For many high school students, the SAT is an intimidating and nerve-wracking exam. It has traditionally been a huge part of the college admissions process, and colleges are getting more and more competitive. How do you study for such an important exam? Where do you even begin?
At the same time, many colleges have stopped requiring test scores—at least temporarily—in the wake of the pandemic. While this is good news for lots of students, it’s also confusing. How much should you prepare?
Although the SAT is less essential at the moment, it’s still relatively important. Don’t work yourself into a state of anxiety or excessive stress. But do adequately prepare. In this guide, we’ll tell you how—from setting a goal to making a plan to following our top 10 SAT study tips.
About the SAT
The SAT is a standardized exam divided into three sections: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math (Calculator and No Calculator). There’s also an optional essay section.
In the math section, you’ll encounter some gridded response questions. However, most SAT questions are multiple-choice with four possible answers.
Without the essay, the SAT is three hours and 15 minutes (including breaks). If you choose to write the essay, the SAT is four hours and five minutes. The test consists of 154 questions in total.
You’ll receive one score for Math and one for Reading and Writing (the Reading section combined with the Writing and Language section). Both scores range from 200 to 800 points, for a composite (total) score of 400 to 1600.
Your composite score is determined by converting your raw score (number of correct answers) to a scaled score. One question typically equals 10-20 points on your scaled score. There is no guessing penalty, so you don’t lose points for incorrect or blank answers. This means you should answer every question on the SAT, even if it’s a guess. After all, you have a 25 percent chance of guessing correctly!
Planning Your SAT Practice
Before you dive into studying, create a plan. The first step to effective planning is setting a goal. Research the average SAT score for students admitted to your top choice colleges. You’ll need to aim for a score that makes you a competitive applicant for every college you’re interested in attending.
Then, gauge how close you are to your goal now. If you’ve already taken an official SAT, consult your score report. If this will be your first SAT, take an official practice test from the College Board. Stick to the time limits of the actual test. Use your score as a baseline. How many more points do you need to earn on test day to reach your goal?
After that, it’s time to plan the steps you’ll take to get there. There are many different approaches to studying for the SAT, so consider how you learn best. You can work your way through an SAT guidebook, hire a tutor, or enroll in an SAT prep course. If you’re not too far from your goal, you can work on practice questions and brush up on your areas of weakness.
Whatever study strategies you decide to use, block off study time on a calendar to keep yourself on track. If you’re taking a prep course, for example, write in class times and a few hours per week to review or work on assignments. If you prefer self-directed study, list the topics you want to review and give yourself time each week to focus on these topics.
How to Prepare for the SAT: Top Study Tips
The best way to tackle SAT prep depends on how much time you have to study. If you’ve got about six months left, there’s enough time to practice all the skills. But you don’t want to run out of steam, so start simply and gradually increase your study time.
With three months remaining, you’ll need to consistently study while zeroing in on your areas of weakness. And if you have a month or less to study, concentrate solely on your weaknesses and taking practice exams.
Regardless of how much time you have until the big day, the following 10 tips can help you put your best foot forward on the SAT.
1. Don’t cram!
The golden rule of SAT prep is, “Don’t cram!” Sure, you’ve successfully crammed for a few high school tests. But the SAT is not your average test. It doesn’t test knowledge that you can simply memorize and regurgitate. Instead, it assesses a broad range of skills that must be practiced.
Plus, the key to acing the SAT is familiarizing yourself with the test. The SAT asks particular types of questions in a specific way. Through consistent practice, you’ll get comfortable with SAT question types, SAT language, and SAT content. Think of it like riding a bike. The more you practice, the more natural and automatic it becomes.
And what’s the best part about being comfortable? You’ll feel more confident. You’ll be less nervous. Ultimately, you’ll be in a better headspace to succeed on the exam. On the other hand, cramming can leave you feeling frantic and unprepared, which leads to making too many mistakes or running out of time.
2. Try a variety of test-taking strategies.
Do a quick web search about SAT prep, and you’ll find a wide range of test-taking strategies. Should you use them? It all depends on what works for you.
Here are a few different strategies you can test out:
- Read the questions before reading the accompanying passage, giving you an idea of information and keywords to focus on.
- Skim reading passages instead of reading them in full.
