You know you need to take the SAT. Maybe you’ve even registered. But what now? How do you prepare?
If you’re not sure where to begin or how to prepare for the SAT, this is the guide for you. First we’ll go over what you’ll need to do to prepare for the test. Then, we’ll discuss some methods you might use for preparing for the SAT. We’ll wrap up with some resources that you might find helpful.
How to Prepare for the SAT: 10 Main Steps
In this section, we’ll go over the general steps you’ll need to take to get ready for the SAT, all the way from registration to test day. This is aimed primarily at self-studiers, but a good tutor or program will walk you through these same steps.
#1: Register for the Test (If Necessary)
If you haven’t already registered, you can register at the College Board website. You’ll need to create an account with them to register if you haven’t already.
You’ll be able to select from different locations and dates. Try to pick a location that’s not too far away, since you’ll have to drive there the morning of the test!
In terms of date, you want to make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare. If you’re totally unfamiliar with the SAT, I would advise picking a date at least 3 months in advance if possible. If you have to work on a compressed timeline because of application deadlines, you can do that too! You’ll just need to expect to spend more time preparing every week for a shorter number of weeks.
You do need to do more than just push a button, but it's still easy to register
#2: Get Oriented to the Overall Structure and Format of the Test
Next, you’ll want to become oriented to the overall structure of the test. The SAT is out of 1600 points distributed into two chunks: 800 points for the Math section, and 800 points for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (made up of a Reading test and a Writing test). The lowest possible score is 400 points (200 on each section).
The essay section is optional and is separately scored out of eight points in three domains, making the max essay score 24.
Most of the test (aside from the optional essay) is comprised of multiple choice questions with four answer choices. However, some of the math questions are “Grid-Ins,” or “Student-produced responses,” which require you to calculate an answer and then grid it in to a special section on your scantron.
This handy chart tells you the order, number of questions, and time for each section.
|Section||Order||# of Questions||Time in Minutes|
|Writing and Language||2||44||35|
|Math No Calculator||3||20||25|
|Total:||154 (+1 essay prompt)||3 hours (3 hours 50 mins with essay)|
#3: Become Familiar with the Content and Feel of the Test
The different sections of the SAT test different areas of your knowledge and skills. Additionally, the SAT has a particular style of asking questions that you’ll want to become closely familiar with. Thus, each section has its own distinct set of question types and formats that you will face on test day. How to prepare for SAT math will be different than how to prepare for SAT reading, which will be different than how to prepare for SAT writing!
For more information on each of the SAT’s sections, check out our guides:
- What’s tested on SAT Math?
- What’s tested on SAT Reading?
- What’s test on SAT Writing?
- How to write an SAT Essay
SAT questions have their own special feel, just like this grass.
#4: Figure Out Your Weaknesses
Once you feel generally oriented to the test, you’ll want to figure out what areas you’re weak in and set a baseline. The best way to do this is to take a complete, timed practice test. Luckily for you, the College Board has released six free practice tests.
Be sure to find a quiet testing environment, and bring lots of scratch paper and an approved calculator! You want the conditions to be as test-like as possible. If you’re signed up to take the essay, you should also write a practice essay as part of your practice test run. (See our advice on how to decide whether you need the SAT essay.)
Once you’ve taken the practice test, use the provided scoring guidelines to figure out your score. This will help you figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. The sections where you did best are clearly your stronger ones, but you can also get more granular than that. Look back through the test to see which questions you missed and note down any patterns. Did you miss all of the data interpretation questions on reading? All the trig on math? Those are question types (and skill areas) you need to work on.
The SAT also provides guidelines on calculating your subscores in different areas. You can use this to get an additional idea of what particular areas you are strongest and weakest in within a section.
Work your weakest SAT muscles!
#5: Set a Score Goal
Once you have an idea of your baseline, set a goal score! You’ll want it to be something you can realistically accomplish in the time frame you have for preparing for the SAT. A 100-point improvement from your baseline in a month is probably doable; a 300-point improvement in that time frame is much less so. And remember that the more you want to improve your score, the more time you’ll have to put into it! Our rough estimates for point improvement are as follows:
- 0-30 point improvement: 10 hours
- 30-70 point improvement: 20 hours
- 70-130 point improvement: 40 hours
- 130-200 point improvement: 80 hours
- 200-330 point improvement: 150 hours +
Your target score should also take into account the schools that you’re interested in attending. You want to be within their middle 50% if possible. The middle 50% describes the score range of the 25th-75th percentile of admits. So if a school’s middle 50% is 1050-1200, then 25% of admits scored below 1050, 50% scored between 1050 and 1200, and the top 25% scored above 1200. For more on setting target scores, see our guide here.
