Raising your SAT score is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work and determination! But strong scores can make all the difference in getting into your top choice university or getting the scholarship money to pay for it. Because of that, it’s worth your time to make sure that you know how to get a good SAT score. Or not just a “good” SAT score but a great one!
I’ve distilled here what I’ve learned over my years of teaching the SAT, including the techniques that have gotten many of my students to perfect or near-perfect scores on the SAT and ACT. My cost-effective guided self-study program is also built around these recommendations so that even students who are self-studying can be confident that they are doing so efficiently.
Recommendation #1 – Study actively, prioritizing quality over quantity
I see it all the time. Students come to me after going through all eight of the College Board tests, but without really having seen any progress in their SAT scores so far. Or they’ve logged hours watching Khan Academy videos but aren’t yet seeing an impact on their scores.
These students are often making the mistake of prioritizing quantity over quality, burning through materials without really learning from them.
Instead, make sure that you are always studying actively. This means taking time to read through strategies for the reading section, studying grammar rules, and reviewing math concepts. As you study, take notes and review them later.
Whatever you do, DON’T just do practice test section after practice test section. I equate that to trying to lose weight by stepping on and off the scale all the time. You do need those periodic check-ins, but you also need to exercise and diet. In other words, you need to actually work on learning material.
If you are using Khan Academy to study, don’t just let the videos wash over you. Pause the videos, try solving the problems yourself, and then check your work when you resume watching.
Be mentally present for your prep.
But how do you do that, when the SAT is probably not the most exciting thing in your life?
Recommendation #2 – Protect your motivation
Don’t underestimate the importance of this recommendation. It’s easy to be motivated in the beginning.
But let’s be realistic. It can be tough to maintain that motivation, especially when you have schoolwork, sports, and your social life competing for attention.
Plus, getting a great SAT score means lots of practice in areas that you might not find terribly fun to work through, like dense reading passages or tricky math topics. Assuming you’re doing the optional essay, it means actually sitting down and writing a lot of practice essays.
Find a way to stay motivated by repeatedly reminding yourself of why you’ve committed to raising your score.
There are a lot of motivational techniques you can use. Find one that speaks to you, and use it.
Write down your goal and WHY it is important to you.
Post it in a place you’ll see it regularly. Add to your list of WHYs as you think of more. Doesn’t matter if your goals are lofty or petty:
- “I want to go to a great school so that I can get a great job in foreign policy.”
- “I want to beat my brother’s SAT score” (totally worked to get one student to a 36 on his ACT in 2019)
- “I want to prove wrong that one person who once said I would never do anything special.”
- “I need to offset my bad freshman year GPA.”
Find an accountability partner.
Preferably someone who is also trying hard to improve their SAT score. Share your study plan with them, and encourage each other to accomplish what you set out to do.
Create a vision board.
Use images of your top choice college and what you imagine your life to be like as a student there. Or as a graduate of such a great school!
Whenever you feel you are drifting away from your study goals or are feeling discouraged about your progress, spend some time recentering yourself around your motivation.
Recommendation #3 – Use the right materials
There are a lot of SAT materials out there, and they are definitely NOT all created equal. Focusing on the wrong materials can give you a warped sense of what the SAT is like. Choose the wrong ones and you may be practicing materials that are too easy or just not terribly SAT-like.
The SAT is a unique test with its own quirks, and it’s sometimes tough for prep book publishers to get the tests right. In addition, the differences may be hard to spot except by a true SAT expert.
So don’t waste your study time. Focus your efforts on materials that best mimic what you are actually going to see on your SAT.
The best SAT study materials
By far, the best materials out there are the official tests produced by CollegeBoard and freely available for download on their website. (No need to buy the big blue book; just print out the pdfs.) Second best are the official PSAT tests also available on the CollegeBoard website. The PSAT has slightly different timing guidelines, but since they are created by CollegeBoard, they mimic the SAT exactly.
If you are looking for content review or tutorials for the different question types, the Khan Academy video course was created in partnership with the CollegeBoard. Some students find it difficult to stay motivated watching these videos (see Recommendation #2 above), so target just the topics you know you need when you need them.
Other options for materials
If you are planning to do a LOT of SAT prep, you’ll probably run out of materials if you just use the CollegeBoard materials. In this case, I recommend working with a highly experienced tutor to make sure that you are working through the best supplemental materials available.
The more experience a tutor has, the more intimately they know the SAT. They’ve tested out materials and evaluated how well they match the actual SAT, or they’ve created materials outlining exactly which math concepts or grammar rules you’ll see.
