Tips for Parents

Some SAT Basics

By Jennifer Cohen, President and Chief Word Nerd at

The SAT is clearly an important aspect of the college admissions process, and a good score can mean the difference between getting that fat acceptance envelope or not. So, when should a student begin to study for the test, and how many times should he or she take it?

Our American culture subscribes to the belief that more is ALWAYS better (hence the success of super size fast food meals), so the inclination is often that it’s never too early to start. I want to put some worries to rest, and stop the insanity a bit. In general, a student should start serious prep three to four months before he or she takes the test for the first time, allowing about two to three hours per week (more in the last couple of weeks). Starting earlier risks losing what you’ve learned by test day. Starting later may not be enough to maximize your score. Now there are exceptions to the three-month rule. First, the best preparation for the critical reading passages is simply reading as much as possible. The College Board has actually put out a recommended reading list. Word to the wise, read this stuff! The second exception is vocabulary prep, which is best done gradually over a year or more. Word-Nerd SAT vocabulary prep is the best place for vocabulary, of course, but I’d also recommend that students make a habit of looking up every unknown word they encounter.

The take home message is that you don’t need to start SAT prep in preschool! Just read whatever you can get your hands on, and make a conscious effort to boost your vocabulary. In the end, the SAT is much less important that your grades, so don’t recklessly sacrifice study time before it’s necessary. But, if you’re planning to take the test in May or June, you will want to get to work in February or March!

Once you have taken the test, there is a natural inclination to want to take it again. In the past, there were two schools of thought on how many times to take the SAT. One side posited that you should take the test as many times as necessary to maximize your score. If this mean six or seven tries (heaven forbid!) then so be it. Essentially, this approach bet on the fact that colleges are more interested in seeing improvement in your scores over time, or that they’ll ignore your first few tries because they know it wasn’t your best effort.

The other side, and the one I fall on as a general rule, is that you should take the test no more than three times. More than that makes you look desperate to admissions officers, and if you can’t achieve your best score within three tries, you clearly haven’t been putting in the appropriate time on prepping. I’ve heard arguments to this rule from students that want to start taking the SAT as early as their freshman year…I CAN’T take it only three times if I want to take it twice a year starting from age 14! My only answer to this is that if you think taking it in 9th grade is going to help you, you need to take a deep breath and stop obsessing. 🙂

Now, the College Board has thrown a major wrench in my rule with Score Choice. If you’re not aware of it, Score Choice allows students to submit only scores from administrations of their choosing (in the past, students were required to submit all past scores, no matter how gruesome the outcome). I’ve heard students rejoicing, saying that the time they got a 400 on the math section doesn’t matter any more. I say not so fast!

Since it’s a new option, it’s very unclear how colleges are going to use Score Choice. As of now, many schools are still requiring that students submit all scores anyway, so it’s a moot point for many of you, and the three attempt rule still applies. Colleges have been VERY slow in figuring out how to use the writing score on the SAT, and it’s been around for almost five years now. I suspect they’ll be equally cautious in adapting to Score Choice, and I’ll further conjecture that many will always require reporting of all scores. Colleges will almost always want more information about an applicant, not less. Subterfuge shouldn’t be part of the application process, right?

Article courtesy of Word-Nerd SAT Vocabulary Prep

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