If you are a current high school student in the United States, the SAT is probably on your college prep checklist. If you’re an underclassman, you have some time to prepare (good job on starting early!); if you’re an upperclassman, this post will definitely help you cram more effectively.
Though the SAT is arguably not the best way to measure student success, it is considered a very important criterion for college admissions. However, as of 2021, many schools do not require the SAT for applicants. I suggest you check with each school on your college list [link] to determine if you should take it or not.
If you do plan on taking the SAT but are not sure how to prepare, this post is for you. I’ll first introduce you to the test itself, then dive into specific ways to prepare. I self-studied completely for the SAT and received 1580. After taking it one more time (my score dropped the second time), my superscore was 1590. Therefore, I can attest that self-studying is effective; you just need to do it right. So let’s start!
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About the SAT
The SAT is a standardized multiple-choice question test administered by the College Board. It lasts for 3 hours and includes 4 sections: reading, writing, math no-calculator, and math calculator-ok. There is an optional essay section, which I will not be discussing because most schools do not require it.
As of 2021, SAT is scored out of 1600 points, with the average score being around 1060. Most students of top colleges have average scores of above 1500.
You can register for the SAT online through the College Board website. Some high schools also offer the SAT on SAT School Days, and you will likely be notified directly if there is such an opportunity.
Now, a question many students wonder: is the SAT hard?
It could be. The SAT is not an intelligence test, but it does take a lot of practice and strategy to understand what the College Board is looking for and perform well on the test. In this post, I’ll teach you all about these strategies and how you can ensure a good score through self-studying.
Why You Should Self-Study
Obviously, it’s not a bad idea to take SAT prep classes. However, for some students, self-studying may be the better choice. If you’re not sure whether or not you’d like to self-study, here are a few reasons why:
SAT prep classes cost money, and it may simply be too much for you or your family. On the other hand, if you choose to self-study, the only investments you’ll make (if you even feel the need to) are prep books. And very often, you can find used or second-hand books from your classmates or neighbors.
Self-studying for the SAT brings you a freedom and flexibility you won’t have in prep classes. When self-studying, you can choose when, where, how, with who, and what to practice. This may be helpful for some students who want to focus on specific skills or sections.
In addition, if there were any unexpected events that pushed back your test (like the COVID-19 crisis in the 2020-2021 testing season), you don’t need to worry about forgetting all the important things you learnt a few months ago. You’ll have all the materials you need to keep learning and improving.
Lastly, consider if prep classes are really necessary. Do you only learn or improve when you’re guided by a teacher or other professional? Or do you perform just fine with individual online research and practice?
In my opinion and through my personal experience, knowing how to practice and practicing often is the fool-proof strategy towards getting a good score. Though prep classes do give you a certain structure and some resources, you can also find these yourself.
Therefore, carefully consider whether or not you want to self-study, and proceed accordingly. But in any case, this blog post will be helpful for you to learn what skills you should be working on and how to practice them.
Helpful SAT Prep Books
Official SAT prep books are a great source of relevant tips and strategies, as well as full practice tests. Below are 3 of the top-rated books (and the only ones) that I recommend:
- Official College Board SAT Study Guide: from the makers of the test, this study guide reviews all the skills you are expected to know and apply during the test. It also includes full-length practice tests, but you can find these online as well. If you’re looking to not invest too much in prep books, this is the one to get.
- SAT Prep Black Book: a very popular, non-official, prep book. This book covers a lot of clever strategies that may help students struggling with the strict skill-based expectations of the College Board.
- Princeton Review SAT Premium Prep: this is another thick book with 8 practice tests (4 are online), which are often the most helpful part of prep books. However, readers have often revealed that this book does not offer strategies like those in the Black Book, so if you’re happy with just 1 or 2 prep books, don’t feel obligated to buy this one.
Note: I do not recommend the Barron’s SAT prep book. It provides full practice tests in the book, but Barron’s questions do not resemble the College Board’s, and you are better off using the official guide or the Black Book mentioned above.
Free Online Resources
The prep books mentioned above are super helpful in gathering the best strategies and tips on how to tackle the questions. But the most valuable part (and a MUST as you study) is practice tests.
Many prep books include multiple full-length practice tests. However, you can find many past or released SAT tests online and use them to practice. While they won’t directly teach you how to approach certain problems, doing more of them will give you an idea of what the test looks for and help you perform better.
With that said, here are a few online resource hubs of free practice tests:
- Khan Academy: Khan Academy partnered with the College Board to integrate their 8 released practice tests onto the digital platform and allow students to take them and review official answers and explanations.
- CrackSAT.net: there are over hundreds of SAT practice sets on CrackSAT. Not all are full-length, but this can be helpful if you’re struggling on one specific section of the test and would just like to focus on that.
