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Test Prep Plan for Each Year of High School

Test-taking is a skill that gets better with time. So when should a student start test prep? And what exactly should the student do?

We often get these questions at CROSSWALK so here is a test prep plan for each year of high school:

9th Grade: Read

Make no mistake, the SAT and ACT are reading tests. Even the math section is a reading test (word problems, anyone?). And since these are reading tests, the best test prep is to read. There is no question that regular readers perform better on standardized tests. So make reading a regular habit.

The best thing about reading for the SAT and ACT, is that you can literally read anything. There is no reason to get overwhelmed by lengthy novels, unless that is your cup of tea. Instead, read short form pieces like articles and blogs. Try graphic novels or comic books. Really, read anything to get exposed to vocabulary and grammatical structures.

10th Grade: Read and take a practice test

While you keep up the reading, 10th grade is a good time to take a practice test. Some schools offer the PSAT or PreACT in 10th grade. If your school does that, terrific. These are great practice tests and a chance to peek into what the testing experience would be like. No need to do any prep for a practice test. Just go for it.

If your school doesn't offer a PSAT or PreACT, download a PSAT practice test here or a PreACT practice test here. Take the test to get a sense of what to expect on the real test.

After the practice test, review your score. If you take an official practice test, your score will be provided. If you take the test yourself, you will need to score it according to the instructions. This score is your Baseline Score, or the score you might expect on test day.

At this point, you might consider engaging in some test prep, but no need to rush into things and stress out. Sit with your score, think about if you need some verbal or math support and, most importantly, keep reading.

If you want to do some test prep in 10th grade, start slow. Check out resources like Khan Academy so you can ease into some routine, stress-free practice.

11th Grade: Test, determine your Goal Score, then test again

The time to ramp things up is in 11th grade in a measured and intentional way.

Take whatever prep you did in 10th grade (hopefully a lot of reading!) and chart a course for 11th grade with two test sittings. One could be the PSAT or PreACT which many schools offer for 11th graders. Or you could take a practice SAT or ACT (download them from their respective websites). Early in 11th grade, you may not want to take the official SAT or ACT just yet. But if you are ready for an official one, go ahead and try it. The key for this test is to really understand your Baseline Score.

In addition to getting a Baseline Score, you also want to determine your Goal Score. The Goal Score is the SAT or ACT score of admitted students to the colleges you are considering. A Goal Score should be range. Find the Goal Score on the school's website or with a quick Google search. For example, students accepted into the University Texas at Austin (which recently just announced that test scores are required for college admissions consideration), generally have SAT scores in the range of 1240-1470 according to a quick Google search. So if you want to go to UT Austin, your Goal Score on the SAT is 1240-1470.

Now, compare your Baseline Score with the Goal Score. What is the margin of difference? Take this a step further and determine how many more points, in other words correct answers, you need on the test to achieve your Goal Score.

Once you understand how many points you need to improve, chart a path to improvement with more serious and consistent test prep. Consider a course, a private tutor or lots of self-study. The key to any improvement is routine, regular and data-driven practice.

After some prep, take another test (official or unofficial) and compare the result to the Goal Score. Ideally, you are getting closer to your Goal Score.

12th Grade: Decide: work on test prep to test again or adjust your college list

Summer before 12th grade is crucial. If you have done the work in 11th grade, you should have a Baseline Score. And you should know your Goal Score. Now is the time to decide if you want to continue to work on test prep to achieve your Goal Score or abandon the whole testing game altogether and only apply to test-optional or test-blind schools.

So if your Baseline Score is close to your Goal Score, go for it! You have little to lose. Reports show that more admissions opportunities go to students who submit test scores. And 20-33% of scholarships required test scores.

If you go for it, do some prep. Summer is a great time for a deep dive into a test prep course or significant self-study. Schedule one more (or two if you can) official test for fall of 12th grade to see if you can achieve your Goal Score.

And if you don't go for it, that is fine too. You just need to adjust your college list to include only test-optional or test-blind schools.


In all, be sure you are reading. That is really the best test prep. And as you get closer to 12th grade, start taking tests to understand what the experience is like. Students who walk into an official test with previous testing experience—either official or unofficial—are more confident and comfortable on test day and, consequently, perform better. You need not fear the testing game. It's just a skill that gets better with practice.

Of course, if you need help, CROSSWALK is here for you on your path to learning success!

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