The SAT is an important test, so it’s imperative that you get off on the right foot when beginning your prep. So, if you’re wondering how to begin your SAT preparation, you have come to the right place. In this article, I’ll outline five strategies for SAT prep that every student should follow to get started on the path to success – and avoid getting lost along the way.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- SAT Key Facts
- Step 1: Understand What Is Tested and How It Is Tested
- Step 2: Experiment with a Few Practice Questions
- Step 3: Determine Your Starting Point
- Step 4: Choose Appropriate Study Materials
- Step 5: Create a “Foolproof” Study Schedule
- How Long Does It Take to Prepare for the SAT?
- In Conclusion
Let’s get started with some key facts about the test.
SAT Key Facts
You probably already know that the SAT tests math, reading, and writing/language skills. All of these are necessary for academic success in college. Before discussing how to get started with your SAT studying, let’s run through some other key facts about the SAT exam.
The SAT run time is 3 hours 15 minutes. You get a 10-minute break between the Reading section and the Writing and Language section, and a 5-minute break between the two math sections.
There are four sections of the exam:
- One Reading section, which contains 52 questions
- One Writing and Language section, which contains 44 questions
- Two Math sections (one calculator and one non-calculator), with a total of 58 questions
Let’s dig into each of these sections in more detail.
The SAT is 3 hours 15 minutes long and presents 52 Reading questions, 44 Writing/Language questions, and 58 Math questions.
Step 1: Understand What Is Tested and How It Is Tested
Step 1 of beginning your SAT studies is to familiarize yourself with the structure and content that you’ll see on the exam. So, let’s take a look.
The Reading Section
The Reading section contains four standalone passages and one passage pair. You will have 65 minutes to answer the total of 52 multiple-choice questions associated with those passages.
The four standalone passages cover topics in literature, history, social science, and science. The passage pair covers a topic from either history or science and consists of two passages that relate to each other in some way.
The questions in the Reading section test your comprehension of the passages — your understanding of a passage’s focus, structure, and tone, the meanings of words used and statements made in the passage, the purpose of various details included in the passage, and more.
In the case of paired passages, questions are asked about each passage individually and about both passages in relation to each other.
Some passages, whether standalone or paired, may include graphs, tables, or charts. In those cases, some questions will ask you to interpret the information presented in the graphic.
Reading questions test your understanding of a passage’s focus, structure, and tone, the meanings of words used and statements made in the passage, the purpose of various details included in the passage, and more.
The Writing and Language Section
The Writing and Language section tests your ability to correct and revise a passage. The section contains four passages in which portions of the passage are underlined. These portions can be entire sentences, single words, or anything in between. You will be asked to evaluate the underlined portions for errors in sentence structure, grammar, meaning and usage, redundancy and concision, and punctuation, or to determine the best way to re-express the ideas conveyed.
The Writing and Language section tests your ability to correct and revise a passage in terms of sentence structure, grammar, meaning and usage, redundancy and concision, punctuation, and effective expression of ideas.
The Math Sections
The good news about the two SAT math sections is that the topics are in line with many things you have been doing in your high school math classes. Although many SAT questions may appear laborious or complicated, you actually are tested on basic math topics at the heart of these questions.
The following are the main topics you need to master in order to do well on SAT math:
- Linear Equations
- Inequalities and Absolute Value
- Coordinate Geometry
- General Word Problems
- Unit Conversions
- Quadratic Equations
- Coordinate Geometry
- Graph Interpretation
- Table Data
SAT math questions test your ability to extract information from sometimes-laborious questions and apply basic math skills to solve them.
Step 2: Experiment with a Few Practice Questions
In step 2 of your SAT study plan, one thing is clear: now is not the time to start practicing dozens of random questions from whatever prep book you can find. After all, if you haven’t yet developed your SAT study strategy, is it a good idea to start studying without one?
You will almost certainly struggle to master SAT Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) if you rush directly into practicing many random problems without first studying the concepts on which those problems are based.
Rather, after you’ve spent a few days familiarizing yourself with the SAT in step 1, you should practice some sample questions. The College Board website offers some free official practice questions that you can try. Answering these sample practice questions will give you a feel for the types of questions on the exam and allow you to better understand what you’ll face when you take your first practice test and on test day.
TTP PRO TIP:
Doing lots of SAT practice problems without first learning SAT concepts or having a solid study strategy is not a good approach to starting your preparation.
