How to Self-Study for the SAT

There are two myths about studying for the SAT.

The first is that it’s not possible to study for this college entrance exam. On the contrary, students seeking a competitive SAT score can and should study for this test!

The second myth involves how to study for the SAT. Many students assume it’s impossible to self-study for the SAT. 

While we always recommend working with test prep professionals when studying for this exam, it is possible to take the DIY route. 

In this post, we give SAT test-takers the resources and tips they need to pursue a path of self-study.

Here’s what we cover in this post:

What Makes the SAT Different from Normal Tests?

In the world of tests, the SAT is its own special unicorn. In many ways, it is entirely unlike any test high school students experience in the classroom.

How to Self Study for the SAT

In general, the SAT differs from “normal” tests in three ways:

  • Duration
  • Content
  • Strategy

For one thing, the SAT is a marathon. 

Students are expected to sit through over 4 hours of high-intensity interval braining (pun intended) when they take the SAT!

For another thing, the SAT does test specific content, but this may feel very different from content students are learning in high school. 

The SAT Math sections, for example, are heavy on data analysis and algebra, while Writing and Language tests grammar principles many students haven’t seen for ages.

Lastly, strategy is essential for success on the SAT. 

The Evidence-Based Reading section alone is entirely strategy-based, and the SAT rewards test-takers who can strategically approach Math and Writing & Language questions of any difficulty. 

In this sense, it may feel harder to study effectively for the SAT–and to do it alone! Studying content is one thing. Acquiring effective strategies is another.

However, it is possible to independently prepare for all of the components that make the SAT unique. 

The secret to doing so? Be sure to orient your SAT prep to these three things: duration, strategy, and content.

Then keep the following tips in mind.

How to Self-Study for the SAT in 8 Easy Steps

1. Start Early–With a Diagnostic

We recommend that students budget at least three months for effective SAT self-study. In fact, the longer your timeline of preparation, the better!

This may mean starting your SAT prep during the summer, especially if you are a rising senior. 

Prior to starting your SAT prep, it’s also wise to take a diagnostic SAT exam. Treat this practice test like the real thing to get a sense of your current standing, create a study plan, and establish a goal score.

The College Board has released 10 SAT practice tests, six of which have been previously administered as official exams. We recommend starting with one of these for your diagnostic exam (with essay).

(Not sure if the SAT is the right test for you? We can help you decide if the ACT is a better fit (or not).)

2. Choose Your Testing Date

The College Board administers seven SAT exams each year. Find the current testing schedule for 2020 in our regularly updated post on SAT administrations.

Select your testing date prior to preparation to establish a concrete SAT prep timeline. As we’ve already stated, it’s vital to select a date as far out as possible, as effective SAT studying requires sufficient time (and effort).

For example, if you begin your test prep in June, consider registering for a November SAT (at the earliest). Or, begin your test prep in January and take the test in May.

There are registration deadlines for SAT test dates, so be mindful of these! (Although it is possible to register late, with an added fee.)

If you are a senior planning to take the SAT, be mindful of SAT score submission deadlines, especially if you intend to apply to schools early.

3. Plan to Take the Test Twice

We advise our students to sit for the SAT at least twice. What are the benefits of doing so?

Taking the SAT twice gives students the greatest opportunity to increase their scores. Even without prep, most SAT students experience a score increase the second time around of taking the test.

What’s more, taking the SAT more than once enables Superscoring, an option some colleges offer that permits students to submit their most competitive sectional scores to the institutions on their list.

4. Create a Study Plan

If you choose to self-study for the SAT, the only person holding yourself accountable to your preparation is, well, you! Hold yourself to your established timeline by creating a study plan ahead of time.

Such planning cannot be underestimated.

We’re the masters at helping our students create such study plans–we’ve even written an entire post about it!

In the meantime, it’s important to build a study plan that incorporates regular, efficient SAT practice, the right resources, and consistent practice tests. Identify the study tools you’ll need for success ahead of time, such as flashcards. (We’re big fans of Quizlet.)

