If you aspire to get an amazing SAT score and improve your chances of getting into the college of your dreams, you need to know the best way to study for the SAT. If you don't have a definitive study plan and you don't study efficiently, even if you put in tons of study time, you won't be able to maximize your score.
In this article, I'll explain all of your study options and let you know how to figure out which ones to use. Furthermore, I'll give you essential study tips for your SAT prep.
The Best Way Is What’s Best For You
There’s no one best way to study for the SAT. There are multiple options you can use: self-study, a tutor, a class, an online program, or a combination of these options. The option you should choose is dependent on your resources and what you need.
However, regardless of which option you choose, your SAT studying should involve several strategies that are essential for quality SAT preparation. I’ll explain the different strategies you need to use, and then I’ll discuss how to decide the right way to study for you.
4 Key SAT Study Strategies
No matter what score you're shooting for or how you plan to get there, there are a few strategies you absolutely must employ to raise your score.
Determine Your Target Score
Before you begin your studying, you should figure out what score you’re trying to get on the SAT. Having a target score will motivate you and inform your studying. Determine your target score by looking up the 75th percentile SAT scores for the schools you’re interested in applying to. Don’t include your safety schools; only look up the scores for the schools you’re most interested in attending.
You can google “(name of school) prepscholar average SAT” to help find the 75th percentile scores. For scores that are from the old SAT with a maximum score of 2400, multiply the 75th percentile score by ⅔ to get the equivalent score for the current test. Your target score will be the average of the 75th percentile scores. If you achieve a score that is equal to or above the 75th percentile score for a given college, you’ll give yourself a great chance of getting into that school.
Goals are good.
Figure Out How Long You’re Going to Need to Study
You can get a rough idea of how long you’ll need to study by calculating the difference between your target score and your current score. To determine your current score, use the score from your last SAT, or if you haven’t taken the SAT yet, take an official practice test simulating a real test situation.
Here’s an estimated breakdown of point improvement per number of study hours for the SAT:
- 0-50 point improvement: 10 hours
- 50-100 point improvement: 20 hours
- 100-200 point improvement: 40 hours
- 200-300 point improvement: 80 hours
- 300-500 point improvement: 150 hours+
Once you know how long you need to study, you can make a plan in order to put in enough study hours before you take the SAT to reach your target score. If you need to study about 40 hours to reach your goal and you're planning on taking the SAT in 5 weeks, you know that you need to schedule at least 8 hours of study time per week.
Analyze Your Mistakes and Focus On Your Weaknesses
It’s not enough to just put in study time; you need to study effectively. You’ll make the best use of your study time by figuring out why you’re missing questions and focusing on improving your weaknesses. There are three major areas that you might need to improve.
The SAT tests you on a number of skills related to reading, writing, and math. By determining the specific types of questions you’re getting wrong, you can identify the topics you need to learn better.
For example, on the Writing section, maybe you’re struggling with punctuation questions. On the Math section, perhaps you’ve been missing the trigonometry questions because you never learned SOHCAHTOA.
As soon as you know the topics that are challenging you, you can use your study time to understand them better and do a ton of related practice questions to improve your weaknesses.
The SAT is a strictly timed test, and even if you’re comfortable with the content, you may struggle finishing each section on time.
If you’re somebody who either rushes (you finish a section more than 5 minutes early and make careless mistakes) or struggles to complete a section in the time allowed, then you’ll need to work on your time management.
If you're running out of time, you'll have to pay more attention to your time spent per question during your practice. You may also need to improve your content knowledge or develop better test-taking strategies, depending on why you're having trouble finishing on time.
The SAT is known for having questions that can be confusing or misleading. If you struggle understanding what a question is asking or allow yourself to fall prey to common SAT tricks, then you’ll benefit by improving your knowledge of SAT strategy.
For example, if you understand how to do all of the math on the SAT Math section, but you have difficulty interpreting the wording in SAT Math questions, you should spend more time learning how to figure out what the questions are really asking. If you're missing SAT Writing questions because you're not reading the whole sentence, that's another sign that you need to improve your SAT strategy.
More generally, you're having problems with SAT strategy if you grasp the content that's being tested, but you're having issues with your understanding or approach to questions.
Use Real or Realistic Practice Questions
Undoubtedly, the best questions to study from are those that most closely resemble the questions that appear on the SAT. A huge flaw of many SAT prep books is that their practice questions aren’t like those you’d find on the SAT. They’re either too difficult or presented in a way that differs from the usual SAT question format.
It won't help your SAT score much to focus on questions that aren’t like those you’ll encounter on the SAT. Most definitely, you should use the four official practice tests provided by the College Board. Also, Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board and provides a bunch of realistic practice questions.
Additionally, you can find realistic practice questions on the official PSAT practice test. Furthermore, ACT Reading and ACT English are very similar to SAT Reading and SAT Writing. You can use official ACT tests to supplement your Reading and Writing practice.
