When I first started studying for the SAT, I felt lost. I didn’t know what books I should be purchasing, which practice tests I should taking, or how much I should be studying. I thought it would be helpful for me (a high school Junior) to document my SAT studying techniques—even if it will only be helpful for my sister, who will be taking the SAT in the next couple of years (as long as it is still a relevant metric). By no means am I saying my method will work for you or that it is the best way to study for the SAT, but it could be of use to some, since it helped me gain 250+ points from my first practice test in August 2021 (85th percentile) to the December 2021 SAT (99th percentile). I don’t say this to gloat, but to add credibility to this approach.
In my mind, there are three layers to studying for the SAT. If you want to score above 1500, you’ll need to get to layer 3, since your margin of error is slim.
Of note, it’s notoriously difficult to improve the Evidence-Based Reading section. You really just need to read actual books to do well, though the methodology described below can help—just to a lesser extent than the other three sections. I rekindled my love for reading1 during “lockdown” in 2020, so the Evidence-Based Reading started out as my strongest section; however, it turned out to be my weakest section on my December 2021 SAT, since my score in that section improved the least.
Layer 1: Understanding the Content
The first thing I did was make sure I knew how to solve every problem. It’s hard to practice when you don’t know how to get the right answer. Initially, I took a practice test and then went through each problem individually, marking each answer as correct or incorrect. On incorrectly marked questions, I checked to see if I knew how to get the correct answer. If I didn’t, I would (re)learn the material by watching videos I found on the internet2. After this, I grinded out 1,762 free practice problems on Khan Academy. During this stage, I would recommend doing a full practice test3 on the weekends (at least one every other week, though once a week is better). Completing practice tests in full improves your concentration and allows you to become more familiar with the testing format.
You know you’re past layer 1 when you feel stupid every time you get a problem wrong because you know why the right answer is right.
I bought the book my tutor recommended (more on tutors below), but didn’t find it to be too helpful. It is possible that I could have gained more from my SAT book had I spent more time with it. My book—like most, if not all SAT books—was so long that I was honestly overwhelmed by it. Outside of completing a few assigned problems from my tutor, I only used my book to do extra practice tests after I ran out of the tests provided for free by College Board. I’m inclined to believe that purchasing an SAT book is not necessary, but by all means, buy the one that someone you trust recommends. Maybe it will be exactly what you need.
SAT Prep Courses
While I didn’t take an SAT prep course, I think it could be a great option for some people. If you have trouble with self-discipline and focus, an SAT prep course would probably be helpful. If practicing on your own isn’t difficult, the cost of an SAT prep course likely does not justify its high price tag.
Layer 2: Familiarity With the Test Format
After doing many practice problems, I noticed patterns in the types of questions covered on the SAT. Upon seeing a question, I immediately knew the type of answer choices that would be available since I had done many similar practice problems, just with different “variables.”
Improvement in layer 2 mainly comes from doing lots of practice tests. You don’t need to set aside 3 hours to complete a full practice test to improve in layer 2. Instead, do one section of a practice test each day. I’d still recommend doing a full practice test on the weekend. Khan Academy is great for layer 1, when you need to practice several of a certain type of problem to ensure you really know how to do it. However, in layer 2, when you know the material, doing a practice section is more helpful. It’s one thing to be able to solve a problem having done 5 very similar ones in a row; it’s a very different thing to get the question right in the format of an actual SAT.
You know you’re past layer 2 when you start reading a question and already know what College Board wants you to answer (make sure not to rush to the wrong conclusion!).
I found meeting with a tutor to be beneficial during layer 2. I met with my tutor three times (1 hour each time, totaling to 3 hours) and saw an increase of ~100 points on practice math sections. It was definitely time and money well spent. If you can, try learning new material on your own, instead of with a tutor, since your time with a tutor can be better spent elsewhere. My tutor showed how to avoid common mistakes, taught me that I should never feel ambivalent about any two answers, since there will only be one best answer, and gave me tips to better take advantage of the format of the SAT. I also learned how to solve math problems in new, faster ways that weren’t taught to me in school. These tips were not obvious to me on my own, but were extremely beneficial in helping me improve my SAT score.
Layer 3: Pacing
I got to layer 3 just a week or two before I took the December 2021 SAT.
When I first started taking practice tests, I could barely finish a section on time, but after enough practice, I had enough time to partially check my work a second time. At this point, I needed to pace myself and slow down. I found I scored better when I took my time when first answering questions, having just enough time to thoroughly check my work once than when I rushed through the test and had time to check my work twice. It was hard to convince myself to meticulously examine my work after having already done it once. To score in the 1500s, it is critical to check your work, since you can’t miss many questions.
If you get to the point where you need to slow down, there isn’t much else you can do to improve besides calming nerves and gaining confidence by doing well on additional practice tests.
I highly recommend taking the SAT in August of the start of your junior year. Because you have plenty of time before you need to submit an SAT score, you can use the August SAT as a super low pressure environment to understand what it feels like to take an SAT. Because this test date is several months earlier than the PSAT, the only opportunity to be selected as a National Merit Finalist, it may not be optimal to peak in August. Instead, try to peak when your school takes the PSAT and schedule an SAT close to that date.
The worst case scenario is really not that bad: you realize you need to study more, but at least you’ll be more prepared for your next test and for the PSAT, since you’re now more comfortable with the testing environment. The best case scenario is quite good: you don’t have to worry about the SAT anymore, since you’re happy with your score. Either way, there’s a positive outcome.
I also found it helpful to bring an analog watch with me to take the SAT. College Board doesn’t allow for any watches that make noise (basically all digital watches) or external timing devices4, so an analog watch is the only way to mange your time besides hoping there will be a visible clock. Not only did I have peace of mind knowing that I would certainly be able to keep track of time by bringing an analog watch, but I was able to use the watch as a countdown timer by setting it to count down to 12:00 for each section. For example, if a section was 25 minutes long, I would set the watch for 11:35 (make sure to count by 5’s so you don’t make a silly mistake and think you have more/less time than you actually have).
Good luck on your SAT! If you made it this far, you care enough about your SAT that I know you’ll study hard and do well. Feel free to reach out with your questions.
Check out my reading log! ↩︎
I will note that I had already completed both Algebra II and Trigonometry before studying for the SAT. It will probably be harder to understand all content that could be on the SAT if you have not taken those classes. ↩︎
Take them on paper if you can, since it is more similar to the actual SAT. Khan Academy provides free PDFs to print. When taking the test, you can’t search for a word or easily reference the text like you can online, but you can write on equations when doing math problems. ↩︎
See College Board’s SAT Test Day Checklist ↩︎