By Beverly Stewart, M.Ed.
Article appearing in the Community News Education Supplement August, 2008

The prospect of taking the SAT or ACT college-entrance exams causes anxiety for countless high school students, and their parents are often just as nervous. It is important to keep these tests in perspective. When universities consider applicants, they look at a number of factors, including grades, difficulty of high school curriculum, and extracurricular activities. Still, there is no getting around the fact that students with higher scores on these standardized tests usually will fare better in the admissions process, particularly at more selective colleges and universities.

Rather than stressing about the test, however, students should channel their energy into becoming prepared. We advise students to begin preparation at least several months in advance of the exam date. Upcoming dates for the SAT are Oct. 4, Nov. 1, and Dec. 6. The ACT will be offered Sept. 13, Oct. 25, and Dec. 13.

To prepare, students should review material already learned, fill in gaps in knowledge, and take multiple practice exams. Students should be familiar with the test inside and out—the content, timing, and strategies for answering.

Both the SAT and ACT cover math, vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension. The ACT also has a section
on science. The SAT added a writing component to the exam in 2005. The ACT writing exam is optional.
If students are motivated and disciplined enough, they can prepare for the exams on their own using a test
prep book or online course, or they can work one-on-one or in a group setting with a tutor. Back to Basics’ test prep courses run for approximately 30 hours, generally over a period of weeks or months. In addition, the official SAT ( and ACT ( web sites offer valuable resources for students.

At Back to Basics, we have found that students preparing for the math section tend to fall into two categories. The first group has a basic math background but does not have a strong understanding of geometry. Often they have not taken enough advanced algebra to answer the algebra II questions that were added when the SAT was revamped a few years ago. The second group is typically enrolled in accelerated math classes but has forgotten some of the basic algebra and geometry learned years ago. Reviewing math concepts and test-taking strategies can help both types of students to perform better on the exam.

Because vocabulary is an essential part of the test in critical reading, students should review vocabulary lists and learn new words. Many students also need to review grammar to prepare themselves for the grammar and usage questions on the tests.

On the writing exams, students are given 25-30 minutes to write a complete essay in response to a writing prompt. The essay must have an introduction, a thesis statement supported by strong body paragraphs with topic sentences, and a conclusion. To prepare, students should practice writing timed essays and get feedback from a trusted reader. Both the SAT and the ACT exams are several hours long and include many questions, so a student cannot afford to devote too much time to any one question. Students should answer easier questions first and come back to more difficult questions later. The ACT does not penalize for wrong answers, so test takers should answer every questions, even if they must guess. The SAT, on the other hand, penalizes for wrong answers. If a student cannot narrow down the choices to two on an SAT question, it is better to skip the question than to guess.

Preparation will help students to master these and other test-taking strategies so that on the day of the exam they will be less anxious, more familiar with the material covered, and better able to pace themselves.

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Beverly Stewart, M.Ed.

Beverly Stewart, M.Ed. is President and Director of Back to Basics Learning Dynamics, Inc., an area leader in 1-on-1 tutoring and test prep for children and adults, and translating/interpreting since 1985. In addition, Back to Basics is a Department of Education approved 1-on-1 Private School for K-12, as well as a Business and Trade School for ages 16+.
Email Beverly at, call her at (302)594-0754 or visit on the web at or

Back to Basics Learning Dynamics, Inc. is located on 6 Stone Hill Road, Wilmington.

Beverly Stewart inducted to Hall of Fame of Delaware Women