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Last weekend, I proctored a practice SAT exam at the Southbury Library. After the test, I had a conversation with a junior new to test prep. He told me, “I am all in for preparing for the SAT, but I don’t know where to start.”


So, for this young man, and for all other college-bound students and their parents who feel ill-equipped to start the test prep process: Here is a six-step study plan that will get you ready for the SAT this winter and spring.


The First Step: Center Your Practice On the Real Tests.

The big test prep companies do an excellent job with strategy, but they cannot mimic the actual tests. To prepare for the SAT correctly, you must practice with College Board tests #5 (May 2016 exam), #6 (April 2016 exam), #7 (October 2016 exam) and #8 (January 2017 exam). These tests can be found on the College Board website. I also have the more recent SAT exams, which are not available online. Email me if you’d like a copy.

The Second Step: Understand your Error Patterns (Time Management, Foundation Concepts, and Strategy)

The first time you practice with the SAT or ACT, do not time yourself. You can break it into multiple pieces. Focus on reading all the instructions and understanding the questions and answer choices — not on the time pressure.

After this, take the test a second time, but follow the timer strictly. Then reflect on how time pressure changes things, and what you must do to counter this.

On the second pass, you’ll begin to get a sense of your error patterns. For each mistake, write down two reasons why you made it, like “carelessness” or “didn’t know quadratic equations.” Then, tally up the reasons and brainstorm ways to study for them.

The Third Step: Understand Foundation Concepts

You’ll want to prioritize content issues. Content issues concern fundamental knowledge of math, reading, and writing; things like what subject verb agreement is, or trapezoids and their properties.

Content issues are the foundation concepts, so studying early gives students an advantage. This work is also the most scalable: the more time you spend, the more you’ll continue to improve.

The Fourth Step: Understand Strategy

The most important rule to remember for the SAT is that there is only one correct answer for each question, and you should be able to eliminate all the others. This means that your number one strategy on the test is process of elimination. If you’re struggling with a question, try to find reasons to rule out most of the answers rather than reasons why certain options could work.

Out of the four answer choices, three of them are wrong and one is not wrong. You have to learn how to eliminate three answer choices for every single question.

The Fifth Step: Understand Your Mistakes and How to Drill Them

Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don’t understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.

When you grade your test or quiz, put a question mark next to any answer you are not sure about, then review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect answer. This way, even if you guessed a question correctly, you’ll make sure to review the content.

For every question that you miss, you need to identify the type of question it is. When you notice patterns in these missed questions, it’s a sign that you need extra practice for that skill (such as punctuation on SAT writing.) Drill those skills until you’re no longer weak in them.

The Sixth Step: Take a Real Test

Students always ask me: How many times should I take the SAT? In my experience, the third time’s a charm. First timers typically do not score as well as they do on a practice test. The first is like the “warm up.” The second test is for focusing on concepts and strategies to correct error patterns. And the third test culminates in the strongest scores based on additional practice to get the most difficult questions correct.

Having said that, if you score really well either in math or reading/writing on an earlier test — you can always “superscore” the exam. This means that college admissions will take your best verbal and best math scores into consideration — not scores from a single test date.

The most important thing every student should know is that test prep is a process. To get top scores, you must practice with a deliberate understanding of your mistakes and how to correct them.

To follow these six steps and months of practice and persistence may seem like a big commitment, but for college bound students the approach works. Compare my son’s SAT scores over the course of four tests, in the graph below. His efforts increased his score — by 300 points!

By Eileen Sullivan Studdert, M.A.
Certified Teacher, IECA-accredited Tutor and Founder,
Performance Prep & College Admissions Counseling
Southbury, Conn.

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