Picture in your mind the kind of person that gets a 2200 or above score on the SAT. You are probably picturing some Harvard bound wunderkind who attended the finest prep schools and excelled at all of them, or perhaps a bookish recluse whose entire life has been spent pursuing academia.
Friends, I am not those people, but I still managed to score in the 99th percentile on the SAT. I’m not a genius (ask the neighbors whose mailbox I destroyed because I was in reverse when I thought I was in drive), and I had a relatively normal upbringing in the public schools of North Carolina. I also did not do particularly well on the PSAT, which is generally an indicator of strength on the SAT.
So how is it that I scored above a 2200 on the SAT and only took it ONCE? I’m glad you asked (I know you didn’t ask, and I, in fact, asked, but just go with it, OK?)
1. Learn A LOT of Vocabulary
My English teacher my sophomore year was a tough cookie. She had us reading multiple books in A WEEK sometimes and assigned us 25 vocabulary words every week that we had to know backwards and forwards. By the end of her class I had memorized something like 750 vocabulary words. At the time I thought she was a demonic monster sent to destroy my young adulthood, but when I sat down to take the SAT I knew EVERY WORD.
Many intelligent professionals wouldn’t know every word on the SAT, but I was prepared. I was OVER prepared, but it sure did pay off in the completing the sentence section of the SAT. Vocabulary is also super useful for the reading comprehension section. A lot of the “difficult” passages on the SAT just use hard language. If you can understand the words used, you can understand the passage.
2. Review Math Basics
The math on the SAT is sometimes tricky, but it is NEVER complex. You aren’t ever asked to do calculus or geometric proofs. You aren’t even asked to do complicated algebra involving imaginary numbers. All you have to do is basic Algebra, geometry, and a pinch of probability. That’s really it. Many of you are finding derivatives or analyzing distribution curves in statistics, but none of that stuff is really that useful on the SAT, which is why many advanced students feel unprepared for the Math section.
My Junior year I was behind the geniuses in math, meaning I was taking a pre-calculus course instead of calculus, but my teacher was extremely thorough in reviewing all the math concepts we would need going forward. We reviewed area and probability. We reviewed graphing linear functions and understanding sets and sequences. We reviewed the stuff on the SAT! We were also forced to do something that I make ALL my students do, which is break down word problems to figure out what they are actually asking. Many students know the skills, but have trouble translating word problems to equations and concepts. This exercise prepared me for just that. Oh, and we weren’t allowed to use a calculator for the entire year.
3. Learn to Work without a Calculator
Technically, you do not need a calculator for the SAT. Everything that is asked can be done with paper and pencil. Because of this, the SAT rewards people who can work without a calculator. The biggest place this is evident is working with fractions. Students fear fractions like the plague and have become so used to their calculators that they don’t feel comfortable leaving answers as fractions.
The SAT LOVES to leave answers as fractions. It also loves to make problems that can really only be solved by working with the fractions. If you do not consider yourself strong at working without a calculator, now is the time to get strong. Calculators are great for checking arithmetic to make sure you don’t make careless errors (I am the king of this, ask my students), but when first dealing with the problem, DO NOT just try to plug equations into your calculator. The test wants you to work without it and will reward you for being able to.
4. Clearly Identify What a Passage is about and What Pieces of Language are Accomplishing
The reading section is all about figuring out what the passage is ABOUT and what the passage is DOING. The vast majority of questions on the reading section ask about why language is used, what its purpose is, and re-contextualizing ideas presented in the passage. All you need to know to be able to do this is what the passage is about and what the individual sections being referenced are doing.
This is easier said than done, but the clearest way to answer the first question is to ask what the “pitch-line” of the article is. When a friend asks “What was that movie about?” You have no problem giving a quick answer. If someone asks me what “Star Wars” is about, the “pitch line” is that it is a coming of age story about a boy who has to restore a world controlled by an evil empire. The events of the movie aren’t what it is, they are what happens in it. Similarly the main idea is what the article is, not the individual things it discusses. Does it make an argument in favor or against something? Or tell a story? Or discuss some aspect of a topic? Deciding this will help you to understand the passage as a whole. You can then repeat this process for line specific questions to identify what the individual pieces of language are doing. Just remember, the answer is always in the passage and supported by the piece of language being analyzed.
Success on the SAT isn’t just for geniuses. It is a series of skills and information that can be learned and practiced. If I can score above a 2200, so can you! Happy studying!
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.