The Surefire BUDGET SAT Test Prep Plan:

  1. At the start of 11th grade, 10 month calendar. Mark on the calendar every single SAT that takes place over the course of these 10 months — from fall of junior year, through fall of senior year. The official SAT test dates are posted on the College Board’s website.
  2. Mark down your school vacations, midterms, finals, AP exams, etc. onto this calendar so you can see which SAT dates fit best with your schedule.
  3. Buy The Official SAT Study Guide (aka “The Blue Book”).  It’s about $20.00 (less on Amazon) and includes 10 official practice SATs as well as solutions to every question.
  4. Get yourself a Ti-84 Graphing Calculator if you don’t already have one for school.  The price is $135 — but, you can find them for much less on discount sites.
  5. Check out the New SAT Practice page for practice questions, a free test prep app, and more!
  6. Block off a 5 hour chunk of time, every other weekend.  Put it down on your calendar well in advance. That’s booked solid time for you.  You’re not available then … because this is when you will be taking your full, timed, practice SATs. Use a timer, take your 5 minute breaks, and make every effort to mimic an authentic SAT experience (e.g. use the bubble sheets, an experimental section, etc.). The SAT is as much about endurance, stamina, focus, and performance — as it is about knowing the core material (cold).
  7. Correct your SAT, and spend the next two weeks hunting down the soutions to every-single-question you got wrong and go to the back of your Blue Book for solutions.
  8. It’s unlikely that you will do this, but I’m going to say it anyway: Look up every-single-word-you-don’t-know on each SATeven if you got the question right. (I know I know … everyone balks about that.)  Keep a list of the words on Wordnik, make flash cards, test yourself, have others test you — and in short, make abundant use of these words in conversation (expect looks of shock and awe), and weave them into your school papers…often.

Fringe benefit: you will get better grades while studying for the SAT.

One important point: This plan requires the student to be motivated and methodical, which can be a challenge for some of us.

If you think “methodical” and “disciplined” may be a problem for you, try calling the best test prep company and/or tutor in your area and ask if they offer scholarships or have a sliding scale.

The SAT Yellow Brick Road

You can now sign up for a FREE series of tailored emails that will lead you step-by-step through the entire SAT process:

1) Parent Series

2) Student Series

Each series includes links to SAT resources and articles that I highly recommend.

  • This is a great post. Seriously. 

  • Anonymous

    I love this plan! Thanks for spelling this out. I really do believe that it is possible for students to achieve a high score on their own. Although the toughest part is actually doing it.

    I’m really impressed that you worked so long and hard to search down the answers. I know very few students (OK, none!) who would have the motivation to work this hard to find the answers to all the questions that they got wrong. I know that there are published guides with explanations to all of questions in the blue book, but I’ve never looked at them. Did you? Do you have any idea whether they are any good?

    Also, you imply that there are 23 tests available (10 from the Blue Book, 3 free from the College Board site, and 10 more from the College Board online class). I’m pretty sure that some of the CB online class tests duplicate some of the others (I know that at least one does). I’ll look it up and let you know for sure.

    One more question: how did you come up with the price? It sounds like you included the calculator? Most students have a good calculator that they know and love by the time they take this test. I find it’s not worth the struggle to get them to change calculators for this test. This generally creates more problems than it solves. Maybe this was different for you since you hadn’t had the need for a calculator recently? I’m just curious why you included the calculator.

    Thanks again for all of the great information! I will definitely refer parents and students to your site!

    • Well first of all, I did not actually do this plan myself, nor hunt to far and wide for solutions (I’m lazy — so if I couldn’t find it easily, I called a smart person.  Luckily I’m at no shortage of those.)  

      But I was told to do this plan at the very beginning (cc  @markh:disqus urst) and didn’t follow instructions — and then again at the very end by another smart person who was looking at my UNIMPROVED math score  — which only served to reiterate that I had not followed the very first instructions I received.

      Re which “solutions” are good or not, I think it depends on the person.  For me, most of the College Board solutions were pretty worthless (especially for the math) — but I know others who found them helpful.  I did find them helpful for the CR section.  

       I also didn’t find the Khan videos very helpful (too many navigational issues), and it seems like everyone loves those. I like to talk to a person (back to call a smart friend!) .

      College Confidential always makes me nervous.  Fun to read, not necessarily reliable source.

      I found Tutor Ted’s book for the math solutions to be VERY helpful. In fact,  that little paperback book became my best friend.  Served me VERY well.

      And I used the Klass book for the Writing Solutions — but they often weren’t great either. And I didn’t like their math solutions AT ALL. They’d often say “use the calculator” as the solution!!

      I did Erica Meltzer’s Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar cover to cover, and I read every single thing she ever wrote on that website. In fact I printed it out and made my own binder out of it!  After that I got the 800 in Writing.

      I have a feeling you are right about that 23 test thing (i.e. repeats) — and I was thinking someone was going to call me on that — so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (I’m pretty sure you’re right), and I’ll correct the post.

