Prep Smarter: How to Make the Most of SAT/ACT Preparation

Jed Applerouth, PhD
May 8, 2017
min read

In the winter edition of peer reviewed academic journal College and University, I coauthored, with Dr. Karen Zabrucky, a literature review of the factors that influence performance on the SAT. We investigated the most current research on testing and test preparation to identify the keys to successful SAT performance, examining a range of individual student variables, environmental factors, and preparatory factors.

Individual Variables

Individual differences, both cognitive and affective, influence test scores. Researchers have found general intelligence and working memory — the ability to keep a mental representation active while engaged in additional processing activities — as moderate to strong predictors of SAT performance. If a student is able to read a question once and hold that question in a temporary memory cache while searching through a passage to find the answer, he or she will clearly have an advantage on the SAT.

Additionally researchers have found that test anxiety is an independent predictor of SAT performance. Students with a greater degree of test anxiety have diminished SAT performance, thus the importance of addressing test anxiety before sending a student into an official testing administration.

Student Choices

Irrespective of individual differences or circumstances, students are in no way locked into a predetermined SAT score: the choices students make and the manner in which they prepare for the SAT can have a tremendous impact on their final testing outcomes.

Curricular choices in middle and high school relate to SAT scores. Students pursuing more rigorous academic courses in verbal and STEM subjects tend to attain higher SAT scores.

Students participating in honors or AP level classes in math, English, and natural sciences also tend to attain SAT scores that are significantly higher than peers who enroll exclusively in non-honors classes. Some researchers have identified “high school effects” wherein students attending high schools with a greater percentage of students enrolled in AP courses attain significantly higher SAT scores.

Participation in activities outside the classroom has also been found to correlate with higher SAT scores. Students engaged in extracurricular activities may achieve gains in self-esteem, resilience, and motivation, which can positively affect test scores.

Environmental Factors

A student’s home environment can contribute to his or her testing outcomes as well. The types of conversations that students have with their parents about the SAT and ACT may influence their scores. Julie Park and Ann Becks of the University of Maryland found that parental expectations for student educational attainment, parental education level, the frequency of parent-child discussion about going to college, and SAT/ACT preparation all made positive contributions toward SAT scores. Brenda Hannon of Texas A&M found that differences in parental education may account for 14 to 34 percent of the gap in SAT scores across different ethnic groups.

Gender Differences

Dr. Zabrucky and I examined the significant body of research on gender and high-stakes testing, paying particular attention to the underperformance of females on the math portion of the SAT and ACT. Despite their consistently superior academic performance (as measured by high school and college GPA) females attain lower SAT and ACT scores than their male counterparts. To account for this differential, some researchers found that males and females exhibited differences in risk-taking behaviors, in that males were more likely to guess than to omit items. This difference, however, should be eradicated now that the guessing penalty has been removed from the SAT.

Studies also showed that students with higher rates of self-efficacy for math exhibited greater persistence and attained higher SAT math scores. Researchers identified differences in self-efficacy and perceptions about testing, competition, and anxiety as potential factors contributing to the underperformance of females. Higher rates of test-anxiety among females contributed to score gaps, and Hannon even concluded that greater test anxiety and performance-avoidance goals in females accounted for all significant gender differences on the SAT.

Preparatory Factors

There are many methods of preparation for the SAT, and students who combine different forms of SAT preparation (e.g. books, software, groups, private instruction) achieve higher score increases than those who do not. According to Park and Becks, students who worked with private tutors or who took commercially available group classes outside of their high schools attained the largest score increases.

Researchers have identified several discrete factors which predict higher SAT performance:

Time Investment: Numerous researchers have found a positive relationship between SAT score increases and number of hours spent in preparation for the test. Pat Montgomery and Jane Lilly of Oxford University identified this effect only for math scores and found that preparation for verbal plateaued after 8 hours of preparation.

Effective Instructional Formats: Different forms of SAT preparation vary in effectiveness. Numerous researchers have identified individual and small-group instruction as more effective than standard classroom instruction. One benefit of individual instruction, according to Benjamin Bloom of U. Chicago, lies in the “feedback-corrective process of mastery learning.” Many scholars agree that a higher level of feedback and direct inquiry increases the efficacy of the individual tutoring format, as does the quality of the instructor.

Timing of Test Preparation: Wisely timed test preparation has been found to be one of the most important features of an effective test preparation program. Cramming is not nearly as effective as having well-spaced preparation with regular breaks between prep sessions. Audrey Devine-Eller of Grinnell College found that students who engage in test preparation for the first time during their senior year of high school may have started too late. This finding was affirmed in a 2015 study I conducted with Dr. Zabrucky and Dr. DeWayne Moore in which we found that starting SAT preparation earlier in the junior year positively affected SAT score increases.

