The SAT is an extremely important test for those planning to attend college. It's definitely not one to neglect or ignore until the last minute. Preparing for the exam is the only way to make sure you're doing your best on test day.
Well, that's all well and good, but how exactly do you study? It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect, or else overloaded by information from a number of different sources all claiming to have the answer to every one of your testing woes.
Read on for my very best suggestions on how to study for the SAT, based on my extensive experience as a tutor. I'll cover each step you need to take to improve your score, from finding the best SAT practice tests to setting a goal to fine-tuning your section strategies. After reading this article, you'll know exactly how to prepare for the SAT.
The 3 Guiding Principles of SAT Prep
While we've got plenty of specific advice on how to study for the SAT, there are also some more general concepts that underlie all aspects of the process.
#1: Personalize Your Program
It's crucial that you individualize any plan to fit your needs. We might be the experts on the SAT, but you're the expert on you. All the suggestions in this guide should be looked at with the understanding that you can tweak them to fit what you, individually, need.
If, for example, you need to study three times a day for a shorter period of time rather than knocking it all out in one chunk in the evening, that's fine. If the opposite is true for you, that's fine, too. Do what will work best for you.
#2: Leave Plenty of Time to Study
If you're looking for an improvement of 100 points or thereabouts, three months is a good amount of time.
If you need something significantly more substantial, though, you might want to stretch that timeline out to six months. This means you should have a good idea of your goal at least six months before the SAT. This ensures you'll have time to take appropriate action, even if that action is letting it rest for three months.
Get that test date on your mental calendar.
#3: Do What You Can With What You Have
It's always better to do something than it is to do nothing.
For instance, if you don't have the aforementioned three to six months, use what you do have to your best advantage. If you simply can't take a practice exam in one sitting without getting interrupted, take it in several sittings.
Not having ideal circumstances is not an excuse to sit on your hands and do nothing.
SAT Study Plan: 10-Step Process
Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind, let's cover the actual steps of how to study for the SAT.
Step 1: Read Up on the SAT
Find out any information you're not sure about. What is the SAT? How is it scored? What score do you need to maximize your chances of getting into your dream school?
Find the answers to all these questions (and more) on our extensive SAT blog. In short, spend time learning what to expect from the test so that you'll be prepared for what it looks like and how to approach each section and question type on test day.
Step 2: Take Your First Practice Test
This first attempt should definitely be an official practice exam. This is the closest you can get to an actual SAT without taking it. Published by the College Board, official practice SAT tests are extremely representative of the SAT.
Do your best on this first run-through; it will serve as your baseline, indicating how well you are currently able to perform on the SAT.
In the same vein, it's important to take this test under actual exam conditions. Sit in a quiet, well-lit room and time yourself using official time constraints. This will help your practice score be as accurate as possible.
Step 3: Score Your Practice Exam
Spend some time reflecting on your results. Review every question you got wrong, determining why it was wrong and why the correct answer was right. If there are any questions you got right by guessing, try to nail those down, too. Most official practice tests include answer explanations, which are a great tool you can use to aid your studying.
You can also try plugging the right answer back into the problem and working through it with the end in sight. Does it make any more sense this way?
Don't ignore outside resources, such as your teachers, tutors, or parents. Ask someone when you need help figuring something out.
Once you've got a grip on your answers, use this information to determine your strongest and weakest areas of the test. The SAT includes subscores, which will help you zero in specific types of problems, so don't forget to pay attention to those results, too. The areas in which you struggle more consistently are the areas you're going to focus on in the coming weeks.
Your results might not look like this the first time through.
Step 4: Set a Goal Score
You know what the SAT is like, and you know how you perform on it. Now, take time to consider what a reasonable goal score might be for you.
This goal should be achievable: don't expect a 600-point increase over your practice score. It's fine to set a goal that's a stretch, though. Don't give up on your dream school just because one practice exam didn't come back in the full glory you'd hoped for.
To set a specific SAT goal score, you'll need to know the average scores of admitted applicants to the schools you're applying to. Your goal score must be higher than these averages to give you the best chance of admission. For more info, take a look at our step-by-step guide on how to set an SAT goal score.
Step 5: Decide What Tools You'll Need to Use
Consider how far you have to go to reach your goal score as well as what resources are available to you. The more of a gain you need to make, the more intensive your methods will need to be.
Consider whether it's reasonable to think you can afford individual tutoring, a group class, or an online prep program. The SAT is important, no doubt, but there's no use in overstepping the bounds of your means for it. Do what you can with what you have.
As you gather resources, be savvy about evaluating them. Are they official (endorsed by the College Board) or unofficial? Official resources are best because they mimic the test as closely as possible. If you're looking at an online program or tutor, what kind of credentials do they boast? Have students who've used them seen a lot of improvement? These are the sorts of questions it's important to ask yourself.
