How to Ace the SAT: A No-Nonsense System for Students Looking to Score High

The SAT Season LoomsSATs

Over the past two weeks I’ve received three different e-mails asking for advice about SAT prep. I assume, therefore, that we’ve entered a season during which many high school students have begun to look ahead to this most dreaded of the standardized test family.

In this post, I want to summarize the system I typically recommend for high-performance SAT preparation. This advice is motivated by three sources: (1) my own experience preparing for the SAT (which I took only once and did pretty well on); (2) the results of a survey I conducted last fall about test prep habits that worked; and (3) observations I made about how a group of my college friends prepared for the LSATs (all three got into Harvard Law School, so they must have done something right.)

The Practice Test Tsunami

My system for SAT preparation works as follows:

  1. Skim the Princeton Review Book. I find some of its advice to be simplistic (for example, all that nonsense about Joe Bloggs), but it also offers some concrete strategies for tackling the main question types. In particular, their methods for dealing with ratio problems on the math section, and analogies on the verbal section, are fast and work well. Learn these. They make a difference.
  2. During a 5 – 10 week period leading up to the test, take 2 timed practice tests per week. Do one of the tests in one sitting (with breaks calibrated to match the real SAT.) I recommend setting aside a weekend morning each week for this beast. I also recommend the public library as a better location than your noisy house. The other timed test you can be split up. For example, tackle a timed math section one day and a timed verbal section another. Spread these out. If you attempt too much review, you’ll burn out and stop working all together. Similarly, if you don’t take the timed test seriously — and really concentrate — they don’t help nearly as much. So set aside serious time for serious concentration.
  3. Go back and review every single wrong answer. Taking the timed tests will get you used to working under pressure. To further improve your performance, however, it’s crucial that after each timed session you review every single question you got wrong; determine why you got it wrong and why the right answer is right. This post-mortem is by the far the most effective tactic for improving your ability to consistently nail the harder questions.
    (Bonus Tip: A reader wrote me this morning to reveal a twist to the wrong question review process. She recorded her wrong answers on note cards, and then did a quiz-and-recall review. As she took more practice tests, her pile of hard question note cards increased. Each day, she did a fresh Q-and-R on her trouble spots. The result? She claims that it quickly revealed patterns that immediately improved her performance. Her math score — where she was having the most trouble — bounced up 150 points in one week!)

If you find this workload too brutal, start earlier and spread it out more. For example, there would be nothing wrong with starting review now for the October test date. You can do only one timed test per week, and take some weeks off. Don’t make the mistake of equating pain with quality review. The two are unrelated.

But What About…

A few final notes. In my (unverified) opinion, this technique works better than the Princeton Review prep courses. The students who benefit from the prep courses do so because it forces them to take timed sample tests. If you can do practice tests on your own (and follow-through on the resulting post-mortems), you won’t gain anything new from the formal courses.

Second, I’m not a huge believer in memorizing vocabulary lists. The only way to hit the 700 range or above on the verbal section is to read, a lot. If you’re younger, start reading as much real books as possible. (Like many high-scorers on the verbal section I begun reading adult fiction and non-fiction early.) Memorizing words might boost a not high score to slightly less not high, so if that’s you, then, I guess, you can memorize if you want. On the other hand, if you’re a bookworm, you’ll probably find that with practice your scores get where you need them to be without memorization.

Whatever you do, however, don’t buy those stupid fake novels with SAT prep words bolded. They’re a waste of print and an insult to anyone planning on attending college. If you’re in doubt, drop me a line, I’m happy to recommend any number of real books that will boost your vocabulary while having the advantage of not being terrible.

What worked for you? 

43 thoughts on “How to Ace the SAT: A No-Nonsense System for Students Looking to Score High”

  1. One thing, the analogies portion on the verbal section of the test was eliminated.

    Also, as there is grammar now added to the SATs, I feel that the Princeton Review course I took was useful only because of the way the covered the grammar questions: by pointing the common concepts (subject verb agreement, gerunds, etc) that are tested and reviewing those.

  2. “The only way to hit the 700 range or above on the verbal section is to read, a lot.”

