I’ve gotten a perfect score on the SAT (2400/2400) and overall on the ACT (36/36 composite). Granted, I got these scores as an adult, after the SAT changed (I scored in the 99th percentile on the 1600 exam in high school). Still, I have coached students individually to perfect scores in each individual section of the SAT and ACT and one to a perfect composite on the ACT.
So with the New SAT 2016 primed and ready for release, here are my 10 tips for all those overachievers out there.
You have to practice as much as humanly possible– and with as many authentic practice materials as possible. If you’re a junior or even sophomore right now, you may have trouble finding enough authentic materials because the SAT just changed.
Obviously, you should take every prep test Khan Academy and the College Board have offered, and don’t forget to check out their “question of the day” app and additional online questions. You can also practice from problems on the old SAT and even AP exams, especially the AP literature & composition and language & composition exams. Both of those AP exams have multiple choice sections that are similar to the new SAT’s reading section– just skip the poetry and theatrical works, as well as any literary terms questions. You can also use “old” 2400 SAT reading passages, but do note that the character of the test has changed. The old SAT had about 80-90% contemporary passages, meaning almost every reading passage on the old SAT was written after 1900– typically even post 1960. Now, the new SAT includes passages from the 1800s and even the 1700s, making the reading passages challenging in a different way– namely, the challenge is not necessarily in the question, but in figuring out the text itself. The AP Language & Comp and Literature & Comp exams include “older” passages, and as such are a good companion to “old” SAT passages in your quest to perfect your skills. I also suggest you practice on hard copy paper as much as possible– studying from a screen can make you prone to errors and slower reading speeds.
AP exams are also a great place to turn for preparation for the SAT essay– the new SAT rhetorical strategy essay is nearly identical to that of the language and composition exam, and the AP folks have released scores of old essay topics.
For the math and grammar sections, you can turn to more recent prep books that work on skill building, as these two sections tend to be more content related and straight forward.
2. Learn from your mistakes
When you make a mistake, you have to be able to look at that question and figure out:
– Why did I get this wrong?
– How can I get it right the next time?
If you are convinced that you are right and the test is wrong, you are never going to be able to get everything right. What you need to figure out is, how does the test think? For the most part, the SAT and the College Board are consistent – meaning that they have certain rules and values that they adhere to with these exams. Your task is to understand that consistency and learn the tests’ core values.
As a prep tutor, explaining these core values is the heart of my job. However, even if you don’t have money for a private tutor, you can learn what the test is about through books and your own practice.
I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Oh, the new SAT has no vocabulary on it!” Wrong. It has vocabulary on it – it’s just insidiously placed within reading passages and questions. Though vocabulary may not be critical in the same way as it was on the old SAT, to score perfectly you will need to have an extensive vocabulary.
Here are a few tips.
Books like 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary and 6 Weeks to Words of Power or Verbal Advantage can help you to learn vocabulary. I like books because they’re discreet– they feel more focused than just studying a dictionary into oblivion– and they often provide exercises to complete and context.
USE MNEMONICS: Use memory tricks to save time. Check out our video on mnemonics here!
USE FLASH CARDS: When I was in high school I didn’t study for the SAT much, but I did have a shoebox in my closet filled with vocabulary words. Every time I came across a new vocabulary word, I wrote it on an index card and put it into my shoebox. This habit helped me and what I’ve found with students I tutor is that it helps them too. Unfortunately digital flash cards I find less effective. Studies have shown that studying from a device decreases your retention, and with my own students I have found that those who request to use digital flash cards learn words less quickly. I also recommend avoiding pre-printed flash cards– you learn more when you write words out.
4. Perfect your grammar
If you want to get a perfect score, your grammar has to be impeccable. To master the major and minor grammar rules of the English language, I recommend that you look at grammar sections for other standardized tests besides the new SAT: the SAT II, the old SAT, even the ACT. Your local library could have copies of these books or with some searching, you might be able to find .pdfs online.
