Let's admit it, adults aren't as much fun to listen to, especially when you can get the same information from a fellow student. Therefore, we (the adults) asked a rising senior to write about her experience preparing for the SAT and to share her advise. And since it's coming from a student, you know it's full of years of wisdom.
(On a serious note: the information below is full of valuable tips and tricks from a student who blew the SAT out of the water...so pay attention).
To Concerned Students:
SAT prep can be daunting, mostly because of the size of the test itself, and the weight it bears in the college admissions process, but preparing for the exam is actually a lot simpler than it may seem now, once you learn where to start.
The SAT is a standardized test. This, by definition, means that it asks the same kinds of questions from year to year, so the best way to improve your score on the SAT is to become familiar with these types of questions. This means taking practice exams.
The best resource, online or off, for studying for the SAT is the official SAT study guide that you can purchase from the College Board, the makers of the test. This big blue book contains a breakdown of the test, a review of all the material covered, and 10 practice tests, as well as practice problems throughout the review chapters. When I studied for my SAT, this was practically the only resource I used, as it basically has everything you could possibly need to perform well on this exam.
The best review for this test is taking practice tests, and the blue study guide is the best place to get practice tests, since those tests were written by the same people who will be writing your exam. A review of the subject material is useful, but since the SAT is such a predictable test, practice tests are what will help you the most.
Preferably, your SAT prep should begin with the PSAT. Taken by most in the beginning of junior year, the PSAT is like a condensed version of the SAT, though it contains the same types of questions at the same level of difficulty as the full exam. A lot of, if not most students don't study at all for the PSAT, viewing it as an introduction to the exam they would take later in the year. While introduction is one of the PSAT's primary functions, it is also an opportunity to test yourself in conditions most similar to the actual SAT, and, if you perform well enough, a chance to win scholarships and awards. Preparing for the PSAT starting in September gives you a great opportunity to perform well on the PSAT, and simultaneously prepares you for the SAT, since the two tests are just different lengths of tests covering all the same material. You can use the blue book to study for the PSAT, but it would also be helpful to take practice tests directly designed in PSAT format, which can be printed from the web, or found in several PSAT specific review books (I used the Barron's PSAT review book, but also printed off several past exams from the internet).
The primary difference between PSAT and SAT is the essay. The PSAT does not include an essay-writing portion. Much of your writing score on the SAT, however, depends upon the essay, and it is the hardest part of the exam for many, so be sure to read the blue book's overview of the essay, and make sure you understand the structure of the essay that your graders will be looking for. The SAT is not the place to write an innovative and eccentric essay. In fact, the essay is entirely formulaic, and can be easily prepared for as long as you put enough time and effort into understanding the structure, and writing practice essays.
Other than the essay, very little of the SAT requires review of specific subject material, except perhaps some of the math topics (I needed to review a lot of geometry before taking mine). Taking practice exams is the most efficient use of your time when studying for this test. Take all ten exams in the blue book, if you can manage it.
When taking these practice exams, it is essential that you take each section TIMED, especially the essay. Most students could perform well on the SAT if given unlimited time: the main thing that makes it challenging is the time constraint. If you start a problem, in math in particular, that you can't solve quickly and confidently, skip it and come back to it if you have time at the end. Also, take advantage of the fact that in the math section, questions are arranged from easy to hard, meaning that you'll encounter the hardest questions in the section last. Remember that a correct answer on an easy question is worth the same amount as a correct answer on the hardest question on the test. Don't spend all your time answering one difficult question when you could be answering five or ten easier questions.
An important aspect of taking a practice exam is reviewing what you've done wrong. The blue book doesn't have answer explanations for every question, but that doesn't mean you can't look back and try to figure out where you went wrong in solving a problem, or answering a question. I know better than most that after taking a practice exam, all you want to do is see your score and then forget about it. However, practice is meaningless if you don't learn anything from your mistakes. It's okay to take a break before going over questions you got wrong, you can even go to sleep and tackle the task the next day (I have a bad habit of taking practice tests irresponsibly late in the evening), but make sure you aren't just taking the test, grading it, and then moving on. When you see you got a question wrong, go back and try to find where you made your mistake. If a particular type of question is giving you trouble, try to figure out why, so that next time you encounter the same thing (as you almost always will, as the SAT is one of the most predictable tests out there) you will be able to avoid the same type of mistake. There's nothing wrong with getting a question wrong, but getting questions wrong for the same reason over and over again can be avoided by reviewing your work and learning from your mistakes.
