7 Ways to Improve SAT and ACT Scores

Learn the differences between the college entrance exams and get test prep tips.

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Across the country, high school juniors are getting ready to take the SAT and/or ACT. Here are seven ways for teenagers to improve their SAT and ACT scores or limit the damage of mediocre results:

1. Don't pick a test based on where you live: Students on the West and East Coasts typically take the SAT. In the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, the ACT is dominant, while teenagers in the South tend to split their allegiance between the two. The worst thing you can do is take a particular test because your friends are.

[Get 9 tips for SAT success.]

2. Select the test that plays to your strengths: Teenagers who tend to earn high ACT scores have a strong memory, are fast readers, and can process information quickly. In contrast, students who ace the SAT tend to be strong readers, possess strong vocabularies, and enjoy test-taking strategies. You can learn more about the differences in the tests in this blog post that I wrote for CBS MoneyWatch. To obtain a more in-depth understanding of what the ACT and SAT measure, I'd suggest reading The Princeton Review's ACT or SAT? Choosing the Right Exam for You.

3. Take a practice test: You will form a better idea of how well you might fare on either test if you take sample SAT and ACT tests. Sample SAT tests are available on the College Board website. You can find ACT questions on the ACT website; in addition, for $24.95 or less online, you can buy a book from the testing company, The Real ACT Prep Guide, that contains three ACT tests.

4. Use online test prep services: There are lots of online resources that are free or modestly priced for prepping for the tests. Here are three that I like: Grockit, Number2.com, and ePrep.

[Get 6 tips for ACT success.]

5. Apply to test-optional schools: If your ACT and/or SAT scores aren't good, don't despair. There are more than 830 colleges and universities that are test-optional. These schools don't use test scores to admit substantial numbers of students. You can find out more about test-optional schools by visiting FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

6. Be skeptical of published test scores: Published test scores at test-optional schools can be inflated. Here's why: When a school is test-optional, the applicants with mediocre scores are the ones who won't submit them. At some colleges, 50 percent of the applicants may not reveal their scores. When lots of applicants don't turn in test scores, the averages will artificially rise. Keep this in mind when comparing your scores with a school's published averages—yours may be better than you think.

[Learn the 6 myths of standardized tests.]

7. Decide whether your SAT or ACT scores are better: If you end up taking the SAT and ACT, you probably won't know which scores are the best to submit to colleges. The highest ACT score you can earn is 36 versus 2400 for the SAT. To compare scores, use the SAT-ACT Concordance Tables on the College Board website.

Good luck!