What to do During the Week Before the SAT

Here is some quick, common sense advice on what to do in the days leading up to your SAT, and on Test Day itself:

Obvious, but vital: You want to be stay healthy. Eat balanced meals and get a good night’s sleep.

You can continue to study for the exam, but don’t feel that you have to “go into overdrive.” Of course, if you haven’t started studying for the SAT, it’s too late to begin now. However, as James Bond and Mike McClenathan say, “never say die.”

If you do plan to study, it’s best to spend your time as efficiently as you can. If you’ve been struggling with a particular type of question, you might focus on reviewing that. On the other hand, don’t expect to gain much by studying vocabulary at this late date.

I advise most of my students not to study on the day before the SAT. Just relax and have a normal day, as long as “normal” isn’t too crazy for you.

Make sure your calculator is charged. You should use a calculator that you’re familiar with. Also bring a watch – preferably with a stopwatch or timer feature. Note that you are not allowed a watch that will make noise, or one that sits on your desk. And don’t forget your #2 pencils, your ticket, photo ID, and some snacks.

Here’s the College Board’s checklist.

English: A glass of Orange juice. Esperanto: O...

On Test Day

Naturally, you want to wake up early enough that you don’t have to rush. If you normally eat a big breakfast, do the same. It’s natural to be nervous before a big test, and you’ll only increase your anxiety if you break from your everyday routine.

You want to get to the test center a little early. If you care to socialize with other students, that’s fine, but I would recommend against talking about the content of the SAT. Wise guy remarks such as “you can’t ace the Math Section if you don’t know how to do derivatives” can induce nervousness.

Most students benefit from “revving up their brains” a little before the test. You might solve a few Sentence Completions or easy Math problems before you’re seated (you can store practice materials in a backpack, which might be left in a corner of the testing room).

You have the right to a good test-taking environment.

If you have a wobbly desk or chair, a flickering light overhead, or a student who won’t stop sneezing two desks away, be the squeaky wheel and ask the proctor to change your seat. Normally, you probably don’t want to be a troublemaker, and you know the proctor may find your request to be a nuisance. Be polite, but firm, and explain why you simply can’t take the SAT under adverse conditions.

Above all, remember what got you here. I’ve had too many students who have aced their last few practice tests, only to see their scores drop on the actual exam. Don’t focus too hard on getting a good score. Instead, focus on using the techniques that you’ve learned properly. Then good scores will follow.

Don’t try to “cruise” the exam. If anything, try to think a little harder than you did on practice SATs.

Relax and concentrate.

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Can You Improve Your Speed on the SAT?

Probably.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that there are two factors that affect one’s pacing on the SAT, which we’ll call “brain speed” and “habit speed.”

Brain speed is somewhat analogous to processor speed in a computer. It cannot be easily changed; some people’s brains move from thought to thought faster than others’. I don’t know if there’s any correlation between brain speed and intelligence. Over many years teaching students, I have observed some very smart people with slow brain speed (even a couple of geniuses), and some who aren’t as smart, but who process quickly.

If you’re a brainiac who processes slowly, there’s no reason you can’t be successful in a variety of fields. However, standardized tests such as the SAT can be something of a stumbling block. Arguably, students are given less time to solve questions on the SAT than they will be on college exams. In an earlier article, I proposed that the SAT would be fairer if it were administered over two days.

However, only a small minority of students have a brain speed so slow that it prevents them from answering most of the questions on the SAT. That is, most students who leave more than a handful of blanks do so largely out of “habit speed,” and will be able to speed up.

English: Lamborghini Diablo seen during Concou...

Before I get into specific methods of speeding up, I want to mention one relevant issue that only affects part of the test: reading speed. If you’re a slow reader, you will have trouble with sections that include passages. Of course, it is possible to improve reading speed. You might take a speed reading course (live or online). But if you have a learning disability that affects reading speed (and don’t qualify for special accommodations), or if English in not your primary language, you may still have a problem. Note that there are ways to approach the Reading questions without reading the entire passage. Unfortunately, they are beyond the scope of this article.

The advice I want to offer here is straightforward, but the process of improving your pace can be frustrating. The SAT is already quite challenging, and devoting some of your focus and energy to pacing may throw you off. Your scores may even drop temporarily, but you shouldn’t let that bother you.

Remember that, whatever your overall pace, you should begin slowly on each question. Review what I said about pacing like a golf swing in this article.

Using New Techniques to Speed Up

Whether you are studying from books, websites, or live teachers, you will learn new techniques to solve SAT questions, such as plugging in and anticipation. These techniques are designed to help you answer more questions correctly; they almost always help you solve faster as well. My students often question this. “They ask, if I take all that time anticipating, won’t I have trouble finishing the sections?” At first, you may slow down as you struggle with new methods. But eventually, that extra bit of time you spend at the beginning of a question will you help you to solve more efficiently – i.e. faster.

When you first learn new methods, it is more important to concentrate on using them properly than on scoring high and/or finishing quickly. Have patience, and your results will improve over time.

