I must begin with the usual disclaimer: every student is different, and what works for one student may have to be modified for another.
However, most students can get in shape for the SAT by following a simple regimen. The words “get in shape” are particularly appropriate; an athlete exercises her heart and muscles, while you’ll be “working out your brain.” A sports cliché is “no pain, no gain,” and that applies to some extent to students as well.
Continuing the sports analogy, suppose you run the mile for your track team. Would your coach tell you to run a mile every time you practiced? More likely, he’d have you build up to a full mile, and then even have you run somewhat more than a mile in your last few practices before a meet. After all, you wouldn’t want to be staggering at the finish.
You want to follow a similar pattern when preparing for your SAT. At first, don’t worry about timing the sections exactly. Furthermore, you can take just part of a practice test, or take a whole practice test in two or three sittings. At this stage, you’re more interested in getting a feel for the test and developing good habits than you are in stamina.
If you are planning to take one practice test each week, start taking full-length SATs about two or three months before your official SAT date. Now you should time each section properly, and take the whole test in a single sitting (a couple of five minute breaks are okay, but nothing more).
But remember that the tests in the College Board Blue Book are actually shorter than the real thing, because they skip what would be the Experimental Section.
So, four weeks before your exam, you should take a practice test that is of the same length as the actual SAT. It’s okay if all you have are 9-section tests (as in the Blue Book). Just complete one of those tests (don’t forget the essay!), and add a 25-minute section from another test. Then do the same thing three weeks before your exam.
Then, two weeks before your real SAT, take a practice test of 12 sections (i.e. a 9-section test plus three 25-minute sections from another test). Do this again one week before your exam.
If you take two tests each week, you can follow the same pattern in half the time. Again, your last four tests should be two full-length ones followed by two extra-length exams.
Again, I’ve found that this regimen is effective for most students. If you’re a study-holic, and often use your brain non-stop for many hours (unlike most students who take big breaks when studying for hours), you may not need this exercise at all. And some people do take longer (and must work harder) to get their brains in shape. If that is the case, don’t beat yourself up – it doesn’t mean you’re “weak brained.” Just build up your stamina at whatever pace works for you. I once had a student who would start to get a headache after only 30 – 40 minutes. Eventually, she was able to finish an entire SAT.
Remember, the most important thing about this program is the extra-length tests. Many students take only 9- or 10-section practice tests, and find their scores drop at the end of their actual SAT. That’s because the pressure of the real exam leads them to use up more energy than they do on practice tests.
I know that taking a 4.5 hour test is not much fun. But come the day of your real SAT, you’ll be glad you did.