6 Mistakes To Avoid Before Taking The SAT

This summer will mark the 20 year anniversary of taking my SAT test and recently I began to think about all of the things that I wish I could’ve told my younger self. I remember the anxiety and stress that went into taking the SAT® and if I had only known then what I know now, I’m sure the test would’ve been easier (Full disclosure, I scored 1420 out of 2400. Not great but not bad either).

So if you’re a current high school student, and you’re preparing for the upcoming test,  heed this advice and learn from my (and many others) mistakes.

1. Start studying for the SAT during your Sophomore year

I made the mistake of trying to study for the SAT® during the summer of my Junior year, which left me little time to prepare to go into the December test. Remember, the SAT® is hard! It’s filled with five to seven years of academic content that covers three different subjects that you’re going to need to regurgitate within a 4 hour period. Think about that.

Despite what you may think, you can’t study for a test like this in one, two, or even 12 months. Half of your prep should go into learning how to answer the questions; then the other half should go into mastering the timing of answering these questions within two minutes! Many institutions like Collge Board, Princeton Review, and Prep Scholar recommend at minimum, 100 hours of studying before taking the test. You heard me right, 100 HOURS!

You won’t be able to get these hours in during a single summer course so spread out your preparation over a long period of time and be consistent with it.  Here’s a rough timeline that I would follow if I had to do it over again:

  • Start in January of your Sophomore year.  Begin by studying your core content and strategies for 2-3 hours per week.  Don’t start to take practice tests just yet and continue this routine for the next 5 months.
  • That summer, begin to explore online or in-person classes.  Focus on strategiesI won’t get into why here, but in general, a strategy focused prep will increase the accuracy and speed to which you take the test.  Beyond1600 offers a strategy-first online class that you can learn more about here. Begin to take a practice test per week.
  • As you begin your Junior year, schedule 2 SAT tests that you’re going to take (These are usually the June and December Tests).
  • Shift your focus from content to execution.  Begin to get the timing down of the test, looking to increase the speed to which you answer each question.
  • As the test dates near, focus on bringing everything together.  Strengthen your retention and speed with 2 practice tests per week.


2. Take the SAT multiple times

Don’t make the mistake of taking the SAT only once. You might think that taking the SAT® multiple times might hurt your chances, or that colleges will see this and look negatively upon your score, but this is false. The SAT®has a unique scoring system that allows students to create a “Super Score”.

On the current SAT, this means taking your highest Math score, and your highest Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score across all test dates.Beyond1600 What I Wish I Knew About The SAT

Let’s say in on your first SAT® that you took, your scores looked like this:
Test 1
Math: 500
EBRW: 700
Total: 1200

You decide to retake the test and this time:
Test 2
Math: 700
EBRW: 600
Total: 1300

Your Super Score would look like this:
Math Test 2: 700
EBRW Test 1: 700
Total: 1400

Prep Scholar wrote a great post about what colleges accept super scores, and it’s more than you think! See the bottom of this article to see the schools.

3.  Focus On Your Strengths First

Our first instinct is to work on the topics subjects that we are weakest in.  Don’t follow your instincts.  In this case, strengthen your strengths.  If you don’t reinforce your strengths, you’re going to spend valuable time on your weaknesses that will take time away from what you’re good at.  Shore in your strengths and maximize the number of points that you can get from that subject.

Math was my strongest subject and it showed in my practice tests.  I wanted to increase my Reading Comprehension (what is better known as Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, EBRW) score, so I spent months trying to improve my grammar and vocabulary.  I began to notice that my math scores began to slowly decrease and I was shocked.  In the end, my test scores were average in both Math and Reading Comprehension; needless to say I was frustrated.

What I realize now is that most of us are either left or right brained.  Left-brained individuals are analytical, logical, and better with numbers (Math).  Right-brainers are creative, visual, and usually better readers (EBRW).  Very few individuals excel in both, and if you’re one of them congratulations, but for the rest of us, we need to focus on our strengths first.

4.  Speed is almost as important as accuracy.

Learn how to pace yourself for speed. This is where I stumbled, and odds are most of you will as well. You want to answer each question correctly so you try to work through every problem as thoroughly as you can, not keeping an eye on the clock. Let’s do the math:

Section 1 – Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (EBRW)Beyond1600 SAT Speed
52 Questions / 65 Minutes
Minutes per question: 1:15

Section 2 – Writing & Language
44 Questions / 25 Minutes
Minutes per question: 0:34

Section 3 – No Calculator Math
20 Questions / 25 Minutes
Minutes per question: 1:15

Section 4 – Math With Calculator
30 Questions / 55 Minutes
Minutes per question: 1:40

Section 5 (Optional) – Essay
50 Minutes

The moral of the story here is that you don’t have time to waste! Like I mentioned before, spend half of your time prepping learning the strategies and content that you need to know; then spend the other half working on the speed at which you answer your questions.

I’ve said this before in other posts, but you’ve got to think of the SAT strategically. Approach it with a plan, then learn sectional strategies that will increase your speed and accuracy, then practice, practice, practice!

5. Grammar still matters

Even though the new SAT excluded the once feared grammar section of the test, grammar still matters! We now live in a world where society is communicating with 140 characters and emojis and it’s destroying our ability to understand and implement the correct grammar and vocabulary in structured settings (like the SAT®).  In my opinion, the new SAT’s EBRW section is a bit more difficult than the older test simply because of the interplay of vocabulary into the section.  You’re going to have to switch your brain between grammar and vocabulary often, so prepare for this by practicing when you read on a daily basis, and ask yourself, “do I fully understand the meaning of every word that I’m reading?”

Personal note: Don’t just read some crap off the rack at the grocery store, get into some classics that challenge and force you to think and maybe even look up words in a dictionary.

6. Be aware of your diet

What you put into your body leading up to the test will severely impact you positively or negatively on the day of the test. Teachers and coaches 20 years ago told me that my brain feeds on carbs, so I should load up for three days leading up to the test. THIS IS FALSE! It resulted in me being lethargic and foggy, not performing at my highest level.

New research has shown that our brains perform better with a diet of healthy fats and lean protein. Leading up to the test, increase your protein intake and maybe take in some avocado or coconut oil. The morning of the test, take in a lot of protein and stay away from carbohydrates and sugar. Trust me, you’d be surprised! (Side note: I’m not a doctor or nutritionist and don’t want to be, so make sure that you check with your doctor first)

Also, don’t drink alcohol. It may sound ridiculous, but I had a buddy who thought that he could take the test after partying the night before. I’m not going into any details, but let’s say that the janitor had to be called into the classroom half-way through the test to clean up his mess.

So, in hindsight, 20 years later, I wish that:
1. I started to study earlier
2. I took the test more than once
3. I learned strategies for speed
4. I read more leading up to the test
5. I ate more protein and healthy fats leading up to the test.

I hope that you learn from my mistakes and take advantage of this great opportunity that is in front of you and with the proper strategy and planning, you’re going to do great!

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