The first step in preparing for any exam is determining what material the exam will cover. This seems like it should be pretty simple. A test on the beginning of World War I, for example, will likely cover dates and details on the time period leading up to the war. So what about the SAT? Most high school students today can identify the infamous trio of letters as the name for College Board’s popular college entrance exam.
But what does the SAT really test anyway?
Let’s start with the name. Though SAT used to be an acronym for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” College Board opted for a change when it received complaints that the word “aptitude” implied the test could assess an applicant’s inherent academic ability. As if all students were born with a scholastic ceiling that one four-hour exam could determine, quantize, and report.
Fortunately, most of the non-robotic world found issue in this mentality. So what’s it stand for now? Nothing at all. That’s right, SAT is no longer an acronym for anything. It seems like every idea College Board proposed gave somebody a reason to complain (though personally I don’t see how “Sadistic Assessment Time” could cause any issues).
So we’ve dissected the name, and we’ve learned very little about what this thing is actually testing. No problem! These days it’s very easy to gather information on the SAT. I started by checking out College Board’s official website and reading up on the criteria for their math, reading, and grammar testing portions. Wikipedia articles, guidance counselors, and even reports from upperclassmen can also be valuable resources in this initial info-gathering stage. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more you know going in, the better you’ll be able to plan a course of action.
Take a Practice Exam
Once you have a general idea for the format and style of the test, it’s time to take your first practice exam. “But wait!” you shout (you’re flabbergasted), “shouldn’t I study first?” No!
What I did, and what I recommend to every future SAT-taker, is to take your first practice exam before you’ve even opened the cover of that ominous 50-pound prep book. Take an official practice test from the College Board website. Try to replicate test-day conditions as much as possible. That is: take it all at once with short breaks between sections. Take it in a quiet environment that minimizes distractions. Turn your phone off.
For an extra-realistic experience, you can hire your mom as your “proctor” and hand her a list of “proctor activities.” The could include: tapping her untrimmed fingernails incessantly on a desk, or laughing to herself as she reads texts on her phone, or shouting out the remaining time every five minutes. The worse your simulated testing environment, the better prepared you’ll be come test-day.
Once you take the practice test it’s time to score it. If you got a perfect score: congratulations! You can skip down to the end of this article and go straight to “Register for the SAT.” For the other 99.99% of you: don’t be disheartened. Remember, this is your base score. You’ll use this as one of your most powerful resources for setting up a study plan to get your score within range for your target schools.
Establish a Study Plan
Once I had my base score, I set up a daily study plan. That meant blocking off a set time each day to study. For me, that time was 8-9pm. After tennis practice and dinner, but before the rest of my homework.
Pick a time that will work regularly for you. Determine how much time you’ll spend studying each day based on three factors: your base score, your target score, and the date you aim to take the test. If, for example, your base score is 300 points off of your target score and your ideal test date is in 3 months, you’ll want to spend at least 1, but more likely 2, hours each day preparing. In general the farther you are from your goal score, and the closer you are to your test, the more daily studying you’ll want to do.
Once you’ve decided upon total time allotment, go ahead and assign blocks of time to each of the different SAT subjects. This is where your initial practice test really comes in handy. Using those results, decide which of the subjects you need to focus on the most. It can be tempting to spend most of your studying going over questions with which you’re already comfortable, but try to avoid that temptation! Studying efficiently means spending most of your time on the material that gives you the most trouble.
Having decided on a study plan, it’s time to gather resources. There are TONS of free resources available on the web. Again, I started with College Board’s official website. Another great site for SAT studying is Khan Academy. As an easy add-on to your general study plan, I recommend downloading the “SAT Question of the Day” app, which will give you one question each day and an explanation of the correct answer.
There are two other important resources: books and tutors. Unlike everything online, books and tutors generally don’t come for free, so it’s especially imperative that you do some research before making a commitment.
Personally, I found working with a tutor to be a very valuable experience. A tutor can help recommend which books you should and shouldn’t use, or even provide you with resources that aren’t publicly available. Just having the oversight of a tutor who pushes you to follow your study plan can be tremendously helpful. And a tutor isn’t just for students with low scores on their initial practice tests. I was very happy with my base score, but the advice of my tutor helped get me from “very good” to “near perfect.”
Test Early, Rest Early
Okay, so you’ve made your study plan. You’ve followed it. You’ve enlisted the help of a variety of resources, both free and otherwise. Now it’s time to register. Picking the date of your first SAT is an important part of the test-taking process. Though most students wait to take the exam their junior year, I opted to try in the spring of my sophomore year. That is the best SAT-related decision I made.
Getting your standardized testing over with before the dreaded junior-year workload sets in will give you more time to focus on your school work as homework ramps up, and it will alleviate some of the stress that high school juniors frequently experience. If you have the opportunity, I’d highly recommend taking the SAT as soon as you feel ready.
The Big Day
The last step in preparation is test day. This is the easy one. Just take a deep breath, pack up your Number 2 pencil, and walk into that testing center with confidence. You’ve done all the hard work. Now it’s all about to pay off. Once the test is done, go home and take a well-deserved study break. You’ve earned it!