The Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your SAT/ACT Prep if You're in 10th Grade

So, you're a high school sophomore (or freshman). You've acclimated to your high school, and you know that you want to go to college in a few years. You might have heard chatter among your older classmates or siblings about the college admissions process, and you know that the SAT or ACT is usually an important part of it.

But you don't need to take either test this year. You might start prepping over the summer for the October PSAT. You may even leverage that prep into feeling ready for one of the official SAT or ACT test dates in the fall.

But it's January. Certainly you don't need to start prepping for the October PSAT in January.

What's an ambitious, motivated tenth grader to do?


Yes, it really is that simple.

The best thing you can do to prepare yourself for the SAT and ACT if you aren't quite ready to start actually prepping for the SAT and ACT is to read.

The reason is twofold.

First, reading is really, really good for you academically.

Reading various authors exposes you to different words, sentence structures and written voices. Since you never know what or whose writing will be presented in the reading sections of the SAT or ACT, it's great to spend time taking in the work of different authors. Furthermore, when you combine a reading practice with a writing practice, such as the one I describe in my book, Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test, you will start to develop and invigorate your own writer's voice, a key asset in academics, the essay section of the SAT/ACT, and your college application essay.

Second, a reading practice helps build your attention and endurance skills.

If you can comfortably read a book for an hour without needing to check your email, respond to a text message, or go for a walk, you will probably be able to hold your own with a one hour Reading section. (The redesigned SAT's reading section lasts 65 minutes.)

This year, try to build up a reading practice that consists of reading for one hour at least twice a week.

You might start by reading for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then gradually add time to your sit-downs to improve your endurance.

The first time you sit for a reading session, set a stopwatch and see how long you last comfortably. On future sittings, set a goal for how long you want to read, set a stopwatch, and don't get up until you've read for the allotted time.

Mark the days that you read with an "x" in your school agenda, or download an app such as "Streaks" to track your progress. If you want to get more specific, note the amount of time you read, what you read, and possibly how many pages you read. Recognize that different pages from different books will take different amounts of time to read simply based on the books' formatting alone, without even taking into account the difficulty of the material.

To add variety to your reading practice, you might designate certain days to reading high-quality short-form writing, such as articles from The New Yorker or The New York Times.

Take advantage of the library -- the one at your school or the public library; it gives you access to a cornucopia of books all for the low, low price of... nothing -- libraries are free! (Presuming no late fees, of course.)

A few other things to keep in mind:

First, I recommend reading printed books as opposed to ebooks.

Aside from the fact that printed books are easier on the eyes than computer screens and don't come with the temptation to switch apps, they are also more similar to the format in which you will experience the SAT or ACT.

Second, challenge yourself in not only how long you read but also what you read.

Try out books by different authors and from various time periods. Look at "best classic books" lists. Try some books that were nominated for or won prestigious literary awards, such as the Pulitzer or the Booker Prize. Read nonfiction as well as fiction. (The current hot ticket on Broadway, Hamilton, was based on this biography by Ron Chernow.) When you expand beyond your literary comfort zone, you won't necessarily love (or even like) everything you read, but try to give each book at least 50 pages to draw you into its world.

​Third, put your phone away during your reading time.

You won't build your attention span if you are reinforcing the habit of redirecting your focus every few minutes. Having your phone nearby is a constant temptation to shift your attention.


Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach and the author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test. Using her unique "Test Prep for the Whole Person" methodology, she helps students from across the country reach their potential in the test room and in life.

Erika will host a free webinar series, "Acing It! Book Club," from February 16th - March 8th 2016. In each weekly session, she will guide students through three chapters of Acing It! and answer their questions about test prep. Find more information and sign up here.

Download a free sample chapter from Acing It! here.
Learn more about Erika's coaching programs here.