Distributed Testing: Having breaks between sessions is an important component of learning, relearning, and retaining information. Spacing practice is superior to cramming practice.

Taking Practice Tests: For decades, researchers have found evidence that taking practice tests enhances retention, overall learning, and final test outcomes. Retrieving information during a test acts as a powerful memory enhancer, strengthening the memory of learned material for future retrieval events. Taking full-length practice SATs helps students assimilate strategies, improve mental endurance, enhance familiarity with the material, and gain confidence. In numerous studies, researchers have found clear benefits of practice tests and evidence that more practice yields greater returns.

Repeat Testing: Researchers Charles Clotfelter and Jacob Vigdor found that, just as students benefit from taking multiple practice tests, they also benefit from taking multiple official SATs. The mechanism is largely the same: sequential testing events increase familiarity, comfort, confidence and give corrective feedback to inform future preparation.

In 2015, research scientists at The College Board found that 64 percent of their sample of 150,377 students achieved their highest score on their final SAT. My investigation with Dr. Zabrucky and Dr. Moore found that students preparing for the SAT increased their scores an average of 22.62 points for every official SAT they took.

The growing body of academic research pertaining to the SAT informs us that students, parents, and high schools all contribute to student success on the SAT. Student choices — both in and out of school — matter, as does the manner in which they prepare for the SAT. Parents can have a positive impact on student outcomes through their attention to the college admissions process and through encouraging students to academically challenge themselves and participate in extracurricular activities.

When students prepare for the SAT, they must remember that time on task, or getting adequate exposure to the material, directly contributes to final outcomes. Other factors for successful SAT prep include spreading prep out over time, building in breaks, taking practice tests, taking multiple official tests, starting early enough to avoid being rushed, and using multiple, effective forms of test preparation. Familiarity with the material breeds confidence, lowers anxiety, and sets a student up for their greatest likelihood of success on the SAT.



Appelrouth, J., K. M. Zabrucky, and D. Moore. 2015. Preparing students for college admissions tests. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice. 1–18.

Bloom, B. S. 1984. The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Leadership, 41(8): 4–18.

Buchmann, C., D. J. Condron, and V. J. Roscigno. 2010. Shadow education, American style: Test preparation, the SAT, and college enrollment. Social Forces, 89(2): 435–82.

Devine-Eller, A. 2012. Timing matters: Test preparation, race, and grade level. Sociological Forum, 27(2): 458–80.

Elbaum, B., S. Vaugh, M. T. Hughes, and S. W. Moody. 2000. How effective are one-to-one tutoring programs in reading for elementary students who are risk for reading failure? A meta-analysis of the intervention research. Journal of Education Psychology, 92(4): 605–19.

Graesser, A. C., and N. K. Person. 1994. Question asking during tutoring. American Educational Research Journal, 31(1): 104–37.

Hannon, B. 2012. Test anxiety and performance-avoidance goals explain gender differences in

SAT-V, SAT-M, and overall SAT scores. Personality & Individual Differences, 53(7): 816–20.

Hannon, B. 2015. Hispanics’ SAT scores: The influences of level of parental education, performance-avoidance goals, and knowledge about learning. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 37(2): 204–22.

Ireson, J. 2004. Private tutoring: How prevalent and effective is it? London Review of Education, 2(2): 109–22.

Lilly, J., and P. Montgomery. 2011. Systematic reviews of the effects of preparatory courses on university entrance examinations in high school-age students. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21: 3–12.

Park, J. J, and A. H. Becks. 2015. Who benefits from SAT prep? An examination of high school context and race/ethnicity. The Review of Higher Education, 39(1): 1–23.

Patterson, B. F., K. D. Mattern, and P. Swerdzewski. 2012. Are the best scores the best scores for predicting college success? Journal of College Admission, 3: 35–45.

Rawson, K. A., and J. Dunlosky. 2012. When is practice testing most effective for improving the durability and efficiency of student learning? Educational Psychology Review, 24(3): 419–43.

Reeve, C. L., and H. Lam. 2007. The relation between practice effects, test-taker characteristics, and degree of g-saturation. International Journal of Testing, 7(2): 225–42.

Sigal, A. 2010. Racial differences in test preparation strategies. Social Forces, 89(2): 463–74.

Turner, S. L. 2009. Ethical and appropriate high-stakes test preparation in middle school: Five methods that matter. Middle School Journal 41(1): 36–45.

Vigdor, J. L., and C. T. Clotfelter. 2003. Retaking the SAT. The Journal of Human Resources, 38(1): 1–33.


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