10 Tips to Prepare for the SAT
You will probably take many, many tests throughout your high school career. Some will be relatively insignificant, while others will seem like the ultimate be-all-and-end-all. Regardless, again and again, well-meaning friends and family will remind you that it’s just a test, it’s just a test. And while this is always true, there’s no denying that some tests are more important than others.
One test that should definitely top your list in terms of importance is the SAT. Along with, perhaps, your driver’s license test, it is among the most defining tests a high school student can take. Your score will be used to help shape the future of your education when it’s weighed as a part of your college application, so the SAT is one test that you should definitely be taking seriously.
The good news is, there are plenty of ways to prepare for the SAT. In this post, we’ll outline our top-ten list for SAT prep work and give you an idea of how and why you should be implementing each of these tips. Read on to learn our favorite SAT prep tips.
- 1. Know What to Expect on the Test
- 2. Know Where You’re Starting From
- 3. Make a Concrete Study Plan
- 4. Study the Content
- Want to increase your SAT score?
- 5. Study Test Strategy
- 6. Know Your Calculator
- 7. Ask for Help
- 8. Take LOTS of Practice Tests
- 9. Think About Test Day Logistics Ahead of Time
- 10. After the Exam, Take Notes
1. Know What to Expect on the Test
The SAT is not an unknown variable, so you have no excuse for showing up to the test without a fairly deep understanding of what to expect. Well before test day, you should become familiar with the SAT content and format.
Specifically, you should know that the test consists of two primary sections — the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section. The third section, the Essay, is optional.
You should also have a general idea of the content found in each of these sections. For example, the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section actually contains two parts, with the first being a Reading test and the second being a Writing and Language Test. The Math section also contains two parts, one of which allows the use of a calculator and the other of which does not.
On test day, you’ll take the Reading test first, which lasts for 65 minutes. After it, you’ll have a ten-minute break followed by the Writing and Language test. This test lasts for 25 minutes and when it’s finished, you proceed directly on to the Math – No Calculator test, which lasts for another 25 minutes. After this part of the test, you’ll have a five-minute break, followed by the Math – With Calculator test. This test lasts for 55 minutes. It is the last required section of the SAT. If you choose to take the optional Essay, it will follow a two-minute break at the end of the Math test.
Before SAT test day, you should memorize this format and have a rough idea of how you’ll mentally prepare for each part of it so that there are no surprises on test day. To learn even more about how to maximize your efficiency within the test’s format, read our post How to Pace Yourself on Every Section of the SAT.
2. Know Where You’re Starting From
There’s no sense in diving head first into a study plan if you don’t know what you need to study. As unique and diverse as SAT skills and knowledge are, there are very few students who need to study every part of it at equal depth. Your prior experiences, strengths, and coursework will determine which areas of content you’re most comfortable with, and which will need further review.
We recommend taking a formative assessment before you begin studying anything, and this is true even more so for the SAT. To read more about why this is an integral part of any study plan, read our post What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?
CollegeVine provides a free diagnostic SAT to be used for precisely this purpose. This test will predict your SAT score and let you know your weaknesses and strengths. You’ll also get a custom report from our team detailing your next steps. After all, you can’t start moving forward if you don’t know where you should be headed.
3. Make a Concrete Study Plan
You might think that making a list of material to review based on the results of your diagnostic test counts as a SAT study plan. Think again.
When we say a concrete study plan, we mean a personalized, step-by-step guide that begins from where you’re starting and leads to where you want to be. To get started, set a realistic target score. Read CollegeVine’s article What Is a Good SAT Score? for more information about the factors that should weigh into setting your target score. Then, use your target score to help shape your studying.
Count backwards from your intended test day to see how many weeks you have left. Leaving the week preceding the test open for review, create a list of the materials you will review each week. Look at your schedule for the week and try to pin down when you will have time to study. Set a weekly goal for study hours and, if you think it will help, set daily goals as well.
For more information about creating a strong study plan, read CollegeVine’s Tips to Prepare for SAT Test Day.
4. Study the Content
This is probably the most common method of SAT preparation, and while it is definitely important, it will work most effectively when practiced in conjunction with the rest of the SAT prep tips. Raw content knowledge alone will only get you so far on test day.
There are many ways to study the SAT’s content. You’ll need to become familiar with lots of grammar, active reading skills such as using context clues, and the basic math skills and formulas needed on the test.
You can start with the College Board’s overview of Key Content Features on the SAT, and use that as a springboard for exploring the rest of the College Board’s resources. You should also review the content resources available from Khan Academy.
While you’re online, be sure to check out the College Board’s Daily Practice SAT app that provides you with one daily practice question, an answer hint, and answer explanations to help you learn from your mistakes.
For an overview of content and tips for each section of the test, also be sure to review these CollegeVine study guides:
5. Study Test Strategy
Knowing the material on the test won’t be enough to ensure you perform well. You’ll also need to know how to take the SAT, which is a separate skill in and of itself.
To start with, don’t leave any questions blank. There is no penalty for wrong answers, so you should always make your best guess even if you aren’t sure of an answer. Use the process of elimination to narrow your choices and go from there.
