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Is It Possible To Get Good ACT or SAT Scores Without Studying?

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The SAT and the ACT are among the high-stakes tests students are required to take as part of their college application process. Some students believe that if you are smart, you can get good scores without studying. However, that mindset can be disastrous.

Can You Do Well on the SAT Without Putting in the Effort?

The ACT and SAT are among the most important tests you will ever take. Students may choose not to prepare due to the mindset that these exams are just like any other standardized test. Very rarely, a student earns a good score on the SAT/ACT without preparation. However, it is an unlikely reality for the vast majority of high school students. Given that scholarship money and college admission decisions are tied to your SAT/ACT scores, it is worth taking the extra effort to be prepared for either of these intense exams.

Joel and the Never-ending ACT

The ACT is one of the two common tests students take as part of their path to applying to college. It has three required sections in math, English, and reading. Unlike the SAT, it also has a fourth required section specifically devoted to science that tests critical thinking skills (rather than science-specific content). Joel was in my first class of students to graduate high school. He was very intelligent, a gifted writer and an athlete, but Joel hated to study. So the thought of spending a summer taking additional classes to prepare for one standardized test was not his cup of tea.

To this day I am not quite sure how the rumor started, but it got around our junior class of students that the ACT was somehow much easier than the SAT. The rumor developed into a belief that it was easy to get a good score on the ACT with no studying at all. Joel, in his fervor to avoid taking a prep class, jumped on the bandwagon of students who decided the ACT was their ticket to college. After all, to qualify for an athletic scholarship at a state university, all he needed was a 27 out of a possible 36.

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Joel and some of his peers were already being recruited by colleges and decided that the ACT made the most sense for them - sans studying. Joel did eventually get his required 27 to qualify for the college scholarship. It took him five attempts!

On his first two attempts, his score was so poor he refused to tell his peers, let alone his teachers who were trying to help him. It took Joel a while to listen to myself and his other teachers reminding him that the average score on tests such as the ACT is actually quite low. For example, the class of 2016, according to the ACT organization, had an average composite score below 21. It takes preparation and studying if you want to score on the higher end of average.

Lydia and the Disastrous SAT

Lydia was perhaps one of the shyest students to ever cross my classroom door. She was, in a lot of ways, the classic middle child. Her older sister was a gifted student enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) classes who also played basketball and was on the swim team. Lydia seemed to live in her sister's shadow. In class, she never spoke unless called upon and even then could barely speak above a whisper. In her quest for college, no one ever seemed to take her under wing - including her parents. Her sister breezed through the SAT, and her parents expected the same of her.

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While Lydia was also smart and talented in her own right, she had suffered from a chronic illness that caused her to miss school and created gaps in her education. With enough practice, she could scrap out Bs in math, but she never excelled on standardized tests in this particular subject. Lydia's parents had convinced her that studying wasn't helpful on the SAT, so one cold Saturday morning, she spent three-plus hours taking the exam. I was one of the proctors of the test that morning, and you could tell in the first thirty minutes of the exam she was overwhelmed. She sat there, stoic and red-faced, and trudged her way through the test. Needless to say, unprepared as she was to face the diversity of questions and problems, the test was a disaster. It was painful for her teachers to watch over the next months as her peers bragged about their scores and college prospects. All poor Lydia could do was walk away to avoid the tears because she had been misled by many, including her family, to thinking that a good score on the SAT had nothing to do with how one prepares to face the exam.

Invest in Your Tests

The truth about tests like the ACT or SAT is that they are investments. They don't pay interest per se, but what they do pay is money for college (and admission). Every college has a tiered system by which they correlate SAT/ACT scores to the scholarship money they offer. Since 2011, colleges have been required to include on their websites a 'net cost calculator'; you can also access one through the College Board website. Using this tool, you can plug in your SAT/ACT scores, and it will project how much scholarship money you could qualify for. Willing to study to raise your SAT score 100 points? Those points could shave thousands of dollars off your college bill.

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While there are a rare minority of students who can score well on these tests without studying, that is not the case for most of the students who walk through my classroom door each year. Students who are willing to invest time in really studying and preparing for tests like the ACT and SAT reap the rewards in more college choices and scholarship money to cover the costs. So even if you think you can score well enough without studying, think of it this way: if you could save a few thousand dollars a year for a few hours of preparation, would you do it?

By Rachel Tustin
November 2017
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