How To Study For The SAT

Posted by Daniel W on November 8th, 2019

The Four Pillars of Succesful Learning

To create and implement a successful study plan for your upcoming SAT, I recommend considering four pillars of successful studying. The Four Pillars are all foundational elements in learning any new skill. The four pillars are:

  1. Make yourself a study plan and set a specific, measurable goal.
    I have spent thousands and thousands of hours tutoring students of all ages and skill levels, and it has become obvious over the years that students who have a goal are more likely to succeed. Psychological research also shows that successful writers, atheletes, artists, and professionals all set goals to monitor their performance and direct their behavior. Ask yourself what your target score is, and why you're trying to get that score. Make sure you know how this target score fits into your larger plan for college, what you're interested in studying, and an eventual career path. Work on setting specific, measureable goals and then see if you can direct your behavior to attain those goals. My SAT Study Plan Worksheet will help you create a great study plan. Also, check out my goal-setting article.

  2. Study the right content - for SAT this means buying the lastest version of the Official SAT Study Guide or using Khan Academy to access the study guide. Before you begin to study, I recommend doing a little research on the company or organization that offers the test. You can find out a lot about the test you're about to take simply by reading what the publishers have to say about it. They often explain exactly what will be on the test in big bold letters, so take a look at their website or other officially published materials! The SAT is published by CollegeBoard. As you begin your study planning, you'll want to check out the College Board Official Site, which has tons of info about the test and how to study.

    Tip: Spend a few minutes just browsing through the SAT info on the CollegeBoard website, and be sure to read the FAQs. This can give additional background information about the test.
    Then if you're ready to move on to getting the study guide, check out The Official SAT Study Guide on Amazon. You'll also want to be sure to log into Khan Academy to take advantage of their free study resources, practice questions, and vast library of helpful videos.

  3. Develop a sufficient set of optimal study habits and methods. These vary quite a bit from student to student, but every student needs to have mastery of a variety of study methods that work for their learning goal. We all learned how to highlight when we were reading, or showing every step and plugging in to solve a math problem; but it isn't always pointed out that some of these methods work well for certain students, or in certain situations, but they don't work for everyeone all the time. Spend a little time reflecting on your past exams, reading assignments, and study habits - which methods work best for you? Considering the time constraints on the reading section, do you really have time to read slowly and annotate every paragraph? Probably not, you need a more efficient strategy. Some methods that work well for improving both grades and SAT scores are called the six dimensions of self-regulation. After you have done your preliminary planning and have an idea of how long you'll need to spend studying, see my outline of the six dimensions of self-regulated learners for some ideas of the kinds of strategies that successful students, athletes, artists, and professionals all use to facilitate learning. These six dimensions of self-regulation become more and more important as students transition towards collegiate academics and living independently. If you're missing one or more of these key skills, this will be a great opportunity to begin to practice them! You'll want to give these some thought, and then decide if your study habits are sufficient or if you'll need to learn some new tricks. Acquiring a new study skill takes time, so make sure you plan ahead and give yourself time to master the skill - learning a brand new study skill a week before your SAT may not help much, and could even backfire if you end up overthinking it. However, once you're able to manage all six dimensions of self-regulation, you'll be well on your way to being a great test-taker and a stellar student. Having a variety of study methods and habits to choose from can boost your confidence and reduce test-day anxiety. Some other specific strategies that many of my students report work on the SAT are listed below, so keep reading!

  4. Directed effort sustained over a long period of time. There is no substitute for elbow grease. If you want to improve your test score, you'll need to dedicate some time and effort to do so - there's no way around it. While you definitely need to know some strategies and you'll want to become familiar with the testing format, there is no shortcut to a perfect score. If you've gone through the planning steps in my SAT Study Plan Worksheet, you'll know by now about how long you'll need to spend studying. Everyone learns and absorbs new information at a different pace though, so giving yourself plenty of time to study will take away the need to worry about having enough time. I recommend you start creating your study plan and beginning to implement it several months before you take your test. This will give you plenty of time to acquire the study materials, learn what study methods work best for you, and really dig into the math, reading, and writing skills that will affect your score. Starting early and practicing often will also help reduce test anxiety. You also should plan to study several times per week, even if each study session isn't very long.

