What it Takes to Ace the SATs

Most high school students anticipate the day they sit down to take the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) with anxiety and dread. After all, for many, it is the test of all tests. Relax. There are many ways to prepare for this moment.

In 1926, the first students took the SAT. It had been adapted from a test administered to army recruits. By 1942, the SAT was required of all college applicants. These days, there are a few colleges in the United States that don't require the SAT as a standard part of admissions, but many require either the SAT or the ACT.

"Typically, here in the western states we look at ACTs [American College Tests], but SAT scores are accepted," says Mike Echanis. He is the director of admissions at Idaho State University. So if you plan on attending a college or university in the U.S., plan on taking the SATs.

What to Expect

You may take the SATs at your high school, if offered, or at one of the many testing centers.

Catharine Watters works in the guidance department at Macdonald Collegiate Institute, a testing center. "Students are in a classroom with 20 to 27 other students. There is an instructor who reads the instructions out to the students," she says. "Both the instructor and the students must strictly follow the instructions."

Students are given three hours to complete the test.

In the spring of 2005, the SATs underwent a change in their format. The SATs now consist of three sections: writing, which includes a short essay; critical reading, formerly known as verbal section; and math.

In Preparation

How much time you spend preparing for the SATs may make it easier to complete the test in the given time frame. The better prepared you are, the more at ease you will be while taking the test.

"Learn what the SAT is about by reading the material you are given when you register," recommends Jan Gams. Gams is the associate director of public affairs with College Board.

Margaret Benedict is the founder of College Preparation Services. She feels that improving one's vocabulary is key to doing well on the SATs. She recommends that students put emphasis on vocabulary words that will be on the test.

"There are many books in bookstores that key in on SAT words," she says.

Another preparation option is to take practice tests. There are many benefits to taking such tests. You can find out what areas you need to work on. They will give you an idea of how long it will take you to complete the SATs. If you find it takes you an exceedingly long period of time to complete a practice test, try taking more tests in order to get your time down.

Perhaps the best indicator of how you will do on the SAT is the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test). The PSAT will give you a good idea of the SAT format. Inquire at your high school guidance office about when and where the PSAT is available to you.

If you don't mind spending a little more money to bring up your score, perhaps you'd like to opt for an SAT course. These are available on computer or through tutorials.

Benedict says her one-on-one tutorials have been known to bring up students' scores by 200 points. "I show them how to use strategies that apply to their particular learning style," she says.

The night before you take the test, sleep well, knowing you've done all you could. Before going in to take the test, eat a good meal. You'll find you think more clearly without hunger pains.

Test Time

The moment you've prepared for has arrived. "Students are generally very nervous," says Watters.

Benedict believes that encouragement can go a long way towards easing the mind of a student getting ready to take the SATs. "A lot of test success is how you feel. Most students can improve test scores by gaining confidence," she says.

So listen closely to the instructions, take a deep breath and relax. Take each question in turn, carefully reading it and the multiple-choice answers. When you're finished, be confident in the fact that you've done your best.

What the Results Mean for You

When you get the results, see if they coincide with the requirements of the college or university you have in mind.

With a high SAT score, you may have more options when it comes time to choose a college or university. Also, a good score will increase your chances of getting a scholarship.

If you did not do so well your first time around, take heart. You can take the test again. "It's better to do it again so you know what types of questions there are," says Watters. Consider taking the SAT relatively early in the school year so you have the opportunity to take it more than once.

Remember, SAT scores are just one of the variables taken into consideration when applying to college. "Other factors are more important," says Gams, "such as grades in tough classes."

Echanis is quick to comment that SATs are just part of the student admissions. "SATs are a factor for admission, but more weight is placed upon the grade point average in college core entrance subjects," he says.

Even so, the SATs continue to be used as part of the admissions process. They should be taken seriously and given your best effort.