What I Learned When I Retook the ACT and SAT

Posted by Colleen on 5/4/18 5:59 PM

SAT-2My blog posts usually focus on the content of the ACT and SAT: what information is on the tests, how to think strategically about taking the tests, and how to maximize your score. This month, I decided to take a step back from the details and look at the bigger picture, so I sat down and took practice ACT and SAT tests, back to back. I realized a lot more about the two tests in this marathon session, and now I have some ideas for you.

This blog might be helpful for you if you seemed to have a reached an impasse at improving your practice test scores or if you’re looking to take a quick break from content in your test prep.

What Stood Out in General?

There is a lot of content covered on the two tests. English, Math, Reading, and Science for the ACT, and Reading, Writing & Language, and Math for the SAT. Yet, some patterns about the test emerged.

It was hard to keep track of my time

Especially when I just had a watch. The sections started at strange times, and the length of the sections are irregular. It could easily take a couple valuable seconds every time you want to calculate how much time you have left.

How can we fix this? Either know when halfway will be and aim for that. Or, take a bunch of practice tests and get a feeling for how fast you need to go in all of the sections and stick to that pace. Once you get a good feeling for the pace, you don’t have to stress out about time.

It is easy to overlook what the questions is actually asking.

It sounds silly not to know what the question is asking, but the test makers have laid some traps. For instance, words like except and not are easy to skim past.

It is also easy to breeze past long questions. Some questions can be several lines long. It is easy to forget to give them your full attention, make a guess as to what they are asking, and go straight to the answer choices.

What to do here? Yes, you have to keep moving on the test, but spending so little time that you haven’t understood the question will be detrimental to your score. Don’t skim the questions, and don’t assume that you know what questions are asking.

You probably won’t have time to proof all of your work.

Make a system so that you can prioritize what you want to check. Make circles or checkmarks for what to come back to, if you have time. Also, keep your scratch work organized in the math section so that you can quickly pick up where you left off. 

It is easy to get your answers out of sequence.

Once you get out of order, it can take a lot of time to find where you went wrong, correct the mistake, and clearly erase all of your answers. Take half a second to check your numbering before you mark your answers. 

Try not to be swayed by early answer choices.

Tempting wrong answers are sprinkled throughout the exam. It’s often worth your time to skim the remaining answers to make sure that you haven’t overlooked the right answer.

This test is long, and it can be hard to keep your focus.

Distractions will abound. You might be thinking about a problem from the last section, other test takers will be writing and erasing, and the clock will be ticking.

It’s also hard to focus hard for four hours. When we read, our minds often wander for bits at a time. If you let your mind wander on the test, you’ve either missed a big section of material or you have to go back and spend precious time rereading.

What to do here? I don’t have any tips except practicing. It is important to take practice tests not one section at a time but instead as a whole exam, so that you can train yourself. The practice tests are not only to see what you should study—they are also like exercises for training yourself to be able to concentrate for such a long time. 

If you have lost your focus, or gotten nervous, or become tired, or realized that you were spacing out, don’t waste time worrying about it.

You need a way to leave whatever happened behind and quickly reset so that you can move on with the test. 

How should you move on? In some sections, you can make a clean break and move on to the next question. In other sections, it’s easier to go back to the point that you were last paying attention and pick your work back up.

What Did You See About the Individual Sections?

I have much longer blog posts about the different SAT and ACT sections. Feel free to check out those posts for more info on content and answering questions. I did make a few new observations, which I have included below.


In the English sections on both tests, it is very tempting to skip the portions of the text that doesn’t have any particular questions about them. However, there is often information in these sections that you need to answer the questions. For instance, sometimes words or phrases are repeated and therefore unnecessary, but you only know if you have read the entire passage. 

Second, pay attention to the questions. Some questions give you big clues about the right answer. They ask something like, which answer shows how important the character is or how dangerous the situation was. Pay attention that you are answering what the question is asking, not just choosing the answer that you think would make the best addition to the text. 

Third, the English section often has questions where two answers start with yes and two answers start with no, with different explanations. I think it’s easier just to go by which explanation makes the most sense, rather than first trying to pick between yes and no.


In the math section, there are some ways to make life simpler. Some problems include both graphs and equations. Choose which will lead you to the answer faster. In other instances, you can scan the answer choices before you simplify. Do you need to simplify the radical or not? Take a quick look at the answers before you do unnecessary math.

Some math problems are not over once you arrive at a solution. This rule is especially true for quadratic equations—make sure both answers work. If you have an equation, check the signs! It is easy to misread a + for a -. 

If you’re really stuck, try writing down what you know or simplifying what you have. If you’re really lost, you can always work backward and plug in answers.

The math section can be hard, but luckily most questions stand alone. If you’re feeling stumped or stressed, you can reset on the next problem. Some problems don’t require any calculations, so skip to a question that just needs some thinking.


Reading is hard because you have to keep your focus up for 10 minutes at a time. You have to train to be able to concentrate on reading for that long. 

Be sure to read any information at the top of the passage—it often tells you who the author is and what the passage will be about. These few lines can get you off on the right foot.

The passages have different subjects, like natural science, social studies, and fiction. If there’s one genre that you’re best in, you can always start there.

When you read the passage, it helps if you can mark it up in a way to help you find answers quickly. Try underlining and circling to give you the best chance of locating answers to the questions.

Remember that you can always skip the questions that you don’t know—the rest of the questions for the passage can often help you work out the details of the passage.

What to do Next?

Take your own practice test and keep these tips in mind! Check out the rest of my blogs, and as always, reach out to Cambridge Coaching for individualized test prep.

Contact us!

Read more by Colleen:

How do I use Punctuation on the ACT and SAT Exams? 

How do I use Punctuation on the ACT and SAT Exams? Part II

The Key to Selecting the Right Answer on the SAT & ACT: Part 1

Tags: ACT, SAT