You’ve probably heard a lot about the SAT® test in the last few years. One test, graded out of 1600 points, that determines what college you’ll get into. One test that could determine the direction of the rest of your life.
Sounds intimidating, right?
But it doesn’t have to be. Although the college application process seems complicated at a first glance, planning ahead of time can cut down on the anxiety and uncertainty that often comes with it. This is especially true when it comes to studying for the SAT test.
The name of the game is preparation. You’ll need to know what your testing goals are and what you need to do to achieve them. This will give you clear benchmarks with which you can measure your progress.
In this guide, we’ll go over how to start preparing for the SAT test, tips and tools that can help simplify the process, and general advice for how to reach your score goal.
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The Best Way to Prepare for the SAT Test: A 12-Step Guide
1. Decide When to Start
Time management—juggling the obligations of school, test prep, and the extra-curriculars you’ll need to make your application as attractive as possible—is a crucial, often-overlooked part of the college application process.
Nowhere is this truer than with test prep. There will be several time-consuming, stress-inducing parts of the admission process that you won’t have any control over. But with enough planning and foresight, studying for the SAT test won’t be one of them.
The earlier you decide on a testing timeline the better. As a general guideline, we recommend that students start preparing for the tests in 9th or 10th grade, although some high-performing students are ready to begin as early as 7th or 8th grade. It is our recommendation that students finish testing by the end of 11th grade to allow time to focus on college applications. However, some students may need to continue to test into their 12th grade year for a variety of reasons, such as placement into honors colleges or to meet certain degree program requirements.
The less rushed your preparation is and the further into the future you can see, the less likely you are to get stressed about the test. Our team of advisors are available to help you build a testing timeline that meets your needs, as well as give you a structured plan and resources for your prep.
2. Take a Diagnostic Test
In order to get a clear picture of the journey ahead of you, you should get a better idea of where exactly your starting point is.
In addition to identifying that starting point, a diagnostic test replicates the experience of taking the SAT test in an environment similar to the one you’ll be in when you take the real thing.
Are you acing the math portion of the test but struggling with verbal? Is there a particular kind of question you struggle to figure out? Are you running out of time at the end of each section? Test prep classes, strategies, and consistent practice addresses each one of these issues. Taking a diagnostic test at the beginning of your test prep will help identify them early on in the process.
3. Research College Score Ranges
After taking an initial diagnostic test, it’s time to figure out where you’re headed.
What are your interests? Which subjects do you enjoy the most or excel in at school? Who do you want to be when you grow up? Which colleges are you considering? Do these colleges require test scores for admission or entrance into specific degree programs?
Even if you haven’t thought all that much about the specific colleges you’re going to apply to, your answers to these basic questions can be a jumping off point for your research.
Think about which schools have good programs in the fields you’re interested in and whether you want to go out-of-state for school. Make a preliminary college list that identifies the colleges you could see yourself attending. Next, you’ll want to research the SAT score ranges submitted by accepted students.
How to Find a College’s Test Score Range:
You can find this information on the college’s Common Data Set, which is often found on the college’s website.
For example, Stanford University makes this information available on the Stanford Common Data Set page on their website. If you scroll down to pages 11 and 12 of the 2021-2022 report, you’ll see the percentage of attending freshmen who submitted their test scores during the application process. You’ll also see that 25th percentile score for the SAT Composite score was 1470 and the 75th percentile was 1560.
We recommend that students aim to be within the score range of the middle 50% of attending freshmen to maximize their chances of acceptance. This means that a student applying to Stanford University would want to score in the 1470-1560 range.
Keep in mind that Stanford University is known for being one of the most competitive colleges in the U.S., which is why their students tend to have scored on the higher end.
Test scores can play an important role for admission, especially when considering competitive colleges. However, it’s important to note that the Common Data Set looks at the college as a whole. The bar may be set higher for competitive degree programs within the college or honors placement. Knowing what range you’ll need to fall in at the beginning of the testing process will help you figure out which goals are within your reach.
4. Set a Test Score Goal
Once you have a general idea of a target score range, you can set yourself a concrete goal to reach by the end of your test prep journey. Be sure to have a specific number in mind rather than aiming for “a high score.” Meeting set benchmarks will give you a clearer sense of the progress you’re making and help keep you motivated.
It is also important to be realistic. There is a college out there for you, regardless of where your final score falls. You may need to alter your plans along the way, but be honest with yourself and kind to yourself throughout this process.
Remember, not everyone attends an Ivy League school (the vast majority who apply don’t get in). Chances are that if you’re making a concerted effort to prepare for the SAT test, you’re going to get a great education from whichever school you attend.
5. Choose a Test Prep Program
Now that you know where you are and where you want to go, it’s time to figure out the method by which you’re going to get there.
Individual research and direction from your school counselors may give you a basic or even good understanding of the path ahead. However, a little help from test prep professionals will make that path even clearer.
KD offers a range of programs to help you with your test prep. Our Complete Program teaches you test-taking strategies that will allow you to approach the SAT test systematically. Having a proven, practiced method for every question type will keep you calm during the test and shave seconds off the time you spend on each question.
6. Choose Your Test Date(s)
Picking your test date well in advance will give you the opportunity to better structure your preparation, giving you the time and space to focus on mastering test-taking strategies.
There are seven testing dates for the SAT test spread throughout the year, with four dates in the fall and three in the spring. The registration deadline for each date is about a month before the test with late registration deadlines usually coming two to three weeks afterwards.
You don’t need to schedule all your tests up front. For example, you could take the SAT test in late August, and then wait two or three weeks for your results. Then you can decide to take the November test or give yourself an extra month of preparation. You may not even need to take the test again if you reach your score goal the first time.
