If you want a top SAT score, you need more than a desire to succeed. Determination and hard work are two vital ingredients for acing the SAT, but also you need to use effective study strategies to help you reach your goal. I’ve helped hundreds of students prepare for the SAT, and I know the best methods to utilize to conquer this exam. I’ll explain exactly how to ace the SAT, including how long you need to study, the best SAT prep strategies, and key test-taking tips.
Often, one of the first questions students want to know is how long they’ll have to study to conquer the SAT. Primarily, the answer depends on your starting point and your target score. How much you need to improve will determine how much you need to study to achieve your goal. If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, take an official practice test simulating real testing conditions to determine where you’re at and how much you need to improve. Generally, I recommend that your goal score should be the 75th percentile score of the most selective college you’re considering.
Here’s a rough estimate of how long you’ll have to study based on how many points you need to reach your goal:
- 0-30 point improvement: 10 hours
- 30-70 point improvement: 20 hours
- 70-130 point improvement: 40 hours
- 130-200 point improvement: 80 hours
- 200-330 point improvement: 150 hours +
Keep in mind that these are just estimates based on results from typical students. You may need more or less study time to get equivalent results. However, following my tips will help you maximize your study time.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to use real or realistic practice questions in your studying. The best questions to study from are those that will most closely resemble the questions that appear on the SAT. The SAT is unlike tests you’ve taken in school and its format is unique; the more comfortable you get with correctly answering the types of questions that will be on the SAT, the better you’re likely to do on the test. A huge flaw of many test prep books is that their practice questions are either much harder or much easier than those you’ll find on the SAT. Also, some books present questions in a different format than that of the SAT. Instead of relying on subpar prep books to prepare, you should focus on studying with more realistic practice problems. Undoubtedly, you should focus on the official tests, which are available online, provided by the College Board. If you can understand and correctly answer all of the questions on the official tests, then I’m quite confident that you’ll ace the SAT.
Also, Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board and provides many realistic practice questions. Furthermore, the official PSAT practice tests are good sources to help you prepare. Lastly, because there are striking similarities between the SAT and ACT, you can use official ACT tests in your studying. SAT Reading and Writing are similar to ACT Reading and ACT English.
You’ll make the best use of your study time by focusing on why you’re missing questions and trying to improve your weaknesses. If you just do a ton of practice questions, but you don’t stop to figure out why you’re getting questions wrong, your score won’t improve much. If you want to ace the SAT, you’ll have little room for error. You’ll want to understand every type of question and be able to finish each section in the allotted time.
For every practice test or question set you do, mark each question that you’re even 20% unsure about. Then, when you’re reviewing, thoroughly examine each question you got incorrect or guessed on. Make sure you understand how to correctly answer the question and what you didn’t grasp or did wrong. Keep track of all of these questions with specific notes about what you need to improve. Figure out exactly why you got questions wrong. Be as specific as possible.
If you’re having specific content weaknesses, you may need to spend time reviewing the topics that are troubling you. For example, if you’re getting punctuation questions wrong, you may need to review comma rules. If you’re struggling with questions related to quadratic functions, look at more sources to help you analyze those questions in depth. If you aren’t comfortable with the content related to SAT questions, you’re very unlikely to be able to correctly answer them.
Even if you thoroughly comprehend how to do each type of SAT question, you may struggle finishing sections in the allotted time. Too many students do all their SAT practice at a leisurely pace and ignore the time pressure they’ll face on the SAT. Simulate real testing conditions and monitor your time spent per question. Your speed should improve gradually over time, but there also strategies you can employ in each section to help you get correct answers more quickly and efficiently. You can alter the way you read the Reading passages or memorize the math formulas you may need to know.
On test day (and in your practice), here are some additional tips you should follow to ensure you get the best score possible. Make sure you answer every question! Before the redesigned SAT was introduced in March 2016, incorrect answers were penalized. Now, there’s no penalty for incorrect answers, so it’s in your best interest to answer every single question. Even if you have no clue, you should guess, since you have a 25% chance of randomly picking the correct answer on the multiple choice questions. This is also why it’s important to have good time management to ensure that you’re able to complete each section and have an opportunity to answer all of the questions. If you’re running out of time and know you won’t get to the end of the section, you should still fill in random bubbles to give yourself a chance at getting extra right answers.
Regardless of the section, underlining key words can help you avoid careless mistakes. For example, in Math, you can check to see if you should be solving for x or y. In Writing, you can ensure if a question is asking you whether a sentence should be added or deleted. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a question wrong simply because you misread a question. A key component of acing the SAT is avoiding careless mistakes.
Another hugely important tip is to eliminate wrong answers. While this strategy may sound obvious, it’s essential to use, especially if you’re not immediately 100% certain of the right answer. In Reading and Writing, there may be answer choices that seem plausible, but if anything about the answer choice isn’t correct, it must be eliminated. Similarly, in Math, if you have a rough estimate of the correct answer, you can eliminate any answer that isn’t close to your estimate. Or if you know the answer is positive, you can eliminate any answer that’s a negative number.
Finally, you should try to finish each section with roughly 5 minutes remaining. During the extra time, check any questions you were unsure of. I recommend marking any questions you’re uncertain about while you’re taking the test. Double-check how you got your answer. Once you feel confident in your answer, go to the next question. If you’re still unsure, stick with your initial guess and go to the next question. After looking over these questions, verify that you did all your bubbling correctly.
Acing the SAT isn’t easy, but it’s possible with enough diligence and a good plan. If you need help with organization, motivation, or test-taking strategies, you may benefit from one of Mavin’s SAT classes or tutors.