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One Last Shot: Getting Your Mindset Right for a Final Crack at the ACT or SAT

Updated: Feb 5

So here we are. It’s mid-August, and you’re starting to think about—okay let’s be honest, panic about—the college process again. School is about to start back up, your parents are pressuring you to work on your Common App essay, and you just want one more shot at getting your ACT or SAT score up. On top of all that, you’re coming off a super cool summer where you had a glimpse of the world after COVID, only to be returning to a world of masks and variants. Take a deep breath. That is a lot to handle. The good news is you’re not alone.

Many students choose to take the SAT or ACT one last time in the fall of their senior year. If this is you, here are some simple tips to help you tackle your final shot at standardized testing in a way that feels manageable:

Get a Baseline

It’s likely been a while since you looked at your prep materials. Hopefully you took some time off over the summer to let your mind rest and really dive into whatever cool experience you were having. It’s a good idea to get a baseline sense of where you’re at after a while away from the material. This score (like any score) does not define you. It may be significantly lower than where you were at the height of your previous test prep. Or, who knows—a few months away from the material might be exactly what your brain needed to really nail it. Either way, taking a full practice test is a good way to re-start the test-taking muscles and get a sense of where you need to go from here.

Ease Back In

After you have a baseline, you know where you need to go to reach a goal score. Take it slow—you’re not going to get your dream score overnight, and you definitely aren’t going to get it by burning yourself out at the beginning with hours of studying every day. Getting lots of rest is also crucial to success. This leads us into the next goal:

Make a Plan You Can Realistically Follow

Everyone knows high school seniors are balancing a lot. Taking loads of difficult classes, sorting out your college list and working on applications, sports and extracurriculars, and spending that final year with your friends is a lot on your plate. In order to have time to study for standardized tests, you’re going to need to carve that time out. Decide how many days a week you’d ideally like to spend studying for the ACT or SAT. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that I’m a huge fan of planners and calendars ;).

At the beginning of each week, look at your calendar and syllabi, and make a realistic plan for yourself of which days you can fit that studying in. For example, if you have big deadlines for certain classes all on one day, it’s not a good idea to plan your test prep studying for the night before. Or, if you have sports practices or games that go late on certain days, plan your studying for the alternate days. You have control over your time.

Pro tip: If you have parents who are (supportively) on your back about studying, share your schedule with them! They will likely be impressed by your planning ahead, and it can help them have a sense of what nights you’re less available for family obligations, etc.

Don’t Forget About Your Strong Sections

When it comes to standardized tests, most people have sections that they’re naturally better at than others. For me, English and Reading were a breeze, while I agonized over Math and Science. It may feel natural to spend all your time hammering out the sections you struggle with—and this is a good way to spend a lot of your time. However, your strong sections are ones that help you earn much-needed points, as well as giving you confidence to do well on tougher sections. Don’t forget to brush up on your better sections.

Reward Yourself

After managing all the hectic responsibilities mentioned above, you deserve a treat! Keep in mind—the added craziness of the college process won’t last forever. This will be the last time you take this standardized test, and once you walk out of that testing room you are done. Likewise, with good planning, you can be done with college applications by winter break. Plan out specific days for yourself that don’t have studying. Use this time to reward yourself with a nap, a workout, some Netflix time, or Mitchell’s ice cream—whatever motivates you! These treats are crucial to your wellbeing and can be really effective motivators for studying. You can even devise a system where 10 hours of studying = a specific treat, or a full practice test means two days off afterward, etc. Again, you are in control of your time, so decide what works best for you.

Parent Pro Tip, part. 2: Share your reward system with your parents/support system! They will likely be impressed (again) and might decide to pick up that Mitchell’s milkshake for you or treat you to a decadent hot yoga class.

Do What’s Best For You

Long story short, the most successful students are the ones who figure out what works for them and stick with it. Feel free to share these tips with friends or try out ones they recommend—but try not to get too wrapped up in what other people are doing. Just because someone else is studying seven days a week—or someone took an ACT blind and got a 35—does not mean that your methods won’t lead to success for you. This goes for the college process too. Take it from someone who spent many late nights browsing Naviance like a psycho. Each person’s success is individual, and you will serve yourself much more by enjoying time with friends rather than comparing your grades, scores, extracurriculars, and study habits.

Good luck!! You got this. I hope these tips are helpful—stay tuned for my next post about navigating the process of applying to schools

Sarah Tibbitts, a 2020 graduate of The Ohio State University, currently works as a Social Justice Fellow at Hillel at Stanford University.


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