The Knewton Blog

Subscribe to Newsletter

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

SAT Prep: The Top 10 Tips

Posted in Test Prep on May 27, 2010 by

Meghan Daniels is the Associate Editor at Knewton

Sometimes, it seems like there are enough SAT prep tips out there to fill up the Grand Canyon. Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to conquer the test–from people who know (teachers and tutors) to people who don’t (your grandmother, the postman…).

With all that advice, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what’s really important: What will make or break your score?

Knewton is here to help! Below, you’ll find our list of the top 10 SAT prep tips, compiled with the help of our expert SAT teachers.

1. Take full-length practice tests

Schedule a time every week or two to complete a full-length practice test. Not only will this help you keep track of your progress, but it’ll also help increase your test-taking “endurance.” You don’t want test-day to be the first time you challenge yourself to sit through a 3 hour and 45 minute exam! Taking such a long test is grueling, and it’s important to learn strategies to deal with test exhaustion. (For example, on reading comp passages, if you feel your eyes glazing over, take a deep breath and look away from the page for a few seconds.) Taking full-length tests will also help you become familiar with all the different sections of the test. Knowing the instructions and structure of each section ahead of time will save time on test day, and provide you with precious extra minutes to devote to test questions. After taking each practice test, evaluate your performance and focus your subsequent prep work on your weakest areas.

2. Study that vocabulary!
The image of the frazzled high school student with a toppled-over stack of SAT flashcards might be a cliche by now–but studying vocabulary really is an easy way to up your SAT score! The best part is that you can study vocab whenever you have a few free minutes–in the dentist’s waiting room, in study hall, in the car, on the beach in Maui during spring break… Not only will expanding your vocabulary help on Sentence Completion questions, it’ll also serve you well during Reading Comprehension (think of how much easier those questions would be if you knew what the words in the passages actually meant!) Knewton’s SAT course provides students with plenty of vocab prep, including a list of the 120 vocab words most commonly tested on the SAT.

3. Practice essay writing.
The SAT essay might not be easy, but it is formulaic. The essay will always be the first section of the test, and it’ll always be 25 minutes long. The prompt will undoubtedly touch on a broad issue like honesty, justice, success, failure, the value of knowledge, or the importance of learning from mistakes. Doing test-runs of the essay will help familiarize you with this structure, ensuring you don’t waste any time on test day. Figure out a time breakdown that works for you–you’ll need to allocate time for reading the prompt, brainstorming, outlining (a rough outline is fine), writing, and proofreading. Decide on a clear, unambiguous thesis (whether you believe it or not–the SAT graders don’t want to see you waver!). Make sure you have two or three relevant examples (from literature, history, current events, or personal experience) to back up your thesis, and a conclusion that succinctly restates your main argument. The SAT graders will look at your essay as a “final first draft”–meaning that while it doesn’t have to be perfect, it should have a clear argument and structure. Follow all these tips, and your essay is sure to earn a perfect 6.

4. Use your calculator!

Capitalize on the fact that the SAT allows calculators! Your teachers in school may sing the praises of “mental math,” but on the SAT, you should use your calculator whenever possible. It’ll save you time, and help prevent against careless errors–why wouldn’t you use it? Practice using your calculator while you prep, so that typing in [(34 + 45)/2]^4 is second nature to you come test day.

5. Understand the test structure.
With the exception of the critical reading section, questions on the SAT are in ascending order of difficulty, i.e. the questions at the beginning of a section are easier than those at the end. This means that you should not spend equal amounts of time on every SAT question. Speed through the questions at the beginning (not too fast, though!), saving time for the harder ones later on. And even though the critical reading questions aren’t arranged in order of difficulty, there are still important strategies to master in that section. For example, you should answer detail-oriented questions (i.e. the ones that refer to specific line numbers) first, saving general questions about the passage for the end. (By that time, you’ll already be familiar with the passage from answering the other questions, and should be able to answer these broader questions with ease).

6. Memorize rules and formulas.
The SAT will give you some geometry formulas at the beginning of the test, but you should still memorize these formulas, and others, before test-day. It’ll save precious time. Make sure to know area formulas, the Pythagorean Theorem, the average formula, special triangle rules, and exponent rules by heart, among others.

7. Read!
Practice reading unfamiliar subject matter before the test. Read a few paragraphs, then stop and try to identify the author’s argument. This will help you on the SAT reading comprehension passages, which will almost always be about strange (read: boring) subject matter. Look up any words you don’t know as you read, too–you’ll kill two birds with one stone!

8. Use the answer choices to your advantage.
The SAT is by and large a multiple choice test. This doesn’t mean the test is easy, but the format does give you some important advantages. On math problems, you can often eliminate answer choices by plugging them back into the equation in the question. On Identifying Sentence Errors and Improving Sentences questions (on the Writing section), you can often see what grammatical concept is being tested by looking at the differences between answer choices. This will help you identify which kind of error you should be on the lookout for.

9. Know when to skip a question–and when to guess.
If you look at a question and have no idea how to approach it, it’s better to move on than to waste 20 minutes wrestling with it, only to end up back where you started. That said, if you can eliminate even one answer choice on a question, it is in your best interest to take a guess. Bottom line? Use your time wisely, and be realistic about your abilities. If you’ve narrowed a question down to two answer choices, but know you won’t be able to figure out which one it is, don’t waste time freaking out and beating yourself up over it. Just take a guess and move on!

10. Don’t stress out!
Give yourself plenty of time to study for the SAT, and you’ll be all set by test day. The SAT is not an intelligence test–it’s all about strategy and familiarity with SAT question types and concepts. Don’t give in to the temptation to cram, either! Instead, let yourself relax in the last few days before the test. Sleep, exercise, and eat well. It might sound obvious, but the healthier and more alert you are for test day, the better you’ll do!

Good luck on the test!