Now I'm going to give you a few section-specific tips that helped me prepare for my SAT:
Math: Math is my strong suit, and I started studying for the SAT with a pretty high score to begin with, but, being the perfectionist that I am, I still studied for this section relentlessly, and can still help you no matter where you are on your SAT prep journey. The main thing to do when preparing for the math section is to familiarize yourself with the types of questions the College Board likes to ask. Generally, they like word problems, real life situations, and logic puzzles. They always ask a question or two about reading graphs or tables, and also like to introduce new mathematical concepts to you to see how you cope. This shouldn't scare you once you get used to it. Just remember that the SAT will not test you on anything you haven't learning in middle school and early high school math classes. The first few questions in each math section are going to be easy. Amazingly easy. Unbelievably easy. So easy, in fact, that many students begin to doubt there answers and waste time trying to find the trick or hidden meaning behind what is, essentially, an elementary math problem. Don't worry if the first two or three questions have answers that come easily to you. They're the easiest questions in the section. If question 20, however, came easily to you, you probably made a mistake, or misunderstood the question. The College Board is tricky, and they know what mistakes students will commonly make, so even if the answer you get is an answer choice, know that that doesn't mean you've gotten it right. Especially on problems involving a lot of arithmetic and calculator use, be cautious, because the people writing the test know where you will most likely make a silly mistake. In general, try to be confident in your mathematical abilities on early problems, but watch out for red herrings in the answer choices throughout the entire math section. Try not to rely on your calculator for every question, but also don't go off doing everything in your head, because you could very easily be adding 2+2 wrong in your head when it's eight in the morning and you're nervous and pressed for time. Overall, the math section is a balancing act between caution and self-assurance. Getting to confident leads to silly mistakes, while being overly cautious can make you waste time on problems you could have solved in a heartbeat.
Critical Reading: This is my least favorite section on the SAT, but overall the one that most people perform well on. One of the hardest aspects of this section, for me, was staying focused while trying to read what I believe to be the most boring pieces of writing ever conceived by man. I truly believe that some of these passages were chosen by the College Board just to test who could stay awake long enough to answer the questions. As far as preparing for this section, the main thing that will help you is vocabulary. I learned over 600 vocabulary words while I studied for the SAT, and while I admit that may have been excessive, I cannot overstate the importance of studying vocabulary for this test. Whether you learn vocab through reading books (which I'll talk about more in a second) or endlessly quizzing yourself, study vocabulary as much as you can. Every critical reading section starts out with 6-8 questions that test your vocabulary. That's about 20 questions per test. 20 easy questions, since all they test is how well you know the English language. Vocabulary is the easiest way to improve your critical reading score, so just do it! I learned my vocab by making flash cards. I never really used the flash cards after I made them, but I find the act of writing the words down helps me remember them a lot better. I had a friend who input all the vocab words we learned into a flash card app on his phone, and quizzed himself in his spare moments throughout the day. I had another who could just read them, and then she never forgot them after that. We all learn things differently. Just make sure that you try to learn vocab, no matter what quirky method you must use. After vocab, timed practice sections are really all that can help you improve your critical reading, because after the vocab questions every question is about reading comprehension. My only suggestion here would be to write down the main idea of each paragraph as you read, to save you time rereading things. Underline things in the text, circle, whatever you need to do to remind yourself what the passage is saying when you're answering the questions. Also, just so we're clear, read the passages. I know a few people who got by just skimming each passage, or even skipping the reading entirely. Sometimes the passages can seem like a waste of limited time, but it's better to run out of time with a couple questions left than to finish ten minutes early with over a dozen wrong answers because you were too lazy to actually read what they are testing you on.
Writing: This section is my favorite! I love math, but the SAT writing section always felt like a nice break from the math and critical reading, especially in a four hour test. The writing section ONLY tests grammar. Isn't that lovely? Once you get the essay over with (I'll talk about the essay in a moment), every single writing question will be on grammar. And grammar is the easiest thing in the world to study, because you've been learning grammar every day since you were born. By talking to people, listening, reading, and writing, you are improving your grammar skills. You can get by on the writing section without studying at all, because usually when you read a sentence, you can feel whether or not it is wrong. A lot of the time, however, students get writing questions wrong, because while they can tell that a sentence is incorrect grammatically, they can't say why or what they can do to fix it. One of the best ways to help with this, which I mentioned earlier, is to read. Read everything. Books, signs, newspapers, anything. Reading is the best thing you can do to improve grammar and vocabulary, so while you might just be reading something for pleasure in your free time, you are also improving two very important aspects of your SAT skill set. Beyond just reading, learn about the big grammar topics that the SAT usually asks you about. The College Board loves to test us on dangling modifiers, parallelism, pronoun usage, and verb agreement. Learn about those four things and you will be set to answer almost every single SAT writing question. While you're taking practice tests, start looking for questions that test these topics specifically. There will be a lot of them. And once you can recognize that a question is just testing you on parallelism, or verb agreement, or whatever, finding the answer to that question is a breeze. Lots of kids stress about the writing section. Don't worry about it. It's the most predictable section on this test, and those four grammar issues are basically all it tests you on.