    How very true! I started reading adult-level books in 2nd or 3rd grade (both fiction and non-fiction, particularly classics) and I scored an 800 on the verbal section… twice. My problem was with math (I took the SAT before the writing section debuted). What worked best for me was to take practice tests, and then work through the problems I missed with my math teacher. I suppose not every teacher would be willing to help, but I found that one-on-one explanations of troublesome problems was very helpful. Also, as someone who understands the ideas underlying math problems, but has trouble with the numbers, I found it useful to sometimes not start working the problem right away and instead think logically about problems of that type. Sometimes I could save myself a lot of work by realizing that most of the possible answers couldn’t be correct based on the underlying principles of mathematics.

    Of course, if all else fails, you can take the list of possible answers and just plug them into the problem and see which one comes out right…

  3. Hey Cal, I got a 1600 on the SAT and 800’s on all my subject tests. Here is how I did it:

    A) Take tons of practice tests, review all wrong answer. By tons, I mean once a week for two months before the test.

    B) Memorize vocab with flashcards and associating weird ideas with each word.

    C) Study harder than the test. This is a question of intensity, not volume. Study from the most challenging study guide available, a “to-the-bones” study guide like Barron’s.

    D) Go in confident in your abilities. This can’t be taught, it comes with practice.

    I would like to hear your tips on the LSAT…I’m taking that soon, and there are not close to enough resources that explain how to take it (plus I gotta do well to make up for the GPA…did not get your book on time).

  4. What would your advice be regarding the GRE?

    Probably something similar. To be honest, my own experience was a little rushed. The fall before I took it I was too busy writing my first book to study, so I ended up only having a few days to prepare. I did a few sample tests, my math score was high enough, so I just went in and took it.

    It’s unclear how much the GRE matters. MIT, for example, doesn’t look at it. Other schools I applied to did, but I don’t think they really care.

  5. I have to agree with John, Study harder than the test.
    I’ve found guides from REA and Barrons to be good.

    While preparing (and thinking about all the test you’ve taken so far in your life) find your weakness. Mine is running out of time on timed test. I usually do the sample test and try to simulate the answers/minute pace i’m going to need.

    Also, they write questions to test one specific concept. When studying sample type questions, try to think about what that concept is. It helps me when I see a question, and I can think,” oh, they want to know if I can multiply exponents” or ” know when to use colons”, etc…
    This is probably more useful for the math sections.

  6. When I studied for the GRE and was scrounging for “get smart quick” links on the web, a blog post from an Indian student suggested reading PG Wodehouse novels to improve verbal skills (math was easy for this guy).

    I’m a bookworm so the verbal was no problem, but I had hard and lingering problems with the math. I prevailed though. I wrote two long posts on my GRE experience at my old blog here and here.

  7. The first time I took the SATs, I had done a computer software study kit that had practice tests and practice questions. I started and worked on this for several weeks before the test, and used a Kaplan study book as well.

    Ironically, when I took it a second time a few months later, I did absolutely no studying prior to the test, got a very good night’s sleep the evening before, and ended up scoring over 200+ more pts, putting my score at a 1520.

    I used this same method taking the PCATs in January and outscored every other person I knew who took the test that day. Maybe it was just luck, but I wholeheartedly believe that a good 8-9 hours of solid sleep without cramming the night before makes all the difference in your performance and attentiveness.

  8. I am going to be an upcoming junior in high school and am currently at CU doing a summer study (studying the SAT). I would love to hear what books you think would be a good read to help increase vocabulary scores. I took a practice test a week ago and my worst section score was critical reading. Those long passages and questions kill me!

  9. I did one full length practice test about 3 months before the real thing, and I signed up for one of those email ‘SAT question of the day’ things about a year in advance, so basically one question a day for a year. No other prep, got a 2310 on my first go 🙂 I love crossword puzzles, word games and dense fiction, though, and I live in a country where the stuff on SAT maths is covered in elementary and middle school (I don’t think anyone in my year got less than 650 on the maths section), so lots of ‘unofficial’ test prep not covered by looking at the actual study.

