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How and when to study for the SAT


The SAT can seem like a minefield to begin with. It’s a long test, and it’s not really about what you know. This article will guide you on when to begin your prep and how to study for the SAT. I’ve deliberately kept my advice quite general here – this is for people just starting out. If you’re having a problem strategy wise, or a problem with a specific section, then I’ll probably have dealt with that somewhere else, for example reading and math.



When should I study for the SAT?

Typically, most people need about 6 months of consistent practice to reach their optimum SAT score. This is because the test is skill based, not knowledge based. It’s not about the specifics of what you know (which is why there’s no point cramming the night before), but about your skills. It’s like taking a driving test without doing any driving at all until a couple of days before the test – it just won’t work!

This is what most people should do:

  1. In the summer between 10th and 11th grade, buy a practice book, or use a test from the College Board’s website. Set aside an hour of time every day for a week, and go through the test section by section. Work out what you need to do in each section, do a little bit of practice, check your mistakes.
  2. In the following week, take a practice test (or the PSAT). Compare your score with what you would like to get. If there’s less that 250 points difference, you probably need about 6 months prep. You need time to improve, plus time to ensure that you consistently get that score. You can choose whether study for the SAT now (and get the test out of the way), or start in a few months’ time (you’ll be in school and possibly more focused. If there’s more than 250 points gap, then you need to start preparing now, and aim to write in about 10 months.
  3. Draw up a plan of study for the SAT with about 3 hours of work per week. Figure out when you’re going to get that done – in a single 3 hour chunk, or broken down into 1 hour sections. Don’t break it down any further or you won’t be able to fit some of the sections into your study time. Spend the first and third months of your prep solely on your weakest section – that way, if you’re not improving, you’ll have time to change your study strategies{choosing the right way}. Take a full practice test once a month (all sections at once, fully timed) so you can monitor your progress.


How should I study for the SAT?

Generally, the best method of study for the SAT is to practice and review. That means do a full practice section (don’t break them up into pieces – part of the test is about endurance), then mark it and go over your mistakes. This should encompass about 70% of your practice. The other 30% should be reviewing topics and/or strategies. For reading, the balance will be more like 90:10, whereas for math, it could be more like 50:50.

Here are some other helpful tips to study for the SAT:

  • Begin with untimed practice. Timing is important, but it can cause you to rush at the beginning, and not develop the skills properly. In other words, don’t run before you can walk.
  • Keep a tally sheet of mistakes you’re making often. If you bear them in mind, it will be easier to look for them when you check your work.
  • Make cheat sheets of grammar and math rules, and refer to them during your practice tests. Looking something up reinforces your memory of it.


Which is the best SAT test date for me?

New in 2017, the SAT has an August test date. The idea behind this is that you can prep during the summer and not be trying to study for the SAT and do schoolwork at the same time. This is a pretty good idea for some people, but whether it works or not mostly depends on you. Firstly, the best time to take the test is when you’re ready! If you aim for a specific test date, and you’re not even close to the score you want in practice tests, then it’s not the right time for you.

A summer test date is good for you if you’re motivated to study properly in the summer, and perhaps have a really busy schedule the rest of the year, for example, if you play a winter sport, or are involved in a lot of school based extra curriculars.

A mid-year test date is good for you if you don’t have that much work to do to get the score you need, but you want a few test attempts (see below) and generally tend to be pretty consistent. This way, you can just get into the rhythm of SAT prep along with everything else, which may help to lower the stress of the test.

An exam time test date is good for you if you thrive under pressure. Some people find that they are much more focused around this time of year, and therefore do better. Provided you have been consistent in your prep leading up to the test (6 months to 1 month prior), you can slack off in the last month, focus on studying for school subjects and still do very well. This strategy also means that you feel that you’re sacrificing less, as the SAT just fits right in with everything else you have to study for.

You should decide which of these works for you – there’s no absolute best test date. Also, it’s a surprisingly common myth that some test dates are easier than others. This just isn’t true – it’s based on the misconception that the scaling curve for a test is devised based solely on that test date (and so some dates are easier because more juniors are writing on that date), which it is not.


How many times should I write the test?

Lastly, multiple test attempts (up to a point) are a good thing! Everyone should take the test twice (unless you get a 1550+ the first time, in which case lucky you!). If you don’t write twice, how do you know whether you could have improved? You may also want a third test date if you feel that you haven’t reached your maximum. Decide after your first two. The reason why many people don’t recommend multiple test attempts is the ‘test grubber’ scenario. This is someone who gets a pretty good score, but writes the test a million times to see whether they can improve. It indicates perfectionism, and that you’re not happy with a score that’s already pretty good. Remember, there is a margin of error on the test, and two applicants with scores that are up to about 50 points different will essentially look the same to admissions. If you didn’t get in with a 1500, you probably wouldn’t have gotten in with a 1530. Your SAT score was not the reason. So there’s no need to be that person. If you write the test a few times, and you make a consistent improvement each time, this can be a good thing – it shows perseverance, and that it pays off! That’s a good quality! You need to be the judge here as to which situation you’re in.