Studying for the SAT (without a tutor)

Hey guys!

In this entry, I wanted to take the time to address the SAT, especially as many of you who took it in June will be receiving your results soon, and planning ahead for your next round of testing. The SAT is by no means the most important part of your application, but I think what’s important to keep in mind is that it is a piece that you control. You can make a conscious choice to get better at it, and this is where we want to step in and help.  

First, as a disclaimer, I am by no means an expert on the SAT in the same way that a real tutor is. I’ll just be talking from my own experience, and from the little things I’ve learned along the way!

The most common thing you’ll hear people tell you about the SAT is that it’s about practice. Practice, practice, practice. It’s easy to see how that helps boost your scores; a large part of what the SAT tests is how well you know the SAT itself.  Without a tutor, however, the actual learning from practice is a bit more difficult. To make the most of your practice, you have to practice smart.

Practicing smart means doing more than looking at questions. I found that, especially for the math and reading sections, the questions all began to look like they covered the same topics. They started to look more familiar, more comfortable, and altogether easier. It’s really easy to skim over sections and say, “I’ll only do this question if I don’t recognize it.” I did exactly that more than few times. What I realized later was that I was missing out on a crucial experience—the moment when I would get a question wrong and have no idea why, because my answer had to be the right one. 

It’s in this moment where you have to turn to everything you can find in order to explain this discrepancy between your confidence, and the right answer. This means more than just finding out why your answers were wrong, it means finding out what gave you the confidence in your other answers. While the first is easily found in a tutor, the second is actually something that might be easier to do on your own. Follow your thought processes, and look at what your preconceptions of the topic are, and what your first impression of the question was. Practicing smart is all about thinking deeper about how to learn best from each question you do. 

Also, don’t try to do it all alone. Studying for the SATs can get very dull, exasperating, or at the very least, monotonous. Having a group does wonders for your general disposition and your ability to keep on trucking through difficult problems. Just as importantly, your friends, mentors, and classmates provide a peer group to review and improve your essays. Without a tutor, it’s still relatively easy to find answers to multiple choice questions, but it can be much more difficult to figure out whether or not the essay you wrote was actually good. So find people who know what a good SAT essay looks like. Talk to everyone and anyone who might be able to help, and look for some exemplar essays online. 

It might sound like a lot, but compared to the costs and commitments of a tutor, I think they end up being about even. In the end, take all these pieces of advice with a grain of salt. These are what I wish I would have known, but I also realize that every one of us has different study habits and learning preferences. Find what works best for you—these are just guidelines and recommendations to get you started. No matter how you choose to go about preparing, stay driven and stay focused!

And of course, good luck! 

Matt Borja graduated from International School Manila in 2012. He now attends the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as a member of the class of 2016.