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How Best to Use Official and 3rd Party Materials for Test Prep

Whenever preparing for a college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT, you probably have found yourself running out of official material. While it’s tempting to dive deep into whatever College Board or ACT provides on their website or in their practice books, it’s important to remember that you should use the official materials sparingly and mix 3rd party materials into your test prep supplies. Today, I will explain how best to do so.

First, let’s discuss what exactly are “official” and “3rd party” materials.

Official materials include any practice tests, sample problems, and online courses that the test maker provides to you. For example, College Board offers several SAT practice tests on its website (usually taken from previously administered official tests). It also has the Khan Academy classes/testing modules. Not only that, you can purchase the practice tests as a single booklet.

3rd party materials include any practice tests, study workbooks, or content guides that are produced by companies other than the official test maker. For example, Kaplan and Princeton Review are the two largest practice test creators, but they do not actually write or administer the official exams.

In a perfect world, there would be enough official materials for studying the tests and ensuring a high score, but unfortunately, students who plan on getting a high or perfect score often require at least a few months of material. In other words, they must find a balance between using both types.

So, how exactly do you effectively mix the official and 3rd party materials into your test prep?

1. Use official practice tests as benchmarks.

Official practice tests will be the best indication of what you will see on the actual test date, so you should use them when you set aside time and give yourself the most realistic testing conditions--i.e., when you time yourself based on the section limits and solve the questions in a location as free from distractions as possible.

I recommend that you use three official practice tests as benchmarks if you are giving yourself at least a month before the official test date to prepare. The first test is the initial diagnostic. The second is a midpoint check-in. And the third is a final impression before your test date.

You could use more--say, one a week--but in the event that you don’t get your goal score, you want to have some tests available for the second round of studying. Therefore, if you plan on registering for an exam date more than once, allocate the official materials accordingly.

2. Use 3rd party materials for general practice and developing strategies.

Since the official tests are more appropriate for “formal” practicing, the 3rd party materials often work better when you want to get in more drilling or fragmented practice. For example, you may decide that you need to focus on history passages in the SAT Reading section. 3rd party materials are great for getting in that practice without “wasting” an official test.

3rd party materials also often provide you some pointers on how to approach specific problems as well as the general method for a particular section. B2A, for instance, has curriculum that breaks down the sections, question types, and most helpful strategies. :-)

3. Use 3rd party materials for more challenging questions.

The official practice materials are of course “on level,” but sometimes they don’t best reflect how hard the test could be. So, if you want a more realistic indication of your progress (or even a slightly more severe outlook), then the 3rd party materials are typically best for keeping your expectations in check.

Generally, I recommend alternating between taking an official practice test and a 3rd party test when you are "formally" practicing in test-day conditions (timed, no distractions). Most likely, the official tests will trend higher than the 3rd party ones, so your actual score is likely somewhere between those two trends.

Preparing for the upcoming February ACT and/or March SAT? Let our tutors help you make the most of the materials available so that you can get the best score. Not only that, through any of our B2A programs, classes, and tutoring, you can access our extensive curriculum and practice tests. We can assess weaknesses and tackle them directly!


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