Many people, usually apprehensive parents who want to make sure that their children are on the right track, often ask me when they or their children should start preparing for the SAT. I sometimes jokingly respond, “Well, when your child is three months old, start reading to her. Keep reading to her every day for at least fifteen to thirty minutes a day for the next ten years or so. And whenever she has a question about anything, answer her. If you don’t know the answer, tell her that she and you can find out together.”
The point is that, in many ways, preparing for SAT is the same as doing well in school. The SAT is designed to be a test of general, not specific, knowledge, and as a result, long-term preparation is best. (I should point out that several key parts of the test are actually quite specific and can be coached relatively quickly and easily. But more on that point in another article.) In a word, “long-term” preparation simply entails being a good student, doing your homework, paying attention in class, but most importantly, being actively engaged in your learning.
But if you’re like most of our students, no matter how solid your foundation, you want to do better. You want to fill in the gaps in learning for the days your mind wandered, thinking about that Korean drama you downloaded the night before. Or perhaps your teacher didn’t think it was important to explain gerunds in the way you need to know them for the SAT, or maybe he didn’t teach grammar at all. Or perhaps you’re aware that there are a few shortcuts to learning and doing well on the SAT. So you want to do some SAT prep.
But before I continue, I must make an important point: No matter how smart you are or how well you do in school, you should always, always, always take a nine-section practice SAT (the Official SAT Study Guide contains these) before you take the real SAT so that you know what you’re up against. You wouldn’t compete in a game of fútbol or play piano in a recital without first practicing, and the SAT is no different. So, if you do nothing else, at least download an official SAT test for free (Please, always use only official SAT tests), take the test under simulated testing conditions, and review it. Do less than this, and you shoot yourself in the foot.
So, we have several plans, depending on how much time you wish to devote to reaching your potential on the SAT:
- Lifelong learning: Long-term SAT-prep. In a sense, you start when you begin school.
- The standard: Four to six months or so before your SAT.
- Panic prep: Oh no! SAT in two weeks!
Remember, there are myriad factors at play for every student, and the numbers and times above are only rough guidelines. Your mileage will vary. The bottom line is that you know yourself best, and you should therefore make the final decision after doing your due diligence, researching, and getting advice from family, teachers, professionals, and friends.
Let’s now take a closer look at the various types and lengths of study.
Using school as your SAT prep
TestMagic recommends: TestMagic courses designed to complement school
College Board has said that “the best preparation for the SAT includes maintaining a rigorous high school course load, reading and writing extensively, and taking a few practice tests to become familiar with the test format and timing.” (Source: http://satresourcecenter.collegeboard.org/test-preparation) It is important to notice the word “includes,” which gives College Board a bit of wiggle room if someone points out that an experienced SAT-prep instructor can greatly facilitate learning the SAT quickly and relatively painlessly.
But it’s true—taking good courses in school and doing well in them is probably the best overall preparation for the SAT. In fact, for most people, lack of good schooling will make it difficult or impossible to score high on the SAT. If for whatever reason you haven’t given school your all or you’ve faced challenging learning situations (poor learning environments, family hardship, etc.), you’ll most likely have a very definite “score ceiling” that will be hard (but not impossible!) to break through.
There’s just no substitute for building a rock-solid foundation of knowledge in school by learning in a large variety of ways and environments from different instructors over a decade or more; such an environment provides the richest possible learning. Add to this a stimulating home environment in which all household members contribute to the student’s learning by, for example, asking the student about her day or her homework or talking about the news during dinner, and you have an SAT-test-taker who’s ideally prepared to do her best on the SAT. If you’re one of these people, go right now to your parents and thank them for everything they’ve done. Seriously.
So what are the drawbacks of relying on school to prepare you for the SAT? There are unfortunately many. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of school or disparage schools or teachers. Quite the contrary—most schools and teachers are committed to their students and do the best they can with the time and resources that they have to work with. But the truth of the matter is that schools truly have too much to cover in very little time and simply cannot devote enough time to the areas that are tested most frequently on the SAT. TestMagic Ascend and Essencia classes are designed specifically to bolster the SAT-specific areas that many students seem to need a boost in (e.g., writing, vocabulary, grammar, geometry, tricky word problems, combinations and permutations, to name a few).