Now, let’s discuss how to determine your starting point by taking a full-length practice exam.
Step 3: Determine Your Starting Point
You’re all set to take your first SAT practice exam! I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m not ready!” However, don’t be concerned. The sole objective of completing this practice exam is to determine your baseline score.
Specifically, taking an initial SAT practice test will help you determine your present level of SAT preparedness and where you should start. You’ve arrived at the base of “Mount SAT.” You must know the height of the mountain, so you don’t begin climbing only to discover halfway up that you lack the necessary equipment or time to reach the summit. It could even be that your “Mount SAT” isn’t as high as you envisioned, and that will definitely be good news.
The point is, you won’t know whether you’re 100 points or 300 points short of your target score until you have your baseline score. So, it will be tough to calculate how long you will need to study without that score. Thus, taking a mock exam is crucial for building a successful SAT study plan.
TTP PRO TIP:
Taking an initial practice exam is an important aspect of developing a successful SAT study strategy.
Taking Your First Practice Exam
You can take one of the eight SAT practice examinations offered by the College Board to determine your baseline score. The results will give you a good sense of how close you are to your target score.
Given the importance of obtaining an accurate result, strive to duplicate SAT testing conditions. Specifically, take the exam somewhere quiet and take only the breaks you are offered during the actual SAT. Additionally, use your calculator only for the “calculator” section, and put it away when you do the non-calculator section.
Also, remember that while you should give your first full-length practice test your all, you shouldn’t go into the exam expecting a certain score. Although aiming for a solid score on your first practice test is important, expecting to “hit the bull’s eye” on your first attempt is often impractical. The vast majority of SAT test-takers require months of study and practice to master the content tested on the SAT.
Furthermore, a high degree of anticipation places undue pressure on any exam-taker. What if you’re 100 or 300 points short of your target score? Don’t be hard on yourself! Needing improvement is precisely why you’ll be following a great study plan and a realistic study timeline.
The most important thing is that you have all of the knowledge you need to create an SAT study strategy that will lead you to the finish line. Of course, crossing the finish line without the proper SAT study resources is significantly more challenging (if not impossible). Let’s talk about that now.
TTP PRO TIP:
Take your first full-length practice exam under realistic test-day settings to help you achieve the most accurate baseline SAT score possible.
Step 4: Choose Appropriate Study Materials
Bouncing between different study materials is a typical mistake students make when studying for the SAT. Furthermore, random study will not allow you to learn the material! While you may feel as though you are covering your bases by studying in this way, it’s a recipe for disaster. You’ll bounce from one topic to the next with no continuity or progress toward mastering SAT Math or EBRW. At worst, you’ll waste time and effort. At best, you’ll verify what is already known, that there are some topics you know and others you don’t.
Learning the content for the SAT is challenging enough. So, at the very least, make sure your studying is organized and efficient.
If you pick up whatever study materials you come across, rather than research what would work best for you, you’ll probably waste a lot of time on SAT materials that don’t work for you. So, let’s talk about how to choose the best SAT preparation resources.
TTP PRO TIP:
Switching between several SAT study resources usually results in disorganized, ineffective studying, knowledge gaps, and stagnation.
What to Look for When Selecting SAT Prep Materials
SAT questions cover a wide range of topics, and you have no way of knowing the exact mix of questions that will be thrown at you on test day. Consequently, to put yourself in the best position to succeed, you must be prepared for anything. A good prep course will prepare you for anything and everything by allowing for “topical studying.”
Feature #1: A Topical Approach
A great way to study for the SAT is to take a “topic-by-topic” approach. As a result, you will want to select study materials that have you learn one topic at a time, and then practice a number of questions on that topic to ensure mastery. Following each problem set, you would review the questions you got wrong, spend time going back through your notes on any weak areas, and then move to the next topic in your study plan.
I can’t stress enough the importance of linear and topical learning. In fact, we designed the Target Test Prep SAT course to allow for the topical learning I’ve mentioned here. This way of learning works well for all students, regardless of their starting point.
TTP PRO TIP:
Because there is so much to learn for the SAT, the best way to ensure that you master each SAT topic is to take a linear, topical approach to your prep.
Next, let’s discuss the study plan.
Feature #2: A Study Plan
You likely are a very busy high school student with many activities on your plate on top of a rigorous academic schedule. Thus, to simplify your SAT prep, when choosing an SAT resource, look for one that has a study plan. This plan should outline the tasks involved in your preparation from start to finish. For example, the Target Test Prep SAT course offers this type of personalized study plan.
