Break Through an ACT or SAT Test Score Plateau

A stagnant score is more common than you might think and can be overcome with study and focus.

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Changing an exercise routine can lower your stress and help your brain move past a test score plateau.
Changing an exercise routine can lower your stress and help your brain move past a test score plateau.

There are few things more frustrating in the college application process than making a serious effort to improve your performance on the ACT or SAT only to see your scores hit a slump. It can be especially maddening if your scores are falling just short of your goal.

You may think you're alone, but a stagnant score is more common among prospective college students than you might think. 

According to the ACT, 21 percent of students who took the exam more than once had no change in their composite score, while 22 percent actually saw their score decrease

If you are taking practice test after practice test without much change and feel as stuck as your scores, here are four tips to help you overcome the scoring plateau and reach your target test score the next time you sit for the exam. 

[Find out the truth behind falling SAT scores.] 

1. Know yourself as a learner: Students often study Latin when prepping for the SAT and ACT, but the ancient Greek aphorism "know thyself" can also prove helpful. The better you know yourself as a learner, the better you will be able to tailor a personalized study plan for your improvement. 

Spend some time recognizing how you learn best, whether that is visually, aurally, physically or a combination of the three. Decoding how you learn will help you refine your approach to mastering SAT and ACT questions.

Take the time to identify your skill sets so you can put them to work for you. For example, if you are a math whiz but a slow reader, figure out a way to implement your logical, step-by-step problem-solving skills throughout the whole test. Knowing all the aspects of your learning style is crucial to success. 

[Get tips to help you choose between the SAT and the ACT.] 

2. Isolate your weaknesses: Many SAT and ACT practice test books will give a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the questions and your answers. When reviewing how you did on each practice test section, see if you can recognize a pattern and then fix your mistakes. 

Spend the most time on your weakest areas. If you notice you are consistently answering all of the geometry questions incorrectly, dedicate more time to brushing up on those skills. 

Identifying a pattern in your weaknesses, whether it is a struggle with certain types of questions or an entire section altogether, will help you understand how to more constructively use your study time. 

3. Change your routine: If your scores are in a rut, your brain and body may be, too. Try switching things up, whether that means finding a new time of day or location to study, approaching your prep plan with a fresh outlook or changing the prep book you're using. Books with new strategies and nuggets of information can make all the difference. 

Also, physically getting out of your rut by making a change in your exercise routine could also be just what your brain needs to move past your plateau point. 

[Follow these steps to create a test prep timeline.] 

4. Overcome the anxiety: It is completely normal to be nervous about prepping for and taking a college admissions exam. In fact, recognize that being a little nervous can show you genuinely care. 

Calm your nerves by setting attainable goals throughout the course of studying. Answer five more math problems than you did during your last timed session, or strive to answer all noun-verb agreement questions correctly. 

Achieving small victories will help lessen anxiety and build confidence in your abilities. Use study breaks to analyze where you are, acknowledging both gains and areas for improvement. 

Use this reflection to create a more effective plan moving forward. Keep your stress level in check by incorporating yoga, walking or another form of exercise into your routine. 

As discouraging as it may be to feel stuck in a test score rut, it's important to keep your head held high and continue to try. A plateau doesn't have to be permanent, so use these tips and take control. 

Meghan Moll is a professional science, math and ACT tutor with Varsity Tutors. She has a degree in biomedical engineering from St. Louis University.