Every test requires some kind of preparation—even the SAT. Most students choose to prep entirely on their own for the SAT, which can have a lot of advantages (but also some potential drawbacks). So how does SAT self-study actually work? How can you ensure you get the most out of your SAT self study plan? Read on for our answers!
Why Might You Self-Study for the SAT? 3 Benefits
Most students preparing for the SAT go the route of SAT self-study rather than taking an SAT prep class, doing an online prep program, or hiring a tutor. This is because self-studying for the test has some key advantages that other options don’t have at all or have less of.
Here are the top three benefits of following an SAT self study plan.
#1: It’s Cheap
SAT self study is one of the cheapest prep options available—and can even be done for free if you know what resources to look for.
This is because you don’t have to spend tons of money on a tutor (one of the most expensive prep options) or pay a large upfront sum on a prep class, which typically runs in the range of $600-$3,000 for a complete program.
With SAT self-study, most students buy only what they need and use free, official materials as the main resources in their prep. They might spend some money on a highly reviewed SAT prep book or an hour of focused tutoring to help them target specific weaknesses, but that's it.
#2: It’s Flexible
Unlike more rigid SAT prep options, which often must be done at a specific time on a specific day each week, SAT self-study allows you the flexibility needed to adjust your prep schedule accordingly depending on your commitments, energy, and motivation.
If you were to skip an in-person class, there’s no easy way to make up what you missed (unless they offer that same class at another time at no extra cost to you, which is unlikely).
But with SAT self study, you can rearrange your schedule as needed so that you’ll never have to worry about inconveniences such as wasting money, waking up early when you don’t want to, going somewhere you don’t feel like going, or skipping an important event or commitment in your personal life.
Basically, you can prep anytime and anywhere, making an SAT self study plan a great option for busy high school juniors and seniors.
#3: It’s Customizable
The final benefit of SAT self-study is that you can customize your schedule and what you study as much as you need to in order for you to do well on the exam and get the scores you want.
For example, if you’re already hitting your goal score for the Math section but not for the Reading and Writing sections, you could dedicate more of your prep time to practicing for these two sections rather than wasting too much of your time reviewing math concepts you already know (which you would likely end up doing in a more rigidly structured prep program or class).
In short, you get to make your own curriculum, which is great if you have very specific weaknesses you’d like to focus on or a strict budget you must stick to.
How to Get the Most Out Of SAT Self-Study: 7 Tips
To do well with SAT self study, you need to be willing to figure out your own weaknesses, make a schedule, and commit to your prep. Here are seven tips to help you get the most out of your SAT self-study plan.
Tip 1: Make a Schedule
First things first, you’ll need to come up with an SAT self-study plan that works well for you. This is the basic framework you’ll follow over the course of however many weeks you’ll be prepping for. A planned schedule will not only give yourself a sense of consistency, but also ensure that you are getting done what you need to before test day.
To make your plan, you must first figure out your SAT baseline and goal scores. A baseline score is the score you start out with before any test prep; it’s where you’re currently scoring on the SAT. By contrast, a goal score is the score you must have to get admitted to all the colleges you’re applying to; it’s a good score for you personally.
To find your baseline score, take an official SAT practice test. Be sure that you time yourself using official time limits and take the test in a quiet room without any distractions. Once you finish, score your test using that test’s scoring chart to calculate your baseline score.
To set a goal score, follow the steps in our guide to what a good SAT score is.
Once you have both scores, subtract your baseline score from your goal score to get the total number of points you need to improve by. Then, use the conversions below to figure out about how many hours you will need to study in total for the SAT:
- 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+
For example, say my goal score is 1320 and my baseline score is 1140. 1320 − 1140 = 180 points. This means that I would need to study for around 80 total hours to hit my goal score by test day.
Once you have the number of hours you'll need to prep for, you can start to think about potential study schedules. It’s best to study no more than 10 hours a week—you don’t want to feel too overwhelmed or as if you’re cramming for the SAT.
Try to spread out your studying in a way that works well for you. Take into consideration things such as homework, final exams, AP tests, family vacations, extracurricular activities, and of course your SAT test date.
