How to Study for the SAT

In this step-by-step guide, you'll learn how to study for the SAT through simple and actionable steps.

For some rare individuals, studying for the SAT might be a delight in itself–the puzzles, the pressures, the high stakes and high rewards of practice test-taking… I think we can all agree that for the majority of high school students, however, it is one of the banes of an already overwhelming junior year.

One of the ironies of the SAT is that it is touted as a key factor for college admissions (which it is) and yet you are left (mostly) to your own devices to prepare for it. While your academic courses and your slate of teachers and your extracurriculars might be mandated by various school authorities, most secondary school institutions have a hands-off policy when it comes to standardized testing. It is up to you, then, to filter the information you receive and to assess the study options that are available to you. This means you are left–for better or worse–with a whole set of choices to make: Are you supposed to study for all of your junior year? Should you cram for one summer? Should you hire a tutor? Is SAT study burnout a real mitigating factor to success?

So far, you may know for certain only that you will take the SAT… but how will you get there? The fact is, a student who studies for one day and a student who studies for four years will sit down to take the same test. But what does this mean for you?

Essentially, this means that level of preparation will become a major differentiating factor between you and your fellow test-takers. Below, we hope to help you out with a customizable guide for an effective SAT study plan.

Here’s how to study for the SAT in twelve simple steps:

  1. Define Your Passion
  2. Take a Diagnostic Test
  3. Reflect on the Format of the Test
  4. Reflect on the Obstacles
  5. Think About What Kind of Learner You Are
  6. Decide on Your Test Dates
  7. Choose Your Course
  8. Apply Your Skills on Practice Exams
  9. Take a Practice Exam in a Chaotic Place
  10. Take Your Final Practice Exam
  11. Rituals for the Week Before the Test
  12. The Morning of the Test

Define Your Passion

Yes, this is a serious suggestion. As with training of any kind, your drills will mean the most to you if they have the force of your dreams behind them. Would you take the SAT even if you weren’t applying to college? If the answer is no, then a perfect score on the SAT is clearly not your larger life purpose, and this will naturally diminish your motivation during all your hours of studying and all your minutes of taking the exam. Nobody has ever gone down in history, after all, for getting a perfect score on the SAT.

Perhaps you know that you want to be a veterinarian, or a guitarist–these are passions. Doing well on the SAT will somehow help you get there. NOW you have a goal; each time you sit down to study, it will jog the part of your brain that reminds you of something that thrills you. This is a precious neural commodity.

You need to plant the seed in your mind that will keep you enthralled during the most boring passages, that will force you to push through instead of give up when you encounter a challenging math topic or are drowning in the tedium of grammar. Then, in those moments, you can think of your purpose and ignite the spark.

The ability to harness your attention (for prep and for the exam itself) can be one of the most salient factors of SAT success.

Take a Diagnostic Test

Take College Board Test #1, UNTIMED. This may seem like an odd caveat, since testing will occur during timed conditions; ideal prep, it is usually said, should mimic the test day–and I wholeheartedly agree. A timed test is not the most effective and informative diagnostic, though. First, you need to know whether you can do the questions accurately, and later you will build up speed so you can do them quickly.

With the anxiety, time limits, and frantic fellow-test takers removed from the equation, how much of the SAT stuff do you already know, and how much do you have left to learn? An untimed diagnostic will give you a very clear idea of your content gaps. In my somewhat unconventional opinion, this untimed test is instrumental to Phase 1 of your studies.

Reflect on the Format of the Test

Now that you have the Diagnostic Test behind you, you have also inadvertently learned a few things about the format of the test and how it feels to you (and that, without reading through dull charts and figures and introductory chapters). You have imbibed the style of the questions. You have a sense of the breadth of the content. This means that, conveniently, you can skip the introductory chapters of any test prep book that merely discuss the structure of the test–you already know it. I have seen far too many ambitious students start on page 1 of a prep book and do a thorough read, only to burn out by the first page of content! This can send you on an endless tailspin of procrastination. Just because books are required to include the introductory material doesn’t mean that you have to waste your limited study time reading it.

Reflect on the Obstacles

Ask yourself questions about how you interacted with the test. Which parts felt easy? Which parts felt difficult? Why? Make some lists with some proposed solutions (problem → solution). For example:

  • I didn’t understand the history passage because of the vocab → buy vocab flashcards
  • I don’t remember trigonometry at all → watch all trigonometry videos on Khan academy
  • I felt very sleepy during the reading → jump around the section and shake up the routine
  • The grammar passages are too boring to focus on → tell yourself that what you are reading is the most interesting topic in the world and that you want to soak up every word (this one sounds ridiculous, but by and large, my students routinely tell me this has been the most effective recommendation for battling chronic passage boredom!)

Think About What Kind of Learner You Are

Some students like learning methodically. Keeping quantitative track of how many chapters they have completed and how many remain provides stability and calmness. For other students, being constantly aware of this linear progress can feel overwhelming; things can seem to move at a snail’s pace and start to feel endless. Think about what would make each instance of learning less onerous to you. Does thinking “6 down, 4 to go” make you feel invigorated, or awful? Do you like learning online or on paper? Are you motivated by the presence of other students around you, or do you prefer studying alone? Do you need a person to keep you accountable, like a tutor, or will a computer program do? What is your ideal study space, and can you secure access to this? Keeping this knowledge in mind, proceed to the next step…

Decide on Your Test Dates

Common courses of study last 2 full years (mid-sophomore year to the end of junior year, heavy on the summer), 2 semesters (all of junior year), or 3 months (before your first proposed exam date).

