Summer prep time is here! Most of our SAT students have their sights set on the October SAT with the goal of spending their summer with their books on hand to review their math, dive deep into grammar and explore the deep layers of symbolism in old English subtext.
The SAT has come a long way and, though it is a standard bearer, it is not immune to shifts of priority in academic and college application culture. Because it is such a large, pervasive influence, it seems that even the smallest adjustments create a large ripple effect across the pool of college applicants and admissions teams. With the most recent shift in the SAT, the scoring is back to the traditional 1600 score. We have been working with SAT students for a while and have compiled 10 ways to make the most of the summer and maximize your time and perform well on the SAT.
No excuses. Our tutors will be there to give you all the information you can handle to perform well on this test, but they will not be with you on test day and they won’t be there when you are doing your homework. Getting your mental toolkit stocked for this test is all you.
Get your hands on everything the college board has to offer and spend as much time as possible on the Kahn Academy’s SAT material to know the content, question types, and wording of the problems. Know your enemy and not just what your tutor says about your enemy.
Re-frame the way you think and You need to figure out how the test ‘thinks.” Good news! The college board is consistent. They have a set of values that they adhere to and they stick to it. You need to know the test and how it works, which will help you know how to answer the questions according to what they are looking for.
All said, you need to go over the questions, know how they are worded, know the answers they are looking for and all of this means: practice practice practice practice!
2. Double your vocabulary!
Buy stock in 4×5 cards now because the students who are the most successful on the SAT start early and work hard to learn A TON of words. Don’t take a shortcut and buy a pre-printed set on Amazon either. You need to make these flashcards and you need to review them.
But there isn’t an official vocab section on the SAT anymore? Why should I do this?
Look at this excerpt from an SAT reading passage. These questions are Vocabulary in Context questions.
“In line 34, ‘acerbic’ most nearly means
For not having an official vocabulary section, this comes across as a very ‘vocab–like’ question. The vocab words are perniciously placed throughout the SAT reading section and there is no way around your need to know the definitions for a lot of words. You’ll see the phrase ‘most nearly’ a lot on the SAT. This is where you need to know and practice what the SAT is likely to ask and how the test thinks in order to know how they might have a synonym that is close (‘sharp’ in this example) but not a direct definition of the word ( acerbic means ‘acid in temper, mood or tone.) You have to dedicate yourself to memorize a lot of vocabulary and employ mnemonic devices.
3. Know grammar and style!
Get Elements of Style by Strunk and White on your Kindle (it’s free, go get it now – this blog post can wait). You need to know about parallel structure in writing. You need to know the rules of why the quotation mark goes outside the comma instead of in! You need to know a lot of the ins and outs of grammar. There is no way around it. The SAT asks a lot of questions on grammar and you will be at a loose tether if you cannot identify the more common grammar rules you learn in school or (and this is fun) the more nuanced, rarely explored rules of the literary world. Take advantage of the warm Los Angeles days to park outside with your kindle and read about grammar.
If you want to apply grammar in a detailed way, give sentence diagramming a shot. If you’ve ever been confused about transitive or intransitive verbs or how an adverb modifies a verb and not a noun, then sentence diagramming is for you! Math lovers will have more fun with the technical aspect of sentence diagramming as it requires a lot of decoding and translating. Plus, the end result of a diagrammed sentence is the exact type of cerebral analysis of the written word that TS Elliott celebrated and ee cummings despised. We recommend that you learn to diagram sentences on paper and become very strong at parsing these out on your own, but, in the beginning, we like to have our students use the Reed-Kellogg Diagrammer until you get the hang of it. Spend time doing these sentences as it is one of the most valuable ways to develop a writing style that pushes the limits of the simple sentence. Your writing voice and understanding of style will grow and change dramatically if you begin to understand the technical piece of writing and how even grammar has a formula and can be very akin to math.
4. Know yourself and learn from your mistakes!
Don’t take a practice test, score it and set it aside. You are missing out on one of the best opportunities to learn from your own mistakes and correct them. Don’t lose this chance to become self-reflective and look at the question and say, “What did I do wrong? How did I miss this? And (most importantly) how can I do it right the next time?”
How do we help students make the best use of an assessment? The quality of test prep instruction depends a great deal on a student’s willingness to learn from their mistakes and become better at identifying their assumptions and improving. The assessment is the first piece of learning how to make progress on your own terms.
They took the test. Now what? This is where the learning begins! Students shouldn’t wait for the tutor to come in order for them to have a teachable moment. This is their chance to become detectives and learn about themselves.
Students can get very discouraged by the results if they don’t re-frame their expectations ahead of time. Students will get a better handle on understanding their results if they have the right expectations going in to take the assessment test.
Go back over this test in detail and begin to take apart the information. You should start by sorting the problems into 3 categories.
- “I got the answer right because I know the content and I feel confident in it.”
- Huh? “I’ve never seen this before; I have no idea what it is and if I got it right, it’s because I did a lucky guess.”
