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How to prepare for the SAT

The SAT is a college entrance exam consisting of an Evidence-based Reading Test, a Writing and Language Test, a math section and an optional essay. It takes just under four hours to complete. 

The first step in your SAT preparation journey is to register for the SAT at least three months in advance, giving yourself ample time to prepare for the exam. Check out our step-by-step guide below for 2021 SAT prep to learn about how to prep for an SAT to earn a stellar score and increase your competitiveness at your dream colleges. 

Sign up for an SAT prep class or tutoring

You can drastically increase your score with the assistance of an SAT prep class. Your SAT prep class instructor or tutor is an expert at taking the SAT, and they’ll provide you with an in-depth knowledge of the SAT course material as well as test-taking strategies and tips for efficiency while studying and taking the test. 

Take a diagnostic test to determine your baseline score 

Before you create a study plan and start reviewing content for the SAT, it’s critical to determine where you currently stand and how far you have to go to get to your goal score. 

SAT prep book

You can use one of the practice tests in your SAT prep book as a diagnostic test to know your current level of preparedness. It’s vital to take your diagnostic exam under the same conditions you’ll take the actual SAT. Grab some pencils, find a quiet room and set a timer

Determine your goal score based on your dream school’s requirements

To find your goal score, look up the 75th percentile score of the most competitive schools to which you’re applying. 

A school’s 75th percentile SAT score is a score that is higher than that of 75% of students admitted to the school. Why aim so high? Because if you don’t quite meet your goal score, you’ll still be a competitive candidate at your school, giving you a bit of wiggle room as you prepare for the test.

As an example, MIT’s 75th percentile composite score is 1570. If you shoot for 1570 but only make it to 1540, you’ll still be five points ahead of MIT’s average composite score, putting you in a good spot statistically. 

Don’t be discouraged if your diagnostic score is significantly lower than your goal score. You’ll raise your score quite a bit after SAT prep. 

Calculate how many hours you’ll need to study

The number of hours you’ll need to study is determined by how many points you need to increase your score.

Start by subtracting your diagnostic score from your goal score. For example, if your target score is 1300 and you’re currently at 1250, you’ll need to increase your score by 50 points. 

As a general rule, to improve by 30 points, you’ll need to study for 10 hours. To improve by 70 points, you’ll need to study for 20 hours. To improve up to 130 points, you’ll need to study for 40 hours. And a score increase of 200 points requires 80 hours of studying. 

If that sounds excessive, don’t worry. It’s quite manageable once you break that time down into smaller chunks.  

Create a study schedule designed to get to your goal score 

Say you want to increase your exam score by 100 points. You’ll need to study for 40 hours. You’ve registered for the exam three months in advance, so you have approximately 13 weeks to study. To give yourself time to recoup a bit before the exam, divide the number of hours needed for studying by 12 weeks. 40 divided by 12 is about three hours and 20 minutes of studying per week.


How you divide up your study time will depend on several factors, and the best way to keep track of when you plan to study and when you’ll take breaks is to use a planner

Take an honest inventory of your commitments and daily schedule. Whatever time is left after school, commuting, meals, sleeping and extracurriculars, is when you’ll study. Fill in this time on your planner and stick to that schedule. 

If you’re enrolled in an SAT prep course or tutoring program, you can include those sessions in your study time. 

You should also supplement your blocks of study time with intermittent practice drills. Keep a set of flashcards on you and look for slices of time when you can sneak in a bit of practice.

Get familiar with the SAT format and start reviewing content 

SAT prep book 2

The best way to understand the SAT format is to read the intro to your SAT prep book, which gives you an overview of the various sections, question types and scoring systems. 

When you begin to review content, remember that there are multiple ways to tackle SAT preparation. You can work through your SAT prep book chronologically. You can also target your weakest areas first for rapid score improvement. 

Your SAT instructor, tutor or practice book will assist you in reviewing each section of your book and provide you with detailed explanations on the right and wrong answers for various example questions. 

test taking strategies for SAT

You should also focus on learning test-taking strategies, such as looking for wrong answers rather than correct answers (and eliminating them) and going with your gut. 

Take at least two practice tests

SAT practice tests

There are many practice tests to choose from in SAT prep books as well as online. An excellent SAT prep book will include at least three SAT practice tests.

Taking SAT practice tests is an excellent way to become familiar with and prepared to sit for the actual SAT exam. 

When you take the practice exams, take them as if they were the actual exam. Use the same timing (including breaks) as the real exam. 

Give your brain a break the night before the exam

You’ve worked and worked for months to be sure you’re ready to excel at the exam, and now it’s time to take it easy! 

We don’t recommend completely turning your brain off and watching TV or internet videos all night. Instead, consider doing some light reading, relaxing meditation, going for a walk or enjoying some quiet family time. Eat a dinner you love, smile and relax. You are prepared and will do great. 

Why shouldn’t you study up until the last minute? Because at this point, it will only make you anxious, and confidence is the key to rocking your SAT. Spend this time cultivating a sense of ease and competency, because you deserve to relax and feel good.   

The morning of the SAT


Eat a healthy breakfast and gather your supplies, including your pencils, SAT-approved calculator, photo ID and printed SAT registration. 

SAT prep essentials

Kaplan SAT Total Prep 2021

Kaplan SAT Total Prep 2021

What you need to know: This is an SAT prep manual from a trusted brand that consistently ranks high in increasing SAT scores. 

What you’ll love: It’s an in-depth, subject-specific review with example problems and detailed explanations. It includes test-taking strategies and efficiency tips, five practice tests and supplementary online materials. 

What you should consider: This is a comprehensive, in-depth manual, which may prove overwhelming to students with minimal time to study before the SAT. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Barron's SAT flashcards

Barron’s SAT Vocabulary Flashcards

What you need to know: This set of vocabulary flashcards improves your SAT vocabulary. 

What you’ll love: It’s a convenient, transportable and high-value study tool. It also includes parts of speech, pronunciation, definition, synonyms and antonyms. 

What you should consider: Some users have found them a little small and difficult to read when in motion. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

The College Panda's SAT Math: Advanced Guide and Workbook for the New SAT 

The College Panda’s SAT Math: Advanced Guide and Workbook for the New SAT 

What you need to know: This math review manual and workbook was created for students who need to target specific math concepts in preparation for the SAT. 

What you’ll love: It’s a very thorough SAT math guide and workbook that helps you improve your math skills to increase your composite score. It’s well-organized, comprehensive and budget-friendly. 

What you should consider: While this guide is targeted at improving SAT math skills, some of the questions in the book are not found on the test.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon


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