Side Note: Contact me if you are interested in working with a tutor with over 15 years of experience teaching the SAT. We’ll use the best materials available to make sure you get a good SAT score.
Recommendation #4 – Accuracy first, then speed
Doing well on the SAT requires not only getting questions right but also getting everything done within the time limit. However, a lot of students make the mistake of trying to address both of these things at the same time–with the unfortunate result that they quickly reach a plateau and stop improving.
So how can you avoid this mistake?
When you first start working on a section, focus on developing accuracy. Only once you are reasonably accurate should you work on building speed.
As the saying goes, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. (Unless you’re my little brother, but he was not your average baby.)
While working on accuracy, it’s ok if you are slow working through questions because you are building the reasoning skills you’ll need.
Your job during this stage should be to take the time to understand the question thoroughly.
Don’t be satisfied with guesses. Stick with a question until you’ve figured out exactly how you were supposed to get to the answer, and make sure you’d know how to repeat that process on a similar question.
So when should you focus on speed?
When you feel you have a pretty good handle on the material, gradually introduce timing practice into your prep. At first, trade off between timing practice and accuracy practice. As you keep gaining accuracy, you can shift your focus more and more to timing.
At first, you may find it difficult to finish the section on time, and that’s ok. As you review the section, look for places to improve your speed by prioritizing questions better or by seeing the logic of the question more quickly.
If your pacing was off by more than a few minutes, work on gradually bringing yourself to within time on the section. Shave off a minute or two each time until you can finish in time. Don’t forget to budget time for bubbling your answers.
Recommendation #5 – Learn from your mistakes… and your guesses
We’ve talked about being active in your prep (Recommendation #1) and prioritizing accuracy (Recommendation #4), but how can you actually do those things?
The trick is to turn every mistake into a learning opportunity.
It sounds cliche, but it’s one of the best ways to take a decent SAT score and turn it into a truly good score.
A general rule of thumb is to spend at least as much time reviewing the answers and explanations as you did solving the questions in the first place. Make notes on the questions you missed, and diagnose your reason for missing them.
- Do you need to review content?
- Were you working too quickly? Carelessly?
- Did you overlook a word? Focus on something that wasn’t important?
- Were you guessing?
Want a way to keep track of your mistakes? I’ve created an SAT error log that I use with my tutoring students. Sign up here to get it for free, then read this article about how to use it.
Of course, going this much in-depth with your review takes self-discipline, which leads us to the next recommendation…
Recommendation #6 – Develop Good Study Habits
Very few people can get a good SAT score without consistent studying. Motivation (Recommendation #2) is an important prerequisite for developing good study habits, but really solid study habits should include the following:
- A study schedule (that you stick to)
- An accountability partner or a study group
- Distractions eliminated
- Time for review
Recommendation #7 – Don’t neglect the psychological aspect of the exam
The SAT is a stressful test, not only when you are actually taking it but also in the months leading up to it. An important part of getting a good SAT score is knowing how to manage the psychological side of the test.
While Prepping – Focus on growth
None of us were born knowing how to get a good SAT score. We all have to start somewhere and have to build our skills over time.
However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the SAT is a test of intelligence of innate ability. But it’s not. It’s a test of critical thinking skills — skills which can be developed.
Have you ever heard yourself thinking any of these things?
- “I’m just not a good test taker.”
- “I’m not a math person.”
These ways of thinking often limit the progress we can make. If we believe that we always have been and always will be a “bad” test taker, it’s harder to break out of that pattern.
So whenever you catch yourself thinking like that, try to adjust your thinking:
- “I can become a confident test taker by making sure I know exactly what to do–including how to manage my stress.”
- “Obviously I wasn’t born knowing linear equations. If I can learn that, then I can also learn quadratics.”
While Testing – Practice stress management techniques
During the test itself, you’ll need to keep stress and anxiety at bay in order to do your best work. It’s perfectly natural to be nervous, of course, but you want to avoid letting that nervousness affect your performance.
But don’t wait until test day to practice the stress management techniques you’ll need.
If you found these recommendations for how to get a good SAT score helpful, there are a couple of ways I can help you implement them:
- If you are looking for a tutor, check out this page or schedule a free consultation call.
- If you want to self-prep, but aren’t sure you’ll be able to keep yourself accountable or don’t know if you’d be focusing on the right things, check out my guided self-study program.
- And if you just want more tips and information, follow me on Facebook at Resolution Test Prep.
Whatever you decide, best of luck in getting that great score!