How to study for the SAT: Three secrets to success

Marc Feder
September 24, 2020

As you assess your SAT prep options, beware of the most-dreaded question and most-dreaded “plan” that SAT tutors hear over and over again:

“How many hours/weeks/problems do I need to study?” and “I’ll get started studying and then see when I’m ready.”

Instead, follow these three themes as you construct a winning SAT study plan:

1)   Consistency is key – Slow(ish) and steady wins the race.

For any kind of self-improvement mission – whether it’s a workout regimen, a diet, or an SAT study plan – human nature tends to lead us down a dangerous path.  We view it as “all or nothing” and go as hard as we can for a few weeks…then completely burn out and end up right where we started.  

This is really common for SAT test takers – for a few weeks they’re attending a prep course twice a week, they’re cramming on Saturday and Sunday mornings, their pillows get replaced by prep books and flashcards, and then they realize “I hate this” and their cheat day becomes a cheat week, which becomes just who they are.

Three months later they can’t tell a pronoun from a polygon and it becomes all the more daunting to even think about starting again.

You can beat that with smart study planning. How? Set up a SAT study schedule that you know you can stick to. Forget the status quo that says you need to devote many hours to your SAT prep at a time. Instead, break your study habits into small chunks. For example, can you commit to 10 minutes a day, three days a week?

You don’t even have to specify which night or which morning: if committing to “every Monday” means that you lose the chance to attend an important event or catch up on some quality down time, you’ll resent that schedule pretty quickly. But if you know that by Thursday night you need to have studied one evening that week, you can look ahead at which night is most open and plan around your school-life-study balance.

From there, you can always add time. Not getting as comfortable with algebra as you’d like to be? Maybe you hit some practice problems on one lunch break that week, or add a second night to your SAT study routine.

If you’re adding study time because you want to or know you need to, that’s a lot easier to stick to than hitting your arbitrary “I told myself I’d study every night so I guess I have to say no to everything else” plan.

The one thing to remember: Consistency is more powerful than intensity. Start with a small-but-steady SAT study plan and add on from there, as opposed to trying to do too much and burning out fast. 

 

2)   Never mistake activity for achievement.

Another huge problem with the “I’m going to study for X hours Y nights per week” SAT study binge is that counting hours, days, or problems completed is not an effective gauge of your progress. Too often people go through the motions for hours without really learning or mastering anything tangible – just because you did 50 problems doesn’t mean you learned anything from them.

If you can’t walk away from your study session with a quick list of “tonight I learned that I need to X, Y, or Z” you’re not getting a very good ROI on that time you spent.

So study smarter, not harder. Take time before each SAT study session to determine what you’re hoping to get out of it: are you working on spotting common Percentages errors? Noticing and avoiding Words in Context mistakes? Then after each study session, take 5-10 minutes to write down what major takeaways that session taught you: 

Which mistakes do you want to address? 

Which triggers should you have noticed more quickly to help you efficiently set up your math? 

What should be your theme for your next study session?  

Make sure you’re always studying for a reason and analyzing what you’re learning from those sessions. If you can’t walk away from your study session with a quick list of “tonight I learned that I need to X, Y, or Z” you’re not getting a very good ROI on that time you spent (and you’re much more likely to burn out as a result).

The one thing to remember: Create themes/missions for each SAT study session and take time at the end to reflect on what you learned.

 

3)   Don’t just set a goal. Build a system.

Another common SAT study plan pitfall is when students set goals (e.g. “I’m going to study for 6 months” or “I want to score a 1350”) but don’t create a sustainable system to reach those goals.

Think about it this way —  what separates an Olympic gold medalist from the athlete who just barely didn’t make the team?

Answer: the systems they create. Both athletes had the same goal (and tremendous talent), but the athlete who achieved that goal had a stronger system in place to accomplish it.

A system is a series of procedures or processes you put in place to achieve your goal. Shifting your mindset from being goal-focused to systems-oriented is crucial to your success on the SAT.

If you find yourself stressing out about your practice test scores, or whether you’ll get into a good college, remember those are outcomes (goals). Worrying about the outcome does not help you change it.

Instead, refocus on optimizing your SAT study habits (systems) to improve your chances of reaching those goals.

Here are three ways to create an effective SAT study plan that sticks:
  1. Make it repeatable. Healthy habits are born out of frequency, not intensity.
  2. Make it stable. If the context or setting is always changing, so will your behavior. Make sure you create a reliable and consistent study environment. 
  3. Make it positive. Don’t let fear or negativity get in your way. Focus on the potential positive outcomes associated with your SAT prep - e.g. getting a great score can lead to scholarship money or open doors to more colleges.

Without a clear and consistent SAT study plan in place, goals tend to fizzle out – taking a weekend off leads to taking a month off, or “I’m too busy at work right now to make the progress I want” becomes “so maybe I’ll get started for real after the holidays.” 

There’s a reason that the most common day to start a diet or workout plan is “tomorrow” – we can always find excuses that allow us to delay.

Shifting your mindset from being goal-focused to systems-oriented is crucial to your success on the SAT.

The one thing to remember: Goals are important, but kind of useless without structured systems for how you’ll achieve them. 

Summary

Like any other “self-improvement” activity, studying for the SAT is something you need to be able to sustain so make sure you set a study regimen that you can stick to over many months, not one that will drive you crazy after 2-3 weeks.  

And although an easy way to measure your effort is in terms of amount of time spent or number of problems completed, those metrics are only correlated with success – the true driver of success is meaningful, deliberate study (aka the systems you create to accomplish your goal).

Looking for help creating an effective SAT study plan? Look no further - At Everydae, we customize SAT study plans for every student based on their goal scores and the time until test day. The result? Step-by-step guidance that prioritizes the skills that matter most in order to maximize your score on test day. Oh, and most of our SAT challenges can be completed in 10 minutes or less, which are perfect for students with busy schedules.

Beat the SAT in just 10 minutes a day!

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