      I did in fact count in the Calculator Cost —  figuring that most kids DO have the calculator that they like — but, I also didn’t want to mislead anyone because I do think it helps.  At least it helped me (I think).  I bought the Ti-89 and lost a month of my life to trying to figure it out.  One of the many wrong roads I took.  After that, I got the Ti-84 and it became my best friend.  I love my 84.  My son’s been borrowing it and I don’t like to share it. In fact, I just texted him and said “bring home your OWN calculator!

      Most of what I did on the Ti-84 was simple math (didn’t want to make stupid math errors under the pressure) — BUT, I did learn a few key buttons that came in very handy (thank u @PWNtheSAT:disqus  — actually, two buttons: the graphing button and Math Frac…and that was pretty much it.

      • Anonymous

        You did say that you got this plan from other people. I didn’t mean to imply that you created it.

        Thanks for the info on the solutions books. I’ve always been curious about them and keep meaning to check them out so that I can recommend them to students who can’t afford tutoring. I’ll put the ones you recommend on my list of books to check out.

        I haven’t had time to figure out exactly how many unique tests there are, but I will do it soon. I promise!

  • Can’t be said enough.  Good prep doesn’t have to be expensive.  I’m getting back into the tutoring biz in the very near future, and I’m going to be offering some low cost options for kids who want to self prep.  Will have website up as soon as I can manage…doing it on a shoestring myself :)  Thanks for everything you do Debbie.

    • Thank you!!  Let me know when it’s up.  At some point in very near future I’m going to make a list of Tutors and their specialties, details, etc.

  • Dylancatlow

    What’s the average score increase from sophomore year to the end of junior year on the SAT?

    • I have no idea! I think it depends on the person, where they started, how much effort they put in, etc. I have heard if decreases :( — as well as 500 point INCREASES — and that was from a reliable source.

      • yeah there no automatic increase. some people go up and some down with no work. the practice effect alone might get 30 – 50 points but that all depends on the kid of student. If the student was one who got weirded out by the timing and format than just doing tests will increase scores. if the person has significant content issues it will take learning the content as well as developing the test prep savvy to improve

        i could go on and on but i wont

  • Hi Debbie,

    As an overpriced SAT tutor myself, I gotta say this is all great stuff for SAT prep on a budget.

    One thing about the calculators though: I know all the cool kids have them, but TI-84s are wholly unnecessary for SAT I Math.  (SAT Math II subject test is a different story). 

    The most you actually need is a four function calculator with (maybe) a
    percentage button and exponent raise ^ .  That simple calculator will do everything you need to get an 800 on the SAT Math section – as a number of my students will attest. 

    Best part? You can pick it up at any
    Walgreens, CVS, etc. for less than five bucks and save yourself $130 in the bargain, not including the calc downloads.

    Just a tip…

    • Hi Adam, Thanks for that tip; boy that saves a lot of money, right?  A few other people said the same thing  — and I received a few other smart suggests for this post, so I think I’m going to write an addendum with all of the great additions… a few days!

      thank you!!

    • Seconded by another overpriced tutor with 20 years experience
      I dont think you need any of those big fancy calculators.. check out this post

  • I dont think you need any of those big fancy calculators.. check out this post

    • Ok Ok!  I’ve heard this from a whole bunch of people.  What do I know.  I hardly improved in math.  Don’t listen to me.  I’m going to update the post as I have a few other things to add too.

      And thanks for sharing that link.  Headed there now.

    • I agree! Often during tutoring sessions, I won’t let my students use their calculators (somehow they turn off their brains when they start punching buttons) My calculator adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides and has a square root button. And I’m still able to get a 700 with it. (And the lack of 800 is due to my non-math brain, not the calculator! :-)

      • I don’t know Stacey…you should get some of those TI-84 tricks from @PWNtheSAT:disqus  I bet you’d be up near 800 in no time.

        That graphing button sure did come in handy….

        But seriously, I’ll update this post with a few other things too in next day or two.

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  • Jen

    The three links for SAT PDFs that you give — two of them go to the same test.  The first two link to the one that’s on the site now (which I think of as 20111-2012 practice test), the third is unique, but the one I think of as 2010-2011 practice test isn’t there. 

    The essay question on that one starts “Nowadays nothing is private.” and Section 2 is math and begins with “If 10 + x is 5 more than 10”  I’d send the link along, but I’m still hunting it down on my computer!

    • ugh.  I’ll have to hunt them down.  Thanks for catching.  I have them all.  Somewhere.  Part of the reason I’m posting them is so that I CAN FIND THEM AGAIN!!!

      • Jen

        For some reason, after I found mind, it didn’t post! 
        You can get the link to the PDF by googling: 0833a611-0a43-10c2-0148-cc8c0087fb06-f

    • Ok, strangely, the link you gave me below goes to the 2010-11 SAT. I’ve checked these things a zillion times, which makes me think they must switch something on their end.

      Nonetheless, I managed to find the third one 2007-8 and have posted them all (and re-named them by the year they were given out so as not to confuse!).


