How to make the most of them:
- Take a practice test once every 4 weeks or so until the last 3–4 weeks before your official SAT exam
- In the final 3–4 weeks before your official test, take two full practice tests
- Avoid taking any practice tests in the last 5 days before your official test day
So you’ve decided (or you’re being forced) to take the SAT. And someone (a teacher, a parent, or a friend) told you that taking practice tests is important. Well, they’re right!
But when do you take practice tests? Why should you take practice tests? How many should you take? And what exactly is the difference between the words “all right” and “alright”? We’ll answer three of those four questions below.
Credit: Matthew McConaughey
So why take SAT practice tests?
Most students don’t find practice tests fun, but they’re one of the most useful tools out there for figuring out your strengths and weaknesses and simulating the test day experience. There are two primary reasons to take practice tests while you’re preparing for the SAT:
1. To build your test-taking stamina!
At 3 hours long (not including the optional essay, breaks, and pre-test bubbling), the SAT is a beast of an exam. For most students, it’s by far the longest test that they’ve ever taken. And just like you wouldn’t train for a marathon by just showing up on race day and running 26.2 miles with no training, you shouldn’t show up to your SAT exam without having rehearsed taking a full test.
2. To find and fix timing issues
Credit: Judge Judy
There are two types of test-taking problems. The first kind of problem is content-related. You just don’t know what to do when you come up against a particular problem. That issue can and should be fixed in an untimed environment outside of practice tests.
But the other kind of problem is with timing itself. Maybe you know what to do, but when it comes to putting the puzzle together you’re running out of time on a section, or a particular problem type is taking way longer than it should.
These are the sorts of issues you’re only going to notice (or be able to fix) by taking a full practice test. Use practice tests as times to identify these sorts of problems and work on fixing them!
So when should you take your practice tests?
There’s no one schedule that’s going to work for every student. If you start preparing early, then you might only want to take a practice test once every couple of months. But for most students, your practice test schedule should look something like this:
- First, take a diagnostic test when you start preparing. If you’ve already taken an official test, you can use that, but if possible take a new one. It’s not just the score that’s important, it’s looking at what you’re doing well and where you need more work.
- While you’re prepping, try to take a practice test once every 4 weeks or so until the last 3–4 weeks before the test. That schedule will give you plenty of time to practice new things. It’ll also give you plenty of chances to practice what you’re learning in a timed setting.
- In the last 3–4 weeks before your official test, take two full practice tests. This gives you an opportunity to figure out what you need to practice for some last-minute polishing! Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time to rest before your test. Avoid taking any practice tests in the last 5 days before your official test day!
Wait, is that really enough?
If you’re stressing about the test, it’s tempting to try to take as many tests as possible to make sure you’re preparing as much as possible. While that might feel good, it’s not actually going to help as much as you think it will. Here’s why:
- Practice tests are good for practice, not for learning. When you’re taking a practice test, you should be getting better at timing, stamina, and performing under pressure. But what you’re not doing is learning and practicing new and better approaches to do individual problem types. The time you’re spending taking practice tests is time you aren’t spending learning new things. Both are important, so make sure you balance learning and practicing.
- You need time to learn from your practice tests. Taking a practice test is a great practice by itself. But learning from your mistakes is what’s really important. By spacing out your practice tests, you can make sure that you’re giving yourself time to practice new habits so you aren’t solidifying bad ones.
Which tests should you take?
Focus on taking tests that have been given as actual released practice tests! That means to prioritize tests #5-#10 on the College Board website (Tests #1-#4 were written before the “new” SAT was administered for the first time in 2016 and were never administered).
Any last tips?
Yeah, a couple!
If you can, take practice tests in “unfriendly” places.
It’s really tempting to take practice tests from the comfort of your bed, but unfortunately, your testing room isn’t going to be nearly as comfy. Put your phone away, turn off Spotify, find a quiet space, and get used to sitting for four hours (with breaks) at a desk someplace other than your bedroom. It’ll be less comfortable in the moment, but it’ll make the transition to the testing center on test day less jarring.
Credit: Schitts Creek
Also, try and take your practice tests at the same time of day that you will be sitting for the official SAT. So if your exam is scheduled for 9 am, take your practice tests at 9 am too.
Remember that the act of taking a practice test is only half the battle.
Make time to thoroughly review your practice tests. Don’t just focus on what you got right and wrong. Think about how you spent your time, why you made careless mistakes, and what you want to change about your approach next time to do even better!
But more than anything else: remember that the best performances sometimes come after the worst dress rehearsals. Even if a particular practice test score isn’t all that you want it to be, focus on the process and all the work you’ve put in.
Success starts with a small step, every day.