English: Sukhoi T-50, b/n 51.

Improving “Habit Speed”

I’ve had many students who believed they were slow thinkers, but actually weren’t. How can you tell? After many years of teaching, I can usually estimate a student’s potential “thinking speed” after a lesson or two; perhaps you know a teacher who can do the same. Also, based on completely unscientific observation, I’ve noticed a strong (and perhaps surprising) correlation between hand speed and brain speed. It’s not foolproof, but if you have quick hands, you may be a potentially fast thinker.

I use the term “habit speed” since I’ve found that many students solve slowly because they have become comfortable doing so. After all, time-pressure is not such a great factor on most tests, so there’s no incentive to practice performing at top speed.

Since speeding up will entail leaving your “comfort zone,” it is only natural that your accuracy will suffer somewhat, until you become comfortable and familiar with your new pace.

I did not invent the technique I am about to describe. In fact, it’s simple enough that I’m sure many people have thought of it on their own. To give due credit, I actually got the idea from a Karate expert named Dan Anderson. His instructor had told him never to perform a martial arts technique faster than he could with perfect form. However, when Anderson became a teacher, he found that such a rigid approach retarded his students’ development. Instead, he encouraged them to perform their techniques a little faster than they could perfectly. They became fast fighters quickly, and won a lot of tournaments.

You can apply this idea to solving SAT questions. Don’t go crazy and try to increase your speed by 50 per cent in one sitting. Aim for an increase of 10 – 15 per cent. If your score stays the same, that’s good. If it drops, you can try it again on another test. Once you are doing well, you can then try increasing your speed again. At some point, you may decide that you’ve gone too far, and need to back off a bit.

This method is not Nobel Prize-winning material, but it should be simple to implement. Just remember these two precepts: a little at a time, and be patient with your scores.

As you can imagine, this technique is a lot more helpful to some students than others. If you find that your speed doesn’t improve by that much, remember that you can still get a very nice score even if you leave out 5 questions on each section. And if you do speed up a lot, be careful not to overdo it. It’s not worth making careless errors by trying to save time for the longer, harder questions that are found at the end of most SAT sections.

SAT Book Review Winners

Here are my recommendations based on the materials I’ve reviewed to date:

Two independently published specialty guides lead the pack:

PWN the SAT Math Guide by Mike McClenathan

and

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

They are simply the best books available in their respective subjects.

Although I have not reviewed them, I keep hearing great things about these (from SAT experts around the country):

Direct Hits Core Vocabulary of the SAT

Direct Hits Toughest Vocabulary of the SAT

Of course, there’s more to the SAT than math, grammar, and vocabulary, so you’ll need a comprehensive SAT guide to cover the entire test. The winner (by a nose) is:

McGraw-Hill’s SAT

A close second is:

Barron’s SAT

I placed McGraw-Hill’s book first because the practice tests are a little more realistic. However, I am listing the Barron’s book here because there are two useful accessory tools available:

Barron’s SAT Flash Cards

Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

Vocabulary flash cards are also available from both Barron’s and McGraw-Hill.

If any authors or inventors would like me to review their books or products, please contact me via the About Page. Note that my review will represent my honest opinion; I don’t play favorites.

Where to buy these books on Amazon:

PWN the SAT Math Guide

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar

Direct Hits Core Vocabulary of the SAT

Direct Hits Toughest Vocabulary of the SAT

Mc-Graw-Hill’s SAT

Mc-Graw-Hill’s SAT with CD-ROM

Barron’s SAT

Barron’s SAT with CD

Barron’s SAT Flash Cards

Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

Review – SAT For Dummies

The title says it all. This is the worst SAT prep book I’ve reviewed to date.

A lot of the introductory material that can be found in the College Board “Blue Book” is also in SAT For Dummies, 8th edition, by Geraldine Woods et al. That’s the best thing I can say about the book.

Organization

576 pages

Introduction – SAT vs. ACT, about special needs students, what’s on the test, about scores

Information on section types

5 practice tests

More advice

The book is available with and without a CD, which includes vocabulary, 2 more tests, some essay prompts, and some basics from the book.

Pros

This makes an excellent gag gift for your favorite SAT teacher.

Cons

Very few strategies are given, and those are often poorly explained. Mostly, unrealistic example questions are presented, followed merely by explanations of why the answer is right.

There are many errors in this book.

The tests are some of the most unrealistic ones I’ve seen (even the wrong vocabulary words are tested – i.e. those not on the SAT).

The book without the CD has no vocabulary section.

Overview

This book probably sells reasonably well, because it’s part of the immensely popular “For Dummies” series. The idea of simple self-help books that don’t talk over reader’s heads is a great one. However, this book is useless for the reasons mentioned above.

I don’t want to rant too long, but here are a couple of examples of this book’s flaws:

There is no mention of plugging in, or many other useful math techniques that are found in most other SAT guides. To be fair, backsolving is mentioned.

