From a rise in test-optional schools to redesigns that move away from being a test of “how well you can learn how to take the tests,” the last few years have seen significant shifts in both the approach to—and importance of—the SAT and ACT.

When students sit for their tests, they’ll look just like students from generations past: nervous, fidgeting with their calculators, and a little tired from an earlier-than-usual wake-up call. But the ways they’ve prepared for the test today look very different, and in the near future, will look even more distant than the traditional dry methods students have used to cram. Here are a few of the study trends I’ve seen in my role leading Quizlet, a learning platform used by 30 million students each month.

Test-prep anywhere
Think back to the test prep book you studied with. It most likely weighed down your backpack as you carried it around all day before you had a chance to crack it open during study hall. There simply wasn’t another good way to prepare outside of textbooks.


Today’s students can thankfully skip the test prep books and study in a more (literally) lightweight way. Just as news, entertainment, and communication have moved to smartphones, so too has test prep. Companies like ScoreUp make mobile apps for both the SAT and ACT, and the College Board has invested in its own app to make on-the-go SAT studying easy. These free or low-cost online learning platforms help students create customized study plans, making mobile studying more accessible than ever.

Using mobile apps to study provides two main benefits. First, they make studying easy during the “white space” of a student’s day—while waiting for the bus, five minutes before meeting up with a friend, etc.—which helps make preparing for exams less tedious and daunting. Second, these apps do a great job of tracking what a student knows and what he or she needs to focus on. Unlike hardcopy prep books, apps come with a nearly endless number of practice questions, so students will never run out of content to practice on.

Smarter, more efficient studying
Part of the reason those ACT and SAT books were so big is that there’s a lot of material to review. From content that requires memorization to test-prep techniques, the heft of the material can be daunting. The good news is that both the ACT and SAT have evolved to become more a test of how you think and analyze content in context rather than a test of the facts you’ve drilled into your head.

That said, both tests still require you to know a fair amount, and that’s where studying powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can be helpful. In short, AI-powered studying tools use data—both what a student is currently studying and getting right or wrong, and what past students have gotten right or wrong—to serve up the right material at the right time for the right student.

At Quizlet, we’re using anonymized data from millions of students to build a machine-learning platform called the Quizlet Learning Assistant. Our Learn study mode, which is powered by the Learning Assistant, helps students focus on the right content at the right time—skipping over stuff that’s already mastered and helping the student focus on the areas where they’re weaker. We’re seeing students use Quizlet Learn for test prep, where this smarter way of learning helps students get ready in a more efficient way.

How AI and machine learning are changing test prep

Other edtech platforms are also honing in on smart feedback, with Magoosh allowing students to keep track of their progress with a dashboard that estimates their score and compares their pace with other students. Students can even review their performance based on difficulty or subject, giving them a better idea of what to focus on next. The era of one-size-fits-all test prep is certainly coming to an end.

What’s next?
Students are always looking for ways to maximize their personal time by minimizing time spent studying. AI-powered learning tools hold huge promise for students who want to build knowledge and test-prep acumen without spending any more time than is absolutely needed.

After all, an ACT or SAT score is only one piece of the college admissions puzzle. Any time saved on test prep means more time available for activities and study that have a meaningful impact beyond that early Saturday morning exam.

About the Author:

Matthew Glotzbach is the chief executive officer of Quizlet. He joined Quizlet after 12 years at Google, where he was most recently vice president product management at YouTube.