Also be sure to have some time management strategies that work for you. These might include skim reading on the Reading test, answering questions as you go on the Writing and Language test, and skipping the hardest math questions to return to at the end of the Math test. But don’t apply these strategies blindly. Try them out on practice tests to figure out which works best for you.
Finally, know all of the test instructions ahead of time. They will be the same on the test as they are on the practice tests. Save yourself some time and energy by knowing what is required of you on each section and how to show your knowledge. That way, you can skip the instructions on test day to focus on what really matters — taking the test.
6. Know Your Calculator
This is a simple way to maximize your efficiency on test day. You should be sure to use a calculator that you’re familiar with and that has fresh batteries. Know how to use the functions that you’re most likely to encounter on the test by using the same calculator on practice tests. Also, know how to notate your calculator use on paper so that if you arrive at an answer that isn’t among the answer choices, you have a record of how you got there. You don’t want to have to start from the beginning again if you happen to have pressed a wrong button.
Just as important as knowing how to use your calculator is knowing when to use it. The College Board asserts that the entire SAT can be taken without the use of a calculator, so know that you may not need it on every question of the section allowing calculator use. Instead, use it when you know that it will increase your efficiency or help to make more accurate calculations.
7. Ask for Help
Since when did studying become a solo activity? You can learn more from others than you can from yourself, so don’t study alone exclusively.
Try to find a study group at your high school, local library, or through a community college. If you can’t find one that already exists, the College Board provides tips on how to start your own.
You can also ask for help from mentors, family members, and teachers or advisers. Even a family member who isn’t familiar with the test might be willing to quiz you if you can provide him or her with some practice questions. Varying how you study can be an important mental strategy for getting the knowledge to stick.
Finally, consider a formal SAT tutor. Although you’ll have to pay for the service, this can be the single most effective way to ensure you’re prepared on SAT day. If you are worried that you can’t afford the service, some local companies, like Advantage Testing in Boston, MA, offer pro bono tutoring services to students who qualify. If finances are a limiting factor in your search for a tutor, search online for your city name and the term “pro bono SAT tutor” to see if you can find a similar service nearby.
You might prefer a local tutor, or you might prefer an online tutor. CollegeVine online SAT tutors scored in the 99th percentile on the section of the exam they are teaching, and our custom tutoring plans save time and money by using the exact amount of prep needed to help you achieve your ideal SAT score. In addition, CollegeVine offers a scholarship program that includes free tutoring, mentoring, and essay help to qualified students.
8. Take LOTS of Practice Tests
You can read up on test strategy, content knowledge, and test format all you want, but there is no substitute for the experience gained by actually taking the test. And because taking a half-dozen actual SATs isn’t feasible for so many reasons (time, money, etc.), the close second is taking a half-dozen practice tests, or however many it takes for you to really get a feel for the test, its pacing, and its format.
At the beginning, take it slow on practice tests. Spend time making sure that you understand what each question is really getting at and take the time you need to solve each question. Try taking just one section of the test at a time to stay fresh and engaged.
Then, after you’ve taken a few practice tests and gotten a better feel for the content, begin to simulate the actual testing conditions, including time limits and taking the entire test at once. After all, you will need to know how you perform under the actual time constraints in order to plan your time management for each section of the test.
After each practice test, correct your answers and pay attention to what kinds of errors you are making. Keep a running tally of the kinds of mistakes you’ve made so that you know which areas to focus on most for your review. Is your content knowledge lacking? Are you misunderstanding questions? Rushing through your work and making careless mistakes? Classify your mistakes so that you can learn from them as you go.
9. Think About Test Day Logistics Ahead of Time
There are few things that will set you up for last-minute failure like not making it to your test on time, or arriving on time without the things you need to be successful. Make sure this doesn’t happen by planning for the test day well in advance. Know everything that you’ll need to have in your backpack on SAT day and begin to pack it a few days before the test.
Other things to think about include what time you’ll need to get up in order to be out of the house with time to spare, what you’ll have for breakfast before the test, and how you’ll get to the testing facility. Have plans and backup plans. Even if everything doesn’t go smoothly on the morning of the test, you’ll want to have a plan B in mind ahead of time so that you can remain calm and mentally focused.
If you’re tearing your room apart twenty minutes before the test because you can’t find your admissions ticket, you’re unlikely to be level-headed when it’s time to begin, even if you make it to your testing room in time. Plan ahead so that this doesn’t become your reality.
10. After the Exam, Take Notes
As soon as you are done taking the SAT, write down as much as possible about areas that surprised you or caused difficulty. Write down any pacing issues you ran into, content you felt unprepared for, or even specific questions that stumped you. Just like you learned from mistakes on the practice SATs, you should learn from your experience on the actual SAT too.
If you’re like the majority of college applicants applying to competitive schools, you will take the SAT more than once. And that is a good thing. Generally scores increase after your first SAT, and one way to ensure this is by learning as much as you can from the experience. The notes you take while the test is still fresh in your mind will become important study tools for you to review both on your own and with your study group, mentors, or tutors.
If you still have questions about SAT strategies or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.
For more information about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Want more SAT tips sent to you?
Sign up below and we'll send you expert SAT tips and guides.