Been working on this for a couple of days. Hope it helps someone. I'm also open to feedback or questions, if you have any!
Summary: Here are the key points that I will cover. If you need more information, read on.
- Tenth grade is a pretty good time to start prepping for the SAT. It’s not too early or too late.
- Before you start, get your baseline SAT score.
- Work from official SAT tests.
- Practice, review, repeat.
- Keep track of your performance, scores, questions missed and questions that confused you.
- Expect to spend anywhere from 10 to 1,000 hours prepping. (Or more. Or less.) At the very least, be sure to take at least one practice test before the real thing!
Hi there. Today I’d like to focus on one of the most common questions that I hear from parents who are contacting us for the first time: How to prepare for the SAT. It’s a very general question, and there are countless specific details that could change your approach. For example, some students will focus on an extracurricular more than on their SATs (such as a sport or an internship), while others may try to get the highest SAT score possible to maximize their chances at a few colleges they’ve selected. That said, the following should be a good starting point for starting to develop a good study plan during your SAT prep, and at the very least for some people, will help make sure you don’t get caught by surprise when the time comes to apply to college.
When to start prepping for the SAT
While it may sound like a pretty straightforward question with a clear answer, the optimal time to begin your SAT prep really depends on several important factors, including, for example, what colleges you plan to apply to and how much you need to improve your score. For example, someone who’s scored 980 on the PSAT and hopes for a 1300 is quite different from someone who has scored a 1400 on the PSAT and wants to raise her score to the 1500s. However, in a word, earlier is usually preferable to later, and you want to be sure to leave plenty of time to prepare comfortably.
First, let me give some background on what I see here at TestMagic. If you averaged out the school grade during which most of our students start prepping for the SAT, you’d see that a good chunk of our students start in the middle of 10th grade. Of course we have plenty of students who start in 11th grade and a small number who start in 12th grade, and we also have a few students who start even earlier, such as in 9th grade. (Of in middle school--we have had a small number of students who want to take our course in middle school for a couple of reasons. The two main reasons for preparing for the SAT at such a young age are one, preparing to take the SAT for CTY, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and two, visiting from abroad for the summer and taking our course while here in San Francisco).
But again, the most common age to start for our students is sometime in 10th grade. This is a nice time to start because it’s plenty early in case something comes up (Oh no! I need to study more trigonometry!) and starting in tenth grade also alleviates some of the pressure of junior year, when students typically feel the most stressed, especially near the end of the school year, when final exams, AP tests, SATs, ACTs, and SAT Subject tests all happen around the same time.
Oh, every now and then we work with people who have only a couple of weeks to prepare, sometimes because they didn’t realize it was such a big deal to get ready for the test or because they’re too busy. It goes without saying that this situation is less than ideal. (But not hopeless!)
SAT study plan
First, I just want to say that there are a zillion variations of the plan that follows. I suggest you try what appeals to you, and add in whatever I’ve not mentioned that works for you. (Remember, every student is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.)
Step 1: Establish your SAT baseline
Your SAT baseline is your starting SAT score or current level. Knowing your starting score is vital for many reasons, but especially if you have a goal score or will be working with an SAT coach.
Quick note: I suppose theoretically you could start your SAT prep without taking a diagnostic SAT—you would just do your prep, and when you take your first practice test, you would get a score. But a lot of people like to know their level so that they have a clearer goal.
To get your baseline SAT score, simply take an official SAT under simulated conditions—download an official SAT, set aside about four hours in a quiet place, and time yourself for the test. Be careful about not getting distracted! Consider doing it with a friend to keep yourselves honest, so to speak, or go to a public library to take it. (TestMagic also administers practice tests onsite if you feel like you might get distracted at home.) In some cases, using your PSAT score will work almost as well to establish your baseline, especially if you’ve taken it recently.
Finally, record your score somewhere, either on paper or in a spreadsheet.
Now to the next step—the actual studying.
The SAT study plan
It goes without saying that the bulk of your SAT prep will consist of studying, reviewing, and practicing. Whether you’re self-studying or studying with a course or tutor changes the process and materials a bit, but in general, you’ll need the following:
- The official SAT tests (fundamental)
- A good SAT manual (helpful, if it’s well-written)
- A good dictionary (crucial; my favorite is the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but the American Heritage and Random House collegiate dictionaries are fine for test prep)
- Explanations of the questions on the official SAT (helpful)
- Video tutorials, such as those found on Khan Academy (helpful, but not vital)
- Nice tools—a pretty (physical) notebook or computer document, a nice mechanical pencil, a nice eraser, a graphing calculator, snacks, a water bottle, headphones, etc.
Your basic study plan involves a combination of learning the material on the SAT (with books and videos), reviewing, taking practice tests, and reviewing those.
A sample plan of study would be something like this:
- 4 hours: Take your diagnostic SAT
- 2-4 hours: Review diagnostic SAT; find areas to improve
- 2-10 hours: Review SAT concepts in your manual or from the test. For example, study vocabulary, practice combinations and permutations, review punctuation rules, and so on.
- 2-10 hours: Study SAT concepts again. Repeat two to six times.
- 4 hours: Take your next practice SAT to see how you’ve improved.
That is the basic cycle of improving your SAT score.
We’ll begin the discussion of materials in a bit. (I will do more in-depth reviews in the future)
Variations of SAT prep
I started teaching in 1991, and one thing I learned right away—teachers need to employ a variety of techniques in the classroom. Here are some variations on studying that I’ve successfully used:
- Take the test untimed. This is actually an extremely helpful technique, and I highly recommend that at least in the beginning of your SAT prep, you take a couple or several tests with no time limit. Why? Simple—it’s important to know which questions you’re capable of answering regardless of time limit. For example, if you can get through a tricky math problem in ten minutes, then you should work on improving your speed. But if you can’t do it at all because you haven’t studied that material in school yet, then you would need to work on building your foundation for the test.
- Instead of taking a full-length test in one go, try taking each section one by one. Some people can’t concentrate for four hours straight. Or if they can, they certainly don’t enjoy it. If you find that you can’t sustain your concentration and mental energy for four hours, consider taking the test a section at a time. (But of course, you need, at some point, to get used to taking the SAT under realistic conditions.)
- And here’s a radical notion: During school, starting in middle school, pay extra attention in class, especially your English, History, and Math classes. Take notes, look up words you don’t know, and review everything. Do that for a couple of years, and you’ll be really well prepared for the SAT. And your grades should improve as well!
What materials to use
There are a lot of great materials available, but unfortunately, there are probably more materials that we sometimes call “score harmers”, i.e., material that was hastily thrown together just to sell books and contains inaccurate information. (The big publishers are most guilty of this, though now in the age of the Internet, they’ve gotten better in this regard.)
Of course, the official SAT tests are vital. You can’t prep without them.
For books, videos, courses, tutors, online courses, etc., check reviews online. From my experience, most teachers genuinely want to help their students, so don't fear reaching out to people to ask questions or gauge the fit with the tutor you might work with.
I know this section on materials is a bit short, but at some point in the future, I’ll review some of the better known options to review them.
☼ Waiting for Godot
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