There are several ways to study for the SAT. You can learn from books or software, or take a course (online or live). Courses may be given in one-on-one, small group, or large class format.
The purpose of this article is not to debate the relative effectiveness of these different methods, but rather to help you get the most out of whichever one (or combination) you choose.
Before Your Session
Just some common sense advice here: Have your materials ready, be on time, and get yourself mentally prepared.
In fact, a lot of my advice in this article will be common sense. If you’re already following it, fine. Otherwise, remember that common sense is good sense.
During the Session
If you are learning from a book and/or software, you will likely do your own scheduling and may study in short bursts; otherwise the sessions will be scheduled and longer. In any case, it’s time to get serious. You’re here to learn, so put away your cell phone (after turning it off), mp3 player, Game Boy, or Slinky. No, you don’t learn better while listening to music; you’re just fooling yourself if you think so.
If you’re not traveling to your class, you want a good learning environment: Good lighting, minimal distractions, upright chair, and ample desk space. Snacks are okay if kept to a minimum.
If you’re in a group, try to sit front and center – it’s the best seat in the house. Remember – you are not there to socialize!
Regardless of your method of learning, take good notes. You will be more likely to memorize facts and techniques if you write them down, and you’ll be able to reference them easily later.
SAT prep is a lot different than most school learning. In school, you mostly need to memorize facts and understand concepts. You need to do those things for the SAT also, but most of your focus will be on learning and implementing new techniques.
Most SAT techniques shouldn’t be too hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean you pick up everything on the first try. You may need to reread strategies, or ask your teacher to explain things a different way. Software courses should allow you to go back and repeat important material.
You don’t want to move on until you understand a new technique. If you’re in a classroom and the teacher needs to continue, make a note to review the method later.
Note that this doesn’t mean that you have to be able to use a new technique perfectly, if you only just learned it. For example, plugging in on some math problems is a great technique, but there are several ways to use it and it can take awhile to learn them well.
Important – once you understand a technique, your work is not done. My students learn great techniques all the time, and when they take practice tests, they don’t use them! You need to understand when to use particular techniques, and strive to change your habits and solve in new ways. It’s easy to forget all about a new technique when you’re caught up in trying to understand and/or solve a problem.
That last point explains why many students don’t do well without a live teacher. It’s very hard to change your habits without someone to guide and even push you. If you’re studying on your own, you have to be your own coach. That’s a lot of responsibility, considering you’re already trying hard to be a good student.
After Your Session
Review my earlier article on Study Tips.
If you’re studying at your own pace, you should continue on through the week (or other study period in between practice tests) reviewing, fine-tuning, and repeating. If you’ve had a scheduled lesson, you should now begin that regimen.
Don’t just think “I’ve had my lesson, so all I have to do is complete my practice test.” Reviewing in between your lesson and your test is vital! You should review concepts and techniques that you’ve learned, and then work through a few problems to reinforce your learning. Here, it’s okay to review the same problems you’ve solved earlier, or ones that your instructor showed you how to solve. You’ll encounter plenty of fresh problems on your upcoming test.
If you solve relevant problems from a workbook, you may apply your new techniques improperly, or even use the wrong techniques, which is why it may be better to re-solve old problems. The choice depends on your progress and what kind of student you are.
Most students should take a full-length practice test after each lesson. After the first 1 – 3 tests, each should be appropriately timed and taken continuously. You can even take tests at your local library to best simulate actual test conditions. Of course, some courses offer proctored practice tests, which you should attend.
You should definitely take tests developed by The College Board. All other tests differ significantly from the real thing.
The sooner you take your practice test after your lesson, the more likely you will remember to use new techniques (and how to use them). If you simply must put off the test until just before the following lesson, be sure to do plenty of review beforehand.
Do not think of taking a practice test as “getting your homework done”! It’s not nearly enough just to complete a practice test – you need to strive to use new techniques as you solve the questions. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. After all, the test is challenging enough without having to worry about changing your habits and solving problems differently. But those changes in your approach are what will determine how much you’ll improve.
Obviously, there is more specific advice I could give on this subject. But I don’t want to overwhelm you. Reread this article a few times if you need to, and focus on getting to the point where you’re actually using new techniques. Then watch your scores soar.