- Oh, duh!! “This is work I know how to do and I made a mistake in there that messed me up.”
Category 3 is where you can make the most growth on your own and you should spend quite a lot of time on it. This helps you learn from your mistakes in the most positive, growth-oriented way.
Take time to look for patterns in problems — Did you not show your work? Did you not re-read the problem hence you answered the wrong question? Did you rush? — and learn possibly the most important lesson that you can apply looking ahead: “What can I change in the future to prevent myself from making this mistake again?”
There’s a bit of muscle memory to this part of prep that you need to learn. You should learn how to slowly go over the problems, map them out, check your work and get it right again and again before you start to increase your pace.
Students should be in the habit of reviewing their errors in an untimed setting and doing them step by step slowly and learning that process before they try to speed it up. Do you do music or dance? There’s no way you could spin onto the stage and perform a complicated number at full tempo without rehearsal. You need to do the steps slowly at first, over and over again, before you can speed up and still maintain accuracy. Go slowly through the problems you miss each and every time and get them right! The next time you see a problem you have missed in the past, you will have laid the groundwork and muscle memory already to do this the right way. You need to put the pieces in place early to retrain your brain.
5. Do all the Math you can and do the hard stuff.
Don’t feel like covering up to the last math class you took is enough. It isn’t. There is a lot of Math on the SAT and it covers a very wide range of information. You need to go back to 7th and 8th grade math to make sure you know a lot of the math definitions of words. Then keep working ahead to your current year of Math to make sure you can see any type of Math you know how to interpret and complete it. Now, keep going! Join a math competition, do math puzzles, work out the really hard stuff all the time.
If you want a perfect score, you have to be awesome at math. We recommend studying material from The American High School Math exam (either 10 or 12) and do those problems to fluency as much as you can. Also, look up work from the AIME (American Invitational Mathematics Examination). They are far more challenging than the SAT or ACT and the more you do them, the easier that SAT math will be for you. Plus, (bonus) you get to do fun problems like this!!
Using only paper and pencil (no calculator or logarithmic tables), determine which of the following expressions has a greater value: 101/10 or 31/3.
This is a very basic problem mathematically, but it approaches Math in a different way that requires some out of the box thinking. If you spend time on problems like this, then seeing a simple exponents problem on the SAT will be a breath of fresh air.
If you concentrate your efforts on challenging problems that are HARD then the SAT will be much easier for you.
Don’t limit yourself to one way of solving a problem. Learn two to three ways to complete a problem in math because you will often come across a problem on the SAT that requires solving in a specific way. If you don’t know how to —— in the way the problem is asking, you’re in trouble. Spend time developing your math fluency by solving problems differently.
6. Take the time to do it right!
We have given you resource after resource and tip after tip, but, here’s the thing, this is not a week’s dalliance in a doorstop prep book. To do well on the SAT, you need to set aside time to study and learn this information long-term. A cram session will get you as far as a good panic attack and a poor night’s sleep the night before the test.
To be prepared for this test, you need about 3 weeks of good study – I am talking about 2-3 hours of study a week – to raise your score about 40-50 points. This is a rough estimate because raising your score is actually easier when you are starting out lower because there are a lot of basic math and grammar questions that we call ‘low hanging fruit.’ If you don’t know how to solve for the area of a circle, that means there are at least 30 problems on the SAT that you missed. Once you know that formula, you are 30 problems wiser. However, the more complicated, technical problems on the SAT are more niche. If you learn permutations, that will boost your math by one to two problems. So pushing your score up as you get into more advanced concepts becomes incrementally more complex. Boosting your score as you get into the higher score brackets takes more time. Any student with sights set on a perfect score needs to set aside the time to study, apply and practice.
7. Build the habits that bail you out!
Have you ever heard of The Mars Climate Orbiter? In 1999, NASA spent $125 million to research the weather patterns on Mars. 37 miles out from the atmosphere, the orbiter disappeared due to, as the scientists discovered, bad math. The difference in pounds and metric units played a large piece in this satellite burning up in Mars’ atmosphere in perhaps the mathematical mistake of almost legendary proportions.
How can you, as a test taker, avoid such epic errors in your test taking? Simple! Build habits that create a safety net for you. When we discuss the importance of reviewing your practice tests in the ‘Oh, Duh’ category and learning from your mistakes, the biggest most important piece we want you to learn is how to catch those mistakes and prevent them. That means creating a habit (a mantra -if you need to call it that) of double checking your work step by step to catch the errors you are likely to make. Forming these habits takes time and diligence and it likely means you will also have to undo some bad habits (including rushing, skipping steps when you write out problems, making assumptions) in order to form the right ones. This also means you need to do the mental math first and estimate on the math problems, give yourself an approximate but logical answer, then do the math step by step and compare your answer with your estimation. Nothing in this process is a natural or instinctive process unless you so happen to be very detailed. Most of us need to build these processes slowly and carefully in order to be able to habitually double check ourselves to avoid the kind of mistakes that burn up our test scores in the atmosphere. (This – by the way- is an extended metaphor; I wouldn’t recommend using it further).
