- The Curve: Don't spend your time worrying about the SAT Curve. For more details, check out this post.
- QAS: When you sign up for the SAT, order the Question-and-Answer Service (aka QAS) if you plan on taking the SAT again. It's an extra $18, but well worth it because you get back the test booklet of the test you took. If you have a fee waiver, the QAS is included. The QAS comes in the mail (not online with your scores) about 6-8 weeks after you take the SAT -- so it's not a great tool if you plan on taking tests that are close together. If you miss it during the sign up, you can always order it later. The QAS is only available for the SATs given in the months of January, May, and October.
- SAS (not to be confused with the QAS) is the "Student and Answer Service" that's available for non-QAS months. The cost is $13.50, and you can order it at the time of SAT registration, or after the fact. The SAS is a simple report that shows you which answers you got right and wrong. Helpful, not essential.
- When to begin test prep: Allow for 2-3 academic semesters (i.e. approximately one full year...or more) to prepare for the SAT. That will take the pressure off, and allow you to learn the material in a deeper, more gentle manner. I do realize that many people will balk at this time frame -- but seriously, if you want to do well, that's what it takes. Plus, the type of "test prep" I'm referring to is actually learning material that will serve you well in school too (e.g. vocab, grammar, etc.).
- Tutoring: The right tutor will help you be more efficient, but, a) make sure you have "the right" tutor (more on that later), and b) hiring a tutor isn't the only way to do well on the SAT.
- Preparing for the SAT on a shoestring budget: Buy a College Board Blue Book ($13.00/includes 10 official SATs), and print out the 3 official tests on the College Board website: January 2006 SAT, October 2005 SAT, and March 2005 SAT. Take a full, timed, SAT one morning each weekend (allow about 4-5 hours, and make the experience as close as possible to the real thing). Then, spend the next week (or two) correcting the test until you have a deep understanding of each and every problem that you got wrong -- including all of the vocabulary you didn't know, even if you got that question right. There are a gillion renditions of Blue Book explanations online -- from the Khan Academy to College Confidential, and even the College Board's website. Also, you can use your English and Math teachers as a resource.
- Know your test taking rights: Read pages 1-11 of this ETS test day manual before taking the SAT. Here's my "broken rule" experience, which, incidentally, was reflected in my score that month.
- You are entitled to a quiet room during the SAT, so be prepared to say something if the noise is bothering you. I found hallway noise to be distracting if the doors were open, but it took me until SAT #7 to realize I could let the proctor know before the test that I'd prefer the closed doors; she was extremely mindful of my request.
- Sit in the front row if possible, so that you have less visual distractions. I only encountered "assigned seating" once in 7 SATs.
- Keep your own time: Don't count on the proctors (even though they are supposed to keep the time for you). Get an analog watch and set it back to 12:00 before each section so you don't have to do any more mental calculations than necessary. Read this post for more details.
- A proper desk is important: Avoid the "deskette" experience (aka "the pork chop"). Having the proper desk space for a test booklet (8 x 11), answer sheet (8 x 11), pencils, and a calculator makes a difference. Ask your friends or call the SAT test coordinator for the test location to inquire. I'd even go so far as to say that I think it's worth driving a bit further to get yourself to a proper desk. Pork chop desk shuffling adds unnecessary time and discombobulation to an already stressful experience.
- Medium Questions have Medium Answers: If you're working too hard on an easy question (i.e. the beginning of a section), you're probably doing something wrong. Similarly, if you come to an answer too easily at the end of a section (especially Math, though maybe that's just me) -- you've probably done something wrong too. This does not apply to the Critical Reading passages which are not in order of difficulty.
- Calculators: The Ti-89 does algebra for you -- if you can figure it out (I couldn't). Ultimately, I used the Ti-84 which has a lot of useful buttons (Math/Frac, Graphing, etc.) -- but it's expensive ($135 new, though offered for much less on discount sites), and it's not really necessary. Read this Bell Curves blog post to find out everything you need to know on the matter of the SAT and calculators.
- Writing Section: Read every single word and complete all exercises in Erica Meltzer's The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar. Just do it; don't even think about it. I couldn't have told you the first thing about dangling modifiers or gerunds or subjunctives, until I read that book -- 45 years old at the time, mind you. And, I scored an 800 on the Writing Section after that book, ok? I'm saying run, don't walk, to get yourself a copy.
- The Essay: Practice writing one per day (or at least a few per week), timed with College Board essay prompts, for the few months leading up to the SAT. Try to get a few people who know about "standardized writing" to score the essays for you. Note: "standardized writing" is not necessarily the same thing as plain old "good writing." Read these few posts for more on that topic.
- Take 10-15 Full, Timed SATs Before You Take Your First Real SAT: Yes, I know this sounds insane, and I did not follow this advice for that very reason -- not to mention, I thought I was different. And, who has time to block out 5 hours for practice SATs.....15 times! But you know what? That's what the kids who do really well on this test do. I'm not kidding. I remember my utter disbelief (and horror) upon first hearing this number while on a call with the most elite test prep company I could find. Later, one of their tutors told me he actually has his students take 15-20 full, timed SATs before the real test -- because "that's what the experienced tutors know you have to do." Here's the thing: I believe him now! This test is as much about endurance and performance, as it is about core knowledge.
- Sentence Completion (aka the Vocab Questions): On this one you really should take my advice, because I only got one wrong out of 7 SATs last year (yes, I'm bragging, but my math score entitles me to brag about my Reading and Writing scores.) Ok, here's "The Method": Any time you don't know a word, look it up. Period. End of story. Even if you got the question right. Then, use these words often, even at the risk of using them incorrectly (see The Essential Mistake). I'm a big fan of Wordnick (puts them in context); I'm also a believer in homemade flashcards. When you're taking the SAT, read the sentence, then jot down the first words that come to mind (even if they're not "the big fancy vocab words"). Pick the word you feel most strongly about (if there are two blanks), and see which one (or two) works in the answer choices. CROSS OUT WRONG ANSWERS -- as in, put a line through them and get them out of your line of vision. You'll most likely be down to two answers by this point. Then, look at the second word you jotted down and see which of the two answers left works. This is as much about the process of elimination as is about knowing the definitions of the words. Oh, and one more thing: Beware of the backwards words (i.e. those words that make the answer the opposite of what you're thinking -- words such as "however" or "but," etc.).
- Preparing for the Critical Reading Passages: Here is a list of authors who have appeared on the SAT. Push yourself to read more, and stretch your reading limitations. Read editorials and note the author's main idea and how they constructed the argument.
llustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis