If At First You Don't Succeed At The SAT, Try Again
Planning for the Test
The SAT is one of two major college tests used to calibrate millions of high school students for college admission. It seems that the SAT scoring might be slightly more difficult than that of the ACT due to the liberal arts colleges that require the SAT compared with the larger land grant universities that require the ACT for admission. The ACT also test on some actual knowledge, while the SAT targets primarily your test-taking ability. Of course, you do need basic math and English knowledge, and the vocabulary questions are rather in depth, but once you know these words, you will hope for these questions.
Many students who plan to attend college will take both of these standardized tests. Both tests were actually required by my high school for my graduation, unrelated to my plans to attend college. So for many high school students, the SAT feels inevitable. Just because it feel inevitable, does not mean that you need to fear it. However, it is wise to have a healthy respect for the test and the role that it plays in college admissions. I realize also that many colleges value the SAT less than when I took the test in 2002. My alma mater does not even require SAT scores for admissions anymore. Even with awareness that the SAT may be less valued for some schools than it once was, that does not diminish your opportunity to have some control over the college admissions process.
Do Not Be Afraid to Outsource Your Test Prep
I do not mean to have someone else study and take the SAT for you. I mean do not be afraid to turn to the experts who make their living knowing all of the tips and tricks of standardized tests and who can convey that knowledge to you in a relatively short period of time. I prepared for the SAT with Kaplan Test Prep, specifically their Private Tutoring for 15 hours. This was my first experience using a test prep company to prepare for a standardized test, and I would highly recommend entrusting your preparation to the experts at Kaplan. I valued the experience so much that I paid for the tutoring at Kaplan again when I studied for the LSAT.
I will be the first to say that private tutoring is not inexpensive, and some might classify it as a splurge. However, if you can save up the money to invest in your future on the front end, I believe that you will see significant results both in your test score and in the scholarships that you will qualify for when you apply to colleges. The tutoring program may pay for itself in the first year of reduced tuition, and every year after it will remind you that private tutoring is the gift that keeps on giving.
I first took the SAT in June of 2002, and I was pleased, although not ecstatic, with my results. I took the SAT for the first time after doing quite well on the PSAT and knowing that standardized tests came easily to me. Except for timing. I was never a fast test-taker. When I received my first score, I knew that I needed to improve my timing on the test overall, and polish my vocabulary. I thought that the vocabulary section had the most potential for a score increase as if I just learned the most commonly tested vocabulary words and recognized them on the test, it seemed like easy points on my score. This section does not have a lot of leeway in the answers, so I would recommend spending a decent amount of time bolstering your vocabulary.
After working over the summer and early fall with the Kaplan tutoring test prep program, I felt much more confident about the SAT and my speed increased without sacrificing accuracy. The SAT causes high anxiety in many high school students because they are well aware of the high stakes of the test. A high score can mean admission to the college of your choice and possibly the scholarship to help that dream come true. A bad day of testing or a lower score due to lack of preparation (many ask how you can study for a test that is only scoring on test-taking ability, rather than retained knowledge as in a school exam) can result in the need to lower future expectations as to where to attend college. That is why working with a company like Kaplan who specializes in test prep can help assuage this anxiety and make you feel ready and relaxed come test day and prepared to do your best.
Know How You Study Best
I prefer one-on-one attention for test prep, and this might be a good time to splurge. Although the cost up front is high, Kaplan guarantees a higher SAT score or your money back. That is a pretty great guarantee, and it shows how confident Kaplan feels about their ability to raise your score.
If you are someone who gets your energy from a study group and other classmates studying the same material, Kaplan also offers very popular prep classes for small groups. However, keep in mind that the SAT only tests you, and not your study group.
Kaplan has been in the test preparation business for years, and the class/tutoring fee comes with a large stack of very helpful books. These books have advice on taking the test and how to deal with the various sections of the SAT. I realize that the SAT has changed since I took it, including in scoring and an additional writing section. When I took the SAT there was one half of the score from Vocabulary/Reading Comprehension and the other half of the score from Mathematics. I also wrote a timed essay, and it was submitted to colleges where I chose to send my score that day. This did not alter my overall test score, but the essay was judged by the colleges’ admissions officers.
I did repetitive drills on each subject until I improved both my speed and accuracy. My lack of speed in test taking was my primary concern going into the SAT, and when I began studying with Kaplan, I was disappointed with my inability to finish the June SAT in the time allowed. By the end of the course, I was completing most sections in the amount of time allowed, and I had increased my efficiency dramatically without sacrificing my accuracy, which had been my initial concern with some of the practice tips.
I took an abbreviated practice test at the beginning of the course, and indicated a score range that I would receive if I took the SAT that day. It will also tell you what score range you could expect at the end of the course if you study and practice diligently.
I met with my tutor twice a week, for 15 hours total, during which time we would go over the homework assignments and practice tests. He taught me how to analyze questions the “Kaplan way,” which was counterintuitive to me, but proved quite effective. I mentioned my initial hesitation with this system and my fear of sacrificing accuracy as I improved my speed. I learned how to read the question prompts for short cuts and to eliminate answers quickly, rather than considering two similar answers in my mind for much too long. By using this method, I increased my speed in answering SAT questions, while retaining accuracy. I learned how to narrow down the answers, what tricks to look for, and how to choose the best answer. I learned about how the test-makers construct the test, and I considered how the test would be made that is taken by millions of high school students every year. I realized that while some questions may be slightly tricky and extra difficult, the test is created to target the average high school student. Therefore there are a large number of questions that the test-makers expect and want at least 75% of the students to get correctly. There are others that are meant to distinguish that top 10% of SAT takers. However, much of earning a high score on the SAT involves simple practice and preparation so that when you take the test you can spot the correct answers quickly and move on. If you can actually read most of the questions and narrow down the answers to a correct or likely correct answer, you should do very well on the SAT.
