How to Achieve Mastery on the ACT or SAT

Your student can shine on the ACT or SAT. Every student can.

We know this because we’ve seen students outperform their and their parents’ expectations time after time by following Testive’s learning philosophy and process. No matter their academic history, students can discover the master within and come out of the test feeling confident and capable. But that’s not to say it’s easy. Mastering the ACT or SAT takes grit and it requires students to be thoughtful and decisive about how they manage their time. It’s easy to misallocate the hours one devotes to test prep, and it’s easy for it to be inefficient and ineffective, yielding mediocre results.

This guide outlines how our learning philosophy has helped thousands of Testive students improve their ACT or SAT scores significantly. Mastery isn’t about absorbing tips and tricks that help students game the test (although, there is a bit of that). It’s a philosophy that, when put into practice, helps students grow both intellectually and emotionally. It’s a personalized path for each student that builds problem solving skills your child will use throughout his or her academic and professional life. Regardless of whether you plan on getting a Testive coach, please use this guide to help your student succeed. Everything in here can be implemented with $30 worth of materials, a Testive account (free), and an internet connection.

Of course if you are interested in Testive Coaching, you can learn more by reading some of our testimonials & score results or by signing up for a consultation.

The Catalysts of Score Improvement

When a student attempts an ACT or SAT question (or any academic challenge for that matter) there are two major factors that indicate his or her probability of answering that question correctly: knowledge and behavior.

  • Does the student have the knowledge to answer this question correctly? This is the obvious one. On the ACT or SAT, knowledge could mean a particular grammar concept, the geometric rules of a circle, algebraic formulas, etc.
  • Does the student demonstrate the behavior that is typically used when answering this question correctly? This one is more abstract. On both standardized tests, behavior could mean timing and pacing, checking one’s work before submitting an answer, writing out variables in a formula, deconstructing sentences when looking for errors, etc.

On any given question, a student who has a strong grasp of the content being tested and demonstrates strong problem solving behavior will have a high likelihood of answering the question correctly. This logic can be extended to the entire test: students with a strong grasp of the content and who behave correctly to each question will have a high likelihood of receiving a high score.

Not surprisingly, this gives us the two major catalysts of score improvement: knowledge gain and behavior improvement. Pretty straightforward, huh?

Not really.

The reason why students experience only moderate success with most other test prep methods is they encounter too few opportunities for knowledge gain, and rarely (if at all) focus on the behavior improvement that will accelerate personal growth and score growth.

And the truth is, this is really difficult. Out of the 3.2 million students that take either the ACT or SAT each year, there are 3.2 million different paths to personal growth. Each student has unique strengths and weaknesses, learning styles, and circumstances. Therefore, classes and books that are designed to be used by the median student are effectively designed to be used by nobody.

Testive is designed differently. Every part of our student experience—our online platform, coaching interactions, each student’s custom schedule—is designed to bring the opportunities for personal growth to the surface and amplify their magnitude. Regardless of whether you choose to work with a Testive coach, you can use these six essential elements of Testive’s coaching process to ensure your student will encounter as many opportunities for knowledge gain and behavior change as possible.

  1. Establish baseline skills
  2. Study the optimal content
  3. Spend more time reflecting than practicing new content
  4. Build a schedule that you can keep
  5. Enlist the support of a guide
  6. Create urgency where none exists

Establish a Baseline

Take two otherwise equal students, Lisa and John, as an example. Both Lisa and John spend 50 hours studying the same 10-chapter SAT prep book, with each chapter representing a different SAT topic. John starts on the first page of the book and completes each chapter one-by-one totaling 50 hours of prep. Lisa, on the other hand, dedicates five hours to a practice test (both completing and reflecting) then spends her next 45 hours studying her biggest areas of improvement in the book, but only makes it through five chapters. Who would have the larger score increase?

The answer is difficult to say for sure. Randomness and test stress certainly play a role in actual results, as does the fact that Lisa likely missed some opportunities for knowledge gain and behavior improvement in the five chapters she never studied. But the smart money is on Lisa, since she used a more effective, efficient prep method, and likely encountered better opportunities for improvement. While John was wasting time studying content that was way too easy or way too hard for him, Lisa was laser focused on areas where she could make larger score gains. Said differently, Lisa’s strategy has a much higher “return-on-prep” ratio than does John’s.

A junior year PSAT is a good baseline for the SAT, but there’s nothing better than the real thing. That’s why we recommend taking a previously administered SAT in the College Board’s Official Guide. You can buy it on Amazon.

If you’re planning on taking the ACT, you can take their version of the practice test, the ACT Plan, and purchase the ACT study guide on Amazon.

Study the Right Content

After Lisa completes a practice test, she can use Testive’s website to upload her results and generate a custom score report for free (below). This will show a student’s ability for each area of the test and identify specific strengths and weaknesses.

