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An SAT Expert Shares Her Top Test Tips

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Aceable recently partnered with Kaplan to offer families exclusive discounts on college readiness courses, including ACT and SAT prep. We wanted to learn more about college entrance exams, so we spoke with SAT expert Debbie Stier, author of The Perfect Score Project, which chronicles her journey in taking the SAT seven times as an adult. Stier decided to go through the SAT process in an effort to help her son achieve the best score possible on the test. With her help, he improved his score by 540 points. Here’s Stier’s advice for parents who have a child due to take the SAT this year.

Debbie Stier is the author of The Perfect Score Project. Debbie Stier is the author of The Perfect Score Project.

When Is The Best Time to Start Preparing for the SAT?

As soon as 10th grade ends, Stier says. “Sure, you can do it in a lot less time than that, but once school starts, it’s the pressure of having to do it quickly that makes everybody so stressed out.” Stier recommends that students give themselves a nice, long runway with lots of practice in order to process the amount of information that studying for the SAT requires. If you start early, the summer before junior year, she says, you could conceivably be ready to take the test that fall.

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How Many Times Should You Take the SAT?

It depends on what your goal is, Stier says. “Most schools allow you to do what’s called score choice, which means you can choose, ‘Oh, I’m only going to send my May test dates or my October test dates.’ But some schools require that you send all of your test scores. So you might want to factor that in before taking it a million times.’”

But regardless of your goals, taking the test “a million times” is definitely unnecessary, Stier says. She recommends two to three times for most students.

You should take the SAT at most three times. You should take the SAT at most three times.

How Can Parents Motivate Teens to Prepare for the SAT?

Turn it into a shared experience, Stier says. She recommends being empathetic and sensitive to how much effort and focus this test requires. “What’s the worst is when I see a ton of pressure on a kid that’s unrealistic,” she says.

Stier also suggests that parents help clear their child’s schedule to make room for SAT prep. “Help them make those hard decisions about, ‘You can’t do everything, so what can we cut out of here?’”

Overall, the more you can be supportive of your child throughout this process, rather than put pressure on them, the better, she says.

What Value Do Test Prep Courses Like Kaplan Provide?

While you can prepare for the SAT without using a test prep course, students might find it time consuming to study without one. “The benefit of having a course is that somebody’s put it all together for you. Pulling all that information on your own is going to take extra blood, sweat and tears," Stier says.

What Is The Difference Between Strategic Versus Foundational Test Prep?

Strategic test prep is about being a good test taker, whereas foundational test prep is about grasping core material, Stier explains.

According to Stier, strategic test prep includes test-taking techniques like knowing your pace and understanding how much time to allocate to each question, knowing which questions to skip and which to guess on, and knowing how to eliminate wrong answers.

On the other hand, foundational test prep is learning the core material that makes up the test, like reading, writing and math. Some students may need to relearn or brush up on certain skills in these categories because they haven’t used them in years, Stier says.

How Should You Take an SAT Practice Test?

To get the most out of an SAT practice test, you should simulate the conditions of the actual test as much as possible, Stier says. “Start it at the time that the test would normally start, which is about eight o’clock; make sure that you’re in a quiet environment; take the breaks when you’re supposed to take the breaks.

“You might as well simulate it as much as you can so that you’re prepared on test day. [So that] you know your stamina and where your shortcomings are.”

But not only should you take practice tests, Stier says, you should also analyze your results. “What you should do is chart your errors,” she says. That means not only knowing what you got wrong, but understanding why you chose the wrong answer, so that you can develop strategies to improve on the next practice test.

Understand why you chose the wrong answer is crucial to improving your score. Understanding why you chose the wrong answer is crucial to improving your score.

How Do You Know If You Should Take the SAT and ACT?

Stier says it’s a good idea to take the full practice test for both the SAT and ACT and see which you prefer. “Most students honestly do about the same on each one -- roughly -- but they have a strong preference for one or the other,” she says.

One of the main differences between the ACT and SAT is that the ACT has a science section. Some people find this section to be ridiculously hard, while others find it easy, Stier says.

Another difference is that there is a longer English section on the ACT, so those who are good at English may excel in this section, Stier says.

Finally, when it comes to the math section, the ACT is a little more straightforward, while the SAT requires applied math skills, Stier says. There is also a portion of the math section on the SAT in which students may not use calculators.

The ACT has a science section, whereas the SAT does not. The ACT has a science section, whereas the SAT does not.

What Are Some Other Tips or Hacks for Performing Your Best on Test Day?

Stier recommends:

  • Make sure you know how to get to the test location. You don’t want the added stress of getting lost or being late.
  • Familiarize yourself with the school building where you’ll be taking the test. Are there assigned rooms? Can you sit anywhere?
  • Try to take the test in a classroom setting, rather than a gym or cafeteria. The latter tends to be echo-y and distracting, Stier says. Call ahead and ask where the test will be given.
  • You can also call a test center and ask what the desk situation is. “Sometimes they have those little armchair desks -- I call them porkchop desks -- and that’s a bad test experience, too because it’s not big enough.”
  • Bring your own watch to keep time. You don’t want to be in a situation in which you can’t see the clock in the room or the proctor isn’t keeping time for you. Knowing how much time you have left is essential to pacing yourself.
  • Bring drinks and snacks for the breaks, like dark chocolate, apples, water or coffee. They’ll give you energy and keep you focused.

Want more help achieving the perfect score on the SAT? Check out Debbie Stier’s book, The Perfect Score Project, a Amazon Best Book of 2014.

The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier

Krista Doyle