SAT Advice (General) Post

SAT Action Plan

Posted by Brian R. McElroy at 2017-04-03 22:11:26

IMPORTANT NOTE: the new, revised PSAT starts in October of 2015, and the new, revised SAT starts in March of 2016.

Step 1:  Take a practice test to determine your baseline score.  You can find 6 free practice tests and the new PSAT, along with answer explanations, online (make sure to print them out before you take them).  Or, buy the paper book instead (you can read my detailed customer review of the book on as well).  The entire test -- Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, Math With Calculator, and Essay (optional but required at many colleges)-- takes around 4 hours and should be taken all at once, if possible, or split into a maximum of two parts.

UPDATE 8/31/16:  I've begun to create a free database of visual question explanations to the tricky questions from the 6 official SATs that have been released thus far.

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.  That content includes:

Vocabulary - SAT Vocab Capacity free e-book / Word Root List / Mnemonic Videos  (Please note that vocab is still important, but less essential, on the new SAT.)

Math - A Guide to the Math SATKhan Academy / SAT Quantum / Cliff’s Notes Math Review for Standardized TestsPWN the SAT Math Guide / SAT Math Tips / This formula sheet and this formula sheet and this blog post by me

Critical Reading / Writing -  Brian’s 6-Step Strategy / Critical Reading Tips / The Ultimate Guide to SAT Reading (a.k.a. The Critical Reader) / The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar / SAT Writing Tips / Prepositional Idiom List / Complete SAT Grammar Rules

Essay - The College Panda's SAT Essay / New SAT Essay Questions and Practice Materials

General SAT Strategy and Additional (Non-Official) SAT Practice Tests - Barron's New SAT / Barron's 6 Practice Tests for the New SAT / Ivy Global New SAT Guide, 2nd. Ed.

Need more practice tests?  Unfortunately, the 4 tests in the book (and the 3 online-only tests) are the only official tests currently available.  For practice, try to stick to real SATs whenever possible.  For strategy, look elsewhere: a book, a class, or a private tutor who can point you in the right direction.

Real SAT questions are of course always better to practice with, but for the new SAT, they are currently in short supply. So you should also try to get your hands on a copy of the 2015 practice PSAT, as well as the actual October 2015 PSAT (copies were sent to students who took the test). Professional SAT tutors like me will obsessively collect every real SAT or PSAT we can find, and at the moment, there are very few of them, so of course they are especially precious.

You can also find free SAT Prep Tips on the McElroy Tutoring Blog and free SAT videos on the McElroy Tutoring YouTube page.  You should also subscribe to the SAT Question of the Day.

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 such as the one at
UCSD, where I am currently on the teaching staff.   These types of classes can be helpful for low scorers who need all the time, practice and repetition they can get.   But don't overpay for an "elite" class: these types of classes are all very similar and focus 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.

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 website, download those same 4 PDFs for free, and simply print them out at home.  The drawback to this is that the pages will be harder to organize. 

Step 6: Once you begin studying, consider scheduling some time with me or another private tutor.   You may meet with your tutor for anywhere from 1 hour to 100 hours, but most students need at least 15-25 hours for a full preparation.   If you are willing to go with the Skype tutoring option, then you are free to choose from any tutor nationwide.   I recommend scheduling a 15-minute phone consultation with me or your tutor 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 3-4 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. 

Full practice tests should also be taken periodically, at the discretion of the tutor. 

The goal is to eventually complete all 10 tests in the book, and possibly more.  Many of my students have taken upwards of 25 official practice tests in total (I'm a test collector and have compiled many more SATs than that) before they took the real thing. 

How to grade tests and homework

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.

Remember, when you take the SAT, you do not know the answer to the questions in advance.  As tutors, we must preserve this unsure feeling on behalf of our students, or much of the value of the question is lost.

In the same vein, when a question is tried again, it is best not to know the correct answer, or one's previous answer.  This 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.

You may also find helpful information in my Grades 9-12 document.

Good luck!


copyright 2015 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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Reader Comments


Posted on 2016

How do you correct and get a score for the SAT practice tests that are in the College Board SAT book ??


Posted on 2016

Mr. McElroy, I noticed your review on AMAZON. I wondered how we are to score the SAT tests that are in the College Board SAT Study Guide?? I will appreciate your assistance with how I'm to figure our or find the conversion chart for scores. Thank you, Ms. Laurie


Posted on 2015

I left a comment on your Amazon review of the Study Guide. Do you have or are you aware of a suggested book reading list? My daughter is a freshman and I'd like her focused on those books. Thank you.


Posted on 2015

Hi Mr. McElroy! I am a senior high school student from Vietnam, and I am planning to take the New SAT in the upcoming March 2016. I found out about your website through your comment on the book "Official SAT Study Guide (2016 Edition)" on Amazon, which I find extremely helpful and informative. So I wonder if I can ask you something which has been troubling me recently, that if it is really necessary to take a SAT course, which in my country is very costly, or it is possible to self-study. I took one full exam on the College Board website and got 1350 in total, 680 for Math, and 670 for Reading & Writing. My score goal is 1500, so do you think that by self-studying I can reach my target score? Thank you very much for your time! I do hope you will continue posting useful advice on different exams; they help students like me a lot! Best regards, Chau

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