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10 Study Tips for US Exams

Nearly all highly ranked US universities require applicants to submit scores from one of the US admissions tests – either the SAT, SSAT, ICEE or TOEFL.

A strong test score is crucial to a successful application, and because these exams differ greatly from those on traditional UK or international syllabi, it can be really helpful to get tips from those who teach and mark the exams.

Having an insight into the style of questioning your particular admission test generally adopts, is probably one of your most valuable tools.

Using the experience of our valued teachers, we have collected some of the most useful tips for you.

10 Tips for Success:

  1. Ensure you get a good night’s rest before you sit for the exam. A well-rested mind is more likely to recall answers correctly.

  2. Read section directions before the test. Don’t assume you know what to do. There may be very specific instructions for certain questions and if you get them wrong, you could be throwing away valuable marks.

  3. Answer the questions you know first. Don’t get flustered because you have spotted a question you don’t know. Focus on the ones you DO know first, as finishing those will bolster your confidence and allow you to get them out of the way so you can spend some time thinking about the answers to more difficult questions you’re not as sure of.

  4. Eliminate incorrect answers. When faced with multiple choice questions, you may not know which is the right answer, but chances are good that you will be able to recognise the ones that are clearly wrong. This will make identifying the correct answer a little easier. If you can, try and come up with the correct answer before reading through the options. That way, if you are correct, your answer will be validated by one of the choices.

  5. Neat handwriting is important. You don’t want a marker to misread your answer and deduct marks from a question you actually answered correctly, simply because they could not make it out.

  6. Trust your instincts. Your first response is usually correct. Don’t spend time second guessing yourself. Keep a positive attitude. Don’t let your doubts and insecurities bring you down. Trust yourself and believe in your efforts.

  7. Don't skip answers—guess. If you find yourself stumped on a question, leave it to the end and come back to it. If you’re still not sure, venture a guess. You may surprise yourself by clocking in an extra mark or two. If you leave it blank, there is no chance of a lucky guess.

  8. Budget your time. You do not have unlimited time for your exam. Bring a watch or a timer in with you so you can monitor your time.

  9. SSAT specific tip: Study word roots and indicator words.

  10. TOEFL specific tip: Focus on your typing skills by becoming an expert note taker. Choose an earlier test date if possible and only use high quality resources.

Learn from the mistakes of other students.

"A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of others." – Patrick, ME Education student.

Markers shared with us some common blunders they see when marking exams. Take note of these so you can avoid making them yourself.

  • Some students don’t look at all of the choices, thereby missing correct answers.

  • Students commonly misuse gerunds.

  • Often students will allow unclear antecedents for pronouns.

  • Students often write too much or too little. Read the question and look at the mark allocation to determine how much writing to provide.

  • Students will fix an original error but in so doing, will create another. Pay attention.

  • Mixing up idioms is a common error seen by markers as is missing dangling modifiers.

  • Comparing non-equivalent nouns is something students do which costs them marks.

  • Markers advise against trying too hard to impress by writing complicated answers as this leaves room for a lot of mistakes.

  • Too much copy and paste is obvious. Markers want to read original content. Use personal examples to make the writing/speeches your own.

  • Students with poor time management let themselves down.

  • Careless errors are a pet peeve for examiners. It’s a shame to see marks thrown away.

  • Often, students won’t proofread written answers for errors. Leave some time at the end of your exam to have a read over.


How are SAT’s scored?

52 marks are allocated to Reading questions 44 marks are allocated to Writing & Language questions 58 marks are allocated to Math questions The remaining marks are allocated to the essay question

How should you split your time?

  • Reading questions - 65 minutes

  • Writing & Language questions - 35 minutes

  • Math questions - 80 minutes

  • One Essay - 50 minutes


How is the SSAT structured?

There are scaled section scores for Verbal, Quantitative/Math, and Reading questions. Each of which is out of the same number of points.

Students will also receive a total sum score that adds together all three of their section scores.


How is the ISEE structured?

  • Verbal reasoning Quantitative reasoning

  • Reading comprehension

  • Mathematics achievement

  • Essay

The sections will always appear in that order. All questions (except the essay) are multiple choice.

How is the ISEE scored?

The test is scored three ways:

  • A raw score between 760 and 940

  • A percentile score of 1-99 comparing you to other students in the nation

  • A stannic score of 1-9, an abbreviated version of your percentile score.


How is TOEFL structured?

  • Reading Questions

  • Listening Questions

  • Verbal Answers

  • Writing

How is TOEFL scored?

  • 30 marks are allocated to Reading questions (35-56 questions). These questions will be based off 3 – 4 academic reading passages.

  • 30 marks are allocated to Listening questions (34 – 51 questions). These questions will be based off audio clips of conversations, classroom discussions and lectures.

  • 30 marks are allocated to verbal answers (6 tasks). You will be asked to express your opinion verbally about topics related to the audio clips and discussion from the previous questions.

  • 30 marks are allocated to writing (2 tasks). You will be asked to express your opinion in writing about topics related to the audio clips and discussion from the previous questions.

How is your time split?

  • Reading questions – 60 - 80 minutes

  • Listening: 60 – 90 minutes

  • Break: 10 minutes

  • Speaking: 20 minutes

  • Writing: 50 minutes

Final Advice

Getting in a good study session shouldn’t be left for the night before an exam. Developing good study habits and having some insightful information into the type of exam you will be writing is a clever approach for students who want to excel.

The sooner you start preparing, the easier your process will be and the higher your chances of getting good marks will be.

Good Luck!


US Exam Prep Teachers

Mr. John Gortney: John comes from the US and graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with an honors degree in Mechanical Engineering. He has been teaching Math and Physics for 12 years in the US and HK and also holds a CELTA TEFL certificate from NYC. John worked in the U.S. as a biomedical engineer for 9 years before moving to HK. He specializes in: AP, SAT, SSAT and IGCSE curriculums, but also teaches IB and A-levels.

Mr. Adeel Ahan: Adeel holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from the Hong Kong University where he received a full scholarship. He has been teaching Math and Science to international school students in Hong Kong and the UK for 6 years. He now specializes in: IB, A-Level, IGCSE, ACT and SAT.

At ME Education our US Test Prep courses are AP, IBMYP & IBDP ACT, SAT, SSAT, ISEE, TOEFL. All courses available for GRADES K -12.


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