The TTP study plan walks users through the learning process and tracks their progress. Consequently, our students know exactly what to do and when to do it. They don’t waste time figuring out what they should be doing to stay on schedule and efficiently progress to their end goal.
TTP PRO TIP:
Look for a course with a study plan that lays out everything you’ll need to know from start to finish of your SAT prep.
Feature #3: Analytics
A truly effective SAT self-study course should have detailed analytics that track your progress and performance. Analytics will show you how you’re doing and provide you with a clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses.
TTP users, for example, have access to an online dashboard that shows statistics such as topic accuracy, question type accuracy, average time per question, strongest and weakest topics, and course completion percentage.
TTP PRO TIP:
Look for an SAT self-study course that provides you with detailed analytics that track your progress and pinpoint your weaknesses.
Feature #4: An Error Tracker
A good self-study course should keep track of the types of errors you make when answering questions. For example, the TTP error tracker records all of your incorrect questions, why you got them wrong, and how often you make each type of error. So, if 25% of the time you got a wrong answer you fell for a trap answer and 18% of the time you ran out of time, you’ll have the information you need to address those issues and improve your test-taking skills.
TTP PRO TIP:
Look for an SAT self-study course that provides you with an error tracker to help you identify your most common errors.
So, now that you know some characteristics to look for in a self-study course, do a bit of research and sign up for a few free or low-cost trials to test-drive some courses. In fact, why not start with a $1 full-access TTP trial?
Now, let’s discuss the final step in starting your SAT studies: creating your study schedule.
Step 5: Create a “Foolproof” Study Schedule
Students sometimes get nervous when I urge them to aim for 9+ hours of SAT prep per week. Yes, 9+ hours may seem daunting, but there is a great deal to learn to succeed on the SAT. Accordingly, students should expect to study for a significant number of hours.
If you wonder how to fit in 9+ hours of SAT prep each week, create an SAT study schedule, either by hand or with an app. A study schedule will help you stay on track and avoid skipping or shortening study sessions. Schedule your study time, however short the study session may be.
Regardless of other commitments, events, to-dos, and last-minute changes of plans that might threaten to derail your day, SAT studying must remain a high priority in your life. You’re more likely to stick to it when you schedule SAT study time like any other task or event.
Studying for 1+ hours each weekday and 2+ hours each weekend day is a good routine for reaching 9+ hours per week. You might need to adjust your routine, perhaps studying more on weekdays and less on weekends, or the other way around.
TTP PRO TIP:
Set aside at least 9 hours per week for SAT studying.
Make Your Study Schedule Fit Your Needs
The key to a great SAT study schedule is to make your schedule fit YOUR life. For example, you may prefer to get your studying done right after school. However, if you have extracurricular activities right after school, you may prefer to do your studying later in the evenings.
Keep in mind that, aside from duties that you can’t avoid (such as school or family activities), SAT preparation should be your top priority.
TTP PRO TIP:
Create a study schedule that works for you.
Now that we’ve covered the 5 steps to getting started with your SAT preparation, you may be wondering how long you may need to study to achieve your target score.
How Long Does It Take to Prepare for the SAT?
As you might imagine, the prep time you need to succeed on the SAT is highly dependent on your starting score and your target score. For example, if you are shooting for an SAT score of 1400 but are currently scoring 1000, you likely need around 4 or 5 months to reach your target score. However, if you are already scoring 1300 and have a 1400 score goal, you could complete your SAT prep in around 1.5 to 2 months.
In general, the amount of time you should spend studying for the SAT is unique to you. Some test-takers may require more than 3 months to achieve their desired scores, while others require just 1 month. Certainly, your study time frame will be influenced by how far you are from your target score and how many hours you can dedicate to your SAT prep each week. Keep in mind that it’s not unusual for students to require 100 hours or more of study time to achieve their desired results.
The length of time you need to study for the SAT depends on your target score and your baseline score.
Remember to take the following 5 steps to get started on the right foot with your preparation for the SAT:
- Understand What Is Tested and How It Is Tested
- Experiment with a Few Practice Questions
- Determine Your Starting Point
- Choose Appropriate Study Materials
- Create a “Foolproof” Study Schedule
If you complete those 5 steps before you start studying for your SAT, you’ll set yourself up for success!