Treat SAT studying like a high school class, setting aside a certain number of hours each week for it. You may even want to block out study sessions in your personal planner!

5. Choose the Right Resources

This is perhaps the most essential component of a self-study plan for the SAT. There are scores of SAT prep resources out there. How do you know which ones to choose?

We want to emphasize that it’s vital to prep as close to the source as possible. For this reason, we always encourage our students to utilize College Board resources first and foremost. 

This includes the following:

With the exception of the Official SAT Study Guide book, all of these resources are free to SAT students. What’s more, they are likely to provide score increases!

According to the College Board

20 hours on Khan Academy® was associated with an average 115-point increase from the PSAT/NMSQT to the SAT” and 16,000 students who utilized official materials to prepare experienced at least a 200 point increase.

Khan Academy (SAT content) has the added benefit of personalizing student prep through diagnostic quizzes, score submission, and essay review.

When it comes to other resources, keep in mind that these are not as likely to be as representative of the official exam (although they can still prove helpful). Use these as a last resort, and be mindful that practice test scores may not be reflective of your current abilities. 

We recommend supplementing College Board official SAT practice with targeted content work through various reputable third parties. 

Online resources include:

Text resources include:

  • Erica Meltzer’s guides to SAT Critical Reading and Grammar ($)
  • The College Panda’s SAT Math books ($)

6. Set Goals Regularly

It’s important to establish a goal score for your first SAT after completing your diagnostic exam. But this shouldn’t be the only goal inherent to your prep.

Set goals regularly, and set a wide variety of them. Be specific and realistic when creating these goals.

Here are some example goals you may have when it comes to studying for the SAT on your own:

  • Goal #1: Set aside 3 hours a week (three 1-hour sessions) for SAT study, including drill work, content review, and guided practice
  • Goal #2: Take 3 practice tests between now and my official test date
  • Goal #3: Prioritize the following math content areas this month: triangles, systems of equations, and probability

Here are some sample goals you might set before a practice SAT:

  • Goal #1: Complete four of the five passages on the Reading section in the alloted time
  • Goal #2: Obtain 80-100% accuracy on punctuation questions on SAT Writing & Language
  • Goal #3: Obtain 80-100% accuracy on low-difficulty math questions on both sections (No-Calculator and Calculator)

Take the time to evaluate your goals regularly (we suggest weekly!). Adjust if needed, and celebrate successes.

7. Use Those Practice Tests

Practice tests are vital for building stamina and applying what you’ve learned in your self-study. Remember: duration is a huge part of what makes the SAT unique and challenging!

Yet they also have another hidden benefit. You can review previously completed practice tests to identify areas for future growth. 

Plus, you can attempt these questions again for drill work and content review–especially if you took that last test a while ago. A practice test is always so much more than its score.

Find Official SAT Practice tests (free!) here.

8. Start a Study Group

It’s not always best to venture forth alone. Consider starting an SAT study group with your friends or at your school.

The College Board gives students some great tips for doing so.

Study groups can make SAT prep feel more fun and productive. It can also add that much-needed element of accountability (and maybe even competition!).

You may even wish to supplement your self-study with targeted SAT bootcamps or master classes.

Next Steps

It is possible to study for the SAT on your own. With the right resources and a solid study plan in place, you can take charge of your solo SAT prep and work your way towards a higher score.

Of course, the one thing that is challenging to learn on your own is strategy. A lot of the SAT is strategy-based. In fact, more of it is strategy-based than students realize! 

The SAT rewards students who approach the test with a strategic mindset, which may or may not come naturally to some test takers.

You can learn some of these strategies from textbooks. But the best way to develop and apply such a mindset is through professional guidance. 

That’s why we always recommend working with a private SAT tutor or attending an SAT workshop. SAT experts know tried and true SAT strategies that work, time and again, and can help you reach your goal score through customized learning.

Decided to self-study for the SAT? Why not supplement that DIY study plan with some expert guidance? 

Book your free consultation now!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.