#6: Make a Study Schedule
Based on your goal score and how much time you have before the test, you’ll want to make a study schedule for yourself. You’ll probably want to spend a consistent amount of time every week studying until you take the test. For example, if you think you’ll need to study 50 hours to make your score goal, and the test is in 10 weeks, try to study about 5 hours a week for 10 weeks. This will help keep you moving and making progress at a steady pace.
It’s also best if you set aside specific, scheduled blocks of time in advance. So maybe you’ll do one hour after school every day, or you’ll plan to spend 2.5 hours on Saturday morning and 2.5 hours on Sunday morning every week prepping for the test. By setting consistent, scheduled times, it will help make studying into a habit. And make sure somebody else knows your study schedule so they can hold you accountable!
Crush the calendar—don't let it crush you!
#7: Review Important Content
Once you have a goal and schedule, it’s time to start reviewing content. Learn any material you need for the test that you don’t know yet, and review what you already know. Target the areas you know you’re weak in, but don’t neglect anything. So if you’re weak in Math, it’s fine to spend more time on it, but you should still spend a little time preparing for the SAT Reading section even if it’s your best subject. This helps make sure you are sufficiently ready for every section and that you don’t backslide on the subjects you’re already good at.
You are the one who can best determine how to learn and review content most effectively. However, we have some methods and resources you may want to consider in sections below.
#8: Learn Test Strategies
An important part of preparing for the SAT is learning the best strategies to approach the test. This includes learning how to best eliminate answers, guess when you need to, manage your time, and additional section-specific tips.
Here are some of our SAT strategy guides:
Overall SAT Strategy
- The Best Way to Read the Passage in SAT Reading
- The Top 4 SAT Reading Strategies You Must Use
- The Top 10 SAT Reading Tips You Must Use
- The Fundamental Strategy of SAT Reading
- Heart of Algebra: Key Strategies for SAT Math
- How to Figure Out What SAT Math Questions Are Really Asking
- Command of Evidence: 3 Key SAT Writing Strategies
As any predator can tell you, it's all about strategy.
Practicing for the SAT has two facets. The first facet is targeted practice of the skills you need to hone for the test. You can do this through practicing specific question types, topics, or entire sections that you need more work on. When you get questions wrong, make sure to really work through them to understand where you went astray.
You’ll also probably want to engage in a couple of complete test practice runs. For these, take an official complete practice test under the same conditions you’ll have on test day. You may even want to try starting at the same time your test will really start at least once. Be sure to include breaks and a snack!
#10: Be Ready for Test Day!
When test day happens, you want to be ready! So be sure to engage in all your best test-taking practices, like getting lots of sleep the night before, having a balanced breakfast, and packing your bag with pencils and a calculator!
Sadly, this is not the best pre-test breakfast.
4 Options for How to Prepare for the SAT
There are a variety of methods that students use when preparing for the SAT. We provide pros and cons to the main ones here. Note that you may use some combination of the options laid out below.
Many students prep for the SAT mostly on their own, with the help of prep books, online resources, mobile apps, and so on.
- You have control over exactly what and when you study. This is great if you have a good idea of exactly what you need to work on, because you can easily tailor your studying program to your own needs.
- This is the cheapest option out there, especially if you use free resources and get prep materials from the library!
- It can be hard to stay motivated. This is why it’s important to have someone else know when you plan to study so they can help hold you accountable.
- It can be a lot of work! You need to figure out your own weaknesses, track down resources, and so on. So you have to be willing to put some extra investment into planning.
- If you have a lot of improvement to make, it may be hard for you to self-diagnose your own weaknesses. Or even if you know that you’re, say, very weak on math, you may not know exactly where to begin or how to attack the situation. Sometimes guidance is necessary!
It can be hard to stay upbeat when you're working alone.
The online prep program is a relatively new innovation in how to prepare for the SAT. But is it legit?
- A good online prep program can be a great investment:
- It will accurately diagnose your strengths and weaknesses and assign lessons and practice problems based on those strengths and weaknesses.
- Additionally, a good program will help you create a study plan and track your progress.
- It will also have high-quality, clear content review and practice questions.
- It will even teach you the best SAT strategy!