Get your techniques in place to double check by asking, “Am I making a mistake? How could this be a mistake?” The machine of self-doubt should be fairly balanced with a few months of practice, but know the errors you are likely to make and know how to create a system – either by yourself or with your instructor – that places safeguarding habits to protect you from your own humanity.
The only real way to get ready for this section is with a lot of practice tests. We recommend you take a practice test every 3 weeks of SAT prep to continually employ the techniques you are using and get your brain used to what 180 minutes of testing actually feels like (hint – it’s exhausting).
You need to avoid mistakes by not rushing and employing the safeguards to prevent errors, but you need to give yourself the time to go back and review questions at the end of each section. This takes multiple practice tests and a lot of time chained to your desk with your phone in another room, the enticing sounds of summer outside, possibly your favorite ice cream is calling your name from the kitchen freezer. Be strong! Keep the goal in mind and do the work that gets you there.
9. Explore every resource
Your search for the perfect content review should not be limited exclusively to SAT material. We have found a lot of outside material helpful in preparing for the SAT and we never restrict how we can learn by the brand on the book. You will see very complex reading material, be it a primary source social studies document or technical writing from a science thesis. You will see straightforward writing style that is very detail-oriented and old-school writing that is antiquated with language and word uses that are far different from the writing of today. You need to know how to read and understand all types of writing.
We’ve found that multiple choice sections in old AP exams – AP Literature and Composition for example – very closely match the content and passage selection of the newly re-vamped SAT, so dig into those sections as a great preparation for the SAT. The SAT pulls from a lot of public domain passages. I’ve included a far from comprehensive list below to give you a sense of the range of passages you should be comfortable with reading and understanding.
Poetry: Included in Perrine and Holt are poets such as Keats, Coleridge, Plath, Herrick, Donne, Shakespeare, Blake, the Shelleys, Lord Byron, the Brownings, Arnold, Housman, Eliot, Owen, Dickenson, Milton, and more. (See detailed weekly syllabi for specifics.)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
- The Awakening—Kate Chopin
- Ellen Foster—Kaye Gibbons
- Heart of Darkness—Joseph Conrad
- The Things We Carried—Tim O’Brien
- A Tale of Two Cities—Charles Dickens
- A Doll’s House—Henrik Ibsen (in Perrine)
- Hamlet, Macbeth (in Holt), and Othello—William Shakespeare
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in Perrine)and Taming of the Shrew—Shakespeare
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead—Tom Stoppard
- Oedipus Rex—Sophocles in Perrine)
- Equus—Peter Shaffer
- The Glass Menagerie—Tennessee Williams
- Death of a Salesman—Arthur Miller
- Beowulf—translated by Burton Raffel
- The Canterbury Tales—Geoffrey Chaucer
- A Modest Proposal—Jonathan Swift
All of these works have been written approximately 50 years ago or – in some cases – centuries before and are considered ‘canon’ or vetted classics that have made a lasting impression on the literary world. The writing style is complex and the language can be highly antiquated- give The Canterbury Tales a shot if you have any doubts. Understanding these works will not come easily to you the first, second, or possibly even 8th or 9th time reading them, so spend time understanding them. If you have trouble following these at first read, get an audiobook and listen while you read. See if there is a performance happening for some of the plays -this is LA and Shakespeare performances are easy to find – or watch cinematic productions if need be. Just get to know the language and learn how to unpack what you are reading. You need to be able to read these passages and understand at a very minute level what the passages are saying.
For the vocabulary piece of the reading section, read Word Memory Power in 30 Days by Peter Funk. You’ll learn how to acquire new vocabulary words using mnemonics and will help you spend the right type of effort to learn. It is an older book, but the information has so much research-based support. It is a great read for scholars before they enter college as it will help you maximize your vocab learning across the disciplines – from Word History to Biology. It is a fantastic resource!
The course to a perfect SAT score is long, but by no means impossible. There is no way out of a lot of work to doing well on this test. The benefits of studying the right way for the SAT is that so many of the skills, concepts, vocabulary, math that you learn in preparing for the SAT will actually give you an amazing boost in your college work. It’s actually true that a high SAT score is a good predictor of college success because so much of what you learn on the SAT will actually be in your college work. There will be essay after essay where your solid grammar skills will shine in a sea of mediocre papers. Your math skills will give you a huge boost in your Math placement tests and you might even skip a few Math classes and get into more advanced math classes when you start as a college Freshman. The long-term benefits of preparing the right way for the SAT instead of trying to find shortcuts, which, sure, they’re there, you can bluff your way through the SAT and get a decent-ish score, but you do lose out in the tremendous benefits of feeling confidently prepared for college.
Our recommendation for our students is to set your course and put in the work. On test day, you will see problem after problem that you know how to solve. You will blast your way through the reading and face down the most nuanced grammatical problems. There are students who have major anxiety and panic when they take the SAT, but our students who go through the process and put in the time are not there. They are confident, relaxed and mentally prepared.