We encourage every student to learn like Lisa. By establishing a baseline, she’s able to measure her ability and make important prioritization decisions. But establishing a baseline is just the start. The next part is identifying her three biggest weaknesses—the parts of the test where she’ll encounter the most opportunities for knowledge gain and behavior improvement—leading to the most efficient score growth. Looking at her score report below, her biggest opportunities all lie in math: data, algebra, and geometry. She should relentlessly practice those areas until they turn into strengths (we have a suggested way of doing this, which we’ll cover later).

Once Lisa attains a desired improvement in a specific area of the test, say geometry, she should deprioritize it and add another category to her active routine, say modifiers. Using this method, students like Lisa will focus on no more than three areas of improvement at a time, and be able to dig deeper and find more opportunities for knowledge gain and behavior improvement than if they covered more content, but just stayed on the surface.

Constant and consistent measurement means you can always study right at the edge of your ability level. It’s important that this measurement doesn’t stop at the baseline, as it should inform a student’s prioritization leading right up to test day.

Spend More Time Reflecting Than Practicing New Questions

We are trained to think that the more questions a student answers correctly on an assessment, the more learning has occurred. Our schools work this way. When a 9th grade geometry teacher completes the course work on angles, it’s usually concluded with a test and sometimes a debrief session before moving onto the course’s next subject, perhaps circles.

So it’s easy to see why students assume that repetition will lead to mastery. Just like in 9th grade geometry class: the more questions you answer correctly, the more you’ve learned. So students should focus their time repeating new practice questions eventually getting more and more of them correct, right?


Assessment is not a measure of learning, it’s a measure of understanding and ability. Learning is what takes place between assessments to improve one’s understanding and ability. Repetition will lead to mastery, but if and only if it’s paired with thoughtful reflection.

Incorrect answers are the fuel of score growth. They unlock behavior improvement and knowledge gain. They should be a student’s best friend, yet they are somehow the single most underutilized resource in test prep and perhaps education in general.

We recommend students spend 2/3 of their time reviewing and reflecting missed content, and only 1/3 of their time attempting new questions. Why don’t you take a couple of minutes and answer this question:

How’d you do? There are three questions you should ask:

  • Did I answer the question correctly? (the answer is 26, by the way)
  • Did I answer the question quickly enough? (the average Testive student spends 47 seconds on this question)
  • Did I answer the question with high confidence?

If your answer to all three of these questions is yes, then you’re ready to move on. If your answer to one of these questions is no, then there’s a good learning opportunity in reflection. If that’s the case, Testive offers you three options to go deeper on this question.

First, you can watch an answer explanation video:

Secondly, you can review learning content associated with this topic. Lastly, you can even watch a 30 minute class, Testive Study Hall, dedicated to the topic:

Once you’ve identified your mistake, you’ll be asked to reflect on what you can do differently next time to answer a similar question correctly. This is the most important part of Testive’s learning philosophy. It’s where students build awareness of the knowledge they must gain and the behavior they must improve in order to boost their scores.

On it’s own, a single question reflection is valuable. But reflecting becomes much more valuable once a student has completed hundreds of reflections and can identify patterns among them. That’s when reflections become a very powerful tool to identify behavior change that is sometimes very difficult to pinpoint.

Create a Schedule That Works for You

In our SAT Starter’s Guide we said that the magic number is 100 hours. You can see big score improvements by investing less time, we’ve certainly seen many students do so. But somewhere around the 100 hour mark, if learning efficiently, is where your personal growth will plateau. Pushing beyond this plateau, while still a worthwhile goal, will require a substantial redoubling of effort and a bigger time commitment. The choice belongs to the student, but a coach can help with the decision.

Studying for 100 hours is not an easy ask. Today’s high school students keep schedules comparable to the busiest of corporate executives. They balance school work with athletics, part time jobs, extracurricular activities, family obligations, college applications, and their social life. Adding in 100 hours to prepare for test prep doesn’t seem fair.

We agree. It isn’t.

However, remember that the biggest skills you learn by studying for the tests are also skills that help you later in life (arithmetic, grammar, and literacy). Students of ours that master American English grammar, for instance, routinely report to us that it helps them write more persuasively allowing them to enter better colleges, get better jobs, and lead more productive lives.

The most important strategy to creating and sticking to a productive schedule is making practical commitments. “I’m going to prep for 100 hours in the four months prior to the test,” is an awful commitment because it’s not actionable. A much better method is to create milestones and set up a weekly routine that will work for your schedule.

We consistently find that students who establish and adopt a routine early in their preparation achieve much higher score improvement. That’s why the first thing we ask a new Testive student to do is make daily and weekly commitments:

Then we send students text message reminders to ensure they follow through with their commitments. And we notify them when they miss a study session that they committed to. Commitments are only valuable if they result in actions. That’s why it’s important to constantly measure and reevaluate one’s commitments.

Get the support of a guide

Think back to a time when you learned something profound. Something that challenged your understanding of the world, something that changed your life. Close your eyes and put yourself in that environment for a moment.

Anything you notice?

Our guess is that there’s someone else by your side. Were we right? If so, it’s (unfortunately) not because we have telepathic powers. It’s because mentorship is as powerful a learning tool as we know.

