How to Practice for the SAT and PSAT 10

Kimberly Wiggins (@KWigginsSVVSD) and Doug Morland, Assessment Coordinators, St. Vrain Valley Schools

On April 11, 2017, all sophomores and juniors in Colorado will be taking the PSAT 10 and SAT. The good news? It’s free! AND you don’t have to do a thing to register. But wait … there’s more!  Millions of dollars in scholarships (yes, millions…) are tied to both assessments, so even if you’re not 100% sure about your after-high-school plans, still use this time to prepare just in case  – They’re there anyway, so you might as well get the most you can out of it!

In addition to checking out our NEW SAT website (, here are the Assessment department’s best suggestions for approaching this test:

1 Engage in class.

The most important thing students can do to prepare for the SAT is to take the most challenging courses available to them, do their best work, and benefit from daily instruction that prepares them for college and career.” –

Paying attention in class, asking questions, and being an engaged and active learner will reap rewards, say the test makers. We agree. This assessment is skills-based; yes, it’s good to know strategies, but those strategies are no replacement for knowing how to use a semicolon, interpret graphs, or apply Pythagoras’ famous theorem.  

2. Read. Then read some more.

“I’m too good at reading – I comprehend too much and am too efficient.” – Source: No one, ever.

Did you notice how much reading there is on this test? Even the math section embraces word problems. From increasing general knowledge to building empathy, there is no shortage of research to tout the power of reading. Just 20 minutes a day of reading will expose a student to 1.8 million words over the course of a year. Read quality, challenging texts that vary in topic. If you don’t know where to start, ask a librarian at your school. They’ll have a range of articles that will help develop your literacy skills; make sure you’re getting graphs in too, because they are all over this test (and life in general).

Check out these sources, which have great texts and text-dependent questions to help you assess your comprehension: and

3. Deliberate practice.

Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become. (SOURCE: Harvard Business Review, “The Making of an Expert”)

Identify your weaknesses and then practice the skills you need to improve. Knowing that this test is standardized offers consolation: it’s very predictable. If you missed a question on a practice test, chances are, unless you do something differently to fix that skill issue, you’re going to make the same mistake again. Every high school in our district has administered a practice test at some point this year, and students received a report that showed every question and the right answer. Take some time to analyze your mistakes and focus on your weaknesses. What other habits could you make deliberate? Here are a few things to think about:

    1. Why? Check out Big Future and set goals. Do you need 10 questions more right? 30? How many questions can you miss? Plan on not knowing every answer; give yourself permission to choose the path to success. It doesn’t mean chasing down every single thing the SAT can throw at you – just do what you need for your personal or academic future.
    2. When? 20 minutes once a week won’t cut it for a sport, so don’t assume that’s enough for mental skills either. Set times up and commit. Don’t forget to build in reading time, too.
    3. Where? If your room is comfy and cozy and your bed beckons you to recline on it, you might need to find another location to stay alert while you practice.
    4. With? Do you know someone who can give you feedback, help you problem solve, or keep you focused? Is there a teacher or a tutor who could help?
    5. How? What resources will you use to build your skill base? Here are some suggestions:
      1. Shmoop: St Vrain has purchased a license to this skills-based prep program for every high school student. Log on and prosper. Here are some directions.
      2. Khan Academy: Khan Academy has partnered with CollegeBoard to develop free practice tests, interactive skills practice, a tailored personal plan based on your needs, and instant feedback.

4. Practice questions.

It’s good to focus on isolated skills and work deliberately; it’s also good to get as many practice problems as possible and see if you can identify those skills when they’re combined among other skills. Here are a few resources.

    1. There’s an app for that! Download the daily practice app from SAT.
    2. Khan Academy and Collegeboard paired to make practice tests,too – Check them out here on Khan, or go straight to the College Board website and get SAT or PSAT practice tests and explanations. If you want to see something really cool, you can take a picture of the answer sheet with your phone and upload the results directly to Khan for a personalized plan and score! Khan doesn’t have practice PSAT’s yet, but SAT practice is appropriate for most sophomores.
    3. For those of you die-hard pencil and paper fans, good news for you – this paper is still done the old-fashioned way! This book by College Board features four official tests, bound and printed.
    4. And it bears repeating: don’t forget you’re licensed to Shmoop.

5. Re-Calibrate expectations

When is a 50% not an F? When it’s on the SAT! Most of what you’re used to in school looks something like this: 90 – 100% = A, 80-89% = B, 70-79% = C, and so on. When you get to 50%, you’re at an F.

But the SAT looks something like this:

This is an APPROXIMATION; may vary from test to test.

So if you walked out of that test feeling like you only got about half the questions right, you’d actually be around average performance (50th percentile) on the SAT! If you were to get around 74% correct, you’d have performed better than 84% of students who took this test.

What does this mean? First of all, don’t panic over missing a few questions; your score isn’t really in jeopardy. As you can see from the chart, you can actually miss 15 questions and still be in the top performers. What a relief!

6. A few strategies never hurt… Though we’re focusing on skills, we still want to share a few tips that will maximize your success on this day.

    1. Collective bubbling: Consider transferring multiple answers at a time. It’s hard to keep switching tasks from the test back to the bubble sheet every question. Practice this: answer a page or two in the booklet, then collectively transfer the answers in groups. This saves brain power – and Khan Academy suggests it can even save you time.  
    2. Don’t leave anything blank. Omitting questions is soooo 2015! Guess away without penalty on the revised SAT.
    3. Memorize those math formulas, even though they give them to you. This isn’t necessary, but if you’re spending time going back and forth to the formulas provided, you’ll lose time. It’s best to memorize the formulas ahead of time and be able to recall them. We recommend reviewing the night before, too.

7. Get to know the test.

It’s important to know how far a race is before you start running; in that same vein, know what you’re sitting down to do. Look at directions, timing, and the number of questions each section has before you walk into the test. This will make sure you’re not surprised. The College Board is completely transparent about the structure of the test; they expect you to be prepared.

Some basic SAT test specifications

Did you know the test is over two hours for sophomores and over three hours for juniors? For juniors taking the essay, it’s four hours. That’s a long time – you may need to build stamina just to be able to focus and sit that long.

8. Don’t ignore your strengths.

If you were a basketball player who relied on your three-point shots to win games, you definitely would not stop practicing three-point shots. Bolstering things you’re already good at might take less energy and be less stressful.

9. Reflect.

In our department, we reflect on past, present, and future.

    1. Past: You’ve taken a few tests in your lifetime, both standardized and in-class. Look back and reflect on your performance on previous assessments. Do you see any trends?
    2. Present: How are you doing in your classes? Do any tasks seem harder to you, take more energy, or create more anxiety than others? Do those indicate any learning trends to you?
    3. Future: We talked about goals, and can’t stress them enough. How do these trends match skills you’ll need for a future desired career or academic need?

10. Ask questions.

Use #thesatchallenge for any questions you have (no Twitter account needed), email us at [email protected], or visit the counselors at your school. There’s no reason to have any questions left unanswered before test day when we have access to so many resources, so just ask!


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