Unlocking the Ivy League: Mastering SAT and ACT Strategies for Top University Admissions

The SAT and ACT are long-standing pillars of the college admissions process. Many students have come to fear them over time, but are they really as important as your teachers and counselors make them seem? What role do your scores play in the admissions process? How can you improve your chances of performing well on these tests? Read on to learn the answers to all these questions and more!

woman wearing white sweater

How Important Are SAT and ACT Scores?

The SAT and ACT tests are designed to assess each student’s readiness for college. The scores you submit with your applications act as a metric that admissions officers can use to understand your academic preparedness for the rigorous coursework that comes with a secondary education. This information factors into the admissions decision, helping determine whether or not you will be a good fit for the school in question. It’s important to note that high scores do not necessarily guarantee admissions. Low scores, on the other hand, may raise concerns about a student’s ability to thrive in a challenging academic environment.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug

Test Optional Admissions Policies

You may have heard that a large number of schools have adopted test optional admissions policies in the past few years. As its name implies, a test optional school does not require students to send in their SAT and ACT scores with their application. Instead, students can make the decision of whether or not to include their scores themselves. This trend gained momentum as a result of the pandemic, which caused the cancellation of many SAT and ACT test dates. But test optional policies already existed prior to the pandemic as well. In fact, the first college to ever switch over to test optional admissions was Bowdoin College back in 1969.

Some colleges have decided to remain test optional permanently. Others have extended the duration of their test optional policies into 2024. Many selective colleges, particularly Ivy League Schools, have opted for the second scenario (with the exception of MIT).

Competitive Applications

Even though a number of selective schools do not require students to submit their test scores at the moment, that does not mean that standardized test scores are no longer important for college admissions. It can be extremely difficult to get accepted to the Ivy League and other highly selective schools. Students seeking admission will need to craft a stellar application that sets them apart from the rest of the thousands in the admissions pool. One great way to give your application an extra boost is to submit high standardized test scores.


Different schools may have different ideas about what constitutes a “high” test score. Make sure to check the average scores of accepted applicants at your top schools before you take your tests. This way, you can set a target score that will help you craft a competitive application and increase your chances of acceptance. In general, you should aim to score in the 75th percentile among accepted applicants, meaning that your score is higher than 75% of accepted students. This may sound like a daunting task, but you can accomplish it with the right study strategies.

A Holistic Approach to Admissions

While SAT and ACT test scores remain important as a tool for students to make their applications more competitive, it’s important to remember that your acceptance does not rely entirely on your test scores. Putting too much weight on your scores can be a detriment to your chances of acceptance. As we mentioned above, high scores do not guarantee acceptance. You will have to create a balanced and well-rounded application to go with those scores if you want to earn admission, especially at selective schools.


Some students stress so much about their test scores that they end up underperforming on the exams. To avoid this happening to you, keep in mind that admissions officers will take a holistic approach to reviewing your application. They will consider other factors besides test scores, including your transcript, extracurricular activities, application essay, interview, and more. Think of your test scores as the cherry on top of an already strong application, helping you guarantee your admission to your dream school.

Strategies to Improve Your Test Scores

Scoring well on the SAT and ACT requires a combination of knowledge, skills, and test-taking strategies. Let’s break down some of the ways you can increase your chances of earning high scores.

Understand the Test Format and Structure

To master the test, you must first understand the test. No matter which exam you choose to take, set aside time to familiarize yourself with its format and structure. Go over the types of questions you will encounter, the time restraints for each section, the tools at your disposal, and the exam’s overall structure. If you are taking the digital SAT or ACT, online practice tests can be a great resource for learning the ins and outs of each test.

Practice Regularly with Timed Tests

Speaking of practice exams, we recommend taking them regularly throughout your studies. In addition to helping you familiarize yourself with the actual test, practice tests can simulate a real testing environment. By only giving yourself the allotted exam time to complete each section, you can gain a sense of how long you have and the pace you need to maintain. Practice tests can also act as a benchmark, allowing you to assess your studying progress and redirect your focus to subjects that need it most.

Focus On Weaknesses, But Don’t Neglect Strengths

Students sometimes fall into a trap while studying. They focus all their attention on improving their weak subjects and wind up neglecting their strengths. It is important to dedicate a significant amount of time to improving your weak areas, but failing to review your strengths as well could cause you to miss what otherwise would have been an easy question. As you create your personalized study plan, try to balance your efforts, fixing up your weaknesses while also reinforcing your strengths. This helps you make sure you perform your best on test day.

Consider Test Retakes

Many students receive their first round of SAT or ACT scores and feel they could have performed better. And, those who go on to retake the exam, often do see significant improvement in their scores. Be sure to plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to retake your exams before your college applications are due. Then, if you end up happy with your original scores, you’ll have extra time to work on your applications.

Enroll in SAT and ACT Prep Courses

Whether you already have a solid study plan in mind or you have no idea where to start, SAT and ACT prep courses can be a great resource. Prep Expert offers a variety of courses, ranging from simple weekend reviews to full 6 to 8 week courses. Our experienced instructors will help you understand the material and provide useful test-taking strategies that you can use throughout the rest of your academic career, all while finding a way to make studying fun.

Browse Prep Expert’s full catalog of courses today and pick out the best fit for your study style!

Related Posts