Let’s be real: No one—not students, not parents, not even tutors—particularly likes the SAT or ACT. But because standardized test scores constitute a large part of a college applicant’s overall profile, we put up with them because, well, we must.

At times, the SAT and ACT can seem incredibly unfair. When it comes to standardized tests, not every student is created equal. Many suffer from test anxiety and have a difficult time performing in the tightly regulated environment of a standardized test room. And most of the time, it seems as if the SAT and ACT are designed to be confusing—to catch students on small, technical mistakes, or to trip them up with confusing questions and misleading answers.

As expert tutors who've worked with hundreds of students, we understand. Today we're going to share two things with you about everything we've learned about the SAT and the ACT..

Thing We Know #1: To a Large Extent, the SAT and the ACT are, well, BS

What we mean by this is simple. The SAT and the ACT don’t, for the most part, test students on actual knowledge or academic ability. Rather, they test them on their ability to take a standardized test.


Make no mistake: the SAT and the ACT each require very specific strategies. If you know them—if you know how to take the test—you’ll do well. If you don’t, though–you might not do so well.

This is what’s so perverse about these two standardized tests. Although they claim to be testing students on their mastery of material, they more directly asses a student’s possession of skills such as:

  1. Time management

  2. Test-specific process-of-elimination

  3. How to think like a test-writer

  4. How to take problem-specific shortcuts.

We've spent hundreds of hours helping students shore up the conceptual areas in which they’re weakest.

But do you want to know the thing that adds the highest number of points to a student’s score, the thing we spend most of our time working on?

Test strategies, simply put. We spend so much of our time teaching simple processes and tricks that, applied over the course of an entire test, can easily raise a students score by ten, twenty, or thirty percentile points. This brings us to thing #2.

Thing We Know #2: Any student can dramatically improve on the SAT or ACT just through mastering these test-taking strategies.

For an example of what I’m talking about, take a look at the chart below. What you see there is a list of composite (total) SAT scores and their corresponding percentiles.

(Just to be clear, a percentile score is a representation of the number of students who did worse than a given score. So, with a composite score of 1450, we can see that 98 percent of students performed less well.)


Here’s what you need to understand about this data. The gap between the 97th and 99th percentile is incredibly difficult to bridge. This is due to many things, such as the natural variety in difficulty and conceptual focuses found from test-to-test, but most of all due to the number of additional correct answer one needs to get in order to move two percentile points.

To receive a score in the 97th percentile in math, one needs to answer 54/60 questions correctly. To move just two percentile points up, however, one needs to answer 60/60 correctly. Got 59/60 correct? Doesn’t matter—you’ll only pick up one point.

Now, look at the difference in percentile change made with each additional point added at the lower score ranges.

Say you’re a student who scored a composite of 1200, which translates roughly to the 75th percentile. At this range, each correct answer you get translates to between 10-20 extra points to your composite—which, in turn, correlates to a boost of between 3-5 percentile points. By getting only a few extra questions right, you can move the needle on your composite and percentile scores dramatically.

Here's an example of a strategy that you can begin applying today. 

Test Strategy #1: Now, Later, Never

The SAT and ACT consist of questions of various difficulty. Generally speaking, these questions range according to the position in the test. That is, the easiest questions occur at the beginning of each test section while the most difficult occur at the end. The important thing to remember is that, despite the varying difficulties, each question is worth the same number of points. A correct answer on an easy problem is worth just as much as a correct answer on a more difficult problem. 

The constraint mediating these problems most significantly is time. Ah, time - how it varies. Reading about these tests, one might think they sound impossibly long. But step inside the test room and suddenly time seems to shrink; this is especially true for the many students who struggle with time on tests generally. 

The key to Now, Later, Never is to become comfortable identifying how to spend your precious time on problems of differing difficulties. The strategy is simple but, for many, difficult to practice religiously. The Strategy: Going problem-by-problem, simply mark each question with a symbol to indicate whether you plan to address it "now, later, or never."

  • Now questions are ones that you can figure out quickly. 
  • Later questions are those that you might need to think twice about, but which you can still manage 
  • Never questions are those that you can't remotely solve, and which you will only attempt if you have time to spare

By following this procedure, you'll allocate your time where it really counts: on the questions you have a high probability of answering correctly! As a consequence, you'll add points to your overall score on a consistent basis.

For most of our students, just applying "Now, Later, Never" led to a ten-percentile score increase

What does this mean?

It means you don’t have to be a natural test-taker to score well on the SAT or ACT. All you have to do is know when and how to apply test-specific strategies. By applying these strategies consistently, you’ll consistently add points to your win column. At every score range but especially at low and middling ranges, these additional points will translate to massive composite score (and percentile) gains.

So, are the SAT and ACT stacked against students? Yes. Do they test students on real academic knowledge or ability? No.

But, by learning the strategies native to the two tests, can students learn to beat the SAT and ACT? Double yes.

At North Coast, we help students learn how to do exactly this. We teach simple yet effective strategies that reliably raise student scores.

If you’re ready to work with us to and beat the SAT or ACT and to raise your score, get in touch with us below.