The grammar section of the new SAT is pretty similar to the ACT’s. If you want to get a lot of practice on that section, you can pull out some old ACT exams (here) and practice the English section in order to perfect your skills. That being said, there are some minor differences and the SAT tends to be a bit more sophisticated, so you should also do as many actual exams as possible. In addition to grammar, you also need to know what great writing looks like. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a good resource to look at, and it’s even free on the Kindle here!
5. Join the math team!
Okay, you don’t literally have to join the math team, but doing so will help. If you want to get a perfect score, you have to be awesome at math, and joining the math team or challenging yourself at math competitions is a good start.
I was on the math team in high school and that experience helped me to get a perfect score on the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, and the PSAT math sections. I barely studied for any of these tests.
One other math tip: learn three ways to do every math problem. If you only know how to do any given problem in one way, you’re limiting yourself because you might have to complete a problem differently on the actual test. If you know multiple ways to do a math problem, you give yourself a back up plan– and on the hardest problems sometimes only one method will work.
6. Learn how to read ridiculously complex material
You need to know how conversations in academic writing work for the SAT. Not only do you need to understand this from a reading level, you also need to know how to analyze it for the essay.
Again the dual passages on old SAT tests and the AP multiple choice sections are a good start for learning to read more effectively.
You can also simply work on your reading skills in general (see my video on speed reading here), and if you’re younger, it’s a good idea to read more complex materials on a regular basis, whether that’s The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Economist, or The Wall Street Journal– or classic literature (hopefully your English teacher will help with that).
7. Perfect scores take time
You have to be realistic with the amount of time that it’s going to take to perfect your skills. Realistically, you won’t be able to study for just a week or two weeks and get a perfect score– even if you are only 50 points away.
If you haven’t got a perfect score on at least two or three practice SAT tests in a row, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a perfect score on the real exam. You have to work your way up to that point– and once you do then you know you’re close. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I don’t know if you need quite that much practice, but you do need a lot of it.
I will also say that improving more than 150-180 points per section with less than a year of prep is uncommon. If you aren’t at ~1300 to start with, improving to a perfect score may be a formidable or even impossible challenge.
8. Build safety nets
I make mistakes. However, I catch these mistakes before I turn in my work by creating safety nets.
For me, the math section poses the greatest risk of carelessness. I have several habits to combat my mistakes in this section:
I always reread the question before I fill in my answer.
I estimate an answer before / after running the numbers.
I plug in to double check any absolute value problems or problems with even exponents or square roots.
I ask myself if my answer is logical after completing the problem.
I work problems in slower ways sometimes if I know that method will be more accurate.
I use my calculator for computations of more than two digits rather than using mental math.
I use time at the end of the section to go back and rework problems a second time.
In the grammar section, I also sometimes find that I miss little things, and will also go back to double check my work in this section. Likewise, I spend enough time on each question to ensure I haven’t missed a context clue or deceptively intervening phrase.
Perfection requires conscientiousness.
9. Pace yourself
This might be obvious, but you have to be able to get through the material – not so fast that you’re making mistakes, but not so slow that you don’t finish in time. You need to really know the test and how you work while taking it so that you can get through it. Everyone works at different speeds and sometimes I find that people who rush through it make a lot of mistakes, and if they just slowed down a little they wouldn’t get so careless. Personally, I move pretty fast through most questions, but move very slowly on the toughest questions. I might spend 5 minutes on a tough grammar or reading question– but will not spend more than 40 seconds on 80% of the questions. Figuring out your own pacing strategy may take you some time.
10. Don’t guess
If you’re going to get a perfect score, you have to get to the point that when you fill in an answer choice, you are 99.9% sure that you’re right. If you ever feel like you have guessed on a question, you’re probably not going to get a perfect score.
The reason I make this a point is that I have many high scoring students who have trained themselves to “move on” from any given question after about 60 seconds no matter what. Then, these students finish their exam with 5 minutes to spare. You can’t guess– you can’t give in– if you want to score perfectly. You have to raise your standards and learn to fight for a right answer. Getting to the right answer, particularly in the reading section, can take a lot of work and mind power, but you need to make that investment and you can’t settle for guessing. You have to push yourself to figure out why one answer is better than the other.
Want to learn more about the SAT? Be sure to check out our other posts!