    Tip: Contrary to how many high school and college students act, it is true that setting aside several times per week to study is more effective than cramming or having one long weekend study session. I can't really stress this part enough - if you want to improve your score dramatically, you will need to plan for many study sessions over a period of weeks or months.
    Cramming for an exam can work occasionally to a small extent, but it can often backfire if you are extremely tired, anxious, or confused yourself by studying too many similar topics in the same time period. While there are the occasional success stories, the overwhelming majority of the students I know personally that pull all-nighers, write 20-page papers in a weekend, and cram for exams, are usually burnt-out, exhausted, and end up falling behind due to one of the unintended concequences. Another important consideration is that in order to have a deep understanding of subject material, the mind has to consolidate the working memories to long-term memory. This takes time. Our working memory is fragile and can only hold a limited amount of information, but each night when we sleep some of these daytime thoughts and memories are consolidated to long-term memory and stored in a different part of the brain. This means we need to constantly refresh the working memory with practice and repitition, while the long-term memory bank which holds our skills and habits is built up over time. If we practice often enough, our new skills become habits and what was once difficult and required careful calculation becomes second nature. Use my Study Plan Tracker to track your progress and use the progress check-in to occasionally reflect upon and adjust your study plan as necessary.

How to Study: Specific Tasks and Methods

  • Take many practice tests. Students who get high scores on the SAT often report taking 4 or more practice tests before their official testing date. This shouldn't be the only way you study, but taking practice tests can really help familiarize you with the format the timing, and the general sense of what it'll be like to take the test. Since the SAT is a timed test, and many students report feeling that they don't have enough time to answer all the quesitons correctly, taking many practice tests can help you adjust your strategy to fit the amount of time you have. There are many practice tests available for free on the CollegeBoard website and khanacademy.org. You can also check out other test prep material for additional practice tests if you need more, but I usually try to stick to official CollegeBoard materials.

  • Take the actual SAT multiple times too. No matter how much you practice, there's no practice that's quite like the real thing. If you've ever performed a musical or theatrical act, played a high-risk sports match, or given a public speech, you've probably realized that no matter how much you've practiced, you're never performing at your best the first time you're under real pressure. Repeatedly exposing yourself to realistic scenarios is the only way to improve your performance when the pressure is on. Taking the test multiple times doesn't count against you, and nearly all colleges will only look at the highest score out of all your attempts. Many colleges even "superscore" now, which means they combine your highest reading score and your highest math score, even when those don't occur on the same test-day. Many people improve their score the second or third time they take the test, and I always recommend taking the test more than once. You have nothing to lose by trying again!

  • Choose one or two topics at a time to focus your studies on. One of the most common mistakes I see students make is this: they set a reasonable goal and set aside plenty of time to study, but they fail to reach their target score because they try to study too many topics at once. Once you have created your study plan, taken a mental inventory of your study methods, and gotten the required study materials, you'll want to spend a significant period of time studying a single topic (or maybe two). The SAT covers A LOT of knowledge, and studying everything that's on the test can overwhelm and confuse you. Trying to study too many topics at one time can lead to mental strain, confusion, and burnout, so you'll want to avoid it. Spending several sessions studying one or two topics is a better use of study time than attempting to learn everything that'll show up on the test very quickly. Considering the time constraints you outlined in your Study Plan Worksheet, how many topics do you think you have time to learn? Be reasonable, and don't tackle more than you can handle. Remember, you don't need a perfect score, you just need to increase your score by the amount you decided in the Study Plan Worksheet.

  • Review every single question that you miss, on practice tests or any other practice material that you use. Understand your mistakes. I recommend that while you are practicing with study guides or practice tests, you take some time out of each study session to slow it down and really look at those hard questions, the ones you keep getting wrong. Yes, the questions you'd rather just skip over and pretend didn't exist. This can be a bit uncomfortable: facing our weaknesses is never really fun. However, you can really learn something by going back and analyzing your own mistakes. Go through every problem you missed and try to understand why it was wrong, and how you could avoid making that mistake again. As you do this many, many times, you might start to notice patterns of common mistakes that you make. Maybe you keep missing every math question related to fractions, or you continually miss reading questions where the sentences contain multiple commas. Can you notice any patterns or common mistakes? Is there some deeper problem underlying all these different mistakes? Maybe you need to review some fundamental concepts. Practicing lots of questions is a great thing, but you also need to slow down and work on the fundamental ideas and concepts that are keeping you from the depth of understsanding that will really improve your score.

  • Take advantage of the score reporting and analytics that is provided for free from College Board and Khan Academy. Both the College Board and Khan Academy provide high quality information about the content and format of the test, as well as offer students score reports and analytics to help every student create a great study outline that focuses on skills they need to improve. I recommend everyone preparing for the SAT to log onto Khan Academy, link up your past SAT or PSAT scores to their system, and then take a look at the study plan they automatically create for you. You can track your study progress, take practice tests, and review score reports from previous tests all on the Khan Academy website. Even if you don't end up studying the material that Khan Academy provides, you can use their analytics to save yourself precious time and energy! Let their software work for you! Use their reporting and analytics tools to create your own super-efficient, customized learning plan!

Resources on this page:

SAT Study Plan Worksheet (pdf)
Six Dimensions of Self-Regulation Outline (pdf)
Study Plan Tracker (pdf)

Written by Daniel Whiteside Post Updated: November 20th, 2019