Just think about some of the greatest learners in history: Plato had Socrates, Luke Skywalker had Yoda, Peyton Manning had his father, Archie. Truly effective learning requires vulnerability and motivation, and we believe both are best served through human interaction.

Remember earlier when you read about the importance of identifying weaknesses and prioritizing on which content to focus on? Well, it turns out this is really difficult to do by oneself. A guide’s support brings an external perspective that makes students better and quicker at identifying knowledge gaps and behavioral improvements. Put simply, collaboration multiplies every other part of Testive’s learning philosophy.

At Testive, our coaches are our guides. They support their students in many different ways, but there are four that are most important. We think they’re the four critical roles that any guide should play when supporting a student with the SAT:

  • Planning & Motivation – Establishing reachable, yet ambitious, goals and setting up a schedule to execute them. Victory requires pushing beyond an enumerated target.
  • Identifying and Encouraging All-Star Qualities – We all can benefit from external praise when we do great things. This is what helps smart people become winners.
  • Prioritization – Time is finite, and it’s difficult to decide when to switch between areas of the test. But consistent measurement and an external point of view can help.
  • Detecting Obstacles to Success – Everyone stumbles. In the absence of a coach, many students endlessly repeat behaviors that don’t lead to growth.

Among Testive students, those with coaches have a 47.6% higher effort grade and spend 234.1% more time on the platform than those who do not. Accountability is a powerful tool.

Here’s the bad news: parents (typically) are not well suited for coaching their children (hear us out.). That’s because good mentorship requires a high degree of vulnerability from the student. Without this vulnerability, it is difficult for students to expose their weaknesses and engage in real personal growth. Because of the structure of the typical parent-child relationship, it is difficult for students to demonstrate enough vulnerability for great personal-growth.

Here’s the good news: you also don’t have to pay for mentorship. We’ve seen plenty of students be wildly successful with the support of a friend, an older sibling, a cousin, or a caring neighbor. Of course, if you are considering a more structured program, Testive’s one-on-one coaching alongside our online platform may be a good option. Plus our coaches are smart, awesome people who inspire us everyday.

Create Urgency Where None Exists

By now, you know nearly everything about Testive’s learning philosophy. But there’s one last thing that we need to discuss; the silent killer that has proven time and time again to spoil a student’s success on the ACT or SAT.


Let’s say it’s February 1st. The last calendar year expired a month ago and Americans have two and a half months left until tax filings are due. Everyone knows taxes are important, afterall the average family has a $2,500 check waiting for them on the other side. Yet only a tiny fraction of America’s taxpayers have completed their returns before February. Why?

Because no matter how important taxes are, they are not urgent (at least until just before the deadline). The ACT or SAT is seen through the same lens by students as taxes are by taxpayers. It is often on the horizon and is never as urgent as other tasks that occupy our daily lives.

Just think of homework. Students know that if they don’t complete their homework on a Wednesday night that they are vulnerable to public embarrassment in class on Thursday and potentially a poor report card being sent home. With unstructured test prep, no such forcing mechanism exists. It’s much easier for a student to say, “Oh well, I’ll just do it tomorrow.” And this daily procrastination often perpetuates into full blown neglect.

Making matters worse is the fact that the ACT or SAT and taxes are very much not the same. Taxpayers are capable of receiving the same refund no matter if they file on January 1st or April 14th. The SAT/ACT is different—a student’s highest potential score diminishes as the student approaches the test date. If there were a chat that plotted a student’s potential improvement and urgency to improve over time, it would look something like this:

So the idea is to create artificial urgency to move the urgency curve up for your student. We’ve found three essential ingredients for doing this:


The best commitments have three components. (1) They are highly specific. What will you do and when will you do it? (2) They are recorded somewhere. And (3) they are shared publicly. On Testive, students make commitments on their calendar which is shared with their coach and their parents. If they don’t meet these commitments, everyone is notified.


We learned the importance of measurement at the top of this guide. To be really good at something, you have to figure out a way to track it. Did you make two out of 10 sessions last month, eight out of 10, or 10 out of 10? The difference matters. One thing is for certain. If you want to become outstanding, you need to track your progress. For example, you can use Testive to track your test prep progress by day.


If you truly want to be successful creating urgency, you’ll also need to create accountability. This usually requires another person. You’ll need to instruct that person how to hold you accountable. They need to check in on your tracking every day to verify that you have met your commitment. You’ll also need to set up two sets of policies. (1) What will this person do when you succeed at meeting your commitment (positive reinforcement), and (2) what will this person do when you fail to meet your commitment (negative reinforcement). Big, long-term, amorphous projects such as preparing for the ACT or SAT require accountability. Get some!

And that’s a wrap…

So that’s it. Testive’s secret sauce. How we help students achieve mastery on the ACT or SAT not through tips and tricks, but through disciplined, thoughtful, and efficient learning. We certainly hope this guide helped you. If it did, please consider sharing it with your friends who might also benefit from it.

Ready to get started prepping with Testive? Schedule a call with one of our student success advisors to discuss your options or enroll in a plan today!  

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