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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Hills

Spark's Guide to SAT and ACT Prep

Tests are a reality in schools. They may not be the perfect measure of competence or excellence, but they are the best we have so far.

Life tests you as well. Real life work may include different elements, but you are put on the spot in the same way when your client asks you pointed questions about a project you have put together or when you have to defend a decision you have made to a manager or when you have a deadline and you have to choose the best answer from a group of bad solutions. Even if the job is a daily repetition of the same acts which you have to do to the best of your ability, one can see how a four-hour, fill-in-the-bubble test might parallel that experience.

Being able to think on your feet and choose the best answer doesn’t happen every day but it also doesn’t never happen. Be capable of performing under pressure is a skill your child can develop and one way to do it is testing.

The SAT and the ACT are classic examples of difficult tests that all high school students prepare for and struggle with, no matter their level of intelligence. While some colleges have decided not to require these tests, it is still a good opportunity for your child to face and overcome a challenge.

Plus, after the SAT or ACT, university final week becomes far less intimidating.

Which Test Is Best for Your Student?

Since you and your child have decided to go for the test, which test should your child take? If you can, taking both, with the idea of possibly doing a retake or two, is ideal. It’s not always easy to say which a child will do better on. However, while the SAT and the ACT are both standardized tests, they are set up a little bit differently, so if you have to choose, picking the one that plays a bit more towards your child’s strengths is the best bet.

The main differences between the SAT and ACT lie in the structure of the questions. The SAT focuses more on reading comprehension, regardless of subject. There is less memorization required to answer questions but many questions are tricky. There is also an emphasis on evidence-based answers. The ACT, on the other hand, has questions that are more clearly presented, but the questions tend to have a higher level of difficulty. The ACT is also slightly shorter than the SAT.

As Spark’s Guide to Standardized Testing states, “If your student has strong reading comprehension and excels in classes were constructing arguments and evidence-based statements are key, the SAT is likely to be the best choice. If your student is more of an analytical thinker, prefers problems to be neatly laid out and has strong math skills, the ACT is the test to take.”

If you are still not sure, have your child take practice tests from both standardized tests and see how things go. You can also talk to your child’s teacher or tutor to get an analysis of your child’s academic strengths and which test your child is likely to prefer.

How to Study Effectively

The best way to study for difficult things is practice then analysis. When your child has a sporting competition, the team runs patterns and plays and practices what to do. The coach may even set up a practice match right before the season starts. Afterwards, there is a team meeting where mistakes are pointed out and new practice strategies are developed. If your child is a performer, there is always a dress rehearsal (or several) before opening night. The director takes notes and gives everyone things to pay attention to or work on for the final performance. We try to do as much of the real thing as possible before it actually happens.

This is the same for testing. You begin by giving your child several sample questions so he or she can get used to the types of questions that will be asked. Then you have your child complete a full section at a time. Once your child is familiar with the kinds of questions and the overall structure of the test, set up a practice test for your child. Having your child complete practice tests in the same time frames as real tests and in as close to the same environment as possible is the SAT or ACT version of a “dress rehearsal” or “practice game.”

After your child completes whichever test, have him or her go through the test and grade the work. Reading the right answers and the explanations for why which answer is correct or incorrect is incredibly helpful for understanding what a test is asking you to do. After the test is graded, go through it with your child and see if you can find patterns in the mistakes. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses that reveal themselves in tests. Some students are stronger in one subject than another. Other students are intelligent but don’t pay attention to details, leading to silly mistakes and wrong answers.

When you see the patterns, you know specifically what your child needs to work on. Giving that focused time yourself or hiring a tutor for the purpose helps your child see what needs to change, identify a goal to accomplish, and make progress towards that goal. When measurable progress is made, it is exciting to us and leads us to continue moving in the direction of improvement. Spark Tutor’s article Help Your Student Improve Their Test Scores can also help you pinpoint and address areas your child could sharpen up.

Additionally, identifying testing weaknesses now makes your child aware of what he or she needs to be able to do at the university level as well as for any post-college work.

Spark Tutor’s Approach to Prep

Spark Tutors is committed to coming alongside you and your child in the academic journey and testing is a huge part of that! We focus on getting to know your child, how your child thinks, and how your child learns. We look for your child’s strengths and try to communicate in ways that make sense to your child and we look for thorough comprehension as opposed to superficial learning. We acknowledge that weaknesses exist and are meant to be confronted, maneuvered, and overcome.

We want the success of your child as much as you do and we are as excited about your child’s progress as any invested teacher. Like you, we are mentors guiding students through the challenges and successes they experience as they grow up. We are proud to connect, struggle, and overcome with the students who come to us. Between the right help and a good night’s sleep, any student can improve and reach dreams no one thought was possible.

We look forward to it.


This article was meant to present and simplify the current standardized testing atmosphere as well as introduce Spark Tutor’s passion for student success and teaching philosophy. We welcome any questions and are committed to helping every student who contacts us. We can’t wait to meet you! We’ll see you at the tutoring table!

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