Our recommendation is that students plan to take the SAT test at least twice to allow multiple attempts to reach their goals.
7. Build Your Schedule
Once you’ve chosen a test prep program and have a dates set for your tests, you can create a timeline. A good prep schedule balances lessons, workshops, and practice tests. Lessons teach and reinforce test-taking strategies. Weekly workshops give students the opportunity to practice and master those strategies. Practice tests give students the chance to put it all together and simulate the proctored testing environment.
Consistency is key. The goal of practicing test-taking strategies is to be able to employ them without thinking too hard. Building them into a routine will help you master them.
8. Take the PSAT Test
Taking the PSAT test is a good way of familiarizing yourself with the test-taking experience. While the questions generally aren’t as difficult, the format of the PSAT is almost identical to the SAT test.
Colleges don’t take your PSAT scores into consideration for college applications. However, if you score in the top one half of one percent (99.5 percentile) in your state of residence, you may qualify for National Merit Semifinalist status. This recognition can bring significant scholarship opportunities at certain colleges.
9. Try the ACT Test
Both the ACT test and the SAT test evaluate your understanding of math and verbal concepts taught in high school. While they aren’t identical, preparing for one will help you prepare for the other. The strategies taught in KD’s Complete Program prepare students for both tests.
The ACT test is faster-paced than the SAT test, and its math section is also slightly more advanced. This is why KD advises you wait until spring, when you’ve gotten an extra semester of math instruction under your belt, to take the ACT test twice.
Colleges accept scores from either test in college admissions, but if it turns out that you test better on the ACT test than the SAT test, you can shift your focus towards preparing for the test that will maximize your test scores.
10. Measure Your Progress
Taking regular practice tests will give you an idea of where you’re scoring along your journey. Score reports from practice tests help identify areas that need additional focus. For example, after three practice tests you may notice that you’re consistently missing questions on related to Rates, Ratios, and Percents. Knowing this, you can devote more of your preparation before the next test focusing on those kinds of questions.
However, be sure to pace yourself. Though it may seem like a good idea to test as often as possible, over-testing can lead to burnout and actually lower your test scores. It’s like running marathon after marathon to get ready for a marathon—you’re only going to make yourself tired.
11. Ask for Additional Help (If Needed)
If after a few months of consistent prep you still find yourself struggling on certain question types or haven’t improved, you should reach out for one-on-one guidance. KD’s full-time staff is here to help you.
KD has numerous options for that additional help. Your options range from the individual meetings with advisors to one-on-one tutoring sessions with a private tutor.
12. Plan to Finish Before 12th Grade
Your junior year is probably going to be the busiest year of high school. It’s your last chance to work on your class rank and GPA, which can make for a busy schedule by itself. Add extracurricular commitments to the mix, and you have a lot on your hands.
As we mentioned, it’s best for students to be done with the testing process at the end of 11th grade. College applications will take up a lot of your time if done the right way. We want students to have time to focus on this other important aspect of the process. However, in order to finish testing early, you first need to plan ahead and remain committed to your test prep schedule.
How hard is the SAT test?
The real answer to this question depends on your individual strengths and weaknesses. Taking regular practice tests and studying the strategies taught at KD will help you identify what those strengths and weaknesses are and provide you with avenues to improvement.
How can I prepare for the SAT test at home?
Good test scores are just one part of building a successful college application, and it may be that the hobbies and extracurriculars that will set your resume apart make it difficult to find time for test prep.
If your schedule is too busy to consider attending in-person lessons and workshops, KD offers live online prep activities. This format is available for all of our lessons, taught by the same qualified instructors who teach them in person.
If you’re so busy that you can’t commit to a particular time every week, KD also offers a six-month On-Demand Core Program. This self-paced program contains about 120 hours of instruction and practice that can be accessed whenever you’re available.
Beyond dedicated test prep, the best way to passively prepare for the SAT test is to read often and read widely. Books, journals, magazines, cooking blogs, cereal boxes – everything. Become a sponge. Exposing yourself to different kinds of material will develop the kinds of reading comprehension skills that the test measures while giving you a deeper understanding of the world – and of yourself.
Is self-study enough for the SAT test?
It is absolutely possible to study for the SAT test by yourself and come out with a score you’re happy with. However, many students benefit from the structured nature of our test prep courses.
In addition to providing clarity and support throughout the process, our programs are built on more than 30 years of test prep experience. We’ve built our programs based on what we’ve seen work best for students. We also provide students with a curriculum book that is produced in-house by our curriculum experts, and we rewrite this content yearly to reflect changes in the national testing environment.
If your goal is to improve your score and a proven resource exists for you to achieve that goal, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?
Can I use my calculator on the official test?
The SAT test has two math sections: one where you cannot use your calculator and one where you can. When the SAT test switches to a digital format in the Spring of 2024, you will be able to use a calculator on both math sections.
How many times can you take the SAT test?
You can take the SAT test as many times as you would like. The only real limitations are your budget (each test costs $52, although fee waivers are available in certain situations) and your schedule. Colleges will only look at the scores that you submit to them in your application. In other words, if you don’t score well on your first attempt you will have additional opportunities to reach the score you’d like.
Some schools will also “superscore” your multiple attempts, meaning they will take your highest verbal score from across all of your attempts as well as your highest math score.
Need help preparing for the SAT test?
KD College Prep offers a variety of test prep programs to meet your needs, including online and in-person classes for 7th-12th grade students. No matter where you are in your test prep journey, our team of experts is here to help. Schedule your free consultation today to learn more about our programs.