Tip 2: Start With Official Materials and Resources
Anyone doing SAT self study should prioritize College Board SAT study materials in their prep before running off and buying a prep book. These official resources are free after all, so if you’re trying to save money, you absolutely will want to look at these first.
The entirety of The Official SAT Study Guide is available in downloadable PDFs on the College Board website, so don’t bother buying the book on Amazon. In addition, the website offers sample SAT questions and 10 full-length practice tests.
There's also Khan Academy, a popular educational website that has joined forces with the College Board to provide students with free online SAT prep, including official questions.
Tip 3: Use Only Highly-Rated Prep Books
If you’re going to follow an SAT self-study plan, then it’s best to get at least one highly-rated SAT prep book to use as a guide and to provide you with the bulk of the content review you’ll need for the exam. Books can also give you helpful test-taking tips and study strategies.
Not all SAT prep books are created equal, though, so you’ll need to steer clear of poorly reviewed ones and any that are out of date.
Generally speaking, the best SAT prep books will have the following features:
- Thorough content review of all major topics on the SAT or a particular SAT section
- Proven test-taking tips and strategies
- Realistic, high-quality practice questions and tests
- Detailed answer explanations
Our expert guide introduces our picks for the best SAT books to use in your prep.
Tip 4: Track Your Progress With Practice Tests
Once you get going with your SAT self-study plan, you’ll want to set aside a bit of time every two weeks or so for an official (or, if you run out of these, a very realistic and accurate) full-length SAT practice test to check your progress toward earning your goal score.
Doing this will let you determine whether you’re doing better in the areas you struggle with the most and how you can make further improvements.
You can also use each practice test to pinpoint any patterns in your mistakes. For example, maybe you keep getting basic algebra questions wrong due to careless errors. Figuring out where you’ve been going wrong in your tests will help you determine your personal weaknesses and let you come up with a plan to better attack them, which brings me to my next tip ...
Tip 5: Focus on Your Weaknesses
Part of the appeal of self-studying for the SAT is that you get to be in charge of what you study. In other words, you can customize your prep so that you’re zeroing in on the content, sections, question types, and strategies that are hardest for you.
While a prep class or online prep program would normally require you to study a broad swath of test topics—even those you’re good at and don’t actually need to review—an SAT self-study plan gives you the flexibility to adapt your plan as you go so that you’re only studying what you really need to.
And what exactly should you study? Your weaknesses.
The main way to determine what your biggest SAT weaknesses are is to look for patterns in your mistakes on practice tests (as we discussed above). You should also ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there any specific content areas (e.g., linear equations in Math or sentence combinations in Writing) that you just don’t understand or keep getting wrong on practice tests?
- Are you doing OK with time management on every SAT section? Or are you constantly running out of time and having to guess?
- Do you use tried-and-true test-taking strategies, such as the process of elimination, to help you make educated guesses on difficult questions?
Your answers to these questions should help you pinpoint what you need to bring more attention to in your SAT prep.
Tip 6: Get Help as Needed
Even though SAT self study is all about studying, well, by yourself, it’s OK (and sometimes necessary!) to get a little outside help for specific issues you might be having in your studies. These problems could be anything from gaps in your overall content knowledge to preparation strategies and test-taking anxiety.
If you really can’t teach yourself what you need to know to do well on the exam—or have tried but feel you’ll do better with some guidance—consider reaching out to a teacher at your high school or hiring an SAT tutor, just for a few hours, to go over the areas you’re struggling with.
Don't worry about money: you can still keep costs low and keep most of your plan self-contained, even if you have to get a little help from someone else.
Tip 7: Find Ways to Stay Motivated
Last but not least, a good SAT self study plan is nothing without motivation. This is by far one of the most important (and most often overlooked) aspects of self-study. You could have all the best SAT resources in the world, but if you don’t commit to studying by the schedule you made for yourself, you’re not going to see any improvement in your scores.
While part of the allure of self-study is that you can be flexible with your schedule (and we certainly encourage this if you find that you don’t need to spend as much time on certain topics or sections), you should be willing to stick to your plan the vast majority of the time.
No one is there to hold you accountable (except yourself!), so you’ll need to find the willpower within yourself to make an SAT self-study plan truly effective.
