Are you already scoring well on the SAT and getting a 1400 or above (2100 in the 2400 scale)? This puts you in a special class, and your strategy for improving your SAT score will be very different from the average students'. Having made the improvement myself, I'll show you how you can aim for a perfect SAT score too.
Why Strategies for Top Scorers and Average Scorers Are Different
Where you are on the learning curve absolutely affects what you'll learn next. Learning to walk as a baby is very different from learning to run in middle school, which is again very different from learning to run in pro marathons.
Strategies that are central when you're doing poorly suddenly stop working when you're doing well. The main reason for this is that gaining points when you're an average scorer is more about increasing your skill, whereas gaining points as a top scorer means adapting to the exact shape and format of the test. Completely new strategies are needed, and I'll show you those SAT strategies right here!
My Own Experience as a Top Scorer
When I first started studying for the SAT, I was already scoring a 1400 (equivalent to a 2100 on the 2400 scale). As defined above, this definitely qualifies me as a top scorer, and no doubt I was thankful to score even that much. I wanted to score higher though, so I picked up the most popular books: Kaplan, Princeton Review, you name it.
I noticed one thing very quickly: All the books are aimed, in a fuzzy way, at average SAT scorers. If you were scoring 400-600 on each section, the material they presented could help you. Kaplan went over basic content like the general idea of geometry areas, but they never spent time talking about how to ace the hardest math questions. In fact, I noticed that many of Kaplan's hardest math questions had errors, revealing that the book writer wasn't the best at math.
Likewise, Princeton Review was full of test-taking tactics, but they revolved around eliminating just one or two answers or skipping questions. If I'm aiming for a high score, I can't afford to skip questions or just guess after eliminating a single answer. It dawned on me that the reason most sources were completely unhelpful to my situation was that as a top scorer, my path to improvement was much different than that of the average scorer.
Upon realizing this, I began to sit down and spend dozens of hours thinking about the unique situation that we top scorers are in. Not very many resources target us. We suffer from a unique set of issues compared to the average scorer. And most books are written by people who are barely better test takers than us.
After really thinking through the issues for many hours, I came up with a set of strategies. These strategies have worked well for me, my classmates, and my tutoring students. Today, we have proof through tens of thousands of our students at PrepScholar that these strategies universally work for top scorers. Let me show you how this strategy works for you!
The results of applying my top-scoring strategies: a perfect score.
Strategies That Work for Average Scorers But Won't Work for You
First, we will go over strategies that work for average students but will likely stop working once you cross that magical 1400 threshold (30 out of 36 on the ACT or 2100 on a 2400 SAT scale). I've picked the most common and helpful strategies for average students that totally stop working for top students. These strategies are also good first steps at illustrating how strategies in general can change as your skills change.
Learning General Content
When you're scoring 500 in each section, it's a pretty good idea to do a general review of all your skills. Review circles, rectangles, algebra, and so forth. Average scorers likely have general deficits in their subject knowledge of subjects.
However, if you're a top scorer, learning general content doesn't work well for you. This is because, as a top scorer, there will likely only be a few areas where you have deficits, and, even in these areas, your deficit will be slight. Unlike average scorers, you won't be missing serious knowledge across a vast set of skills. This means that learning general content will be a lot less effective than focused study. If you're a top scorer, you'll want to home in on weaknesses rather than gloss over broad topics.
The key to this is identifying exactly which areas are missing and doing a strong push to eliminate those few specific weaknesses. To use another analogy, an average scorer is like a lawn filled with lots of weeds. The best way to remove all the weeds is to spray herbicide everywhere. But as a top scorer, you only have a one or two clumps of weeds in your lawn. The best strategy for you is just to see where the weed clumps are and target only those areas to pull the weeds out.
In Jekyll and Hyde, the same man transforms between a good Dr Jekyll and an evil Mr Hyde. In the same way, question skipping is the most powerful of strategies for a low scorer, but it can be harmful to a high scorer.
