How to Succeed on the SAT and Keep Your Sanity

The SAT, perhaps the most terrifying acronym known to high-school students, is fast approaching for our juniors. Advice for how to conquer this test bombards them from all sides, from parents, teachers, coaches, classes, and the Internet. This is only one senior’s opinion, gleaned from the last year of teaching SAT prep to nervous students, and from a strategy that worked well for me. I share these tips from my own experience, both as a student and a tutor.

test_anxietyFirst, I’ll talk about my own story. I took the PSAT each year, freshman through junior, and my junior year was the first I can remember preparing at all for the test. The December SAT, which I completed as a junior, was my first experience, and I took the test with minimal preparation. The score came back a perfectly respectable 2100, which was good, but skewed. With a 760 reading, 680 writing, and 660 math, it was clear my natural tendency to read had paid off, but the work I had done in my English and math classes wasn’t showing through. This is when I began studying for the test, and through hard work and learning a few tricks I was able to raise that original score up to a 2390, missing a single math question for the 10 points off a perfect score. This article will share how I did it; though it may not work for everyone, I hope it may be useful to some.

First, start with a practice test. Yes, this is fairly standard advice, but it’s incredibly important and often overlooked. What a student scores on this practice test determines the kind of advice I’ll give. The 2000 mark is a loose line for me, the line that marks the border between needing to focus on content and needing to focus on strategy. A score below a 2000 means (most of the time) that the student still has content that needs to be learned. The best way to go about learning content is through more traditional methods, such as The Official SAT Study Guide, published by College Board (the “blue book”), or Cracking the SAT, published by the Princeton Review. These books are good for learning the content (although at times I disagree with their strategy tips).

The remainder of this article is mostly for those students scoring around or above a 2000, for kids looking to just get those last few hundred points. This is when it mostly comes down to strategy.

Writing: This breaks down into two subsections, the essay and the multiple-choice section. As for the former, although it may seem to be the least precise, writing the essay can in fact be extraordinarily formulaic, which may be a relief for those who stress over extemporaneous timed writing.  In my case, I wrote most of my essay before I ever saw the prompt. You can too. The SAT prompts ask extremely broad and mostly philosophical questions. I recommend writing out your introduction in two versions, one if you agree with the statement provided and one if you disagree. When you’re taking the test, I also advise putting your thesis first: it makes it easy on the grader to see where your essay is going with the two minutes he or she has to read it.

For the rest of the essay, length is perhaps the most important aspect. No matter what, try your absolute hardest to get down a full five paragraphs. Many readers have been trained to look for length, and there is a high likelihood of a direct correlation between length and score. Fill this with as much superfluous language as you can. While big words aren’t usually the way to write a good essay, they are a clear indication to the reader that you have (or at least are faking) a well-developed vocabulary. In terms of content, you want to use literary, historical, or current events. Literary and historical are usually the easiest and least controversial. Avoid the obvious (MLK, Shakespeare, and Gandhi all pop to mind), but it should be something you could have learned in school. Don’t worry too much about accuracy here: as unusual as it sounds graders cannot take off points for historical inaccuracy. As long as it’s about right, and you aren’t claiming that UFOs abducted Lincoln, you should be fine.

Still, it’s best to use real facts whenever possible. I had a list of about ten books that were my go-to for historical and current events. These were all broad enough to be applied to nearly any essay topic; for example, I used Brave New World every time I took the SAT, on completely different prompts, because I knew the book very well and it had broad enough subject matter. Find your Brave New World–an event from history or story that you’ve been drawn to– that can be used in multiple contexts. The conclusion to your essay can be very similar to your introduction, and mostly needs to exist for length and to give a sense of completeness. It, like the introduction, can also be mostly prewritten.

If you’d like more information on many of these tactics, they are inspired by the ones I found in the book 2400 in Just 7 Steps (published by McGraw-Hill), one of my all-time SAT-prep favorites.

Now, let’s handle the grammar section. Your first defense, if you do read a significant amount, is going to be a gut feeling. When you read a sentence, it should be visible that something is  ”wrong.” This can get you up to the original 680 I scored, but not past this point. That’s when you really need to learn some grammar. Luckily, you don’t have to tackle the entire English language in one go. The SAT only covers approximately thirteen grammatical topics, and with a mastery of these you should be set to tackle even the trickiest problems. I won’t go into detail here, but there are a few common mistakes that pop up all over the grammar portion of the SAT writing section. If I had to pick one favorite mistake of SAT test writers, oftentimes they will alter the verb so that it doesn’t properly match the noun or pronoun of a sentence. Barron’s Grammar Workbook for the SAT, ACT, and More was my favorite book for learning grammar rules, and with enough practice you can learn to see errors that commonly appear in test questions.

