Cailey Hall is a Content Developer @Knewton.
The SAT prep industry, like the self-help book industry, is super-saturated with tips on how to be your best you. You can’t mention the test without getting dozens of tips — solicited and unsolicited — on how to ace the test. It can be difficult to cull the good from the bad, the necessary from the optional. With this in mind, the expert SAT teachers at Knewton have compiled a list of the ten most essential things you need to do to be in fighting shape come test day.
1. Take practice tests
Nothing can prepare you for the SAT like actually taking the test. Block out a window of time every 1-2 weeks to take a full-length, timed practice test. Not only will this help you keep track of your progress, but it’ll also help increase your test-taking “endurance.” Sitting through a 3 hour and 45 minute exam is grueling and you don’t want test-day to be the first time you’ve taken the full exam under time pressure. It’s important to learn strategies to deal with test exhaustion and to figure out how to pace yourself. After taking each practice test, evaluate your performance and focus your subsequent prep work on your weakest areas. You also will become familiar with the various sections of the test, as well their structures and the instructions that introduce each section. Already knowing what to expect will give you a precious few extra minutes to spend actually answering questions.
2. Know the test structure
With the exception of the critical reading section, questions on the SAT are in ascending order of difficulty. This means that questions at the beginning of a section are easier than those at the end. So you should not spend equal amounts of time on every SAT question. The questions at the beginning of each section should be easily and quickly answered, allowing you to save up time to devote to the harder questions at the end. 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).
In addition to taking practice tests, you should also practice reading articles on unfamiliar subject matters 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…which leads us to Number 4!
4. Study that vocabulary!
The SAT is not the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. You don’t have to cram every word from the dictionary into your head. But studying vocabulary is a really easy way to increase your SAT score, especially if you study smart. 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. Make some flashcards and you can study vocab whenever you have a few free minutes—in the doctor’s waiting room, in study hall, in the car, on the ski-lift…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!)
5. Write as many practice essays as possible
Planning, frantically writing, and proofreading an essay in 25 minutes may not be easy, but it is a structure you can master. 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 justice, success, failure, honesty, the value of knowledge, or the importance of learning from mistakes. Doing test-runs of the essay will help familiarize you with this formula, 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 an easily identifiable argument, be structured, and show that you have a decent command of the English language.
6. Our Calculators, Ourselves
Your teachers in school may sing the praises of “mental math,” but on the SAT, your calculator is your best friend. 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 tricky equations like [(16 +37)/3]^5 is second nature to you come test day. Also familiarize yourself with any shortcuts, like the TI-83s ability to display a decimalized answer as a fraction. Anything you can do to make your life a little easier come test day will only help your score.
7. Memorize rules and formulas
While the SAT will give you some geometry formulas at the beginning of the test, you should still memorize all these formulas, and others, before test-day. Make sure to know area formulas, the Pythagorean Theorem, the average formula, special triangle rules, and exponent rules by heart, among others. It will save you precious time!
8. Understand how multiple choice works to your advantage
With the exception of the essay and the handful of math grid-ins, the SAT is a multiple choice test. This doesn’t mean the test is easy, but the format does give you some important advantages. 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. On math problems, you can often eliminate answer choices by plugging them back into the equation in the question. This will help you identify which kind of error you should be on the lookout for. And it’s reassuring to know that the answer is there!
9. Know when to guess on a question — and when to skip it entirely
If you look at a question and realize you have absolutely no idea how to tackle it, move on! Each question is worth the same — you won’t do yourself any favors by wasting 10 minutes sweating over one questions, when you could move on to problems you can actually solve. That said, if you can eliminate even one answer choice on a question, it is in your best interest to take a guess. 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. Use your time wisely, and be realistic about your abilities. Guess and move on!
10. The SAT is a stress-free zone
If you allow yourself plenty of time to study for the SAT, you will have nothing to worry about come test day. Except yourself! So don’t allow yourself to stress out. If you feel yourself panicking — pause, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and then come back to the test. The SAT is not an intelligence test—it’s all about strategy and familiarity with SAT question types and concepts. In the last few days before the test, resist the temptation to cram. Spend the final days relaxing, sleeping, exercising and eating good brain foods. Come test day, you’ll be healthy, well-rested and alert, which equals superior performance skills.