“They do really well in school, so they should be ready for the test. Just need to know some tips and tricks.”

Does that sound familiar to you as a parent or educator? Perhaps you’ve seen online advertisements from test prep companies guaranteeing score increases because they’ve found the secret to crack the SAT. So what are their secrets? What are these “tips and tricks” everyone is talking about? Standardized tests, like most hurdles students will face in their lives, academic and otherwise, present challenges for which there are no silver bullets or panaceas. There is no secret; there are no tips and tricks. Well, perhaps there are, but they aren’t what most people expect.

Even the College Board – after almost a century – admits that test preparation helps students achieve higher scores. Of course it does. The SAT isn’t an IQ test or an “intelligence” test; it is, like any other exam, a test of acquired skills. And skills are acquired through practice. In fact, can you think of anything that you can practice and not get better at doing? I’ll give you a moment – take your time… Playing the lottery, maybe? For too many students, unfortunately, taking the SAT does feel like playing the lottery because they don’t understand the game: they are not practicing the right set of skills. And that’s because the set of skills required to be a successful student in the classroom are not always sufficient for success on test day, so relying on what you’ve learned in school and taking test upon test upon test typically won’t help. Successful preparation for the SAT is really about providing students with the additional academic skills they don’t yet have, skills that will prove helpful to them both in college and beyond. So let’s take a closer look at what these skills, these “tips and tricks”, actually comprise.

The Reading section of the test demands close literal reading of high-level texts, with an emphasis on nonfiction. This style of reading is almost the opposite of what students are typically exposed to and practice in school. Despite the recommendation of the Common Core standards, most reading instruction occurs in high school English classes that often require students to read a portion of the Western Canon of novels and then to write about them. And what does the teacher want to see? An original thesis, of course. They want the students to read between the lines, to draw inferences, to find symbols and allusions, and to place the work in its larger historical context. Those are wonderful ways to encourage students to think deeply about important questions, but these approaches lead to the wrong answer on the SAT. The SAT requires students to be active readers, to identify arguments and evidence, and to summarize and paraphrase main ideas without adding any of their own thoughts or arguments. These skills taken together give students the ability to distill meaning from complex texts, an ability crucial to success not only on the SAT but also in college and the workplace. Effective test preparation helps students acquire these skills.

The Writing and Language section of the SAT is essentially a test of Standard American English – it’s a grammar test. High school students are generally unconsciously competent speakers of English and, as such, often rely on their “ear” for language rather than a rigorous application of grammar rules. While that works to an extent, the SAT specifically targets the common – even accepted – usage errors students hear every day from their friends, parents and even teachers. Most high school English curricula, however, forgo formal grammar instruction, assuming students already know the rules and handling their errors in an ad hoc manner. Consequently, preparation for the writing section requires a thorough grammar review, an effort that serves to make students better testers and better writers. 

The Math section of the SAT, by contrast, requires students to do more original thinking than they are accustomed to in school. It’s quite typical to see straight-A math students struggle on the math section of the test, many times lamenting that “this doesn’t look like math in school.” It does not. For good reasons, math classes are broken up into easily digestible units. Students diligently practice a new math topic every night for two weeks, completing homework sets that are carefully sequenced by incremental difficulty but largely consisting of the same types of problems. Reading the directions isn’t even required. Then students reproduce that work on similar problems on the test, get their “A”, and move on to the next unit. But by the end of the next unit, they’ve often forgotten much of the previous one. They rarely see problems out of the context in which they first encountered them, and they never get to practice integrating the diverse set of math they’ve learned into a cohesive whole. The SAT, however, often presents familiar ideas in new ways, requiring students to connect the dots rather than rely on memorized patterns and formulae. Making those connections deepens students’ understanding of what they’ve learned in the classroom and better prepares them for the acquisition of new high-level concepts..

Many schools are also dispensing with cumulative final exams, which only exacerbates the problem of long-term retention. The SAT is essentially that comprehensive exam, but it covers several years’ worth of high school – and even middle school – math. Students can’t expect to be as prepared for every problem on the SAT as they are on a test in school. They’ve got to have problem-solving skills: they’ve got to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. Most students don’t have experience thinking in that way and are profoundly uncomfortable doing so – they freeze up, guess, or panic, sometimes all three at the same time. Good test preparation, in addition to reviewing concepts and helping students make connections between them, equips students with the problem-solving skills they need to remain calm and reason through their thoughts. They learn to be sturdier in the face of confusing or unusual material, dispassionately evaluate information, seek familiar relationships, and test their assumptions. 

These skills are a far cry from the “tips and tricks” you’ll find promoted online and elsewhere. They require and reward careful practice and they make for better students. Good test preparation results not only in better test scores, but also helps students become better thinkers and problem solvers.


Aaron Golumbfskie is the Education Director at PrepMatters and has logged more than 20,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring. He continues to tutor every day, but he hopes to serve even more students by spending much of his time creating pedagogical materials and leading the training and mentoring of new tutors at PrepMatters. Aaron is a member of the NTPA Board of Directors.