How to study for standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and SSAT

ACT SAT SSAT study skills

Study actively, not passively.

In order for your brain to truly remember something, you must make your brain work. Reading your textbook or class notes is a good start, but studying actively will always improve your memory (and your scores). Try answering questions out loud or writing down answers as you go along to make your studying a more active process.

Taking practice SAT, ACT, and SSAT quizzes is a must if you want the best scores. The more practice questions you answer, the more work your brain does and the more likely you are to perform better on the test. While memorizing equations and formulas is certainly work for your brain, it’s most engaging for your brain to actually go through the process of answering practice geometry problems. There are also other dynamic ways to practice that go beyond a standardized quiz. Do you struggle most with vocabulary questions? Read a passage from a text, any text, and circle the words you do not know. Then, use context clues to determine the definitions or synonyms of those words. This process is a lot more active and interesting than just reading lists of new words! Find the processes that make learning engaging for you.

Make time to study the same content over multiple days.

If you decide to study for a week over winter or spring break, study a little bit of everything every day. When you study a little each day, your brain practices recalling information that it hasn’t thought about since the day before. This strengthens your memory and will help you recall the information on test day. Contrastingly, if you study geometry for four hours on Monday but then do not study it again that week, your brain will likely keep geometry in your short-term memory; by test day, that information could easily have already been forgotten. It is best to study all sections every day, even if you’re only spending 30 minutes on each section every day. By encouraging recall consistently, your brain will be more likely to remember the information you’ve studied on test day.

Emulate your testing environment as much as possible.

Your brain remembers by making connections, and it will make connections between the information you are studying and what is happening around you. When you take your test, you will be writing in a silent room, so you should study by writing in a silent room. This doesn’t need to be the only way you study, as studying with a group or listening to music while you work certainly can help you focus or think about concepts in new ways. However, if you only study while listening to music, your brain will make a connection between the information and music, and you will not remember as much when you are taking the test without music. If you have only ever recited answers to questions out loud, your memory of that information will not be as strong when you are silently writing. So, it’s important to make sure that your study habits incorporate the testing environment as much as possible so that your brain can be prepared for that situation.

It is also important to practice for extended periods of time. Your test will have several sections that can be 30 minutes to 60 minutes long. This means that your time is best spent studying for 30 minutes to an hour straight leading up to the exam. To make sure that you have the stamina to take the whole test, spend 30 minutes on practice questions without stopping. If you are taking a practice test on paper, time yourself and complete at least a whole section at a time. By the end of your studying, complete a whole timed practice exam, taking limited breaks in between sections. You will be more comfortable with the test format the more time you spend with it, and your brain will make the connection between your timed practice and the real test in order to recall information effectively on test day.