How to Effectively Study for the SAT

How to Effectively Study for the SAT

Ryan Phillips, Editor-in-chief

Winter has officially begun, and with that, the release of PSAT scores for sophomores and juniors. It is now when juniors are (in theory) supposed to “analyze” their PSAT scores and “improve their skills where necessary” for SAT season: late junior year through early in senior year. However, many juniors may not be sure where to begin, and likely don’t feel like taking standardized tests when it isn’t necessary. Juniors: It’s important not to underestimate the importance of the SAT if you’re planning on including your SAT score¹ in college applications! Although most colleges review your application holistically, meaning they review your application as a whole and won’t automatically reject you if your SAT score isn’t above a certain threshold, your SAT score can open doors for you. The truth is, if your SAT score is below the middle 50% range of scores for the college you are applying to, you probably need something very special and unique in your application to be considered for admission. For this reason, investing time into practicing for the SAT is one of the smartest decisions you could make. Here is how I improved my SAT Superscore² by 100 points after my third and final time taking the SAT, making myself competitive for an entire new tier of colleges:

1. I processed my first (May) SAT score and figured out where I would need more practice. I noticed a ten point difference between my Reading/Writing score and Math score. However, I had felt much more confident in the Math section overall and knew that a simple fix to increase my Math score would be two things:

  1. Spend less time checking answers. After all, I’m constantly checking my work as I solve each problem, so a final review after I have my answer is unnecessary.
  2. Skip to the Grid-In questions before beginning the Multiple Choice. If I run out of time on Multiple Choice questions, I can choose a random answer and have a 25% chance of answering correctly (wrong answers don’t penalize, so answer every multiple choice question!). If I run out of time on a Grid-In question, I probably won’t answer correctly by guessing a number.

I decided I’d focus much more of my practice on the Reading section. I had spent less and less time reading outside of school, and I knew that was precisely what had affected my Reading score.

2. I practiced online on Khan Academy, one of the best resources for SAT practice. Khan Academy allowed me to take timed mini-Reading sections. Reading the same exact types of texts that would appear on the SAT and answering questions about them did 2 things:

  1. This made me more comfortable reading under timed conditions by strengthening my mental timing ability. After only a few hours total of practicing with Reading, I went from scrambling to answer the last 3 out of 11 questions to answering every question with a few minutes to spare!
  2. This strengthened my close-reading ability. Gradually, my mind became more and more resistant to tuning out and missing important details in the text. I developed a laser focus, which was crucial for increasing my Reading score later. 

3. I bought the College Board’s The Official SAT Study Guide, the most valuable sections of which were the 4 official practice tests at the end. This comprehensive “guide” was worth the investment. Once a week leading up to my second SAT, I set aside a few hours to take one of these tests under timed conditions. You can score your practice test and more importantly, review your incorrect answers. Don’t skip reviewing your wrong answers! It’s hard to approach something correctly in the future when you don’t know how you were incorrect before. I made sure to star tough questions and review their answers’ explanations after taking the test regardless of whether I answered correctly or incorrectly.

4. Before my final SAT, I took the College Board’s 4 new SAT practice tests. I had been unaware that the College Board released a new study guide with 8 official practice tests (the 4 I took and 4 new tests). Luckily, PDFs of all 8 official practice tests are on the College Board’s website, so I printed all 4 new tests, double-sided, with the school’s library printer. Use the school’s resources and print these practice tests if you don’t want to buy the book!

My method of self-study may not be for everyone, but it was very effective in increasing my SAT score and it proves that an expensive SAT tutor, for example, is really not necessary if you take advantage of all the resources—all free except the book—available to you. Regardless of how you’d prefer to practice for the SAT, I strongly advise you to put substantial effort into practicing for it, and I wish you the best of luck!


¹ As far as I’m aware, all U.S. colleges (if they require standardized tests) now require either the SAT or the ACT, a similar standardized test. Trying out the ACT—more commonly taken in non-coastal states—is a good idea, as 1)  it might suit you better than the SAT and 2) an ACT score will have as much validity as an SAT score.

² Many U.S. colleges now consider only your highest Reading/Writing and Math subscores on the SAT, regardless of whether they were achieved on separate tests. For example, you could score a 1200 (640 in Reading/Writing, 560 in Math) and then a 1250 (590 Reading/Writing, 660 in Math) and certain colleges will only consider your Superscore of 1300 (640 in Reading/Writing, 660 in Math). It’s worth researching whether colleges you’re sending your SAT scores to use your Superscore, in case you’re at a point where it might be beneficial to focus all of your practice on one area at the expense of the other.