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Overachievers.

They take the hardest classes, play two sports, hold office in a school club, and have a part-time job.  I see them in my classroom all the time. You may even be one.

But overachievers typically face a dilemma:  how to find time for One. More. Thing.

For example, getting ready for the SAT or ACT.  Although it seems like there's no room in an already packed schedule, there are stress-free ways to squeeze in time for some test prep.

Read hard stuff

One-third of the SAT and one-fourth of the ACT is a reading comprehension test.  To a large degree, the science portion of the ACT tests your reading skill as well.  

Reading a quick blog post on your phone is one thing, but reading the passages found on the test requires skill and effort.  Test passages look more like the kind of readings found in your history textbook and the novels that English teachers like me assign.  The ones most students don't truly read.

Rather than taking shortcuts, train your brain to make sense of difficult, information-crammed texts assigned to you.  Break long sections into smaller ones and put the ideas into your own words. Focus on the beginning and end of a reading selection to cement your understanding of the overall message.  Not only will practicing these skills increase your test score, it will boost your class grades, too.

Learn vocabulary

One bit of good news is that both tests have done away with the need to know obscure vocabulary, opting instead to test your ability to determine a word's meaning in context.  However, anything you can do to increase the number of words you recognize dramatically increases your chances of comprehending what you read and choosing the right answers.

You could sign up for a "word of the day" delivered to your email, but that's one more thing to make time for.  Instead, take seriously every vocabulary list assigned in class. Rather than memorizing the definitions well enough to last for a 10-minute quiz, really learn what the words mean and how they work in real life.  It's another small way to save time while upping your test prep game.

Study graphs

Graphs and other visual representations show up in the math sections of both tests, but they are also found in the ACT science and SAT reading sections.  Some of the easiest types of graphs you will interpret include bar graphs, line graphs, scatter plots, and tables (not graphs but close enough). These kinds of visuals are relatively simple as long as you read all the labeled information on each side of the figure.

The more challenging visuals—linear and quadratic functions—show up on the math section.  You will be asked to determine what the graphs show. In math class, pay close attention to lessons on graphing these functions so that you'll know what you're looking at when you see one completed.

Prep strategically

Find time to add some specialized test prep to your schedule, be smart about it, and follow these guidelines:

  • Choose practice questions that are exactly like the test—either actual released tests or material that closely matches the real thing and fully explains correct and incorrect answers, so you know how to get the answer right the next time.
  • Time yourself.  Rather than staring at a workbook for hours, choose one set of questions and try to complete it in the time the test would give you.  A good rule of thumb is a little more than a minute for SAT questions and a little less than a minute for ACT questions.
  • Find a good mobile app that will let you do some studying when you're away from home.  Even 10 minutes at a time can add up to a lot of practice.
  • Put the earbuds away.  You won't have music on test day, so get comfortable with silence now.

Being an overachiever is about achieving more than the average.  Follow this advice, and you'll achieve an above-average score with below-average stress.


The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE®) is a joint program of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB®) and National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME®).

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