Every year, like clockwork, the SAT becomes a part of every high schooler’s vocabulary. But SAT prep can feel like just one more hurdle to climb along with an already heavy course load, AP exams, sports, and extracurriculars. Since more and more teachers and counselors now recommend spring test dates, students have less time and often lack a spring break to study over. It might seem like there aren’t enough hours in the year to fit test prep into your schedule, which can lead to stress and burnout. Here are some tips to help you avoid these side effects and have effective study sessions instead.
General tips for all test-taking woes
When taking a major exam such as the SAT, it’s important to have foundational test-taking skills that work for you as a studier and test-taker. Using more general tips and tricks will ensure productive study sessions not only before the SAT but in preparation for regular in-class tests and future standardized exams as well.
Find a place outside the house to study with fewer distractions
When I’m at home, even at my desk with all my books, I still manage to get sidetracked by my phone, other projects, and family stress. So I go to the library or my local Starbucks when I need a place to study undisturbed or catch up on schoolwork over the weekend. If you have somewhere like this that works for you, take advantage!
Focus your time and effort where it matters most
When taking any sort of test, general review early on is most useful in identifying your weaknesses. Everyone is stronger in some areas and weaker in others—even Ivy-bound students—and no one has unlimited time to focus on standardized test prep, especially when juggling classes, state exams, and sports. Focusing your study hours initially on sections or topics you struggle with makes more difference in your ultimate score than trying to gain a few additional points in your best areas.
Work collaboratively with others
If you’re struggling to study for a test, remember that you don’t need to suffer alone in silence as you’re plugging away at practice problems. If you have friends or even acquaintances taking the same test, make sure to reach out to them or even plan to study together. Studying with others breaks up the monotony of any type of test prep, allowing everyone to help each other with rough patches. For more substantial help with the material, tutors are a valuable resource to consider taking advantage of.
Put your mental and emotional well-being first
When preparing for a big test, don’t let your anxiety overtake you! Studying while feeling anxious, hopeless, or depressed (which are all unfortunately common among teens) simply isn’t productive. Pushing yourself to study out of fear and anxiety associates those negative emotions with the test, while resting and staying well will set you up for success.
Never cram for a major test the night before
For both regular and standardized tests, a rule I always follow is to never study the night before. The most important prep steps for the night before any big test are to eat a good meal, relax that evening, and go to bed at a reasonable time. Don’t be afraid to get more than eight hours! In situations like these, taking care of yourself is an investment that will boost your scores. Cramming the night before will only make you feel tired and prevent you from acing your exams.
Related: 5 Smart Study Tips for All Students
The importance of basic study skills can’t be overstated in avoiding stress and burnout, but when taking a standardized test, it’s also essential to prepare for the specific format and content of the exam. The SAT is three hours long (plus 50 more minutes if you do the optional Essay) and consists of four main sections: Reading, Writing, Math with the use of a calculator, and Math without a calculator. When preparing for the SAT, practicing with the format, timing, and specific topics covered will improve your performance and reduce stress on test day.
Pace yourself and build up to full-length tests
When dealing with long-form standardized tests like the SAT, it’s always best to follow the time limit, but don’t be afraid to take it one section at a time. Trust me—we all have busy schedules as high school students, and it’s unrealistic to fit in whole practice SAT tests regularly. Section practice early on will help you hone the skills you need to work on the most. There will be plenty of time for full test prep on weekends or closer to your test date.
Use practice tips and test-taking strategies in your prep book
So many students skip over the myriad of information in their prep and practice books and go straight to practice tests. But if something’s in the book, there’s a reason the publisher printed it! Books like The Official SAT Study Guide (published by the College Board) contain tried-and-true approaches specific to the SAT that are worth reviewing.
Review skills you may have forgotten before taking practice tests
Most test prep books contain guides to algebraic concepts, grammar rules, and literary principles learned in previous years. If you’re a little rusty in any of these departments, reviewing those will prevent a lot of struggle and heartache later while taking your practice tests. Diving into practice tests without a firm grasp of the knowledge covered on the SAT will only color your test prep experience with unnecessary anxiety.
Prepare for the test-taking environment and timing
Preparing for the material on the SAT is obviously crucial, but the SAT is also a long, grueling, and timed test with three hours of continuous testing and relatively short breaks. That’s why preparing for the timing of each section, staying focused, and managing anxiety are all essential. Don’t worry about strict timing or full-length tests early on in your studying, but as your test date approaches, be sure to practice and hone these skills to become more comfortable with the exam experience.
Take progress as it comes and don’t expect perfection
I understand it feels demoralizing to get scores lower than one might expect, but never forget that you will improve as you take more standardized tests and develop confidence in your abilities. Even if your scores still aren’t where they should be, know that every question on the SAT counts, and each extra question or two right in a section is progress worth celebrating. Positivity will ultimately improve your attitude and overall performance the next time around.
Test prep always takes energy and effort, and it isn’t how the vast majority of students want to spend their free time. However, by using study techniques that work for you and preparing for the content and format of the SAT—or any major exam—it’s possible to iron out potential issues in order to maximize your performance and minimize stress levels beforehand.
Find all the advice you need to ace the SAT, ACT, and other exams in our Test Prep section.