Despite the growing momentum of “test optional” admissions, the college admissions process remains as competitive as ever. Spring dates for both the SAT and ACT test are coming right up, and students across the US are working hard to prepare for these high-stakes exams.

What’s the best way to prepare for the SAT or ACT? The approach you take depends somewhat on how much time and money you have to spend. A private tutor and/or classroom sessions with a test prep service could make a significant difference in your score, but these options are not within everyone’s financial reach.

Students with tight budgets shouldn’t feel outgunned, however. The playing field isn’t level, but there are still many ways to prep efficiently and effectively without spending much. Here are some tips to share:

One: Take the right test in the first place.

One way to potentially optimize your score is to identify whether you’re likely to do better on the SAT or the ACT. Plus it’s easier and cheaper to prep for one test than for two. College Planning Partnerships’ SAT/ACT Diagnostic test is very affordable and is based on Socrato’s learning analytics. Socrato also offers a free eBook to help you choose.

Two: Identify and focus on where you most need to improve.

Taking practice tests is highly recommended, but this level of scoring often doesn’t tell the full story of a student’s performance or the specific weaknesses they need to correct to achieve maximum improvement. Another free eBook from Socrato is available to help tutors and teachers improve their reporting and feedback to maximize the benefit to students. Socrato also offers learning analytics combined with practice testing at very affordable rates for students and tutors.

Three: Take advantage of low-cost practice testing.

Practice testing using well-designed sample tests are a great way to get familiar with the SAT or ACT test formats. Practice testing can also be helpful for figuring out your basic strengths and weaknesses. If you can, take at least one practice test in as realistic a setting as possible, and also time your practice tests to better simulate “test day” conditions. The College Board, which administers the SAT, offers not only free sample questions and a free, full-length practice test (with instant scoring), but also a free test day simulator online to help you get ready.

Four: Get a study guide.

There are a wide range of books out there to help guide your practice and make the most of your time. The College Board offers for only $69.95, as well as affordable study guide options. Similar study guides are available at bookstores and online from test prep services like Kaplan and Princeton Review, as well as other publishers.

Five: Make a game of it.

For around $30, you might want to try the (from the famous “Dummies” series) to have some fun, get accustomed to answering under time pressure, and maybe improve your retention rate. The game includes five test categories: sentence completion, math multiple choice, math student-produced response, writing skills and critical reading. Detailed answer information provides helpful feedback and insights.

Six: Take a low-cost prep course at your high school.

According to a study by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, about 70% of public high schools offer some kind of standardized test prep, including online study guides and classroom programs. Many of these programs charge a fee, but it is likely to be lower-cost than private test prep.

How do you recommend your students prepare for the SAT or ACT? What do you think is the key to successful test prep? Please share your comments and suggestions.

Featured image courtesy of Medill DC.

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Our free 20-page ebook is a step-by-step guide on how to select the right test for your student. Learn everything you need to know about using the PLAN and PSAT to improve student scores, how to leverage learning analytics to select one test over the other, and other tips on how to take the guesswork out of selecting the ACT vs the SAT.