Is Your Test Prep Actually Working?

You’ve put in lots of work, but you’re not sure if all of your studying for the SAT is paying off. Well, there’s no need to worry—there are a few ways to check if your test prep is actually working.

You can track your progress by taking lots of timed practice tests under test day conditions, then calculating your score with each successive test—if your score isn’t going up, you’re doing something wrong.

More guidance below. For some expert help with your test prep, consider taking an SAT prep course with Prep Expert.


Start With A Practice Test

If you’ve never taken the SAT before, you need to take a full practice test to establish your baseline—in other words, to see where you’re starting from.

Find a quiet place, free of distractions, set a timer, then tackle the Reading, Writing & Language, Math, and Essay sections in the same amount of time, and with the same number of breaks, that you would have on test day. Then, score yourself.

After you check your answers, you can use the scoring charts the College Board provides to see what you’d have gotten on a real SAT. Note this down.

Also, note down what types of questions you’re getting wrong. Did you struggle with questions about the literature passage on the Reading test? On questions about the comma on the Writing & Language test?

Make a list of all your weak spots. Now, you have a study checklist.

Use this study checklist to tackle all the underlying content knowledge you need to acquire to eliminate your SAT blind spots. Spend a few hours reviewing your English textbook to master the knowledge of tone and literary technique you might need for the Reading test. Crack open your geometry book and re-learn the rules of right triangles and SOH-CAH-TOA for the Math test.

As you get a handle on each topic, cross it off your list.

If you do this consistently, over time, you’ll find there’s not a single part of the SAT that you can’t figure out how to handle. But, this isn’t the entire length of the way you need to go to be ready for the test—or to track how you’re doing.

woman with practice test

Continue To Take Practice Tests On A Consistent Basis

Take practice tests consistently—weekly at the very least, twice weekly if you can.

In order to do well on the SAT, you need to learn not just subject knowledge, but also how to take the test. The more practice tests you take, the better you’ll be able to cope with the rigorous time limits for each section, and the more you’ll notice the types of questions and trick answer choices the test presents.

With each successive practice test, note down how many questions you got wrong, and use the scoring chart to see what score you’d get on the SAT. Whether you’re studying for the whole test, or simply a specific part of the test that you need to improve on, you’ll be able to use your practice test score—along with your baseline score or previous test score—to track the progress you’ve made.

If you’re studying well, you should see consistent improvement on the test.

But, remember a couple of things.

The first is that, from one practice test to another, there’s bound to be some variation in how you do. So, don’t panic or get discouraged if you end up going down a point or two here or there. This is most likely due to the difference between one practice test and another.

Perhaps one particular test had Reading passages that were more difficult or less enjoyable for you to read, for example. Or, you could simply be having an off day. This is an ordinary part of the test prep process and is to be expected—don’t let it derail your studying.

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The second thing to remember is, the better you do, the more difficult it will be to continue accruing points. There are only so many points on the SAT, and, at the highest score levels, the difference between a perfect score and a less-than-perfect score can be one measly question. For even the brightest and most hardworking students, completing a test perfectly, free of errors, is extremely tough.

Prepare yourself for that the fact that, no matter how much you study, there are likely to be one or two questions on the test where you’ll slip up or fail to notice something. Don’t be too hard on yourself over it, and don’t go crazy trying to fight something you can’t change. Any score over 1450 will put you in range for the most competitive Ivy League schools, so it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get a perfect 1600.

man confused

Ask Yourself—Do I Feel More Prepared?

If your test prep is working, you should not only be scoring higher but also feeling more confident in your abilities.

One of the biggest challenges of the SAT is fighting the inevitable test-day anxiety. This anxiety results in students getting lower scores on the actual test than they were getting on practice tests—sometimes by as many as 100 points. So, feeling confident and knowing that you can do it are essential things to aim for in your test prep.

A particular area where boosting your confidence will come in handy is on the Math test. You should get to the point where you feel confident you could do well even without your calculator. The equations and formulas at the start of the test, and all your calculator’s handy functions, are great resources to have on test day, but the confidence that comes from knowing a formula by heart, and being able to complete an inverse function without hitting a button, means you’re super prepared for the test and will feel confident on exam day.

student reading

Know The SAT Inside & Out

If you know the test like the back of your hand, you won’t be tempted by trap answers or misunderstand what questions are looking for.

Your test prep is working well if you start to feel as though you know the SAT inside and out. Can you anticipate exactly the types of questions you’ll see after you finish a Reading passage, and do you know exactly what to look for to rule out wrong answers?

Have you begun to notice the College Board’s favorite topics for history passages? Or the fact that, on the Writing & Language test, you’ll be required, at least twice, to know the difference between “its” and “it’s”?

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Do you have committed to memory the phrasing of questions—what it means when a question says “infer,” or when it says “according to”? Do you remember how drawing out a right triangle is almost always handy for area problems on the Math test? If so, then your test prep is working!

As I said before, test prep is not just about underlying content, but also knowing how to take the test. Almost more than anything else in life, the SAT rewards hard work and consistent effort. So, take heart that what you’re doing—even if you’re only improving a point or two at a time—is paying off.


If Your Practice Test Scores Plateau, Change Your Strategies

If you get to a certain point and then stop improving, you should start trying out different strategies on your practice tests, and see if your score starts to go up again—don’t give up studying.

You probably need to change your focus. Perhaps you’ve been zeroed in on learning underlying content, and you’ve maxed out what you need to learn. If so, switch gears and focus on completing sections in time, or on picking apart questions to identify and rule out wrong answers.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” If doing things the same old way has stopped working, then switch it up!

If your score is stagnating, another possibility is that you’re getting fatigued. If you’re not bringing your all to your test prep because you’re worn out or tired, then listen to your mind and body and give yourself a break. Take a day or two off and relax, or focus on other stuff.

But then, get right back to it. There’s a difference between taking a break and giving up! Of course, it’d be nice to take an entire week or month off test prep, but you don’t have that kind of time to spare—you can take your extended vacation after you get the score you’re aiming for!

There’s one last possibility—maybe you’ve worked really hard and you’ve reached a great score for you, and there’s not any more room for improvement. Not everyone is going to get a 1600, so don’t go on a self-destructive, Captain Ahab-like quest for a perfect score if you’re not getting one with a reasonable amount of work.

If you’re lost on your own and need some test prep guidance, consider taking an SAT prep course or ACT prep course with Prep Expert.


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Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.