Test developers know that the score on a given test is based on three factors. First, how much do you know about the subject matter being tested? If a question requires a certain kind of calculation, you won’t get it right if you don’t know how to do it. The second factor deals with test-taking skills—how comfortable are you taking such tests in general, and how familiar are you with the construction of the test? And finally, and most disconcerting, each test score has a random component—the luck of the draw—on the day of the test. No exam can exhaustively test your knowledge. It can only sample it at a certain moment. The specific questions on a given test may or may not reflect your broader knowledge well. And you might not be feeling your best that day. There is no box to check if you have the flu, though you can cancel your scores within a few days of taking the test.

If you look at a SAT score report, it shows a score for each part, as well as a “score range.” A math score of 650, for example, has a score range from 620 to 680. By reporting a score range, the College Board is suggesting that if you took different editions of the test within a short period of time, your performance might vary a bit but would probably fall within this 60-point spread. This variation would occur independent of any attempts to improve your score through studying or familiarizing yourself with the format of the test. Colleges ignore the score range and count the score itself, just as students do.

Good preparation for the SAT should focus on both subject matter and test-taking skills. You need to be motivated. You also need enough time to absorb the lessons, and you need to study relatively close to the date of the test. It doesn’t pay to study over Christmas and take the test in March. The shorter the prep program, the greater its emphasis on test-taking skills, since subject matter preparation generally takes longer. Both approaches can be helpful, however. If you don’t have a rich vocabulary, for example, it can be hard to answer questions that require knowing the meaning of unfamiliar words. Building a vocabulary is an important part of SAT preparation, although the English language has far too many words to learn them all. Preparation programs try to ensure that students master the words that most commonly appear on the tests. The Kaplan approach, for example, has always taught the Latin and Greek roots of many English words.

Similarly, knowing simple mathematical formulas may be critical to solving some of the math problems. SAT preparation courses focus on the basic math concepts that test takers are assumed to have mastered. This can be especially helpful for students without recent experience with them. With the introduction of the writing section, practice on writing and grammar is also included.

But for many good students with strong verbal, math, and writing skills, the most valuable part of SAT preparation deals with test-taking skills. Practicing tests under timed conditions can be important, as is learning how to approach various questions. Questions tend to fall into predictable categories and are arranged in increasing level of difficulty. In addition, the test developers also know the kinds of answers that carelessness produces. You can be sure to find some easy wrong answers among the multiple choice options. Identifying these repeated, careless errors can raise scores significantly just by itself.
What Kind of Test Preparation Works Best?

Test preparation comes in many forms. Successful preparation can be done with a $20 book or software program (Kaplan and Princeton Review, the two largest companies offering classroom-based SAT preparation, both publish books they claim contain much of the same material covered in their courses) or a $1,000 course meeting twelve times for three hours each, all the way to an individual one-on-one tutor, who will typically charge $100 an hour or more. Still other options include online courses for those wanting the structure of a course but greater flexibility in timing. At elite private schools and high-performing public schools on the East Coast, almost all students do significant test preparation, often with private tutors. Many of those schools also arrange for a test prep company to offer a course at the school. The test prep companies are, of course, eager to help.

Companies offering prep courses sometimes guarantee that a student’s score will increase by a certain number of points. But they only rarely offer a refund. A student who does not improve by the guaranteed amount can simply take the course again for free—not exactly what anyone is really eager to do.

Which approach is most effective? No one knows for sure. The kind of large-scale, carefully controlled research that would be needed to compare the effectiveness of different preparation approaches to each other and to no preparation at all hasn’t been done. There are a few studies, but the conclusions that can be drawn from them are very limited. Common sense suggests that as long as similar content is being taught, the particular method of preparation shouldn’t matter as long as the student is willing to commit the time and effort needed to work through the material and take the practice exams that appear to be critical in improving scores.

Here, once again, you need to assess yourself honestly. If you have the self discipline and motivation to work from a book or software program consistently and diligently in a timely manner, you can save yourself and your parents hundreds or even thousands of dollars and get results similar to those you would have obtained from an in-person course or tutor. But the key is applying yourself. A course or tutor has the advantage of providing structure for you and, in the case of the tutor, personalized structure and instruction.

How much of an improvement can you expect? An informal survey of a sample of college-bound seniors at our high school in 2003 showed that over 60 percent took a formal SAT prep class or committed significant time to using a book or CD on their own. Self-reported improvement ranged from 0 to almost 300 points total, with the average gain being about 80 points. No one method emerged as obviously superior. One student improved his scores by 120 points by doing extensive preparation solely from a book and achieved an almost perfect score of 1590 out of the maximum 1600.

The few formal studies that have been done on the effects of the test preparation usually report modest increases of 30 to 40 points, while the test prep companies have claimed increases of upward of 100 points out of 1600. But all of these reports, including the informal survery just cited, are just based on averages, and averages don’t tell you anything about how you will do. Your scores may go up very little (or even decline a bit, because of the random error that is inherent in any test), or they may go up a lot (but this won’t happen if your scores were already very high, since there isn’t much room for them to go up). It just can’t be predicted. As a result, the best approach to test preparation is a reasonable one that doesn’t disrupt your schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Preparation is unreasonable if it takes over your life.

I was on this incredible emotional teeter-totter about the SAT. On one hand, I wanted to do well. On the other, I felt that my SAT score did not make or break who I am. It was a strenuous time because I tried to have a balance of a good social and academic life. Should I go watch a movie with my friends and have fun, or stay home and study for the SAT two more hours? Most of the time I chose the academic path. However, I do remember being at a school dance (I had to work at the dance since I was in student government) the night before the SAT. I was sitting in the coat room with a fat SAT book, and my friends kept coming up to me saying, “You’re studying at a dance? Oh, come on!” Needless to say, they convinced me to put the book down, and I never regretted it.

It’s simple: if you don’t know the material already, you’re not going to learn it in a few hours, so there’s no use cramming. For this same reason, my band teacher never let us play the day of a concert. If you don’t know it by now, you’re not going to. – College junior