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My Many Misguided Approaches to Studying for the SAT

It was only six months ago that I decided to apply to the U.S. for my undergraduate degree. I was selected for the Opportunity Funding program, which would cover all the costs of the application process, and suddenly my distant thought of applying to the U.S. became reality and I was off and running from ground zero.

There was a lot to get done before November 1, when my first early decision application was due, but even way back in May the SAT exam seemed the most frightening part. I needed to get a 1500 just to keep my Opportunity Funding, but I needed much more than that to reach the mean SAT scores at the colleges and universities I was looking at.

Five months may not have seemed like a lot of time, but in that span I had a lot of opportunities to try (and reject) different approaches to studying for the SAT.

Approach #1: Blind Panic

At the beginning, the extra pressure of the SAT was really getting to me, and I started practicing constantly, hoping that I could eventually get a perfect score.

I used to practice in my room with the door locked so that no one could disturb me. I would eat breakfast in the mid-afternoon, and the concept of lunch and dinner ceased to make sense to me. Gradually I started to become slimmer and slimmer, until my cheekbones stuck out so prominently that my sister remarked that she could study the structure of the human skull just by looking at me. My nails were almost half an inch long, and my hair had grown long enough to cover half my face!

And the more I practiced, the less I focused on the other application components. After three months, my application essay was not even started, I hadn’t sent my request for recommendations, and I had stopped preparing for the TOEFL. With the November 1 deadline looming, and a blank page titled “My Soon-to-be Application Essay” staring at me, I realized I needed to get organized.

Starting in August I made deadlines and allocated myself reasonable time to focus on every component of my application, including the SAT. At the end of each month I would plan the things I wanted to accomplish the next month, every Saturday I made a list of things I would do the next week, and each day I made a list of what I would do tomorrow. Things got a lot easier and smoother after that.

Approach #2: Ignore 2 out of 3 Sections

The first thing I did once I decided to change my approach to studying for the SAT was to take a diagnostic test and figure out where I was weakest. The SAT tests three skills: Writing, Critical Reading and Math.

I found out that I was best at the Math sections, not bad at the Writing sections, and weakest in Critical Reading. So I decided to practice just the Critical Reading skills and try to bring up my score.

For about a month I forced myself to learn 50 new vocabulary words every day, with the goal of being able to recognize more of the difficult words used on the test.

At the end of August I did another full-length practice test. My Critical Reading score had gone up by 80 points, not much of a difference given how much I had practiced, but my Math score had changed drastically … in the wrong direction. I lost 120 points from my previous diagnostic test.

My word list
My word list

Moreover, even though I had gone through about 1,000 vocabulary words, I found I could not recall even half of them. And even for those I could remember, I failed to figure out how to use them in the sentence completion questions, in which you have to choose the best word to fill in the blank in a sentence.

One thing that did eventually help me remember some of these words was making word lists based on relationships between words, rather than just trying to remember random groupings. I figured out that most SAT vocabulary words were basically synonyms, antonyms or neutral words related to each other. Grouping the words in terms of their ideas helped me learn more words with less effort.

Approach #3: Simulating Test Conditions

So, it was back to practicing all the sections, but this time I made a few key discoveries about my test-taking weaknesses.

When I went back to practicing the Math and Writing sections, I found I had difficulties managing my time and getting them done quickly enough. I began doing timed drills with the goal of completing the Writing section on time and the Math section with 10 minutes to spare.

The other thing I learned from practicing in real timed test conditions was that over the course of four hours I gradually stopped thinking straight and would make minor mistakes. In the Math section in particular, most of the mistakes I made were simple arithmetic, which happened because I did not read the question properly.

It reminded me that paying proper attention to the questions and instructions is something I’ve struggled with before. About two years ago I was selected to apply for a scholarship program. There was an entrance exam consisting of four sections, and the test lasted three hours. At the end of the exam, I asked my friend how he had done on the Biology section – we were physics students and I had messed up that section pretty badly. He informed me that the first page of the exam explained that we were to attempt any three of the sections. No surprise, he got selected for that opportunity and I did not.

Though I still make this mistake, I learned to focus on reading every word in the question carefully. I also found out that having a light snack in the middle of the test helps me regain focus when I was wavering.

When the test finally came around, I felt that I was ready. I knew how it would go and knew what I had to do to achieve my best. Somehow, though, all the practicing I had done didn’t prepare me for what I actually faced when I stepped into the testing room.

What was the test really like? Find out in Part 2 of this post.

What strategies have you tried when studying for the SAT? What worked well and what didn't for you? Share your advice in the comments or in the form below.