The SAT is not a test you prepare for the night before. It’s not a test where you simply regurgitate what you learned.
The SAT is a test that is developed by a huge team of people, including many very educated professors and educators. Each question on the SAT has probably been read through carefully at least 50 times. The test is tested against groups of students to remove possible biases. For example, a verbal question with the word “obliterate” as the answer was rejected because it is a word that males know more frequently than females. Questions are all screened and dissected numerous times. After all, one mistake on the test can cause a huge backlash and result in the College Board’s phone lines being jammed. This test is designed in such a way that the College Board is probably 99% sure of the scores that the students will get. Believe me, they don’t want all students to do very well on it, otherwise the test would not be a reliable measure of a student’s ability. And sadly, most students will fall in the average range, getting between 450-550 on each section. But you’re reading this, so you’re obviously different. You don’t want to be another statistic and get a mediocre score – good for you.
The math and verbal sections contain a handful of very challenging questions that differentiate the top students from the rest. The test is designed so that if you solve a math problem using a wrong procedure, you’ll find the answer you got in the answer choices and think that you’re right.
The point is this: if you are not already prepared for the SAT because you’ve been on top of all your school work until know, then you’ll need to really prepare for it if you want a top score.
You have to develop the attitude needed. Overconfidence based on just one or two great scores you got in a practice test while sitting comfortably at home will backfire. You need to understand that to do well on the SAT you need to both know your stuff and have a disciplined, focused routine.
I know a friend who recently took the SAT and could not believe his math score. He did very well, but he expected that he would get a perfect score in the math. The truth is that he is capable of getting a perfect score, but his overconfidence hurt him. When he took the test he went through the questions too quickly, and at the end he found that he had time to go back and recheck his answers. But why not instead learn to pace yourself so that you can finish within five-to-ten minutes of the ending time – then go back and double check the challenging questions. If you go through quickly and then come back, chances are you will not catch as many of your mistakes as you would have if you were more thorough to begin with.
The other mistake my friend made was that he underestimated the effect his physiological state would have on him. The night before he got about six hours of sleep. The SAT is over four hours long, and in some ways is like a marathon. You want to be alert and wide awake when you take the test. You want to have eaten a healthy, but not large and fatty, breakfast. So you need a plan that gets you at the test center a little early, well-rested, and not too full or too hungry.
The SAT is designed to be tricky in at least one-fourth of the questions. They’ll bait many people by using words that are often unnoticed: only, not, except, but, if, etc. The point is this: you need to be totally clear on what each question is asking you.
To do well on the SAT verbal section, you need to have two major skills – 1) knowing how to read efficiently and 2) having a good vocabulary.
With the SAT verbal section, the main part is the reading passages. Here you have to force yourself to be interested in each reading passage. There will not be very exciting material on the reading passages – and this is by design. No talking about Guitar Hero, Barack Obama, terrorism, Halo 3, skateboarding, piercings, or Britney Spears(or Chris Crocker). Most likely it will be something most teenagers would call boring – something like asparagus research, aristocratic families in 18th century France, an immigrant’s college life, the history of sunflower seed companies, abstract architecture museums, living in Wasilla, Alaska… you get the point. You have to force yourself to think it’s the most exciting thing and you want to learn it and “oh I can’t wait to read this!”
There are a few approaches to doing well on the SAT reading passages. Here’s the way I would humbly suggest: first, read the introductory part(in italics) at a decent speed. Then read the first sentence carefully, skim through the rest of the paragraph, and read the last sentence carefully. Do this for the rest of the paragraphs – 1st sentence, skim, last sentence. You should be done with reading it all in less than 7 or 8 minutes.. probably you can do this in 4 minutes when you’re good at it. Now look at the questions and answer them, going back to the parts that are referenced and reading it and the surrounding area. Some questions you can answer quickly though.
The vocabulary is needed for the sentence completions. This is easy – really it is. If you are in 10th grade or 11th even, hug yourself for a second, then learn as many vocabulary words as you can. The Barron’s book has a 3500 word list that if you knew, you’d be really ready for the sentence completions. How can you figure out that a jigsaw puzzle piece fits in the picture if it’s a blank and blurry blob of amorphous goo? You have to know what nadir, supercilious, accost, venial, umbrage, laconic, and recumbent mean if you will pick or rule them out as answer choices. If you have a free summer coming up, plan to read more in magazines like National Geographic, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, etc. Also, try to memorize at least 10 new words a day in the summer. In the school year try to keep flash cards with you and learn when you have “dead time” – like waiting in line, on the bus, sitting around in gym class, etc. You can also use technology to your advantage – there are a few SAT word programs for palm and mobile devices.
You can learn words easier by using mnemonic devices and/or using them or reading them frequently. For example, you can remember that alacrity means being “cheerfully prompt” by thinking “it is critical that a flight attendant have alacrity.” For the word zephyr meaning “breeze” think “I felt a nice zephyr as I rode on the heifer” – OK so maybe mine are lame. But make them crazy and be creative, the crazier it is the better. Try using acronyms to group together related words or make up a story. You can search the word online to see its use in context.
There’s a funny book that helps you prepare for the SAT but doesn’t have practice tests as it doesn’t want to make up questions. It was written by people who aced the test and have a sense of humor. It’s called Up Your Score and you can get the new edition or a slightly older one online for a decent price. For practice tests, use the real thing, not made-up practice tests. You should get Ten Real SATs from the College Board. Take a real and life-like practice test – lock yourself up in a room at the library and go through the whole thing. Or find out if a local college or library is offering free practice tests. Don’t just take a bunch of practice tests in consecutive days and hope for a better score. Spread them out – like once every month. Take a test, then go through and see where you went wrong. Try to improve on the areas where you have weakness. There’s a pattern to how they ask questions. So learn the why and how of the questions.
There are also a few test-taking tips you should know about. There is a fast, efficient way fo filling in your answer sheet. First you want to practice bubbling in those ovals – seriously! Learn how to quickly fill in the bubbles – it’s better to have a few pencils with you on test day so you don’t have to deal with a super-dull pencil. The right way to fill in the bubbles is in a circular motion, going from the middle to the edge. You don’t have to fill in the oval like it’s an art assignment – it shouldn’t take more than 2 seconds. Also, when you’re taking the exam, you don’t need to keep going back and forth from your test booklet to the answer sheet to bubble in each question one-by-one. On the math part of the exam, for the first half of the questions, finish the two pages that are open towards you and then transfer the answers, carefully making sure they are in order and the right choices. This saves the time of moving back-and-forth from answer sheet to test booklet after each question. For the second half of the questions, go page by page, and if you’re running out of time fill in the bubbles one-by-one. On the verbal section you’ll want to use a slightly different strategy. Finish all the sentence completions, then bubble in answers. Then go to the passages, and do one passage at a time; however, if you are on the last passage fill in the answers one-by-one. You don’t want to be caught at the end scrambling to transfer answers. Hopefully the foregoing tips will allow you to spend more time thinking about right answers and less time doing mechanical paperwork.
With preparation and determination, you can greatly improve your score. The earlier you start preparing the better, however it’s never too late to learn something and do better on the exam(it may help you later on anyways if you decide to go to graduate school). Now go ahead and get started, and good luck to all of you.