Narrow Your Focus

The SAT and ACT can feel overwhelming because they test a wide variety of topics from multiple years of school. Many prep courses and tutors take a general approach to the exams, bombarding students with flashcards and practice tests, hoping that some of the information will stick. My motto is different––narrow your focus. My goal is to break down the material and the process into smaller, more manageable pieces by using packets of notes and setting incremental goals.


Since the SAT and ACT are standardized tests, the topics won’t vary much from exam to exam. These topics can be grouped into a few general subject areas, such as Geometry, Punctuation, and Vocabulary. However, I prefer to subdivide them even further so that students can more easily recognize what’s being tested. I’ve designed my own packets of notes that narrow students’ focus to just one very specific topic at a time. By giving them 10 or 20 questions of the same type in a row, I can get students to identify patterns and understand strategies more quickly. 

Incremental Goals

When I first talk with families about prep, they usually have a specific score in mind. While ambitious goals are good, I also believe in setting incremental goals along the way. Small goals are great confidence boosters, but they also help us chart a path through the material. For example, wanting a 700 in Math is an ambitious goal, and in order to get there, we’ll need to set the incremental goal of getting the first 10 questions right in each Math section (so no careless mistakes on the easy ones). Similarly, it’s much easier to get a 35 in Writing if you’re getting all of the Punctuation questions right, so we’ll make that the first priority. Each student is different, so each student will have different goals, but in all cases, narrowing their focus to incremental goals lets students see their progress more clearly.

Homework and Practice Tests

I’m fully aware that SAT and ACT prep overlaps with what is already the busiest year of high school. With everything from APs to applications, the last thing you want is to layer more work on top of it. I do everything I can to minimize the workload. For one, I make sure that we have a specific goal for each session––no aimless wandering through a practice book. The paid session time should be used efficiently. In addition, I give short homework assignments (30 minutes) that target a specific "packet" that we worked on, and I ask students to send me their answers during the week so that I can provide feedback before the next session. I prefer to use the one-on-one time to cover new material instead of reviewing old work. 

There’s no way around it—students will need to take full-length practice tests (5 hours) every two to three weeks. The SAT and ACT are long, so building endurance is crucial. More important, full tests let me track scores and see if the packets we cover in the sessions are getting us points on the tests. The score report below may look complicated, but it helps me narrow our focus by indicating the packet for each question the student gets wrong.