The Essay: The dreaded essay. Everybody's least favorite part of the exam. 25 minutes to create a wonderful piece of writing from thin air. No books to reference, and no Google. Everybody hates it. But. The essay is actually really predictable and easy to prepare for. First off, the SAT graders only give good scores to essays that either agree or disagree with the opinion stated in the prompt. So you need to either agree, or disagree. Essays that point out the benefits and detriments of both sides of the argument, while harder to write and in my opinion more respectable, will not receive as high a score as more extreme viewpoints. Secondly, never use personal experience as an example. The essay prompt will always say to use examples from history, reading, and personal experience, but the people reading your essay will always look for the first two. Why? People can lie about personal experience. You could very easily invent a person or story that perfectly supports your argument, or you could have actually experienced something that supports your argument. Either way, the reader is going to view the information as unreliable, because there is the possibility of it being a lie. Thirdly, try to include at least two, preferably three examples from history and literature that support your argument. This may seem difficult, but it's actually really easy to prepare for beforehand. What I did was prepare a few books and historical events beforehand that could be applied to almost every prompt the SAT could throw at me. Here are some good books that are almost always useful in an SAT essay: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Animal Farm by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Every essay prompt fits at least two of these books, or at least characters in these books, perfectly. If you haven't read any of these, at least read Brave New World and The Scarlet Letter. I used at least one of these books on every single SAT essay I wrote (and I wrote a lot of them, trust me). As far as historical events, the civil rights movement, the trial of Galileo, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution/Gilded Age, and the Colombian Exchange have always come in handy. Hopefully you know about all of those pretty well from history classes, but if you're rusty on details, maybe crack open an old history textbook and brush up on things. If you have a firm grasp on all of these books and events, you should have plenty of examples for any prompt the College Board can come up with. Lastly, keep in mind that your essay is going to be read by human beings. Two to three human beings. This is important to remember, because those people reading your essay might have very different views than you do. For this reason it's best to avoid using current events as examples, and expressing extreme values that a lot of people disagree with. Even if you have to write an essay that you disagree with, stick with historical and literary examples that everyone agrees on, rather than writing an honest and heartfelt essay that your readers might strongly disagree with or find offensive.
Overall, if you take practice tests and learn from your mistakes, you should be on the way towards an SAT score you can be proud of. Try to take at least a few practice exams all in one sitting, somewhere quiet, where you won't be interrupted, making it as similar to test day as you can. When I was studying for my SAT, I went so far as to wake up early on a couple Saturday mornings and taking full practice tests in the morning, to make sure I would be able to perform my best even if I was tired. I know it may sound crazy, but it's always better to seem a little crazy and perform the best you can, than to appear perfectly normal and know you could've done better. :)
My final piece of advice is a bit unrelated, as it has nothing to do with the test itself. Find a group of friends to study with you. This can be hard, I know, but having people to study with makes the act of studying feel a lot less like work and a lot more like hanging out with friends. Of course, if these friends are distracting you from your work, then it's better to study alone, but if you can manage to find a group of motivated students such as yourself, who are willing and happy to take a few practice tests with you, or quiz you on vocab, or explain math concepts to you, that is amazing. I am lucky enough to have a tight-knit group of friends who love to study with me (well, love might be going a bit far . . .), and having people around to ask questions, or sympathize with while undergoing the stress of standardized testing has meant the world to me, and to my test scores. Even if it's just you and one other person, the support and understanding that a peer going through the same thing as you is more helpful than any review book when it comes to testing and college admissions.
The SAT is a very predictable and simple test, in the end. As long as you try hard to prepare, and familiarize yourself with the way the test works, you'll see a huge improvement in your test performance. I know firsthand how scary tests like these can be. It's only been a handful of months since I took my SAT, and since then I still haven't forgotten what it's like to study for a big test, having taken an obscene amount of them in the past year. Taking practice tests is the best way to study. Don't be afraid to mark up your answer sheet, underline in your test booklet, or scribble out your mistakes.
And don't sweat it. You're gonna rock this test. :D
P.S. Remember to drink water while you're up all night studying. Dehydration in the more studious of high schoolers is more common than you'd think.