    For the SAT 2s, I did three practice tests for each subject, got 800 on all of them, also on my first go. That was also pretty much it in terms of specific study, but I did all three of those subjects for IB and had mock exams at the same time as the SAT, so I didn’t bother studying separately.

  10. The SATs are dreaded? Er…why? You know Johns Hopkins has 7th graders take it just for the hell of it to see how they do as compared to 12th graders. I was surprised at how bad the 12th graders did, or rather, that they did no better than the middle schoolers. As far as I’m concerned, that’s proof that the SATs are too easy. Geometry’s the highest level math on it, right? You can be done with Calculus 2 by the end of high school, though. OK, not everybody does finish Calculus 2 in high school (I didn’t, since I didn’t take math my senior year, opting to take college courses instead), but pre-calculus should at least be on there. Or maybe it’s a sign that high school is useless, if 7th graders and 12th graders know exactly the same amounts.

  11. Thanks for the response, Cal.

    I hope you’re right man. The GRE seems to be so… useless and unrelated to what grad school is supposed to be about.

  12. @Mack, do you understand what KIND of test the SAT is? It is not an academic test to see what you have learned. It is kind of a logic puzzle.

    Anyway, your method did not work for me, Cal. I think what would have helped me break 2000 is if I had followed my Rocket Review Revolution book as I was going through the study process.

    To study for vocabulary, those books are a waste of time. You just need to get the red and blue book and study those words in there. You will find the same kind of words and even duplicates of a word and save time. You’ll also become familiar with the logic of the SAT.

    Writing simply requires a good memorization of the grammar rules the SAT follows.

    Math is the hard one. I did what you said, Cal. I tried to rework those hard math problems. I just couldn’t get it. I forgot that these math problems are not like my school test. Its a logic game and I just didn’t get the logic of it.

  13. I was just wondering if you would like give a list of like books taht are like good for the sat

    To be honest: any book. Go to the bookstore, look at the tables of new releases, grab things that really catch your attention.

  14. My son took the SAT Twice and both times got only 1900- first time he barely prepared 2months and second time we sent him to to an expensive tutor (with excelletn credentials) for 5 whole months and his points did not go up even 5.

    Ofcourse he had a huge load of school workwiht 4 APs. Is there any point writing it the 3rd time now that it is summer and he can focus only on SAT. Please do recommend some authors that you mention in your article. Many thanks

  15. Please do recommend some authors that you mention in your article

    There’s no magic best authors for improving your vocabulary. The best books for your son are the books that he’ll actually want to finish. In terms of more general strategies for raising his scores, keep in mind that not all practice and tutoring is made equal. It has to be focused on the right things. The type of steps I outline in this article can go a lot farther than taking a standard prep course or desultory review.

  16. hey cal i love ur blog by the way. i have a question regarding th sat’s .You know how you take the practice ones ,sometime u get wrong answers and then ug o check for the right one.Well they never tell u how to exactly get the rigth answer. Could u help with that would apprecaite it

  17. Hey,
    there is this book from mcgraw-hill, called “increase your sat scores in 3 minutes a day” and it seems to have awesome reviews on Would you recommend it?

  18. there is this book from mcgraw-hill, called “increase your sat scores in 3 minutes a day” and it seems to have awesome reviews on Would you recommend it?

    I don’t know the book. But I don’t think there are any short cuts to practing questions, under timed conditions, then decoding the wrong answers…

  19. Hey Cal,

    I recently scored a 2400 on my SAT using this method. The only thing I did differently is that when I went through my practice tests, I made a small mark next to every question I had even a slightest doubt about and reviewed all of these questions after the test. I must say that this method of preparing is much more efficient and less stressful than any review course!

  20. Hello Cal!

    I live in Sweden and I will do a standardized test in 2 april. One part of the test is about vocabulary(40). Actually, if I memorize the words it will pay off. There are many websites that offers thousands of words(7000-8000) for free. Last test they succeded to get 32/40 words of 7000-8000 which is good.

