Countdown to the SAT: Expert tips for test day success

SAT success tips

For college-bound students, high school isn't the end of the line. It's just the beginning. But before moving on, there are college essays to be written and campus visits to be made. For many, the most nerve-wracking part of the college application process may just be the SAT test. Fortunately, experts say with the right preparation, there is no reason to fear this college entrance exam.

Why is the SAT important?

Colleges use many different criteria to review student applications and determine who is worthy of their freshman class. They may review essays, reference letters and high school transcripts. In addition, a student's SAT score can also play a significant role in their chances of getting that coveted welcome packet.

The SAT is one of two standardized tests -- the ACT is the other -- commonly used by colleges and universities when making enrollment decisions. Administered by the College Board, the SAT scores students in three areas:

  • Critical reading
  • Mathematics
  • Writing

A perfect SAT score is 800 on each section for a total of 2400. While many schools do not have minimum score requirements, selective and highly selective schools generally admit only those with top-tier scores. Want to go to Harvard? Plan on getting a 600-800 on each section, which represents the typical scores of current students according to the school's office of admissions.

Timeline for SAT test prep

With the SAT required by many schools, it is best not to leave this test up to chance. Kate Levine is the dean of guidance at New Jersey SEEDS, a non-profit organization that works with high-achieving students from low-income families.

"One of the most common pitfalls I see is the idea that you can't study for this test," said Levine. "Some assume it is a test of intelligence instead of skills."

In reality, Levine and other education experts say students should devote ample time to preparing for test day. However, how much time is up for debate. At Metarie Park Country Day School outside New Orleans, preparation for the SAT begins as early as middle school.

"Our teachers start preparing students for the ACT and SAT in middle school and work very closely with them, every year, on practice exams, text-taking skills, anti-test anxiety measures," said Calais Coulon, director of marketing for the school. "We have a staff dedicated to college counseling that brings in outside resources for SAT prep every year."

Others promote a less rigorous timeline for test preparation. Alunson "AJ" Henry, a test prep academic coach for Appleton Learning, suggests beginning preparation four to six weeks before the test date. As for Levine, she recommends students sign up for the College Board's "Official SAT Question of the Day" email list in ninth grade to become familiar with the question format. Then, as they progress through high school, Levine encourages students to study as much as vocabulary as possible.

Confidence key to success

To be successful on test day, experts say a student's state of mind may be just as important as their academic knowledge.

"Half the battle with the SAT is being prepared and feeling confident," said Levine.

Geraldine Woods teaches at Horace Mann School in New York City and is the author of more than 50 books including "SAT for Dummies." Woods says an over-emphasis on the importance of testing can wreck havoc on both a student's nerves as well as their test score.

"The biggest [problem] is a student who worries too much about the standardized test," said Woods. "The nervous student will skip around the test and all they do is freak themselves out."

Instead of a strict timeline for SAT test prep, Woods advocates a less strenuous approach. She recommends students continue their math classes even after their sophomore year, which is the minimum requirement in some states, and suggests taking some practice tests to identify weaknesses. Like Levine, Woods says vocabulary building is a critical component of being able to confidently face the writing and reading portions of the SAT.

Test day tips

Levine recommends students select a test site at their school or a familiar location to reduce the possibility of getting lost or feeling anxiety about being in a new building. In addition, she suggests students go to bed early and visualize their morning to better prepare for the big day.

Woods offers these tips to students to help keep test day jitters at bay:

  • Don't study the night before -- watch TV or otherwise unwind.
  • Make a pact with friends not to talk the night before or the morning of the test.
  • Lay out everything you need from your clothes to the admission ticket to the car keys the night before.
  • Eat a breakfast with staying power such as a high-protein meal.
  • Avoid talking about the test with others during breaks.
  • Put the answer sheet over the other test questions so you focus only on the current problem.
  • If you skip a problem, make sure you skip a line on the answer sheet.

"This is not the last spaceship off an exploding planet," said Woods, advising students to keep the test in perspective. "This is just one morning out of [your] life."

In the event your score isn't all you had hoped it would be, Levine points out students can, for a fee, request a score report from the College Board to pinpoint areas of weakness. Then, juniors have all summer to study and try again their senior year.