The SAT has a deep-seated cultural importance. For many students, it’s the single most significant test they will take in the course of their education. It’s no big surprise, then, that there’s plenty of junk info on the test; people get scared of it, and rumors get spread. It doesn’t help any that there are lots of less-than-upstanding test prep companies with their own agendas to fuel the misconception fire.
Is the SAT basically an I.Q. test?
This is more complicated than either the College Board or most large test prep companies would have you believe. The College Board says that the test is a reflection of your academic achievements—that many of the skills you learn in school are directly tested. That’s half the truth, if even that.
Meanwhile, Princeton Review gives a different answer to this question: “Your SAT scores reflect how good you are at taking the SAT (as well as how much time you spent preparing)–and that’s about it.” This is different than the College Board’s intention of testing your academic achievements. As you can see, opinions on this topic vary. The reality really lies somewhere in between the two.
It’s true that preparing for the test will raise your scores. It’s also true that many of the skills tested are test-specific. Think about functioning under time pressure, for example—when else in your life will you have a situation like this, other than on standardized tests? Or how about multiple choice guessing strategies?
But what they want you to believe is that they have some magic key that will unlock the test for you—that SAT questions are just sneaky tricks. That’s nonsense. Doing well on the SAT is actually about three things:
1. Knowing the concepts, rules, and academic vocabulary. This is the most important piece, and can come from school studies or test-specific preparation.
2. Knowing how to take a standardized test effectively. The only way to improve this is with test-specific preparation.
3. Innate logical abilities. A monkey can’t be trained to take the SAT and score well, no matter what. Meanwhile, a student who figured out how to solve a Rubik’s cube on their own will do pretty well, regardless of how much attention they pay in school. This is only a piece of the whole picture, but it is there, like it or not.
You can improve, yes; everybody can improve. But the big picture is more complicated than most “experts” will admit to.
How much time do I need to study for the SAT?
There are two common mistakes here, but the most important one to avoid is starting studies too late. Many students only start studying a few weeks before the exam, and that’s not ideal. In a perfect world, in order to be sure that you really built up your math knowledge, vocabulary, and test taking skills as much as possible, you’d have 2 or 3 months to prepare. It’s possible to make an effective one month SAT study schedule, but it takes serious devotion if you’re really going to bring up your score.
Does studying Latin actually help?
It can, but not nearly as much as studying English does. If you want to bring up your verbal score, there’s absolutely nothing better than reading as much high-level material as possible. Word lists and flashcards are useful if they’re used right—you really have to know how to remember SAT vocabulary—but it’s the reading, the natural expansion of your vocabulary, that has the greatest effect on your scores. Most of the reading comprehension questions don’t rely heavily on vocabulary; they test how comfortable you are with difficult texts in general. So that’s what you should be practicing.
That being said, reading takes time. It may even take too much time, depending on your schedule, so cramming English vocabulary can help. But don’t worry about Latin.
How hard is SAT math?
That question’s a bit tricky to answer, but everyone seems to be asking it. So just how hard is SAT math? Well, the core concepts that are tested are no harder than most sophomore high school classes. The majority of SAT takers actually studied every math concept on the test, and many of them finished covering those topics years ago. There’s no trigonometry, no calculus, no serious statistics—it’s mostly just algebra, geometry, arithmetic and number properties. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, not even for students who are taking calculus. This is where the logic I mentioned earlier comes in—the most difficult questions are puzzles. They don’t demand crazy formulas or long, complicated calculations: they test reasoning. Getting better at this is partly just about getting to know the types of puzzles that the SAT uses (and the common traps), so it’s not exactly something you’ve learned in school.
So you might hear one person say that SAT math is easy, and they’re right, in a way: it’s all from relatively basic areas of math. And you might hear another person say that it’s actually really hard, and they’re right too. The tricky questions are really tricky, even if the formulas are basic enough.