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Learning How to Take the SATs: Vladimir's Story

Vladimir applied to college in the U.S. from Bosnia this year. While not his favorite part of the process, he says taking the SATs gave him a certain sense of satisfaction. This is his story of preparing for and taking that often-dreaded exam.

I remember exactly how I felt filling in the last bubble on my last SAT, the SAT II Chemistry. Oh, how I enjoyed filling in that bubble. The feeling of coming to the end of that long journey was simply overwhelming.

This is how it all began.

I took the SAT Reasoning (SAT I) in June 2011. I had to travel to Sarajevo, 7 hours away, since it is the only city where I could have taken the exam in my country.

I prepared for it; not as nearly as I planned to, but I did practice and learn. As a non-native speaker, the writing and reading sections were the most demanding.

First advice, don’t even think of taking it before preparing at least for a month from the SAT prep books. There are so many tricks and tips I would never have thought of, but when I started taking the practice tests and compared them with the diagnostic test (there is always a diagnostic test at the beginning of those books that show you how you would do without any preparation, and which are your trouble-zones), the difference was obvious.

Become a good test taker

During the whole process of preparing for and taking the test, always keep one thing in mind: the main thing the SATs measure is how good you are at taking the SATs. The S in SAT stands for standardized, which means all of them follow the same pattern; hence, the answers follow the same logic. If you learn how to approach and solve the tasks, you needn’t learn anything else. This is emphasized in every SAT preparation book, but believe me that when you take the test, this will be incredibly obvious.

If the knowledge of how to manage your time most efficiently and the tricks of being a good test-taker (for example, whether you read the text first and answer all the questions after or answer as you go) comes naturally to some of you, good for you. But personally, I found the preparation materials priceless, and the only thing I would change regarding my preparation is the time I invested in it.

Tips for the day

Second tip: prepare everything the day before and sleep for a long, long time. No, this is not your mother speaking, but believe me that a good night’s sleep might be your most useful weapon. In the worst-case scenario, if you haven’t prepared much, at least you can rely on clear judgment and the awesome power of logical conclusions.

Plus, a good night’s sleep prepares you to tackle anything on the test day. And you’ll need to be ready to tackle whatever might come your way. I experienced everything from cranky supervisors, waiting for over an hour for the test to begin, feeling that my bladder was about to explode due to the lack of adequate breaks (I only had two five-minutes break during the whole SAT Reasoning), hunger, thirst, etc.

Luckily, I had no problems with my pencils (because I bought twenty of them), calculator (always new batteries the day before the exam), skipping a question and then filling in all the wrong bubbles after that (if you spot this and if it’s not too late, ask for a new answer sheet – more convenient and neat than going back, erasing all the questions and filling in the new ones), or anything like that.

[Hear about more SAT horror stories]

Thirdly, don’t be too stiff with your essay. Relax, take a deep breath, follow the time-management tips, and just wing it. I did that, and I got 9 out of 12 points on my exam, which is pretty good. Be eloquent, knowledgeable, savvy, and write about what you know. The topics can always be approached from very different angles. You just choose the one you’re most comfortable with. Don’t be all academic and scientific if you can write about a personal experience that captures the essence of the topic.

My results!

Regarding the SAT II subject tests, there is not much more to be said. These tests are also standardized, so they can only give you questions from the syllabus you can find in preparatory books. So the same advice applies.

Finally, I got my results and I scored 600 point on Reading, 640 on Math, and 630 on the Writing section. This was pretty good, although as I said, a little more preparation wouldn’t have hurt.

I’ve heard from other students that as long as you score above 1800, you don’t have to worry too much because admissions officers think that is a good score for an international student. Nevertheless, this came from experiences of other students, not official sources, so accept it with caution and always reach for a higher score, because you know what they say: “The more, the merrier.”

Editor's Note: I don't know if this is true, but many universities publish the average SAT scores of their admitted students, so you can get a sense of what you're reaching towards at any given school. Boston College, for example, says on their website, "Most of our successful students have earned individual scores ranging between the mid-600s and the low 700s."

IMPORTANT UPDATE: When I talked to colleges that declined me, they said they compared my results to the average results of all, ALL students, not just international students.

Anyway, I got 750 on both SAT Biology and SAT Chemistry, and 640 on SAT Mathematics I, and I can say I’m proud of it.

The period of taking the SATs is not the most joyful section of the application process, but it has its perks. You can get that real feeling of how it’s going to be in college, the stress, the time limit, the anxiety. Plus, it also resembles college because you are bound to meet amazing people who are also applying from you country; at least I did every time I took any of the SATs. It’s very nice to meet people with similar hopes and dreams, and at least, you will get some of that positive competitive spirit you will also need during college.