I recently offered to create an SAT study plan for a student on Reddit who wasn’t feeling good about his ability to improve his score enough to meet his goal. I then got many, many PMs from students asking me to give them a study plan. Since I couldn’t answer them all individually, I am including all the advice that I would have sent to each student in the post.
Based on the things I have learned being an SAT tutor for 13 years, I will give some tips on creating your own study plan, discuss a study plan template, recommend some materials, and give some general study tips. This won’t be some magical article you can print out and follow robotically. The idea is to give you what you need to make your own study plan. You will also need to revise it. Life will interfere. Some topics will require less time out of you, and some will require more.
First, it is very important to create a study plan instead of just winging it. The students who tend to not want to go through the hassle of creating a study plan are the exact students who need it most! When working with students, I recommend they spend around 10 weeks, getting in around 6 hours a week of work. So let’s use this as our template.
Part one of the study plan is a timed, and if possible, realistically proctored, Official SAT. I usually have students take Official Practice Test 1. Then score the test. This is usually the time when a student doesn’t feel great; they have a score they aren’t proud of and maybe are in a bit of shock. That’s normal.
Figure out when you can take your SAT or ACT with this table. Assume you will want to take it a second time and plan that on your calendar as well. Next, we will want to make a calendar.
Be realistic and find chunks of time throughout the week to study. It’s great if those times can be the same every week but sometimes that isn’t feasible. I recommend chunks of time from 45 minutes to 2 hours. More or less than that can have diminishing returns. We can put that in our calendar. Mondays 4:15-5:15, Thursdays and Fridays 3:30-4:15, Saturdays 1-3, and Sundays 1-2:30. We got our 6 hours! Now, don’t worry about making your first schedule perfect. The first draft will have some bad assumptions like when you actually get home from practice, when you will have dinner, etc. You will update the schedule every week, so just make sure it is “good enough”. If you have more time per week, put in more study chunks. Less time? Put in as many study periods as you can.
When you study, prepare ahead of time to make it easy to study. Collect all your materials beforehand. Don’t have any distractions: no tv, phone, or even music.
After getting our blocks of study time set, we want to think about materials. I strongly recommend the Official SAT Study Guide for everyone. It has the best practice questions, and its massive size serves as an excellent defensive weapon if you are ever attacked! There aren’t a lot of Reading materials I love, and I haven’t seen every companies’ offerings, but I can say Erica Meltzer’s book on SAT Reading is good, if too long. I also really like International Tester’s SAT Reading Guides for everybody, but especially for … international students. She has two e-books, one on the Literature Passages and one on the Global Conversation Passages. These e-books are short but packed with good info. Here is my review. For SAT Writing & Language, I like Erica Meltzer’s books, but have heard good things about College Panda. For Math, I like PWN the SAT and College Panda. If you are scoring around a 550 or below in Math, you will likely have to do some significant work on your math fundamentals. Khan Academy is a good place for that. I have used KA’s online SAT practice, and I can recommend it. I have also heard good things about Magoosh, but don’t have direct experience.
We have our calendar started and got our materials. Now, we get to come back to that practice test you probably wish we had forgotten about. One of the reasons I like PWN the SAT and Erica Meltzer’s books is that they have appendices that allow you to look up every question you missed on SAT Practice Tests 1-8 and figure out what type of question you missed. (PWN the SAT only has tests 1-6 in the book, you need to go to their website to download appenidix for tests 7 and 8). Why is this so useful? You are going to use those appendices and keep a tally of how often you missed every question type. Once you have done that, and arranged the question types in descending order of most missed, you will know what to start with.
Your first day of study after categorizing mistakes will consist of doing the chapters in the workbooks related to your most missed questions. I don’t recommend spending a long study session on just Math or only Reading. You could spend the first half on Reading, and the second on W&L, for example. The early phase of your study will be doing these chapters until you have done several for each section. Once you have completed all the chapters on question types you were consistently missing, you will be ready for the middle phase. The middle phase of your study will be a mixture of chapters and practice tests. The late phase will be mostly practice tests. With our 10 week plan, we would spend about 3 weeks in each phase. If you have less time, make each phase a bit shorter. Extend each phase if you have more time.
Grinding is wasteful
When I write “doing chapters and practice tests”, I’m including your original attempts at answering questions, your review of them, and your 2nd try of those questions. Students tend to underestimate the value of reviewing and retrying, thinking that just mindlessly grinding out a massive quantity of questions is what will help them improve. That doesn’t work well at all. Most of your study time should be understanding and reviewing questions. I would recommend spending half to two-thirds of your study time reviewing. If you only managed to do all the questions on SAT practice tests 1 and 2, but thoroughly reviewed everything you missed and guessed on, you would improve more than if you had done all 8 practice tests and even several of the QAS tests, but half-heartedly reviewed them afterward.
Having nagged you to review, I should at least give you some guidance on how to review. The goal with your review is to know the question well enough that you will get any very similar question correct in the future, and could teach someone else how to get the answer. You should keep a mistake journal that organizes all of your review. Your should try to answer three things in your review of each question: 1) What did I do wrong?, 2) What should I have done instead?, 3) What is the clue in this question that I missed that should have shown me how to answer the question? Sometimes, these three questions may overlap enough that you only need to answer two, and that is okay. Once you start filling up pages, don’t just ignore them. You will want to review these notes. This, right here, is the real bulk of where your improvement comes from. Knowing what your mistake were, and knowing what to do instead can be difficult, especially early on.
Get Good Explanations
Getting good explanations is key. Don’t bombard the subreddit with 1000 questions, but r/SAT is a great resource to ask for help on questions that stump you! The College Board or Khan Academy explanations are okay, but not always helpful. 1600.io has good explanations, and the explanations for tests 1-4 are free. Between all of these resources, you will have explanations for any question you could have.
Once you have reviewed all of your missed/guessed questions, you aren’t off the hook yet. You will need to retry all of those questions, without notes. Wait long enough to make sure you don’t remember that #17 was D, but don’t wait too long. This is where you prove that you understand the problem. Don’t skimp on this.
Realistic Proctored Tests
Good review is the bulk of where your improvement will come from, but you need to make sure all that improvement shows up on test day. The biggest impediment to that is a lack of realistic testing experience. In addition to that diagnostic, you need to take at least 2 more tests under realistic conditions. So, no extra breaks just hanging out at home. There are plenty of local test prep companies that offer free proctored tests. Just make sure that you are taking official SAT tests. If that won’t work for you, take the tests at a library. Bring a pencil and calculator. Turn your phone off. Time yourself accurately. If you can, try to even take them on Saturday mornings. The missed questions from these tests will be the material you will use for review.
The last week of your study should be about consolidating and resting. You can’t effectively learn a bunch of new material in the last week. What you can do is make sure everything you have “mostly” learned becomes stuff that you know completely. Review your notes. Finish up any remaining retries. Get enough sleep. Exercise.
I just threw a bunch of stuff at you. You don’t have to perfectly implement all of it. Just do what you can. If you read it all and implement most of it decently, you will be far ahead of most students and can make very big improvements.
Once you have followed your study plan, you will want to make sure you finish up the final week or two of your study in the best way possible.