The section on Sentence Completions begins with an explanation of what the questions entail, and a description of one- and two-blank questions (hint: one type has two blanks). But NO strategies for actually solving them are given. Instead, the author dives right into example questions (and poorly written ones at that), and merely explains why the answers are right. As I’ve already mentioned, this pattern is repeated throughout the book.

Here’s one of the sentences:

Although she was upset by the security guard’s close attention and stormed out of the lingerie store, Suzy Sunshine remained _______ for the rest of the day:

(A) braless
(B) serene
(C) annoyed
(D) joyful
(E) hungry

According to the author, the answer is (B). Of course, (D) is a perfectly valid answer, although (A) is my personal favorite.

No links for this one. Don’t buy it.

Ugh.

Pacing on SAT Questions

I recently wrote an article on how to manage your time on each section of the SAT (Time Management on the SAT). Today’s article is about how to budget your time on individual questions.

Obviously, I can’t tell every student how to pace every single question. What follows are general guidelines.

First, some basic principles:

Give each question its due.

Although SAT questions (except for passage-based ones) are arranged in order of difficulty, the ordering is not exact. Furthermore, each student is different, so your order of difficulty won’t necessarily mirror someone else’s. And harder questions don’t always take longer.

The point is that you may be giving up on some questions too easily. By “giving up,” I don’t necessarily mean that you are abandoning these questions entirely. Perhaps you’re merely “settling” for an answer instead of thinking things all the way through.

I see this happen most often on Sentence Completions and math questions. If a student is able to solve a question in say, 18 seconds, he may not be willing to put in over 30 seconds to solve the next one. That’s a shame if he can get it right in 45 seconds. So don’t go for an answer because you “think it might be right.”

On the other hand, sometimes you need to “cut bait” on a problem that’s taking too long. You can’t afford to spend several minutes solving one measly question, unless it’s at or near the end of a section.

Again, it’s hard to tell you exactly what to do in a blog article. You need to make intelligent decisions about whether to spend extra time or not. If you don’t have a tutor to help you with this advice, try taking a test and writing down the time at which you finished every question. Then you can go back afterwards and determine if you made good choices.

English: Amanda's golf swing

Pace questions like a golf swing.

A golfer carefully positions herself over the ball, takes a slow, measured backswing, and only then swings the club forward for maximum speed. Never rush reading the questions. Take your time planning, or anticipating, and only then should you consider going for speed. Rushing costs many students a lot of points.

Such pacing is appropriate for most SAT questions: Sentence Completions, math problems, and Improving Sentences.

Again, this is general advice. If you anticipate, but don’t like any of the answers, you should switch to “process-of-elimination mode,” and depending on the question, you may need to slow down for that.

Error IDs (Identifying Sentence Errors) are somewhat different. Most students do well to read them once, and then focus on the four underlined portions individually if they didn’t spot an obvious error on the initial reading. That means they actually need to slow down during the process.

Passage-based questions (in the Reading section, or on Improving Paragraphs in the Writing Section) are very different, since most students will read the passage first before looking at them. Since there are several different ways of reading the passage (various speeds, skimming, reading only key sentences, etc), I can’t give specific advice here. There are several factors that will influence your best choice of reading method (the most important being your reading speed and level of comprehension). And different methods of reading will require different methods of question solving. “Don’t rush too much” is my best general cop-out advice here.

You can see that learning how to best pace your SAT can be nearly as challenging as answering the questions. Practice really helps here; the more tests you take and review, the better equipped you’ll be to time each question effectively.

Review – Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

This is the “compact version” of Barron’s SAT. It’s well written. It’s nifty. If you’re planning to study with the larger book, it makes a great companion book.

Pass Key for the SAT, 8th edition, is 440 pages long. At just over 5″ by 8″, it’s not quite a pocket book, but it’s a handy paperback.

Organization

Introductory chapters – SAT format, guessing, timing, study plan

Strategies by section, vocabulary

2 practice exams

Pros

There’s a lot of helpful information in this small book.

There are few errors, if any.

The text is very easy to understand.

The authors of Pass Key also wrote Barron’s SAT, and the techniques are the same.

This is one of the few quick guides that has practice tests.

Cons

Not many. Obviously, the book isn’t comprehensive, but that’s no problem if you are studying from a larger book also.

At $9.99, Pass Key costs almost as much as the 936-page Barron’s SAT.

Overview

The great thing about this book is its size. If you’re studying from Barron’s larger book, you probably won’t want to lug it around everywhere you go. But you can easily grab this one and take it to Grandma’s, the library, etc. and get a bit of SAT prep in here and there.

If you’re studying from another large prep book, such as McGraw-Hill’s, this won’t be as helpful. Although the techniques are similar, the organization and explanations will be different.

What I like about this book is that it will encourage students to study for the SAT when they otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a great “road companion.”

Buy the book here.

Developing Your Mental Stamina for the SAT (and other tests)

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.

The brain

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.