- Here at Prepscholar, we have a comprehensive online SAT prep program that is customized to your needs.
- Many online programs are much more affordable than hiring a private tutor or taking a prep course.
- Not all online prep programs are created equally! The wrong online prep program is a massive waste of time and money. And don’t just assume that just because it comes from a big-name test-prep company that it offers you anything great! Make sure you know what you’re really getting for your money before you commit to a program.
An online prep program is like a teacher and a computer melded into one potent combo.
Twenty students in a high-school classroom after hours, listening to an SAT prep teacher drone on about conjunctions. Good prep method or bad one?
- The schedule of the class forces you to stay on track with the pace the class sets, which could be good if you have trouble staying motivated.
- There’s not much personalization to your own needs and pace. For the most part, you’ll need to proceed with the class, whether you know the material being covered like the back of your hand or you’re completely lost.
- The quality of the teacher also makes a huge difference here. A teacher who is invested in everyone’s experience and tries to adjust curriculum to meet class needs can help you improve your score. A bad teacher may just stand in front of the class reading vocab word definitions for two hours. And unfortunately, you have basically no control and no way of knowing if you’ll get a good teacher or bad one when you sign up for the class.
- Test prep courses are expensive! It can be more expensive than hiring a private tutor for a limited number of hours, which may frankly be more worth your money.
On the bright side, you can use any downtime in class to look up cute cat photos.
Having your very own tutor for the SAT sounds like the dream, right? Well, here’s the pros and cons.
- A good tutor is truly invaluable. They’ll help you make a study plan, identify your weaknesses, explain concepts you’re shaky on, and help you come up with an SAT strategy that works best for you. From a high-quality tutoring professional, tutoring both provides you with an expert to guide you and takes the guesswork out of creating a study plan.
- Additionally, a tutor can help keep you motivated!
- A sub-par tutor is a serious waste of time and money. If they aren’t a high-scorer (think 95th percentile at the very least) who’s also a great teacher, the tutoring situation is just the blind leading the blind. You want a true professional who knows the test inside and out.
- Private tutoring is expensive! Thus, this option just isn’t available to everyone.
A good tutor is worth their weight in gold, and also costs that much.
Great SAT Prep Resources to Help You Study
There are a variety of resources you might want to use for your SAT prep, regardless of what prep method you decide to go with. Here’s a roundup of some of the best ones.
Practice Tests and Questions
Practice tests and questions are the single most important resource for SAT prep. You want as much SAT-like practice as you can possibly get!
- The gold standard is the six free SAT tests from the College Board. They also offer some sample questions.
- You can also get tons of questions from the Khan Academy free SAT prep program, created in concert with the College Board.
- For additional practice test resources, including old and unofficial practice resources, check out our guide to all the free tests out there.
A good prep book can help you out a lot. See our list of the best SAT prep books to help you decide on which ones, if any, you need!
Useful Applications and Tools
There are also many online and mobile applications and tools for learning and practicing SAT material.
- We already mentioned Khan Academy, although you definitely want to supplement Khan Academy with other materials.
- We also have a guide to the best SAT prep games.
This kind of tool won't help you much on the SAT, though.
You can also find a lot of information on SAT strategy and content for free online. Check out other articles on our SAT/ACT prep blog for comprehensive guides and advice on every SAT-related topic under the sun!
Review: 10 Steps for How to Prepare for the SAT
In broad terms, here’s how to prepare for the SAT:
- Register for the test (if you haven’t already)
- Get oriented to the overall test structure and format
- Become familiar with content and question styles
- Figure out your weaknesses
- Set a score goal
- Make a study plan
- Review important content
- Learn test strategies
- Be ready for test day!
Students can use a variety of methods to prepare for the SAT, including self-prep, an online program, a prep class, or a private tutor. Each method has some pros and cons (although some, like a prep class, have a lot more cons). And there are tons of resources out there for students to use, like practice tests, prep books, apps and tools, and online guides like ours!
Get ready to conquer the SAT, noble warrior!
Worried that the SAT may be difficult? Check out our analysis of 8 key factors that might make the test hard. And see our in-depth analysis of whether or not you can fail the SAT.
Wondering why you have to take this test anyways? Check out 10 critical reasons to take the SAT.
If you're stumped on how to fit in SAT studying with your other obligations, see 10 amazing tips for balancing SAT test prep and school!
See our complete guide to the SAT test day experience if you aren't sure what to expect!
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.