too! This will carry you to and through college, so keep them in mind and adapt them to your skills and to individuals teachers/professors. Some other test-taking strategies that are important: pay attention to the types of passages and questions asked in your studies, especially if it’s practice based on the real tests, keep a positive attitude (which requires some confidence, lots of rest, and a realistic goal), and not to get distracted while taking the test. You must dedicate yourself and practice everything here – and more – in order to reach your goal. It won’t all happen overnight, so find some help if you need it as soon as you can! It’s all a game against the test and the authors of the test; these test-taking strategies I’ve laid out are the skills you can use to stay one step ahead and get a high score!

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