I know this sounds obvious, but it really is helpful to talk to someone who has taken the test, and who is aware of how the SAT is structured and what is being tested. I learned not to over read the questions, and to consider what the test makers were thinking when they wrote the question. I learned what my strengths and weaknesses were on the test. I had someone to review my essays and give me thorough constructive criticism. That was so valuable and something friends and family may not be able to do for you. I remember being so nervous about listing the names of colleges that I wanted my results and essays sent to before I even took the test. I was so afraid that if I did not do well on the test, or if I could not think of anything of merit to write on the timed essay that the colleges would not want to admit me. However, I still jumped at the chance for my score and essays to be sent to the colleges free of charge. If you want to save a bit of money, remember that this is an option, and if you have the hard work of a prep course behind you, you will feel much more confident in having your score forwarded to the colleges of your choosing.
I took multiple practice tests, and I really appreciated the opportunity to take a practice test at the Kaplan center with other students around also taking that practice test. While that is not the exact same environment as the crowded SAT test room, it was a lot closer imitation than when I took practice tests at home or even short quizzes that were given out at school with classmates that I had known for years. A random bonus for me was that I went to an all-girls high school, and so I had been taking tests with only girls for years. Taking the practice tests at Kaplan allowed me the practice with the slightly noisier male students. Any practice that you can get where you recreate the SAT testing environment is a valuable experience.
My SAT score went up significantly after my Kaplan tutoring course, a pleasant surprise that I found to be well worth the cost of the course and the time that I had invested in learning and practicing the “Kaplan system”. I really appreciated having a tutor who was focused on how I learned best, and what way I could improve my score. I think everyone can raise his or her score through repetitive practice and becoming more familiar with the test, but with individual tutoring, one has the opportunity to focus on the test with tailored advice. I think my investment more than paid for itself with scholarships offers I received and with admission to prestigious universities.
Additional Prep Resources: Princeton Review Word Smart
I spent much of that summer when I was not working, studying for the SAT. Anytime I wanted to be outside, I took my Princeton Review Word Smart book with me. I often read it before bed too. I read other things as well, but anytime I had a chance to read, I tried to spend at least 30 minutes increasing my vocabulary by reading Word Smart. It focuses on words that pop up frequently on the SAT vocabulary section, and reading this book frequently will help you to quickly recognize those words and know their meaning when you encounter them on the SAT. If you have a Latin or roman languages background, the vocabulary section may come naturally to you. However, even if you are fortunate to have such a background, I’d highly recommend this book as it is a) effective b) affordable c) portable. Other test prep resources balance those three components, and while this is just a vocabulary book, it does vocabulary very well.
I like the opportunity to focus on something intensely, and this worked for me. My vocabulary was not especially weak before practicing with Word Smart, but I noticed my vocabulary getting much stronger the more I read the book and practiced the words that I had learned.
The book includes details with each word such as a definition, alternate forms, and a sentence using the word for context. There is a section on word roots, so that you can break down any new words that you see on the SAT and figure out their meaning. There are also quizzes at the end of chapters, so that you can engage your brain to test your new vocabulary knowledge.
General Study Tips:
I appreciated the schedule and the pacing from the Kaplan program. If you do not enroll in such a program, try to make consistent study habits for yourself. Take an initial practice tests to decide what are your strengths and weaknesses for the test, whether you struggle with a particular section such as reading comprehension or an overall issue such as timing. Think about how you can improve these weaknesses before the test date through planning and practice. Also consider your strengths and be sure to keep them strong for the actual test. I mentioned the Word Smart book above, which I found to be an excellent resource to quickly increase your vocabulary and bump up that score. Try to take practice tests at about the same time as the actual SAT. Consider blocking off two Saturday mornings for such practice tests. Take these tests in a place that you will not be interrupted, but not left entirely alone. Unfortunately, you do not get to take the SAT at home with a locked door, so do not be afraid to practice with a bit of background noise and annoyance.
Some people prefer to study in groups, but I think the only section this would be useful for is the vocabulary section. Otherwise consider taking a practice test with friends in the room for practice, but do not consult about questions until the test is over. You need to practice the frustrating part of a multiple hour test, which is not knowing if an answer is correct immediately after the question, and then continuing to answer other questions for hours afterward. If you practice like that leading up to the test, it is one less thing that will bother you come test day.
It may sound crass, but the SAT score is one thing in the college admissions process that you can easily control. Sure you have some control over your G.P.A., but that is unlikely to change by the time you find yourself taking the SAT in your senior year of high school. Colleges still heavily weigh SAT scores in admissions decisions, so by devoting the time this test deserves in hours of preparation and practice, you can give yourself a huge boost in the college admissions process.
Test Day Prep:
Be sure to consult the SAT website before your test day to double-check your testing site (make sure it has not changed and that you know where it is), consider your transportation, and be sure of what you can and cannot bring into the testing site. Often cell phones are banned, so consider leaving yours at home so that you do not run into trouble at the site. Check to see about pens, pencils, etc. and consider how you prefer to take tests. I like to mark up tests as I take them so that I can see key words more clearly. If you prefer a highlighter or colored pen to do this, make sure it is allowed at your testing center.
Be sure to eat a full breakfast before you get to the center. Food is generally not allowed. Although the test may claim to be 3 hours, there is a lot of waiting around and you will likely be there longer than 3 hours considering the required for everyone time to check in and later to turn in all the tests. Try to get as much rest as possible the night before. I know that you will be nervous, but you have put weeks or months into this preparation, and you owe it to yourself to do the best you can in those few hours.