- Some people annotate reading passages as they read. Some consider it a waste of valuable time.
- Skip difficult questions and come back to them later. In the book, circle the number of the questions you skipped. This way, you can make the best use of your time by racking up easier points first.
- Instead of bubbling after each question, answer all the questions on the page (or a two-page spread) in the test book first. Circle your answer, then write the letter (A, B, C, or D) in large print in the left margin. Before you turn the page, bubble your answers on the answer sheet. With 5-10 minutes left, go back to bubbling your answers directly on the answer key so you don’t run out of time.
- Always narrow down the answer choices (the process of elimination) as much as possible before guessing.
- When you can’t narrow the answer choices down any further, don’t guess randomly. Choose a “guessing letter” and stick to it. Many people say, “When in doubt, choose ‘C.’” Others advocate for guessing “A.”
Two strategies we always recommend using are 1) Temporarily skipping difficult questions and 2) Using the process of elimination. You don’t want to waste too much time on a question you might not answer correctly anyway. Get as many points as you can, then circle back to the toughest questions. And the more answer choices you can eliminate, the more your odds of answering correctly increase.
If you’re interested in additional strategies listed here, experiment. Take one practice test where you skim the reading passages and another where you read the passages in full. On one practice test, guess randomly when you’re unsure. On another, choose only “A” or only “C.” Which strategy feels most comfortable for you and keeps you in the zone? Which strategy results in the highest score?
Experiment with recording your answers in the test book before bubbling them. Does it feel better or worse? Do you move faster or slower? Through this process, you’ll discover which strategies work best for you. Then, you can build an overall test-taking strategy that gives you the best chances of meeting your goal.
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3. Identify your weaknesses and work on them.
Targeted SAT prep is the most successful SAT prep, especially as time starts running down. Get curious about your strengths and weaknesses. Pay attention to what types of questions you get wrong and how often you get them wrong.
Don’t focus on the specifics of the question, but on the concepts being tested. What skills or concepts (e.g., a certain grammar rule or a type of math question) would you need to understand to answer that question correctly? Keep a list of the concepts and skills you need to improve on the most. Then, find resources to help you master those skills. Focus on practice questions related to the concepts you need to improve on.
If you have time to get specific, create a review notebook to analyze and understand your incorrect reasoning too. When you miss a question, write it down in the notebook. Record both the correct answer and your original answer. Jot down an explanation of why your answer was wrong. Read over your notes weekly. This process will help you understand and improve your reasoning, leading to more right answers in the future.
4. Celebrate success.
Sometimes, the SAT prep process can feel grueling and overwhelming. If you let these negative feelings set in, it’s easy to get burnt out and start slacking off. First, break your big goal into smaller steps. Give yourself reasonable weekly goals, like studying for 3-5 hours per week or one hour a day.
When you reach those reasonable goals, celebrate! Small rewards make the process more fun and train your brain to stick with it. Celebrations don’t have to cost money. Simply do something you enjoy, like saving the latest episode of your favorite show until you meet your goal for the day or week. Or you might only allow yourself to take a nap or spend time on your phone after you’ve studied for a full hour.
If your family is willing to get in on the celebration, see if they’ll cook your favorite meal or treat you to your favorite restaurant when you meet your weekly goal. Positivity, encouragement, and support can go a long way toward helping you persist with your SAT study plan.
5. Take breaks.
Similarly, it’s essential to give yourself breaks. Research shows that humans can’t sustain full focus for longer than 90 minutes. Some researchers suggest that our attention span is even shorter. You can push yourself to study for hours at a time, but you’re unlikely to retain the information or learn much.
Have you ever heard of the Pomodoro Technique? If you want to give it a try, set a timer for 25 minutes. Give SAT prep your full attention until the timer sounds. Then, take a 5-minute break before setting the timer for another 25 minutes.
The exact time span doesn’t matter. If one hour of focus followed by a 10-minute break works better for you, go for it. For especially effective breaks, get moving and get the blood flowing. Take a walk, stretch, run on the treadmill, or jog in place. You can even dance to some favorite songs or play an instrument.
It may feel like taking a break is laziness or slacking, but it’s not. It enhances the effectiveness of your focused study time. We all need to refresh and recharge to stay focused and retain information. If you rest your brain occasionally, you’ll get much better results from your study sessions!
