In a manner of speaking, the SAT is a game – it has a set of predefined rules and a small set of topics that show up again and again, waiting to be learned and beaten. Read this article to learn some general SAT strategies based on the “SAT as a game” approach.
The SAT is not a difficult test. This is probably the first thing I say to any student I tutor, and the one thing I tell them over and over again. Of course, this isn’t to say that one should go in and take the SAT without any preparation, just because it’s “not difficult.” On the contrary, the very reason the SAT is not a difficult test is that it is standardized, predictable, and therefore easy to prepare for. This also means that the best way to do well on the test is to prepare for it, and specifically, to take advantage of its predictable and repetitive nature.
Just take for example the Critical Reading section. On any given SAT, there are always 19 sentence completion questions, 48 passage-based reading questions, and the same time allotted each to complete them. The same goes with the grammar questions and essay on the Writing Section. In turn, among those 19 sentence completions on every test are the same basic configurations of sentences, and even the seemingly endless vocab words are drawn from a limited pool of the most common SAT words. If you understand how each set of questions work, and have seen enough practice problems to recognize the traps and tricks set by the problem writers, you literally “know the test before going in.” On testing day, this means that you’re virtually doing the same problems that you’ve already done dozens of times before. I don’t even need to explain what this means for your score. Just imagine being able to do the test and learn the questions weeks before you take it!
Getting the score you want, of course, isn’t quite as easy as I just made it sound, but only because very few students take the time to actually prepare in a smart way. What’s the difference between “smart” preparation versus just preparing? Well, for one thing, it means approaching the test as a game to be beaten from the moment you start doing practice problems. Rather than just plowing through a practice test and looking at the answers right away, you should do the problems carefully and be thinking about what rules you can learn and what tricks and traps to watch out for on each question. In fact, except when doing full-length practice tests, you should do each question in the most careful manner possible, even repeating questions to truly cement the skills and knowledge set you need. Topics such as grammar and math should be reviewed if necessary, but ONLY if they are covered explicitly on the SAT. The idea is to set very specific goals for how many questions you want to get right on every section and know what skills you need to work on. This ensures that you are making the most of your time spent studying for the test, and that every practice problem – and the more you’ve done, the better – should have contributed to your familiarity and knowledge of the test.
Here are some other general SAT strategies based on the “SAT as a game” approach:
1. Know the directions and formulas before going in
Would you ever play a game of chess against someone if after every move, you had to ask them what the rules were? (Do your really think you could win that game?) This is the same with the directions and formulas on the SAT. Even though they are provided for you at the beginning of the test, because the SAT supposedly only tests “how you think,” and not “what you know,” every single time you flip back to that first page is time you could have spent doing the actual questions. And since the directions are exactly the same for every test, there is no excuse for not learning them by heart from a practice test before going in for the real thing. It will save time, and moreover, just the fact that you know the formulas will probably make you a more effective problem-solver.
2. Use the fact that the questions are in order of difficulty to your advantage
This is one of the most under-used facts about the SAT, and also one of the most important! The key is this: in all of the sections of the test except for passage-based reading, the questions are arranged in order from easiest to most difficult. Most basically, keeping this fact in mind helps you with time management. You can go through the beginning of a section more quickly, because you know the questions are easier and you will be less likely to fall for a trap or a trick. This also means that if you get stuck on question number 2 at the beginning of the section, you are probably just missing a very obvious bit of information. In this case, simply clear your mind and re-read the question. On the other hand, if you are at the last question in a section and feel tempted to choose an answer choice immediately, then most likely you are falling for a trap, and you should go back and read the question carefully. You can even guess what type of answer you’re likely to get based on this rule. For example, at the end of a sentence completion section the answer is more likely to be a difficult vocabulary word, so if all else fails, even just choosing the most difficult word will give you a good chance of getting the right answer! There are even more ways that this fact can help you, so don’t forget it when you go through the sections.
3. Read the question carefully
One of the most common mistakes test-takers make, especially on the math section, is to spend way too much time trying to come up with an answer or, on the reading section, to dwell on the passage without going back to look at the question. In the best case, this might cause you to be stuck for longer than you need to be on a problem because you’re missing a key clue. At worst, this means you get a completely wrong answer because you misinterpreted the question. The best way to avoid errors made from not reading the questions carefully enough is to ALWAYS go back and read the question at the end when you choose your answer. Also, whenever you get stuck, go back and read the question to see if there are any clues you missed. You’ll be surprised at how often this will bring you out of a jam.
4. Study and practice with a goal in mind.
This goes hand in hand with the tips for “smart” preparation that I mentioned above. Always do problems with a concrete idea of what you hope to get out of it. For example, one way to practice is to run through a math section with no timer, while doing each question very carefully, so that you can work on your accuracy and problem solving skills. Alternatively, you may want to do an entire practice test using the official time limits for each section, so you can work on budgeting time and overall test strategy. Do NOT simply pull out the book and start doing practice problems! You will learn much less from doing problems this way, and it will do nothing to help you gain the skills you need to do well in a real testing environment.
So the next time you are working on a practice problem for the SAT (and if you’re not, you really should be!), think about what skills the problem is testing and how you can apply those skills to other problems. In fact, this is the idea behind the entire curriculum in an Ivy Insiders SAT course, which combines the goal-oriented approach outlined above with a comprehensive overview of content areas covered on the SAT. All you really need is common sense to appreciate the fact that the more you know about how the SAT works, the better you will do come testing day.
Guest contributor Jue Wang is the Head of Curriculum Development for Ivy Insiders . He has tutored students in Math, Writing, and SAT preparation, and has taught classroom courses in SAT prep. Jue is currently entering his junior year at Harvard University.