Whether your target test date is 2 months, 6 months or even a year away, the amount of time you have leading up to an exam heavily dictates your weekly commitment and strategy for preparation to achieve the scores you desire. Cramming for the SAT is definitely not ideal, but here are some useful ideas and tools I have found to better structure your approach to exam taking.
Long term considerations
If you have plenty of time before the exam it is most important to put priorities in context. Standardized test scores are just a piece of the package that the school sees. School grades should not be compromised for a 10 or 20 point increase on a standardized test. Focus on the school grades first. As the test date approaches, begin to shift your focus to more regularly scheduled practice sessions. I would say as a rough estimate:
Months away from Test Date Weekly Hours of Studying/ Average number of Sessions
4-6 2 to 4 hrs / 2 sessions
2-4 4 to 6 hrs / 3 sessions
0-2 5 to 8 hrs / 3 sessions
Slowly transition to longer sessions
I cannot stress the importance of doing longer sessions, especially full length tests. Mental stamina, especially at the high school level, is extremely challenging and such long periods of mental stress are not inherently built into how we operate on a regular basis. You need to develop the mental fortitude to not ware down over the course of the exam.
Start broad and then narrow your focus
With time on your side, focus on the fundamental and core academic areas. Don’t worry so much about test taking tricks. Learn the core material so you don’t need tricks. Speed drills, repetition, and deep understanding (even beyond the SAT) can help develop the base required for success on the exam and beyond. As examples, make sure that you have a solid understanding of trigonometric functions in math, parallelism in writing, and rhetorical strategies in reading.
Learn and Develop Your Test Taking Strategy
Everyone learns differently and attacks the SAT differently. Get a feel for your strategy and modify it to improve your score. A great section to modify strategy is reading. If you can’t reach the end of timed reading sections it means that you should try and modify your approach. Try a bunch of different strategies and get a sense of what works for you. Does underlining help comprehension and reduce question time? Does summarizing paragraphs with short sentences hurt time to read but improve accuracy and speed up answering questions? Tinker your strategy to try and target a completed reading section while maintaining the highest level of accuracy.
Avoid the burnout
If you feel it getting harder and harder every week to sit down and study for the SAT, take a week or two off. Don’t be afraid to leave it for a week if you don’t feel like you are mentally prepared for a session. There is nothing worse than anxiety and weariness to hurt your learning. If you can though, in the off week stay mentally active with topics you enjoy. As an example, I enjoy reading The Economist on a weekly basis. I learn about world topics, business and cultural issues. It has probably been the largest contributor to my improved vocabulary over the past few years and I can even reference some of the topics in essays. Other people like puzzles or challenging board games, which are also fine. Just find a way to stay sharp.
Short Term Considerations
Focus on the core knowledge gaps
If you are late into the prep game, it is important to not overwhelm yourself and focus on what you can improve. With a month or two left most likely you can focus on five or six topics to address. As an example, if you know that you are having trouble with passage comparison questions on the SAT, go right to the Passage 1/2 parts and read them. Go to the questions and look for phrases such as, “Both authors would most likely agree that…” or “The author of passage 1 would think that the statement in Line 72 of passage 2 is an example of…”. Answer all the questions for the passages with an emphasis on the comparators. Do the same thing for any gaps in grammar and math concepts.
This is a two-fold strategy: both mental and physical health. Too much stress mentally is not a good thing at this stage and too little physical activity is a bad thing. Learn to balance social life with studying. You can’t stay 100% focused on the exam during the last weeks leading up to the exam.
It is still important to take a couple full length exams
These are the only true way to get a feel for the duration of the exam, structure and flow. The abrupt change between different sections can be alarming and only through practice does one adapt. This also helps for any sections in which you are very strong. For example, if you aren’t focusing on math as you do very well in it, taking a practice math exam with either confirm or reject your level of knowledge. This also keeps you fresh on sections not reviewed in the knowledge gap filling without a heavy emphasis.
If a writing section is on the exam- be prepared
There is nothing worse than getting to a writing section, remembering a book you read eight months ago as a great example, then recalling few details as you try and write the outline or essay itself. Have in mind two or three universally themed books that have been read recently. Stick to these books and the words and details should come much easier.