Emily Xie
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Academic Blog

Academic Blog

General SAT Test Tips

I know that many of you will be taking the SAT sometime during your educational career, and I just want to quell some of your anxious thoughts. This is the first in a four part series of SAT tips and tricks. I'll have more on writing, math, and reading later, but for now, here is just a general list of tips for the SAT Get to know the SAT. The SAT is made up of three different subjects, separated into 10 different sections, spread out over a joyous 3 hour and 45 minutes. There is also the mystery experimental section. This experimental section can be math, writing, or reading, but you won't know which one and you won't know which section. However, this experimental section will not count towards your final scaled score, but that being said, you will still need to try hard and work hard on it, because as good as your abilities to determine which section is experimental, you probably still have a relatively high margin of error and sleeping through the section you believe to be experimental could be detrimental to your score.

Practice.  Many people just dismiss "practicing" for the SAT. They say, "Oh, I'll just read and study the material (if even), and I'll be just fine!" or they say, "Johnny got a 2350 and he didn't even study! I'll probably do amazing too." Sorry, but that's really not the case. Maybe Johnny got lucky or maybe he studied and tried to play it off as if he didn't, but you are going to want to both study and practice. I'll try not to be terribly cliche, but the SAT is kind of like a sport or instrument, you won't get good just by reading up on how to play a sport or instrument, it might help, but you still won't do amazingly well. However, only with practice will you actually be able to kick some major butt (the College Board/Educational Testing Service's butts to be exact). So, I suggest you go stock up on as many practice tests as you possibly can and start doing them as often as possible.

Please do always remember. The SAT is not a test of whether you have a lot of knowledge or obscure topics. It doesn't require a deep knowledge or math, writing, or reading. It requires the test-taker to learn the ins and outs of the SAT. It requires the test-taker to efficiently answer questions without stumbling or taking too much time (especially when you are only given about a minute per questions, in some sections, even less).

I would strongly suggest you invest in The Official SAT Study Guide, aka, the big blue SAT book. This book is released by the College Board, sound familiar? They are the same people who actually administer the test. I would read through the book and do all of the practice questions without timing yourself at first. However, as you do them, I would also write a small tid-bit about why you think the answer you chose was correct. Then at the end of the test go to the back of the book where all of the wonderful answers live and check your answers. Then here is the most important part, read why the answers are correct and incorrect. Did you see what I did there? You want to check why the answers you got were incorrect, but you also want to check why the answers you got were correct. That way you will start to understand how the SAT thinks and works. Sometimes you'll think, "HEY! My answer should have been right!" but then you realize after reading the explanation that your answer no longer works. It's moments like those that serve as teaching moments for when you're actually taking the test and you find a question with a similar structure or idea. At that point, you won't get it wrong (or hopefully by then you will have known better).

Quick note: at the beginning don't time yourself. Just relax and work through questions at your own pace, however, once you start getting the hang of things, time yourself, but don't set time limits. Determine how long you can get through a section while leisurely moving. You'd be surprised how long it actually takes (which if you've practiced enough, it shouldn't take too long). Then from there on, start working to cut down on time and increase your "answer checking" time.

Also, sign up for the SAT Question of the Day. Yeah, it's a little bit awkward when you open your email inbox and all you have is SAT questions, but I promise your friends won't make fun of you too much (no guarantees though). However, even if they laugh at you now, when you get that coveted 2400, they won't be laughing then.

Finally, the College Board is not always to be trusted. They say, "we're not trying to trick you", but deep down they kind of are sometimes. So, help yourself out with a Princeton Review book, and read all of the tips on how to outsmart the SAT. I would also get Up Your Score. It was written by students just like you and me and it's actually quite entertaining, or as entertaining as an SAT book could possibly be.

Have some discipline. Sorry to break it to you, but no, cramming for the SAT in one night probably won't get you very far. Just like training for a marathon, you are going to have to practice and work over time. If just started training for a marathon the night before,  chances are you would not do so hot. There is no "crash course" for the SAT. There are no gimmicks, sorry.