- Reddit: you’ll be able to find many past SAT tests on Reddit, along with their QAS (answers), and you can practice taking them.
YOU’LL LOVE THIS POST: 9 Essential Study Skills To Study Smarter, Not Harder
Before You Start…
The rest of this post will cover all the details on what’s tested in each SAT section, as well as how to prepare and answer the questions. But before you start applying these tips, it is essential to take a full (diagnostic) test.
Your first test will give you an idea of how much you need to study and which areas you need the most help on. You can do this diagnostic on Khan Academy!
Once you’ve completed the diagnostic test and have an idea of what the test is like and what you need to work on, dive into understanding and practicing specific sections.
The Reading Section
The reading section is the first on the SAT and is often the hardest for many students due to its nuances and lack of straightforwardness. It is 65 minutes long, has 52 questions, and is scored together with the Writing section out of 800. Now, let’s talk about what’s tested.
What Is Tested
The SAT tests your evidence-based reading and provides different types of passages and questions to do so. The passages will be drawn from American and/or World Literature, Social Studies, and Science.
The types of questions are always the same, but there is a variety of them:
- Identifying the main purpose or main point of the passage.
- Determining the meaning, function, or effects of a specific word or phrase.
- Describing the author’s tone, style, perspective, and how it shifts.
- Identifying an idea in the passage and providing evidence.
- Interpreting data from a graph, table, diagram, etc.
How To Study
The hardest part about the SAT Reading section is finding the one best answer out of the 4 given choices. Often, you’ll be able to eliminate 1-2 answers that are blatantly wrong; it’s then up to you to decide which of the correct-looking answers is the best answer.
In my opinion, the best way to practice this process of elimination is to do more official SAT practice problems, identify their pattern, and memorize them. Here are some of the common reasons why a certain answer is not correct:
- Too specific. This occurs especially in questions that ask you about the entire passage, or how something changes over a passage.
- Too broad. This occurs especially in the questions that ask about specific words and phrases.
- Unrelated answer. This answer choice may be factually or contextually correct, but it does not answer the question.
- Inaccurate. This answer choice is simply false based on the passage. This often appears among very similar-looking answer choices, so read carefully!
Therefore, do more practice, know what the College Board is looking for, and ingrain that pattern into your brain. Khan Academy is extremely helpful because it has answer explanations!
There are a few strategies you can use while testing to maximize efficiency. Try these with practice tests so you know which one works the best for you once test day arrives!
First, you can try skimming the questions before you read the passage. This way, you’ll have an idea of what you should be looking for while reading and be able to highlight relevant information as you read.
Next, while answering the questions, try predicting the answer. If you have an idea of how a question should be answered and that exact option is there on the test booklet, that choice has a higher chance of being right. However, make sure your reading comprehension is strong enough before jumping into this strategy!
Lastly, and most importantly, explain (to yourself) why each answer is incorrect or correct. SAT questions only have 1 correct answer– always. If you have to try really hard to convince yourself of your choice, go back and re-examine the question and text.
The Writing Section
The writing section goes hand-in-hand with the Reading section but is generally more straightforward. It is 35 minutes long, has 44 questions, and is scored together with the Reading section out of 800.
What Is Tested
The SAT writing section is all about grammar, syntax, and flow. These questions are less about analyzing text (though for some, you do need to pay attention to the context), and more focused on standard grammar rules.
Some common questions that often confuse students include:
- Verb noun agreement (singular vs plural)
- Pronouns (when to use their and when to use he/she)
- Concision (getting rid of all unnecessary fluff in a sentence)
- Word choice (choosing the most appropriate synonym)
- Modifier placement (subject vs object)
There are many types of questions, and the only way to familiarize yourself with them and get better at them is to practice.
How To Study
The Writing section, especially after enough practice and familiarity with College Board’s expectations, is easier than the Reading section.
Like with the Reading section, do a lot of official practice questions on Khan Academy or other sources and know what your weaknesses are (especially focus on the common questions listed above!). Usually, students repeatedly get 1 type of question wrong.
If this happens to you, make sure to understand why the answer you chose was wrong and why the correct answer is right. Knowing the concept behind the answer will ensure that you apply it correctly next time.
If you need, you can keep an error notebook to track all your mistakes across SAT sections. This is a great method of studying in the long run and a helpful last-minute review.
Unlike the Reading section, the absolute best way to approach the Writing section is to answer while you read. The questions are embedded in this way, so it would simply not make sense if you tried answering the questions after reading the entire passage.
The Writing questions are much more straightforward than those of Reading, and as long as you’ve done enough practice and mastered the skills the College Board is testing on (Khan Academy comes in handy to practice specific skills), you can be confident in your answers.
But just as an extra boost, here are some extra (miscellaneous) tips:
- When placing a modifier, be sure to look at the context both before and after.
- “Such as” can replace a colon when declaring a list.
