How and Why to Take Full-Length SAT and ACT Diagnostic Tests:
Timed, graded, realistic practice tests are the heart of any effective test prep program. You can figure out precisely what you’ll score on a real SAT/ACT without walking into a testing center, and you should never take an official test without first making sure that you can achieve your target scores. Posting scores permanently on your record before you have any idea about what type of success you are going to achieve is just plain crazy! Colleges and universities see all of the scores from every time you sit for these exams. You wouldn’t want to wing entering a marathon before ever even lacing up some running shoes, so why would you gamble on something so incredibly important to your college admission application without preparing properly? It is true that colleges really only care about your highest scores from these sittings – but there is zero advantage to your application having subpar scores recorded permanently.
Before you begin your prep, it’s essential that you take a diagnostic test in order to set a baseline. You’ll learn how many points you need to gain, where to focus your efforts, and you’ll get a much more accurate idea of how much time you should spend prepping.
As you keep prepping, you’ll want to take routine diagnostic tests in order to:
- Figure out where you stand. How rapidly are you improving? Are you where you thought you’d be by this point? Do you need to spend more time per day prepping, or can you scale your efforts back and still hit the mark?
- Figure out where to focus. If your math scores are far below your reading scores, you’ll want to spend most of your time on math. But if your math scores match your reading scores two months down the line, you should spend an equal amount of time on both sections.
- Build your test-taking skills. If you want to get good at something, do it. Taking full-length, timed diagnostic tests will get you good at taking the real thing. You’ll build your endurance, improve your timing, enhance your familiarity with the exam, and eliminate nerves and anxiety.
- Figure out when you’re ready to take the real thing. Once your practice tests consistently hit your target scores, you can walk in and take the official test. You can figure out how to set your target scores here. You shouldn’t take an official SAT or ACT until your practice test scores hit the mark – but once they do, it’s time to go in and take the real thing! For a much more in-depth look at this issue, you can see my test prep calendar here.
Before you start your prep process, I recommend taking a diagnostic on your own, and then continue taking these tests every 2-8 weeks (depending on where you start).
Here’s my exact plan for how you should approach the first test, and all subsequent ones most efficiently:
- Take a REAL practice test.
For the ACT: The Official ACT Prep Guide
The purpose of your diagnostic tests is not to do as well as possible – it’s to figure out where you stand and learn what you need to improve.
Real tests provide you with an accurate testing experience and an accurate grade – both are essential. You don’t want to take 3rd party tests when you’re diagnosing your score – you won’t get the exact information you’re seeking. Only the official books from the creators of these exams can give you this imperative data.
On a side note: if you’re not sure whether you should take the SAT or ACT, you can see my free guide on The New SAT vs. the ACT here
One more note: if you’re planning on using my online prep system, which comes with programs for the New SAT and ACT, you’ll want to wait until after you sign up before you begin this process. Your first diagnostic is part of the process, and I’ll show you exactly how to digest and analyze the test when you’re finished for rapid improvement.
- Take the test in one shot. When you take your test, I want you to replicate the actual experience of a real SAT or ACT. This means that you need to take it in one sitting. I know that advice sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. But this step is imperative in order to set up and then continue the most effective and efficient test prep plan. If you don’t sit for it all at once, your scores will not be a true reflection of where you stand.
The good news here is that you can take 5-minute breaks between sections. These are given to you during the real test as well. During those breaks stand up, get a drink of water to keep hydrated, have a quick snack and hit the restroom. Keeping your body fueled and moving around in between sections will help your overall performance.
- Take the test on a good night’s sleep and after a proper meal. You won’t want to take the real SAT or ACT exhausted and starving – so don’t take your practice tests like that, either. If you’re exhausted or unfed, reschedule and plan on taking the test after a good night’s sleep, and make sure you have some proper sustenance in your belly. During the school year, Saturday and Sunday mornings are the ideal times to take these tests. Weekend scheduling allows you to ensure that you can plan to get a good night’s sleep prior to the test, and you won’t have the stress of your daily school work pulling away your attention.
Remember: the point of doing this is NOT to get the best score possible – it’s to get an accurate idea of where you currently stand. You’ll get a more accurate idea if you’re not deliriously tired and hungry.
- Time every section and FOLLOW THE RULES. At the top of each section, there’s a time limit. Get a digital watch, stay aware of the time, and put your pencil down when you’re done. Again, you’re not doing this to get a great score – you’re doing this to see how you’re scoring.
Your SAT/ACT score is a function of both your speed and your accuracy. If you’re not honest about your speed, you’ll get a dishonest score. If you’re going to get extra time on the real exam, give yourself extra time during your practice test. If not, don’t give yourself an extra second when you take your diagnostic. Stop when your timer goes off and do not finish the section. This is important for scoring purposes. You need to figure out how many questions you are presently not finishing, in order to decipher how much time you will need to devote in your prep to speeding things up. If you can’t finish all the problems in a given section, don’t sweat it! I have terrific strategies for helping my students ramp up their speed – so no need to worry unnecessarily. Just be a stickler here when executing your diagnostic test so you know where to dive in the next time around!
After the test, when you evaluate your exam, you can make a note of which sections are the slowest, which ones don’t give you enough time, how many questions you have left, etc. Enhancing your speed is a key element of test prep, but this isn’t the time to focus in on it.
- Take the test in TOMB-LIKE SILENCE. You will be taking the real SAT or ACT in a room with zero of the usual distractions. Do the same for your diagnostic. No phone, TV, music, or computers allowed. Take it by yourself, away from other people. Turn your phone off. Tell your family members you’re taking it and have them leave you alone. Do NOT take this near or around your friends.
- Use the bubble sheet to fill in your answers. I’m all about “the real thing” – when you take the actual SAT or ACT, you’ll be using the bubble sheets. Get used to doing it from the start, rather than getting used to it when you take the real SAT/ACT. Make sure to try and fill in your answers before the time runs out, question by question.
Also, you’re allowed to write all over your real SAT and ACT, so feel free to mark up and write all over your testing booklet. I often tell people that I can tell how well a student has done just by looking at their testing book. If it is totally destroyed with notes and diagrams and figures, the kid usually kills it! I want you to interact constantly with the material to keep you focused. But be sure to record your answers in the score bubbles in the time allotted. You want to get used to this process.
In addition – one more quick point: you’re allowed to use your calculator on the entire math section of the ACT, and on the SECOND math section of the New SAT, so have one available! You’re not allowed to use it on any other sections, but have one with you when you take your test. You’ll want it – and you’ll have one with you on the real exam, so why not replicate the real experience now?
- During the test, mark every problem that strikes you as “weird” or “hard.” Use a star, or a box, or whatever marking system you want to label these problems. Do this during the test, while you’re going through these problems. Like I mentioned above, mark the living daylights out of it! When you digest and analyze your test later on, this will come in handy. You’ll know which problems you get WRONG as you grade your test, but it might be tough to remember which ones you hated, even if you get them right (there are only four answer choices, so a right answer might be a lucky guess, and the point is to collect EVERYTHING that gives you trouble).
This is the most important element of this entire experience. During the exam, mark up EVERYTHING that strikes you as strange. You can put a star, a question mark, or a big “!?!?” next to any problems that give you the willies. But be sure that you’re recording this while you take the test. If you are a student of my online system, I will teach you what to do with these strange questions afterwards so that they never intimidate you again!
- For the time being, don’t write the essay. When you’re finished with all four multiple choice sections, just stop. Your essay doesn’t affect your actual score, so it’s not worth completing during this process, and the self-grading options available to you aren’t particularly helpful. However, I have a comprehensive curriculum within my system devoted to teaching students how to write an absolutely flawless essay for both the SAT and the ACT. But for now – you are off the hook!
- Score your exam properly. The College Board Official Study Guide and The Real ACT books have detailed explanations on how to properly grade these tests. The first time you go through the process it will seem weird and cumbersome, but by the second and third times, it will seem effortless. After you get your scores, be sure to note which sections gave you the most trouble and where you have room to improve. The purpose here is not to make you feel badly about where you stand. Any areas that need improvement should only be seen as opportunities for big point gains the next time around after you do some more work and get more comfortable with the material that the SAT and ACT test.
- Digest the diagnostic test effectively. Grading your test is only the beginning. Most students simply get a grade, look at it, and say “humph.” The students who make enormous score improvements thoroughly digest their tests to identify areas of weakness and establish an individualized and effective prep plan moving forward. My online program has a comprehensive plan to help you do this with maximum efficiency. If you’re using another program to study, make sure that you don’t just leave your tests alone after they’re finished – they represent a goldmine of opportunities for improvement!
Good Luck to You!
They take a while to knock out, but completing full-length diagnostic tests on a regular basis and digesting them accurately is the most important thing you can do to enhance your SAT and ACT scores. They give you information on how to start your prep program out on the right foot, how quickly you’re progressing during your prep process, and are crucial in helping you to determine when your prep is over, so you can go take your exams and post awesome scores!
Get out a calendar, look over your prep system’s suggested pattern of taking these tests, jot down the four hours necessary to complete them regularly, and stick to the schedule. Great scores are coming your way if you adhere to this plan!!!
Taking diagnostic exams is only part of creating a dynamite, individualized SAT and ACT prep plan!!
If you’re looking for a prep program that will walk you through the entire process from A-Z, check out my online prep system, with an average student score improvement of 215+ points on the SAT and 4.66+ points on the ACT.
If you’re not sure which test to take, remember to check out my free guide on the New SAT vs. the ACT.
If you’re looking for a step-by-step calendar that’ll help you to plan ahead and knock your test out in time, be sure to check out my comprehensive SAT and ACT prep calendar.