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How to Early Prepare for the SAT


One of the most common times to take the SAT is during junior year of high school (11th grade).  Is it too early to get started on the SAT preparation if you start before junior year — say freshman year or even middle school?  What can you do to help with the SAT during the early years?

The SAT is one of the most efficient ways to boost your chances of getting into college.  I've said it before but I'll say it again: if you have spent less than 40 hours total studying for the SAT, hour-for-hour, there is NO BETTER WAY to improve your college chances than by SAT studying.  Does this mean that it's not efficient to study way ahead of time for the SAT?  I believe that is it not.  There are a few key reasons I'll outline later, but the main logic is this:

By starting to study and think about the SAT earlier, you have so many different options and interventions open to you.  The old saying that a stitch in time saves nine holds particular true for the SAT.  Say you find out your math score is incredibly weak: if you're a freshman or middle schooler you can actually solidly learn the underlying math content.  You have the years to take that algebra class or hard math class to improve your skill.  Say you find that your SAT score is strongly limiting your college options — you have so many years to fix that.

Without further ado, here are some advantages to starting early:


1. You know where you stand.

Once you prepare for the SAT and take it the first time, you'll know roughly where you stand in the college admissions process.  The most important advantage to taking the SAT early is that you'll know whether the SAT is a limiting factor for you in college admissions.  If your SAT score is 1510 but your GPA is only 2.5 and you have two extracurriculars, then the SAT is NOT your limiting factor.  You'll know that you can relax about the SAT, never worry about it again (just use your first score) and boost the other two as much as you can.  Conversely, if your SAT score is 1220 but your GPA is pushing 3.9 and you have clubs up the wazoo, the SAT is a strongly limiting factor.  It would be well worth your while to spend over a hundred hours on SAT study in this case.  

Knowing this early gives you so many advantages.  You'll know way beforehand what your balance of effort should be between the SAT and other college admission factors.


2. You don't forget content.

I would advise the follow ratio of content versus strategy studying depending on how far ahead of junior year you are.  If you are studying junior year, I believe a 60/40 content:strategy ratio is most optimal.  At this point you've already built your underlying skills for 11 years, so content studying will have limited returns, while strategies, getting used to the timing, fatigue, and quirks of the test are a great way to get quick points.  

If you are studying sophomore year the ratio is 70/30, freshman year the ratio is 80/20, and in middle school the ratio ought to be 90/10.  Why do I recommend a higher content:strategy ratio the earlier you study?  The simple reason is twofold.  First you forget content less through time.  Once you learn how to solve a system of linear equations, you'll be using that all the time in math class, and often in real life as well.  It's like riding a bicycle; you won't forget it.  On the other hand, knowing a strategy like "double check at minute 20" will earn you points, but unless you're taking the SAT, you won't repeat it and so you'll forget it much faster.  Second, content studying suffers less from decreasing marginal returns: strategy can only take you so far, but content can take you all the way.  

I would say you'll be just as efficient studying for SAT content junior year as freshman year.  Start early, and begin by focusing on content.  


3.  You get the SAT over with

Junior and senior year will already be stressful enough as it is.  You'll be applying to a number of colleges, trying to get the highest GPA possible (junior and senior year GPAs matter most), and these will be your prime years to compete in a number of competitions that will be the crown jewel of your college applications.  You don't want the stress of uncertain SAT scores to add to that.  So study early, and you could get it over with by the time you reach junior and senior year.  In fact, this is exactly the strategy I took: I look the test only once and never had to worry about it most of junior and senior year.

The point of this is that it's definitely useful to get started on SAT studying earlier.



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Dr. Fred Zhang
About the Author

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.

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