Test Prep Made Easy: Don't Let the Letters "ACT" or "SAT" Strike Fear into Your Heart. with a Little Preparation and the Right Attitude, You Can Earn Scores You'll Be Proud Of

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If you're like a lot of students gearing up for the college admissions process, you might feel that your entire future depends on how well you do on the SAT or ACT.

Relax--the truth is much less dire. Granted, a poor showing on your admissions exam could be a problem, especially if you're applying to highly selective colleges. But keep in mind that your exam score is just one piece of your application package, and for many schools, it's not even the most important piece. In fact, an increasing number of colleges are even starting to make admissions exams optional.

But most colleges and universities still require applicants to submit scores for either the ACT or the SAT, so if you plan to head for a four-year school after graduation, chances are there's a test in your future.

ACT or SAT?

The two tests measure different things and therefore take different approaches to testing. The ACT is an achievement test--it focuses on how well you learned what you were taught in high school. Although the SAT has some elements of an achievement test, it is primarily an aptitude test, measuring how well you are expected to do in college.

Your first step in getting ready for the test should be to list the schools you're most interested in and find out which test scores (if any) they require. If you have a choice between the two tests, choose one and stick with it--don't feel compelled to take both.

If you took the PSAT or the PLAN in your sophomore year, consider taking a practice test for the exam you haven't taken. If you've never taken either exam, consider taking a practice test of each. This will help you decide which test works best for you, and it'll also help you identify your strengths and weaknesses so you can better focus your study plan.

Work Smart!

No matter how much time you have to prepare for exam day, try not to get too anxious. "These exams are very 'preppable'," says Brandon Jones, National Director of SAT and ACT Programs for Kaplan. "Whichever method a student chooses to study for the exam, it's not about working longer or harder. It's about working smarter."

How do you work smarter? The first step is to have confidence. When you're more relaxed and sure of your ability to do well on a test, you're much less likely to get stressed out about it. Here are three ways to help boost your confidence:

* Start studying early.

* Give yourself a realistic study schedule and stick with it. (Be careful not to jeopardize your schoolwork, since colleges generally consider grades to be more important than exam scores.)

* Discuss your study plan with family and friends, and let them know what you need--and don't need--from them.

To come up with the most effective study plan, ask yourself these questions:

* Do I prefer studying alone or in a group?

* Do I have the self-discipline to study alone effectively? …