SAT Self-Study: 3 Potential Drawbacks + Solutions
So far we’ve gone over the biggest benefits of having an SAT self-study plan and how to make your plan as effective as it can be. But self-study doesn’t work for everyone and does have drawbacks in spite of its numerous advantages.
Here are the three biggest problems with SAT self-study—and how you can combat them.
#1: It Can Feel Overwhelming
You have to diagnose your strengths and weaknesses, find the best resources to use, and basically do everything yourself, with no guidance or support.
If you just dive right into test prep without any idea of when and what you're going to study, you’re not doing yourself any favors and will likely end up feeling really overwhelmed and unprepared.
So first, take a deep breath—you got this!
Next, take things one step at a time; you don’t have to do everything in one day. In essence, there are just five steps you must take to get started on your SAT self-study plan:
- Take an official practice test to get your baseline score
- Research the schools you're interested in attending to find your goal score
- Choose a test date that gives you at least three to six months of prep time
- Figure out how many hours each week you can (and should) commit to studying
- Gather SAT materials, which should include all the free official materials, Khan Academy, and at least one well-received SAT prep book
That’s it! Once you’ve done these five simple steps, you’ll be on your way to getting the SAT score you want.
#2: There’s No One to Hold You Accountable
Without a teacher, tutor, or online prep program to send reminders and support you in your test prep, you’ll quickly lose the motivation to stick to your SAT self-study plan.
It’s true that finding the motivation to prep is one of the hardest things about SAT self-study. But you can battle this problem in a few different ways:
- Set reminders to study on your phone/computer or put them on post-its around your room
- Ask your parents or a trusted family member/friend to hold you accountable and keep track of when you study
- Reward yourself whenever you study or every week you successfully follow your schedule—for example, maybe you'll only let yourself binge-watch Netflix shows when you study for at least six hours a week
Other than these options, it’s important to consistently tell yourself why you’re doing this: to raise your chances of getting into the school of your dreams!
#3: Customizing a Plan Can Be Tricky
You have an SAT self-study plan you’ve been following but aren't sure when and how to adapt it so that you can focus more on your weaknesses and less on your strengths.
Customizing your study plan really isn’t as tricky as it sounds.
First, make sure that you’re taking an SAT practice test every couple of weeks to check your progress. Once you've taken a test, use your results to look for patterns in your mistakes and to identify your overarching weaknesses. For example, maybe you struggle with a particular question type or figuring out how much time to spend on the Reading passages.
After you get a sense of where your test-taking weaknesses are, you can tweak your prep for the next week or two (until you take another practice test).
How should you tweak it? Simply replace the time you would've spent studying the areas you’re already strong in with time to hone your weaknesses, whether that’s through more content review, practice questions, or a combination of both.
Recap: Why SAT Self-Study Can Be a Great Choice for You
If you’re like most high school students taking the SAT, then you’ve chosen to follow an SAT self study plan rather than taking a class, doing an online prep program, or hiring a tutor.
Some of the biggest benefits of studying for the SAT on your own are that it’s cheap, it’s flexible, and it’s completely customizable, letting you focus less on your strengths and more on your weaknesses.
But it’s not enough just to know that you’re going to study on your own. Heed these seven tips to make the most of your SAT self-study plan:
- Make a schedule
- Start with official materials and resources
- Use only highly rated prep books
- Track your progress with practice tests
- Focus on your weaknesses
- Get help as needed
- Find ways to stay motivated
Although there are some potential drawbacks to SAT self-study, there are always ways you can try to overcome these problems. For example, if you’re worried about not being able to stick to your prep plan, you can prepare for this possibility by setting reminders to study at specific times of day or rewarding yourself for completing study sessions.
Aiming for a perfect SAT score? Then check out our guide to getting a perfect 1600, written by a real full scorer and Harvard alum!
Looking for free resources you can use for your SAT self-study plan? We've got a collection of tons of free SAT articles in our ultimate SAT study guide. You can also take a look at these top SAT prep websites.
Not sure when to sign up for the SAT? Our guide goes over the best SAT test dates for seniors and juniors, and offers tips for figuring out which dates might work best for you personally.Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.