If you’re reading this, you’re looking for ways to improve your SAT score. Nice! There are several steps you can take to raise your score. And, yes, you can go up 50, 100, 150, or perhaps 200 points. Even the College Board has acknowledged that students can prepare for the test.
Some general advice: the quality of your studying is more important than how long you study. It’s one thing to simply and passively underline what you’re reading—it's a whole different ballgame when you practice recalling what you’ve read and answer test-like questions. The same goes for math: if you study a few formulas on flashcards, that’s great, but you’re really working when you actually use those formulas in official practice items.
Also, where you currently sit on the scoring range (somewhere between the 400-1600 total) can impact how easily and quickly you’ll move up. Once you’re at the high end in terms of percentiles (think 85th percentile and above), EVERY QUESTION COUNTS. Sometimes, at the end of the scale, they can be worth 20 points each. There’s no room for careless errors, which is why we emphasize double-checking the easier, earlier math questions (Reading and Writing questions are not listed in order of difficulty). But no matter where you begin, the eight tips below can get you closer to where you want to be.
1. Get a study buddy.
If you’re a competitive person, working with someone else might inspire you to work harder yourself. If you’re not a competitive person, you can still benefit—ever hear the expression misery loves company? We’re not saying that it’s miserable to study for the SAT (some of our tutors might even call it fun!), but if you have another friend who’s going through the same process you are, you can bounce ideas off each other, explain difficult concepts, and then quiz one another.
2. Set a schedule for yourself (and your study buddy if you have one).
Generally, the sweet spot to begin studying for a test is somewhere between 4-12 weeks in advance of the official exam. That is a broad range of time for a number of reasons. How much do you need to go up? A lot? Then you need more time. Will you be able to practice every day for a few hours or a few minutes? If you’re reviewing over the summer, maybe you’ll be able to condense your prep into a matter of weeks instead of a matter of months. Have you taken all the math you need? Great, then you just need to review. If you’re missing some concepts—say, you’re beginning Algebra II in junior year—you may need to wait a couple of months until you have at least one full marking period (maybe even 2) of Algebra II under your belt. And make the schedule specific. For example, dedicate Mondays to Reading, Tuesdays to Writing & Language, and Wednesdays and Thursdays to math—no calculator, then calculator. Then plan to take a full-length practice test one Saturday per month.
3. Use official College Board items and Khan Academy to study.
The College Board touts its partnership with Khan Academy—for good reason! Research shows that students who use Khan Academy and official materials increase their scores more than students who don’t use those materials. The good news—it's all free! Learn more about connecting your P/SAT results to Khan Academy for customized plans. And if you took an official test already, pay attention to the section score breakdowns. These scores go up to 40 each (38 on the PSAT) and are available for Reading, Writing & Language, and Math. Which one is your highest? Ensure it stays high! Which is your lowest? How can you improve it?
Eight full tests. That’s what the College Board has made available online for free in addition to the introductory matter that’s part of the SAT Official Study Guide you can purchase (and we recommend this book for students looking to buy materials). Should you do all 8? Probably not—it's better to take one of our free diagnostics, see where you’re scoring, and then take another 1 or 2 of the official practice tests. This gives you ample time to review what types of questions you’re missing, topics you’re less familiar with, and strategies you should employ. We’d like to highlight some particularly useful resources that are all free, and some are found in the College Board references.
- Project Gutenberg: A free, curated collection of classic texts in open domain. Jane Austen? Check. Shakespeare? Check. Kurt Vonnegut? Check, check, check.
- Math reference concepts: Know what you’ll see on the day of the test—and what you won’t.
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: A classic text on all grammar rules, plus free online rules and quizzes.
4. Take breaks from your studies.
We mean it. Neuroscience shows that we need to take breaks to retain material. Sound counterintuitive? It might be, but you may study more efficiently if you break for 5 or 10 minutes after studying for an hour. (Read more on this in our Learning About Learning blog.) Make the break in proportion to the amount and rigor of your studies. Did you study your hardest topic? Reward yourself more.
5. Know how to use your calculator for the calculator section.
We find that the most common calculators students have are Texas Instruments, specifically the TI83 or TI-84. The Texas Instruments website has some great tools and apps you can even download to your calculator. Make sure you use the calculator effectively. Just because you can use it on the whole Section 4/Calculator Math doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes questions are more quickly solved without a calculator. And whichever calculator you have, make sure it’s approved for the SAT.
6. Read and develop your vocabulary.
Do you like the NY Times, Washington Post, or LA Times? Great, pick them up and start reading analytical articles from any section. More into the sciences? Read National Geographic magazine or a science blog online. See a word you don’t know? Even better! Look it up, use it in a sentence, and make a flashcard for it. When you’re using College Board practice items and you see a word you don’t know, do the same. We’ve noticed a few vocabulary words that pop up time and time again in the reading section (think solemn, tyrannical, and astute to start). We’ve also seen diction questions in the Writing section that ask students to distinguish between commonly confused words, like accept versus except or affect versus effect.
7. Practice mindfulness.
We hear many students say that they have “test anxiety.” It is a real phenomenon, and it’s one that can be addressed. We talk with students about managing their stress and turning anxiety into excitement. We view these tests as a performance of sorts—and many of our students are performers, whether in athletics or dance or drama or music. The reality is that tests are not going to go away, especially if you go to college or want to become a certified professional (a nurse, doctor, lawyer, psychologist, even a driver). At some point in life, you’ll need to deal with testing head-on, and taking these tests is a way to develop those skills.
8. If all else fails, hire a professional.
Yes, in an ideal world you’d be able to prepare on your own or with a friend and everything would turn out just fine. But the reality is that we sometimes need a coach to hold us to our goals and keep us accountable. Or, maybe you’ve improved on your own already, but just want to tweak your strategies or timing. That’s where Collegewise Academic Services can help. We offer 1:1 tutoring or small group sessions (or both) online and we have amazing tutors who are passionate about the subjects they teach.
9. Once you’re done with the test, reward yourself.
Positive reinforcement will help make the test more bearable, especially if you know that you’ll be taking it again. Treat yourself to a special meal with a friend or family, go out to a concert, or buy that game you’ve been wanting. You made it through a significant rite of passage. You earned whatever it is that you see as your just reward.
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.