Regardless of your feelings toward the SAT, GRE, MCAT, or other standardized tests, they are a necessary evil. The best scores on these exams are not always earned by the “smartest” students. Rather, score is proportional to drive and the amount of time you spend studying.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON YOUR GOAL
If your goal is to become a neurosurgeon, medical researcher, great mathematician, or other highly technical profession, you are going to have a lot of competition. You need to focus on that goal when you are preparing for college and preparing for standardized tests. Because most admissions committees know nothing about you, they will typically select individuals whose numbers look good, except in rare circumstances. Take these exams very seriously. It takes a lot more effort to undo a bad score than it does to simply work hard and earn a good score.
START YOUR PRACTICE EARLY
Recently, a friend of mine decided to take the GRE (the graduate school version of the SAT) and asked me for a few tips since he knew I had scored well. When I asked him how much time he had to prepare, he told me he had only two weeks before the test. THIS WAS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH TIME! If you are going to spend the money and time to take a standardized test, start your preparation as soon as you decide to take the test. The reason that most people object to tests like the SAT or GRE is that they lack relevance and that they test material that is not typically taught in high school or college courses. THIS IS ABSOLUTELY TRUE! These tests do not test the material you learn in your courses, so you should not assume that your courses have adequately prepared you. Instead, invest in a preparation course, preparation book, and some practice exercises. Then, invest a couple of hours a day to practice.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Take advantage of all possible practice opportunities. The Kaplan website offers preparation software, practice tests, and personalized preparation programs. In addition, ETS offers their own prep books and software online and by mail. There is no shortage of this material. You should go through ALL of it if you can. Also, SAT and GRE tests often use words that are antequated or have fallen out of common use. They do this on purpose to trick you. However, a good prep book will get you up to speed on these less common words. Also, you can subscribe to “Word of the Day” services through Merriam Webster online, which will send a word and its definition to your email every day. If you use several of these services, you can make flash cards with these words and add 5-10 new words to your vocabulary each day. Then, as you use these words in your daily life, you are actually studying for the exam.
SAVE YOUR MONEY ON PRETESTS
Pretests like the “PSAT” are pretty much worthless. They give you “the feel” of the SAT, but you don’t get to check your answers and see where you went wrong. If you can’t check your answers, no learning takes place, so this is an instance where practice is essentially futile. Instead, invest your money in a prep book or prep course. Both will feature more pretests than you can go through in a lifetime, only you’ll be able to check your score and answers immediately, which means you can learn from your mistakes. Remember, standardized tests are designed so that you will achieve essentially the same score regardless of how many times you take the test. In other words, they make it impossible to learn from your mistakes on the actual test, and this includes the PSAT.
Investing a little time each day will improve your scores 100 times over. Last minute studying will do little to no good. Standardized tests examine skills acquired over time. You are going to need to prepare a year or more ahead to get an excellent score, particularly if you have your sights set on MIT, Harvard, or any of the other high prestige universities. Remember, the test has little to no relevance to “real life” or to your courses. You are going to have to treat SAT study like a course in and of itself, and one that goes on throughout your high school career. Good luck!