How Should You Study?
Now that you know the strategies you must employ to study for the SAT, I’ll go through the various options for SAT studying to help you determine the best one for you.
Self-StudyIt’s possible to reach your target score by studying on your own. You can choose to study independently, or you might have to if you don’t have the resources to pursue the other options.
Effective self-study requires you to be extremely disciplined, organized, and motivated.
You should set a definitive study plan and stick to it as closely as possible. Other than real practice tests and any prep books you use, I highly recommend using the articles on this blog to help guide your studying. We've written content and strategy articles for Reading, Writing, and Math. Additionally, we have articles to help you with the SAT essay.
A major drawback of just relying on real practice questions or Khan Academy to study is that you won’t learn test strategies. These strategies, which are explained in our articles, will simplify the test and are likely to help you improve your score.
A private tutor may be a good option for you if you’re looking for customized instruction or you need more help learning the material that’s tested on the SAT. Also, meeting with a tutor can help you stay on track if you need a little push. Keep in mind that tutors can be expensive, and they vary greatly in terms of their knowledge and effectiveness.
Before hiring a tutor, learn what SAT tutors do and how much they cost. Equip yourself with the knowledge to decide if you should work with a tutor or on your own.
In-Person SAT Prep Class
In-person prep classes have a set curriculum, and like tutoring, they’re a good option to help you stick to your study plan. A prep class can be a great idea for you if you want to learn test strategies and increase your familiarity with the SAT.
The best classes will give you a solid foundation to help you study more effectively on your own. Additionally, some students learn better in a traditional classroom setting, and you may enjoy being able to socially interact with your peers.
Prep classes do have some significant drawbacks, though. In my opinion, the biggest drawback of a prep class is that it's not customized to your individual needs. There will be students of varying skill levels, and much of the content of the class may feel like review, or some of the content may be too challenging if you've never been exposed to the material.
I've taught a number of SAT prep classes, and as a teacher, my biggest challenge was always trying to make my classes helpful for each student. In the same class, I had students who had just learned English and students who were excelling in their AP English classes. While students at every level did see improvement after taking my class, admittedly, it was impossible for me to perfectly address the needs of every student.
Also, depending on the length of the course, you may not have enough time to thoroughly cover all of the material on the SAT. Furthermore, SAT classes can be expensive. Many prep classes cost more than $1,000.
Online SAT Prep Course
Online prep courses can be a great option for students who want some structure and the freedom to work independently. The biggest advantages of a good online prep course are that you’ll be given an effective study plan and thorough content instruction. Also, the course will be customized to your skill level.
I may be biased, but the PrepScholar program is an exceptional online SAT prep course.
It focuses on improving your weaknesses, and all the practice test questions were written by SAT experts who scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT. Furthermore, as an experienced SAT teacher, I know that PrepScholar teaches very effective test strategies that aren’t taught in many other in-person or online prep courses.
Like all the other options, online prep courses do have disadvantages. You need to have the self-motivation to push yourself to put in the necessary hours. You won’t have the encouragement of a teacher or tutor to help you focus and stay on task.
Also, you may learn better with an instructor in front of you who can immediately answer your questions and provide more explanation. Furthermore, a quality teacher or tutor can keep you engaged with material you may not find overly exciting.
How to Decide the Best SAT Study Method for You
Here are the main points to consider as you determine your best way to study for the SAT:
How much money can you spend on your SAT prep?
While I think spending money on SAT prep is a worthy investment, some students simply can’t afford a tutor or prep course. If you want to take a prep course but can’t afford one, check with your counselor or look online to see if there are any free SAT prep courses available to you in your area. I’ve taught free SAT classes through organizations that serve low-income students.
How do you learn best?
Personally, I’ve always preferred studying independently. In school, I learned better when I was alone reading from a textbook than when I was in class listening to my teacher lecture. Which of the SAT study options works best for your learning style?
Remember that you can also combine study options. You can primarily self-study and then get a tutor for a couple of hours to help you understand a concept that's puzzling you. Or you can take an in-person course to learn test strategies and then take an online course for further content instruction.
Realistically, how likely are you to be able to stick to a study plan?
Self-studying and online courses work best for the most disciplined and determined students who are able to stay on task without the help of an instructor. However, even if you take a class or hire a tutor, you need to be motivated enough to do the necessary work to reach your target score.
How much help do you need?
If you're only 50 points away from your target score, you may be able to reach your goal with a couple of weekends of self-studying or a short in-person prep course. But, if you need to raise your score by 300 points and you’re struggling to understand critical SAT concepts, you would probably benefit from more intensive instruction, either from a tutor, online prep course, or a multi-week class.
Regardless of how you decide to study, if you focus on improving your weaknesses, analyze your mistakes, and use real/realistic practice problems, you’ll be capable of getting your desired results.
Finally, make sure you're studying with the best SAT prep books.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.
Check out our 5-day free trial today:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.