You should likely plan to take the test twice junior year, and perhaps a third time early senior year if you have spent the summer prepping. Make sure you take into account your other obligations–vacations (nobody wants to slink off to take the SAT during a family wedding!), sports tournaments, school exams, and other standardized tests (scheduling around AP exams can be particularly grueling). Remember, you will only be in high school once, and this time in your life has a lot to offer; the idea is to integrate the SAT into your life without diminishing your immersion in other activities that bring you growth and joy. This can only help your performance in all areas.

If you plan to try the ACT as well as the SAT, take these two tests at vastly different times. Some of the material is different and much of the strategy is different–adding confusion will not contribute to the standardized, machine-like mental efficiency you seek.

Choose Your Course

Use our recommendations for free online resources, SAT prep books, and recommended online courses to plan your SAT study guide, making good use of all of the free College Board materials and the SAT videos and quizzes on Khan Academy (if you have time for little else, you should privilege these two resources above all). There is no need to stick to one course of study–don’t be afraid to be versatile, as long as you are comprehensive; that is, don’t skip topics just because they don’t suit you (those are perhaps the ones that should beckon you the most). If two months of studying out of books has wearied you, switch to an online course at the topic point where you left off. If studying by yourself has become dreary, find a tutor; if your classroom SAT instruction is holding you back and you’re ready to speed ahead of your classmates, switch to self-study.

This phase will take the bulk of your time, so plan accordingly.

Apply Your Skills on Practice Exams

After you finish all your content learning, take as many practice College Board Tests as you can. Depending on your SAT study schedule, you may take these once every week or once every two weeks. Once every three weeks is not often enough, and more than once a week may be too much. 

For each question that you get wrong, do more than read the answer explanation. Getting the same questions wrong over and over will not help you maximize learning; it will help you evaluate the learning that happens elsewhere. You may try several things:

  • Look up videos of what you got wrong, on Khan Academy or elsewhere.
  • Ask a tutor, a teacher, or a friend for a verbal explanation.
  • Literally re-write the question and solution by hand. Tedious as it may seem, it helps to cement it in your memory, and you may also realize where the gap in knowledge was (it seemed obvious when you read it, but not when you write it)..
  • Write your own version of the question and solve it (for a math problem, change all the numbers and see how things work out); read a non-SAT article and write your own questions; convince a friend to let you correct the grammar in a class essay (or in a text message?)!
  • Record yourself as you pretend to explain the solution to an imaginary student. Listen to this recording to solidify it in your mind.

Take a Practice Exam in a Chaotic Place

You want to build your confidence, and you want it to be unshakeable. Too many students take their practice tests under ideal, self-controlled conditions, only to come back and report to me that their official exam took place in a room without a clock with the proctor’s shoe squeaking on the linoleum floor. It is unfortunate, but these things do happen, and these things do matter.

Thus, for your second to last (not your last!) practice exam, remove all factors of comfort. Sit in a semi-public place where you might hear people whispering or coughing or sniffling at regular intervals. Position your chair near the open window, where the construction crane rumbles into the sky. Choose a stiff, uncomfortable chair. Make the room slightly too cold or slightly too warm. Now, take the test.

If you can perform under these conditions, you can perform anywhere! And the best part is, when that construction drill starts blaring outside your exam room on test day, you will have a built-in emotional failsafe: You can be content in the knowledge that you have already mastered this. You are not, after all, so easily shaken.

Take Your Final Practice Exam

This time, take a practice College Board Test under ideal conditions. What you get on this test is most likely very close to the score you will get on test day. 

Rituals for the Week Before the Test

Do about 30 minutes of study every night before bed (some research has shown that sleeping directly after learning a task will help you perform this task better upon awakening). This is the time to drill only practice problems; it is not a great time to learn new content. I recommend 1 reading passage, 1 grammar passage, and 7 math questions per night. Only College Board material! If you have done all the tests already, go back to College Board Test 1 and do them again. No practice content mimics the test perfectly, and you don’t want to muddy your brain with them so close to the exam.

After each exam, add to a “cheat sheet” that you will read on your commute to the exam on test day–this can include things you might forget and notes to yourself about alleviating anxiety. The idea is that if certain information is not lodged in your brain by this point, lodge it on the paper. (This cheat sheet should not be a complete summary of all things; if you know beyond the shadow of a doubt, don’t waste paper space or reading time!).

Sleep earlier than usual for 7 days before the test. Wake up at the time you would for the test, and eat breakfast. You must train your body for peak physical morning performance. (Even if you can’t fall asleep, simply closing your eyes and lying still sends your body some of the signals of sleep, and certain resting processes will be activated: You will feel more rested than if you keep your eyes open during your insomnia.)

The Morning of the Test

Eat breakfast. You wouldn’t run a race with weights on your foot, so you shouldn’t take a test with your brain functioning at some diminished percentage of its ideal capacity.

Read your cheat sheet on the way to the test.

Be confident. You are not walking into a room to be tested; you are walking into a room to demonstrate your skills, and the test is merely an opportunity for you to do that. How else will your colleges know that you can do this?