6. Track your progress.
We already mentioned the importance of taking a practice test at the start of your SAT journey. But one isn’t enough. Take practice tests every 3-4 weeks to track your progress. Are your study sessions paying off? Are your new strategies working? If not, go back to the drawing board and reassess. Don’t be afraid to switch up your methods if something isn’t working out.
Every time you take a practice test, apply the process we mentioned above. Note the concepts and skills you still need to work on. If you’re keeping a review notebook, record the questions you missed, along with the correct answer, your answer, and why your answer was incorrect.
Plus, you need to apply your improved skills and knowledge in a realistic test-taking situation. Sit somewhere quietly by yourself, and time the test correctly. Get accustomed to the SAT atmosphere so you feel more comfortable on test day. Remember that comfort breeds confidence, and confidence leads to better results!
7. Read challenging texts.
Let’s be honest: SAT texts aren’t necessarily fun or engaging. They also use advanced vocabulary that challenges your skills as a reader.
To increase your comfort with SAT-style passages, read challenging texts several times weekly. This can include texts from the 19th century or earlier, magazines like National Geographic or Scientific American, or academic texts such as research papers. Summarize the texts and pay attention to how the authors construct their arguments.
It’s also helpful to practice reading charts, graphs, and other types of infographics, which are included in many SAT passages. You’ll need the ability to understand and analyze these infographics when you take the SAT.
If you encounter a word you don’t know, try to determine its meaning using context cleans. And if you’re still stumped, look it up and record the definition in your review notebook or on a flashcard. Ultimately, you’ll improve your vocabulary and comprehension. You’ll get faster at reading and comprehending challenging texts, leading to a better score.
8. Utilize helpful resources.
Living in the digital age, you have countless helpful (and not so helpful) resources at your fingertips. Utilize reliable free resources like the College Board website and Khan Academy. If you need help with a specific math skill or understanding certain grammar rules, find targeted resources online.
Ask your teachers for help, or to point you in the direction of websites or books that can help improve your areas of weakness. Do you have a friend who excels in one of your areas of weakness? Ask them for strategies, advice, or resources they’ve found useful. Or ask if the two of you can schedule a few study sessions together. Maybe you can make an even exchange: they help you with math, and you help them with reading (or vice versa).
If free resources aren’t cutting it, purchase an SAT test prep book, enroll in a course, or hire a tutor. The point is that there are plenty of resources available, so make the most of them!
9. Familiarize yourself with SAT instructions.
The questions will change on every SAT exam, but the instructions remain the same. The directions for each section and even the order of the sections stay consistent. Taking the time to become familiar with the sequence and understand the instructions in advance will save you valuable time on test day.
If anything seems unclear or confusing, do some research or ask a trusted adult. You want to get any uncertainty out of the way now, rather than having to puzzle it out during the test.
10. Trust yourself.
With 3-5 days remaining until the test, it’s time to trust yourself. This might sound crazy, but stop studying. You’ve done the hard work, and you’ve learned all you’re going to learn.
Now it’s time to relax and rest before the big day. Last-minute studying will only leave you feeling stressed and tired. In some cases, it can even lead to test anxiety or lower your confidence. Try going to bed a little earlier every week leading up to the test, so an early bedtime on SAT Eve feels natural.
Continue to trust yourself while you’re taking the test. Don’t second guess yourself. Remember that you’re well-prepared and you’ve practiced thoroughly. It’s fine to check over your answers, but don’t think yourself into knots. With all the hard work you’ve done, your first instinct is likely your best instinct.
Final Thoughts: How to Study for the SAT
Studying for the SAT is all about staying consistent and purposeful. Set a goal and create a plan. Track your progress and stick with the schedule.
Pay attention to the questions you get wrong, as well as the skills and concepts you need to work on the most. Following someone else’s study plan to the letter might not work out for you. What do you need to do to reach your goal? Figure that out and make it happen, and you’ll see significant progress during your SAT prep journey.
At the same time, remember that your SAT score won’t make or break you. Don’t put excessive pressure on yourself. Take breaks, celebrate your successes, and trust yourself. The SAT is important, but one test doesn’t determine your intelligence, your worth, or your future. You’ve got this!