SAT Advice (General) Post

SAT Action Plan: How to Study and Prepare for the SAT College Entrance Exam

PLEASE NOTE: The official practice tests, books, and other study materials recommended in this plan are for the paper-based SAT only.  To learn more about the new digital SAT ("DSAT") that debuts internationally in March of 2023 and domestically in March of 2024, see this blog post.  (The 2023 October US PSAT will also be digital.)

First, check out my free SAT e-book, Master the SAT, and my simplified list of recommended SAT prep books on Amazon.


Step 1:  Take a practice test to determine your baseline score.  You can find 10 free, official practice SATs, along with answer explanations, on the College BoardKhan Academy websites (make sure to print them out before you take them).  Or, simply buy the paper book with 8 tests instead.  The entire test — Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, Math With Calculator — takes around 3 hours, 15 minutes, and should be taken all at once if possible.  You can also access a free digital version of The Official SAT Study Guide, minus the practice tests, on the College Board website

Tests 2 and 4 have been removed from the CB website, and there are no more direct links to these exams on the Khan Academy website, so here they are: Test 2ScoringTest 4 / Scoring

Already ran out of the first 10 official SAT practice tests?  You can find free PDFs of 52 official SATs and PSATs here.  (I have an additional library with 25+ more official tests that cannot be found elsewhere, which is exclusively made available to my private students and clients.)

Step 2:  Set a score goal.  My students' score improvements on the new SAT (400-1600 scale) are about 150-200 points.

Step 3:  Start working on the content of the test. 52 Official SAT PDFs

If you are looking for an online SAT self-study program that tracks your strengths and weaknesses in each area of learning, then I can recommend Khan Academy, which is a free service that has partnered with the College Board to provide online SAT drills and practice.  Fair warning: the individual practice questions on Khan Academy are not official College Board SAT questions, but they are similar. 

For additional help, consider a private tutor like me who can point you in the right direction.

In addition, keep reading challenging material, such as the Top 100 Fiction and Top 100 Non-Fiction titles on Amazon.   Also check out literary websites such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Economist, and even Grantland for the sports fans.

Step 4
: (only recommended for lower-scoring students): take an SAT classroom course. 
These types of classes can be helpful for low scorers who need all the time, practice and repetition they can get. However, don't overpay for an "elite" class or a score "guarantee": these types of classes are all very similar, focusing mostly on test content and basic strategies for the average student. Instead, save your money for a qualified private tutor later on in the process.  In addition, the so-called guarantees are usually full of fine print, so it's quite difficult to actually get your money back, even if you feel that you should qualify. 

Step 5:  If you haven't done so already, buy 2 copies of the
Official SAT Study Guide (I recommend keeping a second, blank copy for the purpose of reviewing questions without bias), and buy a good graphing calculator if you don't have one already.

Or, even easier (and possibly cheaper): just go to the College Board or Khan Academy website, download those same 10 PDFs for free, and simply print them out at home.  The drawbacks to this method are that the pages will be harder to organize, and that you will incur printing and paper costs.  

Step 6: Once you begin studying, consider scheduling some time with me or another private tutor.   You may meet with me for anywhere from 30 minutes to 100 hours, but most students need at least 15-25 hours for a full preparation.   I recommend scheduling a 15-minute phone consultation with before the first lesson, to discuss timelines, scheduling, and the unique needs of the student(s).

Working with a private tutor is the very best way to maximize your score, for a variety of reasons:

1) You are given personalized attention, lessons tailored to fit your schedule, and the opportunity to discuss each question in-depth until you are fully satisfied. 
2) Private tutors are usually the best instructors. 
3) A skilled private tutor will serve as a friend and confidant, hold you accountable, give you specific assignments and work on any problem areas so that all you have to do is put in the effort. Simply talking about the questions with your tutor helps aid your understanding of each question and your test-taking strategies.


As a general rule, students should spend at least one hour on homework for every hour they spend with their tutor.  The usual homework assignment is 2 sections from the book (approximately 1.5 hours), working from the front to the back.   Students should time themselves, and mark the question where they run out of time—but continue working past the time limit if necessary. 

Feel free to break the homework into small parts, and to ignore the test clock at first; learning is best done untimed and in tiny increments, especially in the first half of the test-prep process. 

Full, timed, and official practice SATs should also be taken periodically, at the discretion of the tutor, to judge the student's progress. 

The goal is to eventually complete all 8 tests in the book, and possibly more.


Either don't grade your homework and just let your tutor grade it for you, or grade it yourself (the answers are in the back), but please do not indicate the correct answers anywhere on the test.

When re-trying questions previously answered incorrectly, it is best not to know the correct answer — or even one's previous answer — beforehand.  This is known as the "blind review" method, and is where the second, blank copy of the book comes in.

Step 7: If you haven't done so already, then
register for the SAT.

The SAT is administered 7 times a year, on varying days:  October, November, December, January, March, May, and June.

Three times a year, the SAT offers what's called the
Question and Answer service (QAS), which allows you to view the actual test questions as well your answers (you will be mailed a physical copy of the test booklet about 5-6 weeks after the test).   Sign up for the QAS service in advance if you can--it costs extra but it's worth it.   Currently it's offered in October, January and May.  These are the best three months to take the test, because otherwise there will no way to review incorrectly answered questions with your tutor afterward.

Step 8:  Take at least 2-3 full practice tests in the weeks leading up to the real thing to make sure your score is where you need it to be. 

Step 9:  On the morning of the test, read my
SAT test-day tips for a final time. 

Step 10:  Repeat if necessary.  Most students score highest the second or third time they take the SAT.

Good luck!


copyright 2002-2023 Brian R. McElroy
Founder and President, McElroy Tutoring Inc.
Toll-Free: 1-866-584-TUTOR (8886), x 4
Direct (Call or Text): 619-889-2935


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