How To Save Yourself Thousands of Dollars This Summer!

By Victor Hua

The word SAT runs shivers down many students’ spines, provokes stressful looks on parents’ faces, and brings quite a lot of money to tutoring companies who promise to raise scores of thousands of college applicants. With college admission rates plummeting every year, the pressure to achieve top-notch scores on standardized tests like the SAT is as overwhelming as ever. This often motivates families to splurge their time and money into SAT preparation companies, with the mentality of “invest now to earn rewards later.”

But this $5 billion industry of test prep in the United States is oriented towards wealthier families, with prices as high as $950 an hour for private tutoring. This leaves low-income families in a state of indecisiveness: do they spend more than they can afford to prepare their children academically and risk financial crises, or save the money but inevitably feel that they’re not providing them with the resources they need?

The answer to this is simple: self-study. It’s so frequently overlooked as a method of preparation, as both parents and students typically feel that teenagers are less capable of teaching themselves SAT material than, say, an established standardized test preparation company or a private tutor. But as a low-income student myself who prepared for the SAT strictly through self-studying, I can safely say that it’s as effective — if not more — than any external resource can provide. In fact, most of the students I knew in high school who prepared by self-studying achieved higher scores than the majority of those who spent twice the number of hours in a test-preparation classroom.

Whether this phenomenon is due to more inherent motivation or better study habits of those who exploit the self-study method when compared to students who invest in outside resources, anyone can learn to adopt it and achieve the score they want. Here’s my best advice to self-study for the SAT.

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You’ve probably heard of the phrase, “work smarter, not harder,” and this resonates beautifully with how you should study for the SAT. Most of these tips are applicable to studying outside of the SAT, such as for school exams as well as for other standardized tests.

Set Reasonable Goals for Yourself.

Unless you’re that 1% of the population who’s born a genius or are willing to spend more than 8 hours a day studying, you won’t be able to raise your score 200 points in a day, or even a week for that matter. So don’t discourage yourself by setting ridiculous goals and then being unable to reach them. Rather, make a plan that consists of many smaller specific goals rather than one lofty goal. It’ll be much more manageable accomplishing reasonable objectives, and once you do, you’ll feel confident that the work you’re putting in is actually helping you progress, setting off a chain reaction of working towards goals and becoming motivated to do more after seeing your results. You’ll most likely be more organized and have a clear path of what you need to do to improve your score as well.

For example, do this:

  • Monday - Do one SAT reading section and one SAT writing section.
  • Wednesday - Learn 20 new vocabulary words, do one math section.
  • Friday - Take a full reading practice test.
  • By the end of the month - Raise reading score from 700 to a consistent 730-740.

Rather than this:

  • Monday - Full practice test
  • Friday - Full practice test
  • By the end of the week - Raise overall score 100 points.
Take More Breaks

Yes, you heard me. Contrary to the belief that a student needs to study hours and hours non-stop before collapsing on their bed from exhaustion, more breaks as well as shorter study sessions need to be incorporated into a study schedule to more effectively prepare for the SAT. Varying from person to person, your attention span will only last so long before expiring, which is about a little over an hour for studying until your efficiency begins to plunge. So unless you’re taking an actual practice test, give yourself adequate time to recharge before hitting the books again.

For this method to be effective, however, you need to be intense during the time that you are studying. For example, I would study for only about half an hour before giving myself a half hour break (doesn’t that sound better than sitting in SAT school for the whole day?). But during those 30 minutes, I gave all of my attention to my SAT book; I didn’t check my phone, distract myself by getting snacks to munch on, or let stray thoughts fill my mind. The only thing I had in mind was SAT material. Remember, quality always beats quantity.

Don’t be Discouraged When You Hit a Wall.

Just because your score falters once after a positive trend of consistent improvement doesn’t mean that what you’re doing still isn’t working. I oftentimes found myself frustrated when I scored lower on a practice test than I did a few weeks prior, but eventually attributed it to random factors that were out of my control, such as varying difficulties between practice tests, being especially tired or unfocused on a certain day, making silly mistakes that I normally wouldn’t have made, or some combination of these factors. Just like the stock market, your score will backtrack every now and then, but in the long run, it will grow tremendously.

Pretend Like You Love What You’re Studying.

When I first picked up a Harry Potter book, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it because I enjoyed it so much. I finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets faster than I finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of my required readings in my junior year of high school, but, interestingly enough, also comprehended and remembered the contents of Harry Potter books more so than I did for whatever I was obligated to read at school most of the time.

I employed this strategy to my study method and immediately saw a jump of 50-100 points on my reading score, on average. So whenever you encounter a passage that bores you (which will probably be most of the time), pretend like you love the subject and treat it as your childhood favorite book. It’s also applicable to math questions, which have become wordier with the introduction of the new SAT.

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So far, I’ve been the only advocate for self-studying. Listen to tips provided by others who did exceptionally well on the SAT by self-studying:

“Practice tests are your best friend. In the end, it all comes down to you: all the studying you do will only be useful if you’re actually invested and put in the effort.”

-Eric Hong, FLHS ‘17, MIT ‘21

 

“I think people often overlook the importance of going over the answer explanations for the questions they mess up on. It’s easy to just force yourself to take practice test after practice test while only superficially reviewing what you got wrong each time, thinking that your score will inevitably go up, but it doesn’t work that way. The real key to self-studying is not taking practice tests in itself, but in correcting yourself afterwards.”

-Ivy Xue, FLHS ‘16, Princeton ‘20

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To end this SAT self-studying guide on a more sentimental note, I’ll provide one last, general tip that can be applied to exam-taking, but also to anything you do in life. 

Remind Yourself Why You're Doing This.

It’ll get hard sometimes, mentally and emotionally. Studying for the SAT will likely be one of the hardest things you do in high school, and not everyone is going to get the score they want. When you feel like throwing in the towel and calling it quits, you need to think back to the motivation you had when you first started studying for this important exam. Ultimately, it goes along the lines of this: achieve a great score on the SAT, send the score to colleges along with the rest of your application, and hopefully receive a handful of acceptances. It’s a tough process for everyone, but if you want to stand out, especially if you’re a low-income student, then you have to have twice the amount of passion for what you’re doing than everyone else. But remember that, while self-studying may require more initiative from yourself than being fed the material at a tutor center would, it’s what you make of the process that determines what you get from it.

Try using these strategies the next time you study for the SAT on your own, or for any other exam you have to take. Remember that, when utilized correctly, self-studying can be the most efficient and effective way of improving your score. While the thought of preparing for such a significant test independently may seem daunting, you’ll be able to reach your goals if you really want the score, whether you’re provided an expensive tutoring service or not.

In the heat of the moment, take a step back from the anxiety of testing and remind yourself that your worth isn’t determined by a numerical result from a single three-hour exam, a less-than-perfect GPA, your future college acceptances or rejections, or any other academic statistic that our society has come to associate with objective success. Nothing can predict what you can achieve in your life. Whether you score higher or lower than you expect, I promise the SAT will be no more than a faint memory when you’re in college and beyond.

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