A great example is the writing component of the SAT, which heavily tests a specific set of grammar rules that many students today are simply unfamiliar with. Ask students the last time they studied grammar, and many will mention a teacher in seventh or eighth grade. American educators have made a conscious decision to drop grammar from most of their curriculum because most native speakers learn the fundamentals of grammar by consuming (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) good English. But the problem is that many people simply don’t acquire the knowledge in a way that is rewarded on the SAT. The SAT likes to give questions that test certain points in such a way that people will miss the question, even if people are familiar with the point being tested. A very simple example—do we say “a group of people is” or “a group of people are”? Such grammar points are tested on the SAT, and a good SAT-prep course will show students how to choose the credited response (and raise their scores). But rarely do English teachers have the time to teach points in enough detail to prepare their students for the SAT.
So, in short, do your best in school. Read a lot, write a lot. Pay attention—you’re building your foundation in school. But when it comes time to take the SAT, do yourself a favor and at the very least take one (or more) practice SATs and review them to see where you erred and at least consider taking and completing a formal SAT-prep class.
The most common plan: The fall of junior year, or a few months before your SAT
TestMagic recommends: TestMagic SAT prep.
I like the period of four to six months for studying for the SAT, especially for people who have a solid foundation, but still need to improve in some areas. This length of study seems to be the sweet spot for acquiring new information, digesting it, and then applying it correctly and accurately on your actual SAT.
For many people, this means starting to study for the SAT in the fall of eleventh grade or the summer between tenth and eleventh grades, as many students opt to take the SAT in the spring of eleventh grade. The fall is a great time to start studying for the test. Too much earlier, and you may forget some of the information that you learn while preparing when you take your real SAT. Too much later, and you may not have enough time to learn everything you need to learn or worse, to assimilate the information. Furthermore, many high school juniors are devoting more and more time to their AP tests and finals in the late spring, so adding SAT prep to this already-heavy load can prove to be onerous for some.
Last-minute SAT prep
For last-minute SAT prep, TestMagic recommends: One-to-one tutoring
Every now and then we talk to parents of students who are taking the SAT in a few weeks and want to do the best they can in a matter of weeks. While studying for the SAT two weeks before the test is better than not studying at all, there is simply too much to cover in a standard course in such a short time. Worse, even if someone were somehow able to work his way through an entire good SAT course in two weeks, chances are he would not do as well had he been able to spend, say, two or three months working on the same material. It is almost always better to do a little bit over a long period of time than a lot over a short period of time. As I say to my students, would you be a better basketball player if you practiced once a week for six hours or an hour a day for six days a week? Most people agree that the latter would result in a better basketball player, and the same holds true for SAT prep as well.
The SAT is a test of general knowledge. As such, an infinite number of test questions or testing points could show up on the test. Only a good education can provide the foundation of learning necessary to excel on the SAT, but chances are that even a 4.0-student at a nationally-ranked high school will have some gaps in knowledge and will benefit from a good SAT-prep course. (We know because we routinely work with students like this.)
Your first decision is to figure out how much time you want to devote to raising your SAT score. Of course, the longer and more you study, the higher your score should (or will) go. As a rule of thumb, the law of diminishing returns applies here as it does in other areas—the first 200 points come much more easily than do the final 200 points. And in general, it’s easier to go from a 1400 to a 1700 than from a 2200 to a 2400. If you are considering taking an SAT-prep course, earlier is better than later, and six months before your test is a great time to start your course. But a sincere word of advice: If you care at all about your SAT score, at the very least take a few mock SAT tests and review them to see how you could improve.
In future articles, I will flesh out the plans a bit more, so for now, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below or contact TestMagic.
And here are some helpful links:
- http://sat.collegeboard.org/home This is the official SAT site, and sooner or later, you will need to visit that page to register for the SAT. You will also find links to free SAT tests and SAT practice questions.
- http://urch.com/forums/sat/ My forum for the SAT. You can log in with your Facebook account and ask questions or share your opinions. If you post here, I will try to answer your question myself. :)
- http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/sat-preparation/ The College Confidential SAT forum. Their SAT forum is busier than my SAT forum, but they don’t have me there!
- Buy SAT-prep books from Amazon Amazon’s SAT-prep store. I have reviewed many of the materials available for sale there.