If you're scoring low, knowing how to skip makes a world of difference. Suppose you have 30 minutes to do 30 math problems. Ten of those problems are really easy, ten are medium difficulty, and ten are hard. If you're not great at math, trying all 30 is crazy. You probably won't get the medium and hard questions, and you're spread thin for the easy questions if you try to answer one question per minute. You might get five problems correct. Instead, question skipping will save your day. If you focus all 30 minutes on the ten easy problems, you'll spend a careful three minutes on each and probably get all the easy ones. This means you'll get ten problems correct instead of five, doubling your score.
However, if you're scoring high, you are afforded no such luxury to skip. You have to do all the problems. Once your section score gets above 600, skipping questions starts becoming harmful. A 600 (say in Math) means that you are only allowed to get about ten questions wrong out of 50. If you skip even two or three questions in the entire section, you will already have used up a good part of your quota of ten questions. With a low margin for error, you need to squeeze every problem for all the points it'll give you by at least trying it and eliminating some answers. Thus, even at 600, there is no room for skipping.
Note: when I say skipping here, I don't mean leaving the question blank! The New SAT and ACT have a guessing reward, so you never leave the question blank. Skipping here only refers to not spending time on a question.
These are the two biggest strategies that work for average scorers but not top scorers. Hopefully, now you have a bit of understanding for why the strategies are different. Just like a 3rd grader needs to learn different math than an 11th grader, you now need to learn new strategies.
Skipping: works for average scorers and hopscotch, but not high scorers
Strategies That Stay the Same
Before we get into top-scorer specific strategies, I want to emphasize a few strategies that will stay the same. Not everything changes between a toddler learning to walk and a pro marathoner trying to break the time limit. Some things are the same for both of them: like being healthy and exercising.
Likewise, top scorers have a few strategies in common with average scorers. In fact, we have a list of strategies that work for all test-takers, regardless of where you are scoring. There are many strategies that are still useful for top scorers like doing realistic practice, understanding your mistakes, not getting in your own head, and so forth.
Some of these strategies are worth repeating:
Putting in the Time
You absolutely still have to put in the time to improve. Just like the old saying in sports goes, no pain, no gain.
High scorers come in two camps. The first camp has already put in dozens of hours of SAT study by the time they read this, and they have no fear of putting in even hundreds of hours naturally. If you're in the first camp, good for you. Work comes easy to you; you should target at least a hundred hours more of studying, and you can skip to the next section.
The second camp is students who typically find studying hard. At this point, they may have put less than five hours into studying. They might have scored high because they're "naturally smart", but they haven't studied a lot. I've been in this camp too, so I understand, but I have some advice for you.
First, you absolutely can't think of the SAT as a test of how smart you are. While you may feel good that your initial score was high, if you don't study you'll quickly get discouraged when your score doesn't improve. You might become prone to thinking that you're just not that smart, and there's nothing you can do about it -- the opposite of the truth! It's much more effective to think of the SAT as not testing how smart you are right now, but how much you work.
Thinking of the SAT as a test that reflects hard work isn't just a useful mindset, it's also true. After training thousands of students, I consistently find that those who put in more time score higher, even students who were already starting out with high scores.
As motivation, you have to realize that, as a high scorer, it is even more important to put time into studying. First, you have less room to improve, so improvements will come harder. You can't just learn some skipping strategy and raise your section score 50 points. Those 50 points will come from your sweat and tears. You need to work extra hard.
As additional motivation, you have to really want it from inside. Not your mom, not your teacher, but you need to really want it. Choose a goal, either a school or a score, and convince yourself that it's important. Then, set a specific amount of time that you want to study and goals for how much to study each week. Every week, see how you're doing against the goals.
Doing Realistic Practice
Realistic practice has always been important, but as a top scorer, having real tests is even more critical. Like I said before, improving as a top scorer is all about understanding every contour, flaw and detail of the test. This process is incredibly test specific. Molding yourself into a perfect SAT test taker is way different than molding yourself into the perfect ACT taker.
At the high score extremes of the test, all the flaws and quirks become magnified. The ACT always has more time pressure, but when you're aiming for a perfect 36 on the Math section, you suddenly find yourself under immense time pressure to solve Math Olympiad-level problems. The SAT is known for being tricky, but when you're aiming for an 800 on Math, you can suddenly end up losing substantial points for missing just a couple of very subtle definitions.
When you're a top scorer, improvement becomes very format-specific. The layout, timing, and feel of the test all start mattering much more than general math or reading skills. Thus, it's absolutely critical that you practice on actual SAT or ACT tests given the past. It's OK to or drill on imperfect problems, but when you actually take a practice SAT or ACT for evaluation and learning, make sure you use a real test you haven't seen before and make your setting as realistic as possible.
Ideally, you'd use the same exact timings for sections and breaks, and you'd do the entire practice test all in one sitting. At this point, everything matters.
Power Strategies for Top Scorers
Up to this point, we've been talking only about strategies for average scorers. First, we talked about strategies that won't work for you anymore, and then we went over strategies that you can still use. In this section, we show the jewels, the unique power strategies for top scorers that will get you substantial further improvements.
To reiterate, this section is for top scorers whom we define as students who score 700 or more in each section already. To understand top scorer strategies, I will explain the standard pattern of weaknesses that I see in top scorers.
The standard pattern for top scorers is that they're missing points for exactly three reasons:
Content Gaps -- These are small, isolated areas of knowledge that the top scorer hasn't mastered yet. A top scorer by definition can't have minor gaps in all areas, and they can't have major gaps in any area. Therefore, a top scorer may only have minor gaps in a small set of areas. Identifying these gaps, and whether they even exist, will itself take work.
Carelessness -- Top scorers tend to be content masters, but carelessness doesn't respect knowledge or intelligence. Carelessness can afflict anyone. No matter how good your math is, you'll never get a question right if you miswrite a 2 as a 3.
Time Trouble -- Top scorers need to answer all questions, and they need to not be careless. On top of that, the SAT and ACT are timed tests. Add this together, and all top scorers suffer from time trouble. That is to say, all top scorers run out of time, and mastering these tests is all about running out of time just as you get everything correct.
Folks, take a look at the list above. For the vast majority of top scorers, this list covers all the reasons they score less than they'd like to.
The method that I will show you, the method that works, will go in tactically, surgically, and eliminate each one of the weaknesses above. The method doesn't optimize for a fast bump in score at the start -- instead, it's a surefire, robust way to completely eliminate all sources of error that a top scorer will have.
My method is based on the concept of isolate and eliminate. The idea is that we will attack each of the reasons above, one-by-one, until you're free of errors.
Attacking Content Gaps
First, we want to eliminate content gaps. To isolate content gaps, we will purposefully not focus on time issues for the moment, Thus, during this phase, you will give yourself double the usual amount of time to do problems. For example, give yourself 60 minutes to do a 30-minute section.
We will also purposefully focus away from carelessness. For all questions where you can identify carelessness as the reason you answered a question incorrectly, you can ignore it. This only includes questions where you understand everything but literally misread a number or bubbled in the wrong letter. Carelessness does NOT include misinterpreting a confusing word or making a wrong judgment call. These cases are both real content issues and not carelessness.
With these allowances, take your first practice test. That is, go through one full practice test, and give yourself double the time allowed (split into multiple test sessions if need be). Then, go through every single question you got wrong. The ones that were due to carelessness ignore for now. For all other questions, write down the reasons you didn't get it. List all possible contributing reasons. For example, if you didn't apply a sphere surface area formula correctly you should write:
- Did not understand surface area
- Did not remember surface area formula
- 3D geometry
Since you're a top scorer, you shouldn't get many questions wrong, and you should only have a very short list of reasons at the end. Tally up the reasons, and look at the top 2-4 reasons. These are your content gaps that you need to solve.
For each of the top content gaps, come up with a couple of training methods you can use to solve the gaps. Each training method should take at least an hour -- so you're not looking for quick fixes. To continue the example above you would write:
- Did not understand surface areas (4 problems)
- Training: Review difference between surface and volume (1 hour)
- Training: Read calculus section on surface areas (2 hours)
- Training: Google "Surface area questions" and try a number of them (1 hour)
- Did not remember surface area formula
- Training: Create flashcards for 20 most popular surface areas and memorize (2 hours)
- Training: Open calculus textbook and use calculus to re-derive all above surface areas (3 hours)
- 3D Geometry Weaknesses
- Training: Read 3D Geometry Section (1 hour)
- Training: Do math textbook 3D geometry exercises, complete the three most difficult questions you find (1 hour)
- Training: Hunt for five 3D Geometry Problems on the SAT and solve each at least two different ways (1 hour)
Then, implement your plan. Do all the steps you promised yourself in the time you promised, and then try again with another practice test. Keep on doing this until the number of content mistakes you make has decreased substantially. A good rule of thumb is that you want to eliminate 75% of your content mistakes by repeating the process above or spend 40 hours studying, whichever comes first.