    Back to my problem: I want to memorize the words. What kind of method do you recomend for memorizing many words? Maybe quiz and recall method? I hope you can answer me if you have time since I have to start practice for the test and I really need a high score.

    Great blog!



  21. Hi Cal, Thanks for this wonderful site. I had purchased your book and am impressed with the contents.

    Could you please email me the list of books which could help boost voabulary from my highschooler. She loves to read, and I might as well help point her in the right direction.

    Best Wishes !!

  22. Hello, just wondering…i made a horrible 1600 on my SAT so I started to look up some ways to get me in that 2150-2400 range, and I found this place. See i plan on taking it again the fall of my senoir year. Ive read a 300 page book about tips on the SAT after i found out my low score..but none of it seems to help me. Would you recommend me to just get a bunch of full sized practice tests and do those for the next 3 months or so?

  23. Hello, I am going to be a freshman and I am already worried about the SAT test…I am the type of person who takes all accelerated classes and does well on all assignments but as soon as something is labled as a test my mind goes blank. I was just wondering if you had any tips on how to become comfortable with the stress of tests. Also, I would really appreciate any book suggestions. Thanks!

  24. Hi, great posts. I want to second Calleigh , As I am preparing for verbal section and need to memorise a lot of words, which is now probably unavoidable as I didn’t put much time in reading literature at young age, and still want to perform good so like Calleigh I am also searching for some method to learn words easily, and it is a bit frustrating because this is the third time I am revising barrons and still many words feel like I am reading them for the first time. About for weeks to go for the big date. if you can give some more short cut or some tips for this particular problem of mugging up words, it would be very helpful.

  25. I will take the SAT exam in the coming November. Could you please give me some advices on what REAL books I can read to boost my vocabulary. Thanks a million.

  26. I got a 2310 on my first try without studying (I took 1 practice test) and I stumbled of this page because I was looking for tips to help my little sister do better on the SAT. Some things I realized through reading this article and analyzing my own approach:

    1. The critical reading section is the hardest to game and improve on. Cal is right, it’s important to have read a lot so your brain is better at synthesizing information and grasping the main point of an essay. For good books, check out College Board’s “Books for College-bound”. It has lots of pretty great suggestions. If one doesn’t like the classics, read some great articles about science and social issues in Scientific American, the Atlantic, New Yorker, etc.

    2. Mindset is important. Don’t go into the test hugely stressed. What I did is treat it like it was a game, kind of like one of those online IQ or personality quizzes. Try to look for tricks in the questions and when in doubt look for reasons an answer is WRONG. It’s all about the process of elimination.

  27. Hi,
    I’ve skimmed over the Barron’s SAT prep book and I’ve done all 4 practice tests and scored in the 1930-80s. can u recommend a way I can up this static score to 2200 and above

  28. Hi Cal. Just have found your posts recently. I am a student from China. So you have any suggestion for the international students of studying SAT? My teachers recommend me to memorize the vocabulary,and I did. But the truth is they were very likely to be forgetting, and I don’t think I have enough time since the test is one month away. Math won’t be a problem for me but verbal and writing.

  29. Hi Cal,
    I’m facing the inevitable and taking the SAT this May. I appreciate your helpful advice. I picked up the Princeton Review book last week and just dug in. I spread the reading out on my calendar using your scheduling strategies and am reading about a chapter or 2 per day. I’ll start practice testing in March . . . thanks again for shining a light on such begrudging tasks . .


  30. Hi Cal,

    I have never written the SAT’s before and have registered to write on the 3rd of May 2014. I have done IGCSE and AS-Levels previously and I did pretty well with them. I would like some advise on how I should prepare for the SAT’s as I only have about 2 months till the test. I just need to score about 1800 for varsity entrance.


  31. Hi,

    I am a freshman in high school and was wondering what advice you had for me regarding prep at this age. Thank you

  32. Hi!
    I was wondering if you could list a few books that would help on the vocabulary sections. I am determined to get a high score in the upcoming October SAT. I’m somewhat of a bookworm (haven’t picked up a book in awhile) so I’ll hopefully adjust easily and fall in love with reading again.
    Thank you for your time and have a lovely day!


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