How to Prepare for the SAT

Do you feel overwhelmed?

Whenever I see students ask how to prepare for the SAT, I understand they are really asking for help. Maybe they started by looking at study guides and were confused about which one was best. Or they went to College Confidential or Reddit and were met with a bunch of conflicting advice. They look at courses and choke at the price and then check on private tutors, and the hit to the bank account is even worse. Nobody wants to waste time and money on something that won’t work.

Getting Started

First, you need to know where you are starting from in order to efficiently prepare for the SAT. Some students need minimal help with some sections and a lot of work on others. Some students are unused to multiple choice questions and timed tests.

So, first do a full and timed test to get a baseline score. Start with a PSAT. The PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT. American students in the fall of grade 11 take the PSAT to predict their SAT scores and to qualify for some scholarships. But you can use a PSAT to get a sense of where you are. Ideally you want to start to prepare for the SAT in Grade 10, especially if you are an International Student.

Why the PSAT and not an SAT?

There are a limited number of official SATs available and we really don’t want to waste them. Many students struggle near the end of their preparation because they used up the official tests and still want to practice, but can’t find material. Because the PSAT is of a similar difficulty and structure to the SAT, it is a good place to start. Print out the test to get an accurate sent of what the test is like.

International Tester's Logo. A stack of 3 books with a circle around with the words International tester.
Click the the International Tester logo to be taken to a FREE Official PSAT

Timing your PSAT Practice

It is important to take the test all at once under correctly timed conditions to get an accurate reading of your abilities. You will need about 3 hours to do the complete test. The test’s timing is the following: Reading Section 60 Minutes, Break 5 Minutes, Writing Section 35 Minutes. No Calculator Math Section 25 Minutes, Break 5 Minutes, Math Section 45 Minutes. We are not going to worry about the Essay right now because it complicates things.

Scoring your Practice Test

Use the “Scoring your Test” form that is on the same page as the practice test. Download and print the form. Page 9 of the form will provide you with your key scores. You will get a score out of 760 for Math and 760 for Reading + Writing. A score of around 500/760 is average for both sections. A score above 600 for each section is good and a score above 700 for each section is excellent. There are also cross test scores and sub-scores that can help you understand where your weaknesses lie.

Evaluating your Weaknesses

As I mentioned, there are cross-test scores and sub-scores that can be calculated. These scores can help you identify your weaknesses. Additionally, examine any patterns in errors you can see for yourself. Did you change your answers on all the questions you got wrong? Did your wrong answers tend to be As or Bs and you didn’t even look at C and D answers? The patterns of errors can identify weaknesses in your test taking skills. Perhaps your Math scores are fine and you just need a little practice in some key areas, but your reading and writing scores are terrible.

Test Prep or Skills Prep?

Frequently, students who start to prepare for the SAT lump these 2 issues into one category, but they are distinctly different things. Test Prep is understanding the structure of the test and involves strategies and systems to approaching the test and completing the questions accurately and consistently. These are often what is learned in courses taught by the big name companies. However, skills prep is the knowledge and skills that you are being tested on. One mistake students make is they just repeatedly complete practice tests without improving their reading, grammar, and math skills first. For example, if you approach the Writing section by answering based on what “sounds right, ” you will struggle to achieve a perfect score. You need to know the precise grammar rules and style norms that the College Board is testing.

Okay, but what are the best books or courses to prepare for the SAT?

Obviously books are going to be cheaper than a course or a tutor, but they only work if you actually use them. Frequently, students get ambitious and order a stack of prep book. The stack arrives and looks daunting and sits in the corner gathering dust until panic sets in a month before the exam. So, books are only good if you are going to use them. Some books (Erica Meltzer’s) require you to spend some time working through the concepts. They can’t be completed in a week and have the same results as if you spent a 8 weeks working through the material. Courses can be problematic because group classes are designed to be useful for the average student and get varying results depending on the abilities of the instructor, materials, and student. Not every book or class will work for all students. people are different and different approaches work better or worse depending on the student.

Best Books and Websites

Books written by specialized tutors tend to be better than the big name companies (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barrons) for regular SAT prep. There are a variety of reasons for this, but for our purposes let’s just leave it at that. I am going to break down the suggestions by category. You should go to and “Look Inside” the books to get a sense of the style and structure of them.

READING (Targeting Reading Skills)

WRITING & LANGUAGE (Targeting Writing Skills)

MATH (Targeting Math Skills)

Overall Guides (These focus on test taking and not skills prep)

Websites and other useful Links

Plan your study schedule

Figure out how much time you have and how much you would like to improve. Ideally give yourself 6 months to 1 year to move from 1000 to 1400 and another 2 months minimum to get into the 1500s. Did I scare you? Yes, of course if you are already in 1200-1400 range you won’t need as much time, but if English is not your first language or your reading skills are weak you may need 12-18 months to raise your reading skills. In particular if your sights are set on an Ivy League/Top 30 school, you will need considerable time to prepare.

Don’t despair if you have only a couple of months to prepare. Student have seen huge (200-300 point) improvements, but know that it is much easier to move from 1100 to 1300 than it is to move from 1300 to 1500.

Private Tutors

Yes, I am biased because I am a private tutor. However that doesn’t mean I recommend everyone use a private tutor all the time to prepare for the SAT. Firstly, not all private tutors are the same. Just because someone scored perfectly on the SAT doesn’t mean that he/she can teach you how to do the same. A tutor who charges $400 per hour won’t necessarily be 4 times as good as one who charges $100 per hour. Secondly, not all students benefit from private tutoring because they don’t put effort into their studies. There is nothing magic about a private tutor that will result in a score increase if you don’t do the work yourself.

Ideally, a student who is using a private tutor is getting guidance to create a study plan and is exhausting all methods of self-study first. A private tutor can give you explanations about why wrong answers are wrong and right answers are right. He/she will also be able to pinpoint why you are making specific types of errors and give you guidance on how to fix those errors. He/she will also have a variety of strategies and systems that can help you adjust your preparation and execution on the SAT.

Make a plan and stick to it

Create a plan that gives you regular practice and plan out what chapters/lessons you will do each week. Plan to take full and timed practice tests regularly, but don’t expect to see big improvements immediately. Also don’t get frustrated if your score stagnates. If this happens look to adjust your strategies and go back to basics to test your knowledge. Sometimes something simple such as comma splices can affect your score. Resist the urge to procrastinate and “do it later.” Book some time in your calendar and stick to it. You will thank yourself later.

There is no single right way to Prepare for the SAT

Everyone is different and takes a different amount of time to reach his or her goals. Don’t be hard on yourself and know that will persistence and diligence comes success.

Link to SAT Practice Passage based on Pride and Prejudice.

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