I know the feeling when your parents rush home after a fantastic trip to the book store with a gigantic tower of wonderfully "interesting" books on how to take the SAT. Either that or when the mailman arrives explaining that your parents and Amazon.com got quite acquainted a few days ago. Yes, I do understand that there is a lot to read, but I promise you will get through it, just move slowly (not too slowly), and take as much on as you can handle. I know that your eye-lids get heavy when you start reading, but that's where the discipline part comes into play. Tell yourself you will read at least X number of pages everyday. That way you won't just say, "I can't do it", and meander on back to your cave (bedroom) and sleep.

Have a good attitude. When you get to the test and you realize that you wish you would have studied harder or practiced more, you must also realize that there is no longer anything you can do, but hone in on the test and do as well as possible as to prevent coming back and sitting in a rather uncomfortable chair for four more hours. You must also realize that whatever happens happens. Yes, getting one question wrong will affect your score, but worrying about it will probably affect your score more. Think about the fact that no matter what you answer, the question's answer isn't going to change. Someone has spent many grueling hours thinking up these questions and answers, so, you just need to think like a test writer and determine the best answer.

Be prepared. When you register for the SAT, you will be given a list of things to bring. I have modified this list as I saw fit from my experience taking standardized tests:

  1. At least 4 #2 pencils with good erasers (I'd suggest Ticonderoga pencils, in fact, I swear upon them) , no mechanical pencils. I don't care if it says "#2" on it, the SAT won't either.
  2. At least 1 giant eraser. You never know if you'll screw up on the essay, and on the off chance you do and you realize that with 5 minutes to spare your conclusion is complete garbage, you're going to need something a lot bigger than the eraser on the back of your pencil. Same goes for bubbling problems. What happens when you bubble in number two in the number one bubble and you don't realize until the end? Be prepared.
  3. A photo ID. They're going to want to verify that it's actually you taking your test, not the genius you sit next to in AP Calc. Don't forget this or they won't let you in.
  4. A calculator and extra batteries. The calculator is obvious, I know. Please note, TI-89's are allowed, unlike on the ACT. So, TI-89 users, rejoice. However, it would be quite a nightmare if your calculator died half-way through the test wouldn't it? So, be prepared, bring extra batteries!
  5. A printed admission ticket, yours to be exact. You won't be let in without an admission ticket and a photo ID that match, please note. So do yourself a solid, and don't forget those.
  6. A pencil sharpener. You don't know that you will have access to a good pencil sharpener. When I took the SAT, the pencil sharpener in our room was missing the blades, not what you want. Good thing I brought my own though! Please save yourself the anxiety, and bring a pencil sharpener.
  7. A light snack. You will be given time to go out wander the halls and participate in minimal shenanigans between every few sections, so bring a snack. Four hours is a long time, and we're all human here (I assume), so you'll probably need some sustenance after testing for so long.

Personally, I'd suggest you pack that all in a bag the night before the test as to prevent worry in the morning the day of the test and then end up showing up late. Again, not what you want.

Guess (only if you can eliminate). If you can eliminate two or more of the options, guess! You are statistically more likely to get it right and do better if you guess. However, if you have absolutely no idea what the answer is, odds are you would be worse off by guessing. Please remember, the SAT will penalize you .25 points for every question you get wrong.

Should you get a tutor? I would advocate against it. I strongly believe that practice is what will make you better. Those expensive tutoring services are only there to verbalize what you can find in a $20 review book, so what's the point? The only reason there are prep programs is because there are helicopter parents who believe in them and are willing to pay. Why take your time to drive to a prep class where an overworked under-qualified person will basically read you a book of SAT tips and tricks when you can save your time and sit at home and learn and practice on your own without wasting half an hour (or however much time it take to drive) to get to class and back when you could spend that time actually being productive?

How do I improve? If you are among the sad souls who are taking a second stab at the SAT, feeling hopeless, assuming you will not be about to improve, think again. Take a look at the questions you commonly get wrong, in my case, that's critical reading long passage questions, and then do a lot of practice. Try to really get into the test-writers' heads and figure out how these questions are formatted and how they are usually answered. Yes, practice will help, but the most amount of help you will be able to get is from reading the question thoroughly, answering it, and explaining why you picked your answer, fulling prepared to defend it no matter what the back of the book says. However, upon reading the back of the book and reading the answers, you must take time to realize why the test writers picked the answer that they picked. Once you do this enough, you will start to realize that your reasoning starts to become a lot more similar to the reasoning you find in the back of the book.

Any questions? Feel free to contact me to leave a comment below!