The SAT (once upon a time known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) is unique in the experience of those college-bound students that take it. Though they can prepare in certain ways, students cannot really study for the SAT in the traditional sense; unlike most exams the SAT is mostly a test of problem solving, endurance, and time management. Because of this emphasis, even excellent students sometimes fare poorly on the SAT. The good news is that there are a few time-tested techniques you can use in preparing for and taking the test.
Give yourself plenty of time
Step one is both the easiest and the most easily overlooked: start early. Doing well on the SAT requires familiarity with the test format and the particular kinds of questions that are unique to it. Too many students wait until just a month before their test date and quickly become overwhelmed.
One of the most important benefits of starting early is the opportunity to take multiple full-length practice tests. At nearly four hours, even the best students find the SAT exhausting. Preparing for the test is akin to preparing to run a marathon: the more you run, the easier it becomes.
Starting early also allows big tasks to be broken into small, manageable tasks. Vocabulary is one of the few areas where memorization matters, and it can be one of the best investments of study time. There are many questions that look for synonyms and antonyms on the test—including a large portion of the reading comprehension and writing questions. Even the essay at the beginning of the test is graded in part on the proper use of SAT-caliber words.
Many lists of SAT-level vocabulary have been published, and most contain 500–1,000 words. Students who start a year ahead can cover all 1,000 words at the luxurious rate of 20 per week, so stock up on flashcards! Even better, this slow rate gives students a chance to really learn the words inside and out—to use them in sentences, write out the definitions, and learn the words’ roots.
Leave questions blank if you don’t know the answer
Some techniques for acing the SAT are a little less straightforward. One of the most counterintuitive tips: leave questions blank. Each correct answer is worth one point, each question left blank is worth zero points, and each wrong answer actually deducts one-fourth of a point from the final score (in all areas except the math grid-in questions, where points aren’t deducted for wrong answers). In other words, a wrong answer is worse than no answer at all.
Choosing which questions to leave blank is surprisingly easy: skip the hardest ones. In the math section, spend no more than two to three minutes per question and try to judge on first sight which ones will be the most difficult. This is often fairly easy to do, since the questions increase in difficulty throughout each math section. Go back and try to answer the questions you skipped once the easier questions have been aced. You can treat the last two to three questions in each section as “extra credit.”
The questions in the verbal sections are not so easily organized: the hardest questions are scattered throughout each section. Even with the hardest verbal questions, however, it is often possible to cross out potential wrong answers. If you can cross out even one answer you know to be wrong, guessing from among the remaining possibilities works to your advantage.
Aim for clarity and quality in the essay
Another counterintuitive tip: keep the essay simple. Too many students try to cram too much into the essay and forget to focus on clarity of writing and argument. A well- constructed essay opens with a clear statement of position, follows with two or three concrete examples that illustrate the point, and closes with a summary paragraph that ties the examples clearly to the position statement. The concrete examples should reference specific events in history, literature, or a particular event in the student’s own life. Concrete examples never include the phrases “Many people believe…” or “They say that…”. Remarkably, the test prep book published by the College Board (the same group that creates the SAT) includes a very detailed grading guide for the essay portion, as well as examples of essays that score from 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest). No other portion of the SAT is so clearly and simply laid out. What other test tells you exactly how to get a perfect score?