- Singular subjects always use “he/she,” not “they.”
- When combining two sentences, the shortest answer is often the right answer (not always!).
- Trust your instincts. If it sounds wrong, it probably is; examine it carefully.
The Math Section
There are 2 subsections for math: Math No-Calculator and Math Calculator-Okay. The No-Calculator section is 25 minutes long and has 15 multiple-choice questions and 5 grid-in (short-answer) questions. The Calculator-Okay section is 55 minutes long and has 30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-in questions.
What Is Tested
The SAT tests basic high school math, from courses up to and including Algebra II. It is much easier than the SAT Math II Subject Test (no longer offered), for it doesn’t test advanced concepts like trigonometry or calculus.
Concepts covered include:
- Linear equations, inequalities, functions, graphs
- Quadratic and exponential functions
- Radicals and exponents
- Polynomial factors and graphs
- Ratios and proportions
- Percents, basic probability
- Basic statistics like mean, median, mode
- Scatterplots, data distribution
- Area and volume of shapes
- Basic geometry like angles, arc lengths, sector areas
- Circle equation
This is not an extensive list, and there are many more ideas covered in the 58 total questions. However, most of them are relatively simple and are well-mastered by the time you’re taking the test. If you’d like a more comprehensive list, you can visit this post.
How To Study
I’m sure you know what I’m about to say: practice!
Just like the Reading and Writing sections, only practice will help you identify your weak areas and strengthen them. While memorizing formulas is important, being able to apply them is crucial. In addition, many formulas are provided on the test booklet, so you don’t need to spend a lot of energy trying to memorize them.
While the Reading and Writing sections are more strategy-based, the Math section is very much understanding and application based. Therefore, prep books are very helpful for learning how to do certain problems. Here are the 3 books I recommended again:
Now, simply go through the prep book and learn how to do the problems, then head to your SAT dashboard on Khan Academy and start practicing a lot of Math questions.
Like the Writing section, the Math section is relatively simple if you understand the concepts well. There is no strategy to efficiently complete the sections except to stay calm and be careful.
For most problems, the best approach is to do your work on the paper. Even if it seems just a little bit complicated, actually write down the work and don’t do it in your head! Better safe than sorry, especially in a scenario like the SAT!
Lastly, if you have time after completing all the questions in the section, always check your answers. The College Board designs questions to be confusing, and especially in the Math section, there will be a few questions just begging you to pick the wrong answer.
Here are some things to pay attention to:
- Units, especially while interpreting graphs. If the graph is in millions and the data point shows 4, the answer is 4 million, not 4.
- Using the wrong formulas. Especially for the basic geometry problems, do not overthink!
- Answer the question! If you were looking for 2x+3, don’t just give the value of x.
How To Practice
If you’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that practice is important. I’ve already provided you with some resources and tips for practice problems and full tests, but here are a few extra tips to help you maximize the effectiveness of practice.
Make A Schedule
Hopefully, you’re studying for the SAT months in advance. This will ensure that you’re doing enough practice and spending enough time strengthening your weak spots.
If you’re using Khan Academy to practice for the SAT (which you should be!), you can use its built-in schedule feature to set goals and stay accountable while practicing. Since Khan Academy implemented the official College Board practice tests into the platform, you can set dates for full tests as well.
Lastly, you can even set up reminders to make sure you’re not missing a day of practice. The more practice, the better your score will be, so be consistent and stay practicing!
Simulate The Environment
Just like any other standardized test, the SAT will be a very serious test taken in a serious environment. In order to minimize testing anxiety the day of the test, you need to simulate the environment while you practice.
Here are some things you can do:
- Find an isolated space at home where you can study alone.
- Remove all distractions like music, games, and snacks.
- Set up a timer to time each section and each break.
- Take the test in one sitting.
The Day Before…
Do not cram the day before your SAT. If you’ve followed the tips outlined in this post, you should be fully prepared for the SAT by then.
It may be tempting to do a bunch more practice problems because you “just don’t feel ready yet.” However, by the last day before the test, doing extra practice will not do you any good. You can review your error notebook or search up some specific tips on Reddit, but don’t do any more practice tests.
Instead, take some time to relax, and– most importantly– get enough sleep. Make sure you’ve got all your supplies ready and just relax. By this time, your mindset is more important than the practice you choose or don’t choose to do.
Repeat to yourself that it will be okay. The SAT does not define you. In fact, it’s not even a consideration factor anymore for many colleges. You as a person create your success, not a mere standardized test.
So take a deep breath, listen to some uplifting music if you’d like, and go to bed early.
Phew! That was a long read, but you’ve made it to the end! I hope this post was helpful for you and that you’ve gained something useful out of it!
If you’re taking the SAT soon, leave a comment down below and I’ll cheer for you! And if you’re looking for more posts like this one, check these out: