high school student studies with headphones on in their room

Standardized Test-Taking Strategies: How to Triumph!

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will remain test-optional this year, meaning that high school students applying for fall 2024 admission aren’t required to submit SAT or ACT results. In some cases, a TOEFL iBT, IELTS, or Duolingo English Test score may be required. Please continue to check our website for the most up-to-date information.

As a high schooler, you’ve probably heard a lot about at least two standardized tests, the ACT and the SAT. Colleges may require you to provide one of these test scores on your application, making the whole process feel like a daunting hurdle you need to clear. 

Since these tests can be overwhelming and confusing, we’ve provided some standardized test taking strategies to help you prepare and lead you to success.

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Make sure to register!

This sounds silly.

It makes you think of all those times your mom or dad asked you if you had your lunchbox when you were hopping off to grade school. Of course you did; you never forget these things … until you get to school and realize all your food is at home.

Obviously, remembering to register is important.

The registration deadline for most standardized tests, including the ACT and SAT, is around a month before test day. There’s often a late registration period, but you may have to pay an extra fee for signing up late. Bummer.

It costs money to register for the test, but students from low-income families may be eligible for a fee waiver. Talk to your high school counselor as soon as possible if you think this might apply to you, since you’ll need the fee waiver before you register.

Bottom line is to sign up, and sign up early. It takes time for scores to come in, and signing up for an earlier test means that you’ll have the option to retake it multiple times if you want to. 

Sending Scores to Colleges

When you register for your tests, you can choose to send your results directly to the colleges you’re most interested in. This is the quickest way to send your scores, and it’s also free (assuming you aren’t sending to more than four colleges, that is). If you decide to send your scores to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, our SAT I code is 1836 and our ACT code is 1154.

Study! Or don’t.

There are so many different ways to approach these standardized test taking strategies. Some people study every single day leading up to the exam, and others waltz into the testing room without ever having opened a study guide. It all depends on who you are as a student. 

Major standardized test websites provide free study guides and even old exams that students can work through at home. You can use ACT study resources or SAT prep guides to study by yourself or with a group of classmates. Some students enroll in test prep classes or hire tutors, though these options will probably cost money.

No one is going to make you study for these tests (well, some people might). It’s okay if you want to take your chances by not preparing, but in that case, be prepared instead that you might have to take the test more than once. 

Don’t get one good night’s sleep … get two! 

No matter how hard you study, you won’t be at your best if you can’t keep your eyes open during the test. You’ll be functioning like a zombie, and not even a cool zombie, but one that didn’t get enough sleep before its standardized test. Definitely not cool. 

Catch up on your sleep and you’ll be much more able to face any challenges during the next day! 

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Plan out your morning.

The night before, decide how you’re going to get ready for test day so you’re not rushing in the morning. This includes figuring out where you’re going, how you’re getting there, what time you’re going to leave, what you’re going to wear, does your watch work, why did your sister break your watch without telling you, etc. 

It’s also important to plan out what you’re going to eat the morning of. After all, breakfast is the day’s most important meal. You’ll definitely want to eat something before the test, whether it’s a home-cooked meal or a couple of granola bars in the car. It’s a good idea to bring snacks for the breaks in between tests as well.

Keep things in perspective.

Yes, standardized tests are important, but they are by no means the be-all and end-all of your life. In fact, they’re not even the be-all and end-all of your college applications! While a score that you’re happy with might be helpful when applying, many colleges, including UIUC, perform a holistic review of their applicants. This means that test scores are only part of what the admissions team looks at. Who you are is more important, and it always will be.

Keep things in perspective. Though it might be hard to believe right now, many students don’t even remember what their test scores were just a few years later.

piece of paper saying " GO YOU!!"

Think beyond the score.

If you’re feeling anxious (or spiteful) about taking a standardized test, try to think of it as an opportunity to learn about yourself. The takeaway from these tests shouldn’t just be your score, because you are definitely more than a number. Your experience leading up to this test is more than a number, too. 

Maybe you won’t use your score after you’re done applying to colleges, but taking this test can still be extremely valuable. You can gain a lot of insight into yourself and even learn new skills when you’re preparing. Try asking yourself these questions throughout the process:

  • What helps you prepare most? As you study, think about what works for you and what doesn’t. Do you like working with groups, or do you naturally want to study alone? What distracts you, and what helps you focus?
  • How do you approach stressful situations? Do you procrastinate? Are you unable to see the forest for the trees? Or are you unable to see the trees for the forest? Or are you wondering why you’re in a forest in the first place and why your eyes aren’t working? 
  • How do you feel during the test? What goes through your mind as you take the test? Do you manage your time well? Was there any part of the test you liked (or at least didn’t mind)? Was there any part that you absolutely couldn’t stand? 
  • How do you react to your score? Do you feel relieved? Discouraged? Motivated? Do you feel pressured to compare your scores with your friends or siblings? (Or are you the one asking others to share their score?) How do you define “a job well done”?

It takes a lot of endurance to get ready for a test like this, even if you use the standardized test taking strategies. Through it all, remember that you are you, and you are awesome. To do the best you can do is to triumph, and in the end, it’s very possible that you’ll walk out of that test room thinking, “Hey, that wasn’t too bad after all!”

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  • Much appreciation for the tips. I find that many people neglect the importance of one (or, in this case, two) good night’s sleep. The bit on keeping everything in perspective is nice, too — I myself tend to stress out about my scores more than I should. 🙂

  • Wow, these tips really helped me thank you! I will be using these tips on my next test.

  • We’re so glad they helped. Yes, definitely try not to stress (we know that’s hard), and good luck!

  • These are very helpful tips… even for parents! Keep things in perspective is the most valuable !

  • Thank you for sharing these tips! I take the test in a couple of weeks so this was perfect timing!

  • You’re welcome, and we’re so glad the tips are helpful to you. Best of luck on any standardized tests you’re taking this year, Gargi!

  • The two nights of sleep helped me so much! I was planning on studying until late night two days before my test, but thanks to the advice, not only did i not waltz into the test as a zombie, I felt like my focus on test greatly improved!

  • These tips will make any examination seems approachable and achieveable. I guess, efforts is key or in this case confidence and efforts. This will prove a helpful idea for student with anxiety.

  • Many thanks for the tips. After reading I have come to the realization of how much I have unappreciated sleep, which led me to do some research on the brain’s cognitive abilities and yeah sleep deprivation not only weakens performance but also decreases life expectancies!

  • I am retaking the SAT at the start of next month and I was feeling a bit overwelmed. These tips are helping be keep the importance of the SAT in perspective. Thank you so much!

  • Hi Sharanya, a decision regarding our test-optional policy hasn’t been made yet for the 2025 cycle. Be sure to check our website for updates soon. Thank you!