There is a lot of advice floating around about improving your SAT score. A lot of advice, although solid, is either very obvious or very general, such as “take a lot of practice tests” or “study vocabulary.” Here are ten specific tips to boost your SAT score, in no particular order. Some you may have heard before, others you probably haven’t.
- Build your own vocabulary list using past tests. Get a little composition book where you can write down and define every single unknown word you encounter on College Board practice tests. At around eight tests, you will start to notice that many of the difficult vocabulary words have already appeared on previous tests. The test-makers seem to “like” certain words, and those words come up over and over again. Every time you encounter an unknown word you have an opportunity to learn it. Write it down, define it, and periodically review your growing vocabulary list.
- For Critical Reading passage based questions, experiment with different strategies. There is not a one size fits all approach to passage based questions. Ideally, a student should be able to read a passage once and comprehend it thoroughly enough to answer many of the questions without having to refer back to the passage. However, this level of reading comprehension takes a long time to develop, and some students find themselves in a situation where they only have a few months to study before taking the SAT. These students need to experiment with different strategies. Try reading the questions first, and then referencing the passage. Or skim the passage first, focusing on the first and last sentences of each paragraph, and then tackle the questions. If you aren’t seeing improvement with one method, try another.
- Know your special triangles. You will frequently encounter math questions where the key is realizing that the triangle in question is a special triangle. If you feel you can go no further on a triangle question and find yourself thinking something like, “there’s not enough information!”, always check to see if it may be a 30-60-90 or 3-4-5 triangle (for the latter, remember that any ratio of 3-4-5 works, like 6-8-10 or 30-40-50). You can also try splitting the triangle in two to see if it forms a special triangle. Also, know how to calculate the diagonal of a square.
- Never leave any multiple choice questions blank. The College Board tells us that a person who leaves the entire test blank and a person who blindly guesses on every question will, on average, receive the same score. But a person who leaves blanks runs the risk of incorrectly bubbling in the rest of the answers (e.g. student leaves question 12 blank, and accidentally fills in the answer for question 13 in the bubbles for section 12, and so on). Moreover, because raw scores are only whole numbers, certain quarter point deductions for incorrect answers will not affect your score due to a rounding-up effect. Due to this rounding effect that, a person who leaves nothing blank has a slight score advantage over the person who leaves some questions blank.
- Read, read, read—especially topics that you don’t find particularly interesting. Even students with mediocre scores on the passage based reading sections do fairly well on passages that they find interesting. Many high school students are accustomed to skimming material that they find boring or uninteresting; therefore, quickly lose attention when they encounter such a passage on the SAT. If you find yourself reading the same sentence over and over again, this is probably what’s going on. As interest wanes, so does focus. One way to retain focus is to engage in active reading (for instance, notating the passage as you read it). A better way is to increase your attention span is through practice. Read with the goal of keeping focus, and increase your speed as you progress. Periodical articles are ideal because their difficulty level approximates that of most passages on the SAT.
- If you’re stuck on a math problem, start writing. Write anything: label the diagrams, draw a picture or plug in numbers. Try expanding, factoring or simplifying expressions. Often students will leave a math question blank and say “I’m stuck” but they will have little or nothing written on the page. Write down what you know and see if anything comes from it. Many times something does. Often there are hidden patterns in the question that we miss until we start writing things down.
- In your essay, consider the opposing point of view. Graders of the essay appreciate writing that sounds mature. An easy way to demonstrate mature thinking is to acknowledge the opposing point of view to your thesis. Don’t agree with the other point of view, merely acknowledge that it exists and is reasonable, but that your thesis is superior for whatever reason. You can do this in your conclusion paragraph or in a separate paragraph before your conclusion. This is a simple, powerful formula to follow and most students don’t do it. Hence, it’s a great way to distinguish your essay from the hundred other essays your grader will read.
- Always show your work. Careless, silly mistakes often turn great scores into good scores. Students rightly feel that they can do a lot of the simpler math in their heads, and they usually can. Unfortunately, this also frequently leads to silly mistakes, especially on questions that have multiple steps. Even if you are confident that you can perform all the steps of a math question in your mind, do yourself a favor and spend a few extra seconds writing the numbers down.
- Use official tests to practice with. If you need more practice, look for previous versions of College Board’s “official” SAT prep books. Some will object that these old tests are obsolete because they were created before the 2005 update of the SAT. On the contrary, they still make excellent practice; just skip the analogy and Quantitative Comparison sections (also, be aware that these older tests do not have a Writing section).
- Create a collection of mature sounding words and phrases to incorporate into your essay. According to the College Board, a six level essay “exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary.” Most students use very dull diction on their SAT. Some students try to incorporate so called “vocab words” into their essays, but do so in a way that sounds forced or contrived. When you come across words or phrases in your reading that you think could be incorporated into your essays, jot them down, review them, and incorporate them into your practice essays. A word like “perfunctory” can impress!
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