  • Jen

    I’m going to be a little heretical here and speak to parents/kids whose goal is just raising scores, rather than actual long-term learning.  That is, increasing SAT scores enough to hit the range of the desired colleges.

    I have suggested in the past to parents that if their kids are mildly motivated, that they figure out how much they could spend on test prep…and kick it back to the kid for completed tests. 

    That is, get the Blue Book (and one of your recommended books, if that area is particularly problematic)  and pay for each completed and corrected SAT test.  All of your hints work with this method — using the sources to look up solutions, etc.  But, at least this keeps the money in the family! 

    If you know that your kid won’t get around to this, even for money, well then, this won’t work!

    • I always  used to say,  there’s “a number” where the motivation begins.

      Unfortunately for me, their number and my number are not usually aligned.  

      But believe me, I’m not above bribery, though I think still traumatized by my last attempt. 

      I’d taken them to Kumon at the beginning of the summer, “just for a visit,” —  but I got so excited once I was there by the idea of the three of us doing Kumon together over breakfast, that I tried to sign them up on the spot — and they were FURIOUS with me —  and behaving so disrespectfully that I couldn’t believe it….. so I took them outside of the little Kumon store, where the owner was so so so sweet, and I was so so so  embarrassed by my surly teenagers…and I said to them, “listen, I”ll pay you each $100 to do this Kumon thing with me….”

      …..and they both looked me right in the eye and said, “nope.”  

      I could not believe it.  It makes me angry all over again just thinking about it.

      Maybe it would work for some kids though.  Not mine.  Or maybe it’s me.  Maybe I have PTSD still from “the incident.”  It was sort of a fork in the road moment for us.

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  • Preparation for the SAT is essential.  It’s doubtful that a student will do well if they just wing it.  It takes time to adjust to the format and the kinds of questions that are asked. 

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  • SATprepTutoringbusinessowner

    I agree 100% that the College Board tests are way better than anything out there. Some of the Princeton Review and Kaplan book questions are lame. Plus those books have some awfully frustrating (for a kid) misprints.
    Sorry for the numerous posts. I kept hitting the post button on my phone before I was finished. I am new to Disqus.
    I was trying to scroll down.

    Thanks for the tips on the practice tests. I love more official practice tests. Great article!!!!
    I have some students in Piedmont, CA, who would like more SAT practice tests!!!!
    Philip Hawes

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  • LLC

    When should a junior first take the SAT? and then again when?
    Should they take the official ones many times? Any advice for doing well on the PSAT? THANKS SO MUCH!

    • Traditionally, I hear “the experts” say that Jr’s should take it in the Spring of Junior year and then again in Fall of Sr. year. Based on what I saw, anecdotally, it seems like May is the most popular month, but that’s just my own guess. My son wanted to get it over with so he took it in January of Jr. year and ALMOST reached his goal (not mine) — so then he took it again in May and hit his goal. He wants to be done with it, so I will be ok with that.

      If I had my druthers, I’d have him take it again in October of Sr. year. He took that May test under extremely stressful circumstances (start with a broken SAT hand/in a cast and an emergency root canal the next day and then x10 of other stuff). But, he doesn’t want take it again, so c’est la vie. He did very well, so I’ll let it go.

      Re doing well on the PSAT — I’d start practicing NOW! Read Erica Meltzer’s blog: The Critical Reader and PWNtheSAT and Erik the Red’s websites. Get their books. Get a Blue Book and do the beginning of the book and maybe one test.

      And then have her do a few full practice PSATs BEFORE the real test so she has the “timing” down.

      Also, those Direct Hits books are GREAT for the vocabulary portion.

      Good luck. Keep me posted.

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  • Here’s my story:
    As a high schooler, my family paid $2000+ for SAT tutoring. My scores were high to begin with but I credit my excellent tutor with getting them near-perfect.

    Now, I’m an SAT prep tutor. I charge about $60 per hour and have a 2-month waitlist. I believe I am a bargain value because I get more done with that hour than a less-expensive tutor, and compared to big companies, I actually charge less than they do for my experience.

    I spend a lot of time trying to get my students to leave me behind. Might seem like bad business sense, and it probably is, but it irritates me that they could see LARGER point improvements for LESS money if they could just self-motivate.

    Anyway, my perspective indicates that parents love paying me because it makes them feel like they’re helping their kids and students accept coming because they are unwilling to study without a slavemaster driving them onwards.

    It’s a bit frustrating some days. I would love to see a more budget-minded, independent style of student coming through my doors that would take advice like this post and run with it.

    Alas, they seem all too happy to just keep throwing money at me (and blowing off the homework week-to-week… pure insanity…)

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  • Philip Hawes

    I tutor affluent clients in Monterey, Carmel, Salinas, Santa Cruz, and even as far away as Danville, Orinda, Lafayette, and Walnut Creek, and I can tell you this: if every SAT writing student in my area bought a good grammar handbook and read it from cover to cover, I’d lose a lot of business. The SAT tests basic grammar, and kids don’t know it.
    Similarly, the SAT tests basic math: basic algebra, geom, fractions, decimals, percents, etc.