Reading: The reading section has always been the hardest one for me to give advice on. It also breaks into two parts: vocabulary-based sentence completion and passage reading. The first one is difficult if you don’t already possess a large vocabulary, but there are some tricks around it. First, be fluent in your Greek and Latin roots. These show up all over big vocabulary words, and can often help you extrapolate meaning. Beyond that, there are about 300 words that statistically show up on the SAT more often than not. I found 2400 in Just 7 Steps to have the best vocabulary-review section of any out there. On the test itself, I always approach fill-in-the-blanks by thinking to myself, what kind of word makes sense here? Is it positive or negative? I fill in my own word before looking at the answers, and then find the one that best fits. One last note on these: be wary of words such as “not” and “except” in front of blanks. If you’re reading too quickly, you may misinterpret the meaning of the blank word and make a silly mistake.

For the passage-based reading, I suggest scanning the questions first. This allows you to know what you should be on the lookout for, especially in the paragraph or two long passages. If time is your issue, skimming the story once to get the gist of it, and then going back through to answer specific questions, helps save reading time. If you aren’t struggling with time, then one simple piece of advice helped me the most here: I approached every passage-based question as if all of the answers were wrong. Yes, you read that right. I know that one of them must be right, but that correct answer has to prove itself to me. One useful truth about the SAT reading section is that it is quite clear-cut. For an answer to be the correct one, there must be clear proof in the passage of its correctness. A silly trick I used was to pretend as if I were the prosecution in a courtroom. Using evidence from the passage, I had to prove to the jury that one of the answers was the correct one. Sometimes I even ruled out all of the choices, thinking none of them had quite enough proof, and then chose the one with the most evidence behind it. Time and time again this technique proved useful, and helped me avoid the “but both of these could be right” scenario. You aren’t looking for the right answer; you’re ruling out all the wrong ones. Only what remains is going to be the bubble you fill in.

Math: For many months, the math section was my absolute least favorite. I was excelling in advanced calculus, but struggling with finishing basic algebra and geometry in time, and making stupid mistakes. By far, I needed to spend most of my time and effort getting that 660 up to a much better score. Again, I started with a practice test. I was able to find the specific topics for which I needed to learn more content; for me I struggled with parabolas as an example. But the bigger issue was with time. I could solve the majority of the problems correctly in enough time, but I wasn’t doing it with the same “shortcuts” the SAT test makers assumed I’d use. The only way I became fluent in SAT math was by hard repetition. The easiest way to accomplish this was through the SAT Math Workbook that Barron’s puts out. I found it harder than the actual SAT questions. What they label as medium is actually a hard question on the SAT, and their hard questions are harder than what you’ll find on the test. By going through the whole book, which is organized by type of problem, I started to see patterns in the problem types. This let me see shortcuts–ways to solve a problem quickly because I had solved five just like it before. By saving time on these problems I was able to get through sections quicker, double-check work, and catch silly mistakes. Having solved problems more complicated than those on the actual test, I found the real SAT math section simple by comparison.

There are fewer tricks to the math section, only patterns to identify, but it is still beatable. I’ll never know which question I got wrong on the math section for the 790, only that it was classified as a hard algebra problem, but I was happy with the 130-point increase.

For test day, there are a few more tricks that, believe it or not, can help boost your score. As hard as it is, in the week leading up to the test try and get to bed early: I’m talking 9 or 10pm at the latest. Get your body rested and on an earlier clock, so that 5 or 6am alarm on Saturday doesn’t alter your circadian rhythms. Pack your SAT bag the night before with pencils, erasers, a calculator you are very familiar with (I recommend the TI-84 myself), and some snacks. Fill a water bottle to bring and on the morning of, avoid caffeine. Eat something filling but healthy, something your stomach is used to and fits into your routine. Wear something comfortable, and if you have long hair, I highly recommend a headband and a pony-tail to keep it out of your face. This all might seem silly, but they’re little things that help make sure you’re in optimal health and that eliminate extra stress on the test-taking morning.  Stay calm and remember, even after all this, it’s still only a test.

Heather’s Recommended Book list:

2400 in Just 7 Steps: Perfect-Score Student Reveals How to Ace the Test by Shaan Patel

Grammar Workbook for the SAT, ACT, and More by George Ehrenhaft

The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition by the College Board

SAT Math Workbook (Barron’s SAT Math Workbook) by Lawrence Leff

SAT Math Bible by Victoria Wood

Heather Macomber is a senior at the OHS. She also owns a private SAT tutoring business; more information can be found at this link.

Categories: Opinion


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