There’s a lot riding on ACTs and SATs for today’s students. College acceptance and scholarships are increasingly competitive, and a stellar score on one of these standardized tests can make the difference. Knowing that, students these days prepare for the tests and often take them more than once in pursuit of top-tier scores.

Fortunately, today’s students have a variety of preparatory materials available, so no one needs to go in cold. “There is a rapidly expanding industry of private companies who specialize in helping students prepare for their college entrance exams,” says Shelley Smith, founder  of Special Solutions, a St. Louis company that offers ACT and SAT test  preparation services.

Students who want individualized tutoring and test rehearsal should begin looking for resources two to six months prior to taking the test. “The best way to find a good company is through referrals,” Smith adds. “Ask around to find people who have recently used a test preparation company and ask about their experiences. Ask about how much test scores improved and how the program is structured.”

One of the key advantages to preparation through a company, private tutor or via online practice tests and guides provided by ACT and SAT is gaining familiarity with the format of each section of the test, says  Elizabeth Gill, director of Just Learn, which also offers ACT and SAT test

preparation. “Kids go in already anxious about what their score is going to be, and if they don’t have a comfort with the test, that makes them more anxious, which can skew the score so it doesn’t really reflect their ability.”

In addition to checking out various types of preparation resources, students should know which test is preferred and what scores are required for admission by their top college picks. “Most

schools will take either one,” explains Rebecca Wilson, executive director of College Nannies & Tutors–St. Peters. “I would suggest taking both exams because we have students who tend to do better at one over the other. If one score is much higher than the other, I would suggest focusing on the test with the higher score by getting individualized tutoring to focus on the student’s weakest sections in particular.”

Yet because the tests are different, they require different preparation

approaches and strategies to maximize one’s score. Smith refers to the ACT as an ‘achievement test,’ measuring acquired knowledge, while the SAT is an ‘aptitude test,’ predicting likely future performance. Format, timing and subject matter differ.

For instance, the SAT does not contain a specific science section, and the math component requires exact answers be entered by the student. The math portion of the ACT, on the other hand, is multiple choice. Because of such differences, experts stress the importance of taking practice tests specific to the test one plans to take.

“Good grades or advanced classes are not a substitute for a test prep program, and even with the best student, a short prep period can result in substantially improved scores,” Smith says. “These tests are timed, and time management is a big issue. Familiarity with the test structure, types of questions, types of content, and doing practice passages and problems all help.”