Now, you can always work solo. There are plenty of resources you can use to correct any issues that come up, including SAT books, prep websites, apps, and the SAT's partner site Khan Academy. These resources can be very helpful, and many of them are free. Realize, though, that working entirely on your own with resources like these might not be enough. Think about what other resources you can access if possible.
You can also work with an online prep program. These are great because they personalize their recommendations based on your performance, provide plenty of personal attention to tracking trends in your work, and are generally more affordable than in-person options. Unfortunately, you're missing that in-person contact that can be so valuable.
Another option is to work in a group class. These courses are a great way to get the support of both peers and an instructor. You can ask questions and review the content that's most important to you. Classes are also more affordable, in most cases, than individual tutoring. The degree of personalization, however, suffers because of the group format.
Finally, you can work with an individual tutor, either online or in-person. This option maximizes the individual and purely custom attention you get; you get an expert walking you, personally, through every step of the way. That being said, prices are frequently prohibitive, and your time with your tutor will probably be limited week by week.
Whatever tools you're using, make sure they help you learn.
Step 6: Set a Pattern of Practicing
Generally, if you've given yourself plenty of time, you should be looking at somewhere between 30 minutes and three hours a sitting—closer to 30 minutes if you're practicing daily, and closer to three hours if you're only practicing a couple times a week.
Your SAT study plan is something to personalize. Small, manageable, regular chunks of time are ideal, but listen to your own needs. Don't cheat yourself out of study time in the name of personalization!
Plan to use a combination of books and videos, as well as any class or tutor available to you (the College Board has a free Question of the Day app to look into, too). Set these resources into your regular schedule; don't plan to study for three hours the same day as your three-hour SAT class.
Step 7: Take Another Practice Exam
Ideally, this should take place about a month after you start studying. Otherwise, take it when you can, even if that's two weeks after you start or two months after you start.
Just don't take it within a few days before the actual test. Frying your brain completely isn't going to help you reach your goal score on test day.
Once again, score your practice test carefully, checking the explanation for every question you got wrong. See where you've grown, where you've stagnated, and where you've backslidden. Figure out where you need to redouble your efforts and where you can ease off a little.
Step 8: Adjust Your Study Plan Based on Your Progress
Don't forget to still study areas of consistent strength—just brush them off periodically, though, rather than dwelling in your comfort zone.
With areas of persistent weakness, make sure to study these areas using a variety of angles, and drill the problems you've already worked through until they become second nature to you.
If you're backsliding, increase your attention to that topic. If you're growing, stay on course. Continue to make use of the resources that are working well for you.
Step 9: Repeat Steps 7 and 8
In the early stages of a more leisurely plan, take a practice test every month or so. In the later stages, bump it up to every week or so.
If your study plan is more compressed, you might need to start straight away with a test every week or every other week. Try to maximize the number of practice tests you take without totally burning yourself out. Four or five practice tests is a great number to shoot for, roughly.
Don't forget to adjust your study plan after each practice test based on your results.
Hopefully the cycle of studying will be more stimulating than this fellow's treadmill.
Step 10: Maintain Self-Care
The week before the SAT, start putting the brakes on studying by slowing down your pace.
A day or two before the test, stop studying altogether. Your know what you're going to know, so there's no use stressing at this late point in time. Instead, make sure you're resting up and putting things in order for test day.
Get a solid amount of sleep for at least three nights before the test. Gather your supplies prior to the morning of. Plan to eat a healthy breakfast on test day, lay out your outfit the night before, and know what time you need to leave so you'll arrive in time for the test.
Reminders for Your SAT Studying
When you take your practice tests, use them as an opportunity to get familiar with the format and instructions. Pay solid attention to these aspects of the exam so you don't waste valuable time on test day rereading them.
In your studying, don't forget the worth of simple, active reading. It's invaluable. Try to read challenging literature across genres, and actively engage with what you're reading. This will help you do even better on the SAT Reading and Writing sections.
Set minor goals as a way to achieve your major goals. For example, if your goal score is pretty far from your baseline score, aim for smaller increases in-between practice tests and try to hit those instead. Most importantly, acknowledge the progress you're making.
Lastly, find a buddy—a friend, parent, guidance counselor, etc.—who can encourage you, make suggestions in your process, and hold you accountable to your goals.
Conclusion: How to Study for the SAT
Studying for the SAT can be daunting, but it's less daunting if you head into it with a plan.
Remember to leave yourself plenty of time, assess your strengths and weaknesses, and consider all the resources available to you. Allot plenty of time for studying and doing practice tests so that you can get used to the SAT format and learn what to expect on test day.
Finally, remember to breathe and take care of yourself. The SAT is a tool to get you into the college you want to attend—it's not anything that should own you.
Not sure when to start studying for the SAT? We've got a detailed discussion of the benefits of starting early. Be sure to also check out our complete SAT study plan for more tips on when to start prepping.
Are you aiming for a perfect SAT score? Read about the steps you can take to get there, written by our resident full scorer.
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Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.