Although increasing numbers of colleges are jumping on the “test-optional” bandwagon, high school juniors and seniors are stuck with taking the SAT and/or ACT for the time being.
A student’s junior year can generally be considered the most stressful period of their high school career, but it can be made a bit easier by knowing exactly what to expect in regards to standardized testing. I’ve composed a list of information and strategies that I wish I’d known before taking the SAT to perhaps alleviate some of the stress students may feel before exam day.
Know the essay requirements of the colleges you might apply to
Although juniors aren’t expected to know what colleges they’ll apply to, being aware of the variance in the SAT essay policies for individual schools is vital. For example, the University of California schools (UCs) only accept the SAT with Essay scores for admissions purposes. So theoretically, if you took the SAT with Essay in May, then took the plain old SAT in June and got a higher score, they would only accept your score from May. It’s a safe bet to take the essay each time you take the exam in order to keep your options open.
Super scoring for California State Universities (CSUs)
This is a policy where schools in the CSU system use your highest section-level scores for admission purposes, even if they were from different tests. What’s great about this policy, is that if you don’t do as well as you want on either the Reading and Writing or Math section, you can retake the test and prep for the section that needs improvement. This essentially allows you to prioritize and focus your time studying for one section, allowing you to maximize your overall score. In comparison, UCs only consider your single highest total SAT score from one sitting.
Take advantage of Khan Academy SAT practice
According to the Khan Academy blog page, “Six hours of study on Official SAT Practice is associated with an average 90-point increase.” Sounds pretty good right? Did I mention it’s free? Khan Academy is a great resource for taking full-length practice tests and getting personalized practice based on the questions you missed from the Pre-SAT (PSAT)—all you have to do is link your Khan Academy account to your College Board account.
Get the SAT app
The “SAT Practice” app is also a great resource for prepping for the big day. You can answer the daily practice questions, get access to the Reading and Writing and Math questions archive, and scan paper practice tests to get your score. Even if you choose to just answer the daily question, you’re still familiarizing yourself with various types of questions from both sections of the SAT.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
The SAT is long— each section ranges from 35 to 65 minutes— and it’s not rare that the exam lasts over 4 hours. One of the most difficult aspects of the test is that it extends over several hours and requires your undivided attention the entire time. You’re allowed a 10-minute break after specific sections, but that’s not long enough to mentally recharge. The best thing you can do to prepare yourself is to take a full-length practice test on Khan Academy or take the PSAT.
Bring a calculator
Come prepared with an approved calculator, as they won’t be provided at the testing site. The SAT Math Test is composed of two segments: “Math: Calculator Permitted” section and the “Math: Calculator Not Permitted” section. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have a calculator for the exam, but it certainly could affect your score. Most graphing calculators are acceptable to bring and could potentially be advantageous to have for certain questions.
Practice your strategy
Do some research on test-taking strategies, and test them out when you take a practice exam. For example, it may be helpful to scan all the questions in a given section and answer the easy ones first, therefore, maximizing the number of correct answers. All questions in the Reading and Writing/Language sections have the same weight and by answering the easier questions first, you can avoid wasting precious time on the trickier ones. You can learn to work smarter not harder.
Take the PSAT… but don’t study for it!
There’s really no better way to prepare for the SAT than to simulate the testing experience by taking the PSAT your sophomore and preferably junior year. Taking the PSAT without prepping for it is a good way to gauge your scoring range and see what sections you could use more practice on. It’s taken in October during school on a designated day, so you don’t need to sacrifice a Saturday in order to take the test.
Go to bed early the night before and eat breakfast
Although this sounds like a no brainer, you really don’t want to be fighting back sleepiness as you prepare to take an important—and long— college entrance exam. The test generally starts at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and you want to show up with plenty of time to spare. Eat a solid breakfast and bring snacks to eat during the short breaks given during the exam.