The Freshman's (and Sophomore's!) Guide to Test Prep

I recently wrote an impassioned post about why you shouldn’t start prepping for the SAT or ACT as a freshman or sophomore. But somehow, I can just tell that some of you still feel antsy. After all, if I don’t want you to do formalized test prep as a freshman or sophomore, what can you do? Are you wasting valuable time when your course load isn’t as heavy—time that you could use to get ahead?

Luckily, I’ve thought of that, too!

As a freshman or a sophomore, you can lay a strong foundation for your test prep and college applications junior and senior years—as long as you master the right building blocks. So without further ado, here’s what you CAN do right now:

1) Take your schoolwork seriously

Most of what you will need for the ACT and SAT is taught in subjects you take now, during your first two years of high school. Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, English—don’t just do the bare minimum to get the grade you want. And don’t think you can just cram for the test and then forget the material right after it: complete and incomplete clauses, fractions, linear equations, etc. will all come back to haunt you in standardized testing. So treat these classes like the pre-test prep classes they really are!

2) Broaden your vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is a life skill that will improve your reading comprehension and your writing. Though neither the ACT nor the SAT tests vocabulary directly, you’re more likely to understand what you read and be able to express your ideas fluently and eloquently if you have more words in your repertoire (like, what’s a "repertoire"?). That will work in your favor not just on standardized tests, but also in school. Double bonus: higher test scores AND better grades. So make it a point to look up words you don’t know in your school (and non-school) reading, choose more challenging news and leisure reading sources, or grab a vocab book or even a “word a day” calendar or app. You’ll thank me later.

3) Become a reader

It’s a funny thing: sometimes I ask a student who’s telling me about how badly she wants a top Reading score about what she reads, and…I hear crickets. It’s sort of hypocritical, don’t you think? It’s like saying you want to be a professional dancer, but you don’t even jam out in your bedroom! The single best way I know to improve your general reading comprehension, ability to identify the main idea, understanding of tone and diction and writing styles from different cultures and time periods, etc. actually read. Try to maintain a consistent and varied diet of reading material. Helpfully, all this reading also makes you a more thoughtful and educated person (nice side effect, huh?).

4) Develop your math etiquette / arithmetic skills

While especially helpful on the No-Calculator section of the SAT, basic number sense and math fluency are crucial to acing the Math sections of either the SAT or the ACT. Even though you can use your calculator on the ACT, you’re probably not going to finish all 60 questions if you have to perform every single minor arithmetic calculation—or worse, calculate them wrong. So what’s the best way to improve your basic number sense? For starters, know your addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables cold. Calculate the bill or the tip or the sales tax on your own first, before bringing out the iPhone. Even an estimate is better than waiting for the cashier to figure it out for you! Are you at a baseball game and see a batting average of .273? Get curious and figure out that THAT means the batter hits 3/11—or 3 out of every 11—balls.

5) Get acquainted with the PSAT

This is the first "real" piece of test prep you'll encounter, and I'm not even suggesting that you study—just that you familiarize yourself with the test. While the PSAT you take during October of your sophomore year does not, in fact, matter, many students find it helpful to at least take a practice PSAT to understand the types of questions, pacing, and directions on the test, so they won’t be surprised. Please do not stress about this (the point is to keep your stress level down)! You can start looking at it the summer before sophomore year, and it's just that—looking. 


So with that one testing-timeline milestone established, what do most of these things have in common? They’re primarily “soft skills”—the kind of skills that help you build ease with foundational concepts and deep understandings of new kinds of educational material. They’ll serve you well on standardized tests, in high school, and in life. They’ll also help you make the most of your test prep junior year, and your college applications senior year. And you can, and should, be developing them right now. Now go forth and learn!