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How to Prep for the SAT

05/02/2013 06:07 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2013
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For college-bound students, the SAT stands as one of the major hurdles to be cleared on their path to college acceptance. A good score opens doors to admission and even scholarships; a poor score may scuttle a student's chances of attending a dream school. With so much riding on the exam, it's little wonder that the test prep industry has exploded with online classes, group classes, and private tutors all jockeying to help students lift their scores, whether by a few dozen points or a few hundred.

Whether you're cramming for one of the spring exams or looking ahead to the next set of exams in the fall, here are some tips to help you build your confidence and raise your score.

1. Take a practice test.
Take the practice test -- you can download one free from various internet sites, including the College Board, or take a practice test from a study book -- under circumstances as similar to the SAT as possible: stick to the time limits (between 20-25 minutes depending on the section), take no breaks except the scheduled ones, and take it in a quiet place like a library or a part of your house where you won't be disturbed. Allow at least 3.75 hours.

2. Score your test and carefully review the results.
Did you do significantly better on one section than another? Did you realize that you remember most of your 9th grade algebra, but geometry has become a blur? Does grammar befuddle you, or did you run out of time because you spent too much time staring at the unfamiliar words in the sentence completion portion? Whatever your results, they are a window into your strengths and weaknesses. Use them to tailor your preparation to your particular needs.

3. Make a plan.
Whether you have three weeks or six months until your test, make a study plan. Ask a teacher or a tutor for some advice if you are having trouble. Make your weakest areas your priority, and review both content and testing strategies regularly. Assemble an array of helpful resources: there are dozens of test prep manuals on the market, as well as online resources and classes or tutors. Be honest with yourself about your level of self-discipline and how much help you may need, and determine which approach will work best for you.

Once you have taken a practice test as a diagnostic and have a plan in test, these tips may help you flesh out your study plan and give you some additional aid.

4. Review geometry, particularly special triangles and rules about angles
The SAT gives you the formulas you will need for the math portion, but if you aren't adept at working with them, they aren't much help. Training yourself to recognize a 30-60-90 triangle or a supplementary angle will be the key to solving some problems and will be a time saver -- and remember, this is a timed test.

5. Review vocabulary, but be realistic.
You probably can't memorize one thousand new words out of context; that's not how we acquire language. You may be able to manage one hundred, though. Choose the highest-frequency words -- there are lists and flashcards available -- and focus on knowing them well. Then spend the rest of your time learning how to use context clues, transition words and comparisons to help you deduce the meaning of a word.

6. Answer what is being asked.
The math on the SAT tests your math reasoning ability, but it also tests your meticulousness. The SAT will commonly throw in a question like "what is x+1" when you've solved for x. Your math may be perfect, but if you bubble in the answer for x -- and that trick answer will always be there -- you're still wrong. Read the question again before you answer.

7. Practice, practice, practice.
Take practice tests, and take lots of them. Most students will do better the second time they take the exam even if they do no additional preparation simply because they're familiar with the format. Knowing the test format will give you a huge advantage when it comes to pacing yourself and recognizing certain types of questions. It will also provide you with a periodic update on how you're improving and what you still need to work on.

And finally, a word of advice you might pass on to your little brother or sister...

8. Become a voracious reader.
There are no shortcuts here. Students who read avidly have a broader vocabulary, a stronger grasp of the intricacies of grammar, and generally read more quickly and with higher comprehension, all of which will result in higher scores. This is not something you will learn in six weeks; it's about cultivating a lifetime habit. Pass it on to the younger ones.