Note about PrepScholar: You can do the above method yourself. In fact, I just told you how to identify your errors, come up with the right training, and eliminate your mistakes. However, you might want a program to do it for you. In that case, it's exactly what PrepScholar Online Prep is for. Our software automatically detects the questions you get wrong, how often you get them wrong, and why you get them wrong, so you don't have to do the hard work yourself.
As you go through practice tests, ask yourself:
- Are you seeing a reduction in content gap mistakes due to your training?
- If so, what parts of your training were most effective? How can you do more of this in the future?
- If not, why did you continue to make the same content mistakes despite training? Why was the training not effective?
Improving your standardized test scores is hard work, both in terms of effort and intelligence. You have to put real time and thought into reflecting why you got questions wrong to improve. This deep thinking is a part of test prep that can't be bypassed by any tricks. You need to spend effort and creativity to find why your training is working or not.
Note about PrepScholar: While no one can do all the hard thinking for you, sometimes you can enlist the help of vetted professionals. PrepScholar Online Tutoring tutors are trained in the exact method above. They will help you think of training strategies and reflect on why certain strategies are working or not.
Now that you've finished attacking content mistakes, the second stage is to attack carelessness. You can blend this in with attacking content, but it's best not to combine attacking carelessness with attacking time trouble.
The method for attacking carelessness is the same as above. Give yourself more time than usual, and notice which problems you're making careless mistakes on and what caused you to be careless.
Some questions you may want to ask yourself when you answer a question wrong include:
- Did you not read the question properly?
- Did you misread a number you calculated because your work was too messy?
- Did you know the correct answer but filled in the wrong bubble by mistake?
When I started training for the SAT, I thought carelessness was an unchanging personality trait. I thought I was doomed to make a certain number of careless mistakes. It turns out that carelessness is something you can control and combat by having better habits. If you apply the right methods and safety checks, you'll rarely be careless. For example, if you make it a habit to brush your teeth nightly or buckle your seat belt, you'll find that very rarely do you forget to do these things.
Since you have the luxury of extra time, you should try to adopt two habits.
The first habit is double-reading each question and underlining keywords before you even begin working on the problem. A lot of carelessness comes from not reading the question correctly. For example, if you see the question:
How many even integers are between -3 and 14 inclusive?
I would read it twice, and then underline the question as follows:
How many even integers are between -3 and 14 inclusive?
Each of the underlined words, if misread, could lead to a disastrous misinterpretation of the problem. "Even" can be easily misread to mean odd or all integers. "Inclusive" is underlined to remind you that you should include the number 14 in your calculations.
The second habit is to re-read the question one last time before filling in the answer. I learned this trick from a top scorer in my test competition days, and it has worked wonders for me and students I've taught it to. The idea is that, if you misinterpreted a problem, that misinterpretation will be obvious on your final reading of the problem.
To recap: In order to reduce careless mistakes, read the question twice before you start working on it, and underline the keywords. Then, once you've figured out the answer, read the question through one last time to make sure you've understood it perfectly.
You can develop your own habits based on introspection of what causes your careless mistakes. For example, if you make arithmetic mistakes, double-check each line, or show more of your work. If you keep in mind that the solution to carelessness can be method-based, you can use these methods to solve all your careless mistakes.
However, what if some careless mistakes persist even if you use a lot of methods designed to catch carelessness? What if you're careless in choosing which line to look at when looking at author intention? Or you're careless in remembering which idiom is correct? You should understand that these are not careless mistakes, but mistakes of content. Remember, if a mistake persists even after a slow, careful reading of the problem, you can assume that it's not really carelessness, but rather a content problem. In the case of persistent problems, I would re-read the section here on carelessness as well as try to identify underlying content issues.
Now that you have gotten rid of sufficient content and carelessness problems, it's time to tackle that final problem all top scorers have -- time trouble. Generally, this refers to the feeling that you can do better if you had more time. The SAT and ACT are designed with strong time constraints. In fact, you're doing something wrong if you ever find yourself ending a section even a minute early.
Up until now, you've been giving yourself double time (or more) so you can home in on your content or carelessness issues. Now you can practice reducing your time. A good way to do this is to reduce your time by 20% each practice test and make sure your mistakes aren't shooting up. Every time you repeat a 20% reduction, if your mistakes stay the same, then you're good. For example, for a 50-minute section, start by giving yourself extra time: 100 minutes. If you're doing well at 100 minutes, reduce this to 80, then 64, and then finally 50 minutes.
Inevitably, you'll need to start developing your own timing strategies to deal with the lower time. Many of these strategies will be ad-hoc. You'll think of them, try them, and they'll work. The best students are good at introspection, coming up with strategies, and evaluating whether those strategies work.
Here are the two most common and helpful strategies for improving your time management:
Rush Through the Easy Questions
If a question is clear, go through it fast, but still apply your carelessness prevention habits (diligence) to ensure you get it right. When you're at the top it's a fight between diligence and time, and you want to do a bit of both.
A common strategy is to reduce your time by 50% on easy questions, spend the standard amount of time on normal questions, and increase your time by 50% on hard questions. For example, suppose you have a 60-minute math section with 60 questions. Each question should take 60 seconds to do -- this is the standard time. For easy questions, you should target 30 seconds, for medium questions, you should target 60 seconds, and for truly hard questions, target 90 seconds. It makes sense to play with the cutoffs for difficulty and timing to see what works best for you.
Skip and Come Back
Everyone gets stuck on questions. I've scored 99.9th percentile on my SAT and ACT, and I routinely get stuck once or twice per section. If you allow getting stuck to cost you five minutes, you'll be hosed. If you find that, after spending 90 seconds on a problem, you aren't getting an answer, try your best guess and mark the question with a "G" (for guess). This means at the end of your first pass-through of the test, you'll need to have some extra time. Use this extra time to come back to the guesses.
Guesses aren't the only problems you should come back to. There are certain hard questions that will take a while to double-check, which is not worth doing on your first pass-through the test. For these questions, you can mark them with a "C" and come back to them later as well.
The general reason to skip and come back is because not finishing a single pass-through of every question is highly damaging. Not looking at two or three questions guarantees you won't get those questions right. Thus, you want to at least touch all problems, and leave a few minutes at the end to come back.
You should play around with the strategies above. Look at how double-checking reduces carelessness but increases time. Look at what sorts of markings you should make and how many passes you should make through your test (hint: it's probably more than one). As you decrease your time, you'll find these strategies continue to work well and allow you to maintain the same score at 1x standard time.
The strategy guide above will carry you far, and likely all the way, if you follow it fully. To recap, I'll touch upon a few points again. The first is that, for top scorers, losses come mainly from three sources: content gaps, carelessness, and time issues. By isolating each item, you'll be able to solve each of them with much higher consistency.
While you're doing this, you should still maintain a few strategies that work for all scorers. Two strategies worth repeating are using real practice questions and putting in the time needed to really improve your score.
Now that you know which strategies a top scorer should use, there is no reason not to get started as soon as you can. If you're self-studying, you should immediately try to apply the strategies above and also use our blog for further advice.
You may also be interested in checking out PrepScholar Online Prep as it does all of the above for you, in optimal ways. For example, we know that you're a top scorer, and we won't give you strategies that only work for average students. We'll emphasize strategies that work especially well for top scorers and give you tips for timing and diligence. Best of all, we'll identify your exact content gaps -- which is the hardest and most important information for top scorers like you to know. Click below and you can try us out risk-free for 5 days!
Since you're already a top scorer, you're probably aiming for a perfect standardized test score. Check out our guides to getting a perfect score on the SAT and a perfect score on the ACT, written by our resident full-scorer on both tests.
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Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.