Getting a perfect 1600 on the SAT
Once upon a time, I was an ambitious student hoping to get into a top university. I struggled to do well on the SAT (barely above average), so my parents sent me to classes that didn't help and gave me books that never went beyond the basics. After a lot of failure and frustration, I decided to self-study and figure out the test myself. My efforts paid off because I eventually scored in the top percentile (this was the old exam). Since then, I've stayed up-to-date with the test prep world as a teacher and an author, helping thousands of students improve their own scores. Unlike many other "experts" out there, I've actually taken both the SAT and ACT in their current forms, scoring a perfect 1600 and a 35, respectively.
Here's how I did it.
1. Concepts first, strategy and timing second.
A large portion of the test prep industry would have you believe that the test is all about clever tactics, pacing strategies, and insider tricks the test maker doesn't want you to know. This couldn't be further from the truth. While there are some strategies and tactics you should definitely have in your arsenal, it's important to know that 1) most of the "secret tricks" advertised by various companies are just common sense and 2) the impact these tips and tricks have on your score is negligible compared to actually learning the material that's being tested.
This means you've got to know stuff like subject-verb agreement, how to find the minimums and maximums of quadratics, pronoun reference, and trigonometry. You've got to understand how arguments are built and the typical ways one paragraph can relate to the next.
Seek first to learn these concepts from resources that actually teach them. Only then should you worry about test-taking strategies and timing.
2. Official practice tests are the gold standard. Do as many as possible.
The maker of the SAT, The College Board, spends millions of dollars designing and developing SAT test questions. It's important that the real tests are calibrated correctly and that the distribution and difficulty of the questions are consistent from test to test.
So to make these tests, The College Board collects a ton of data that no one else has access to. They know how students performed on past questions, both on the PSAT and SAT. They also know how students responded to experimental questions that were given a trial run. Without all this data, it's impossible for third party publishers such as Barron's, Princeton Review, Kaplan, and even me, The College Panda, to emulate the exact design of the test questions in books and products.
That's why it's so important that you prioritize official practice material in your test prep. When it comes to practicing, you want to internalize how the official SAT test writers think, not how outside test writers think. Exposure to real questions ensures that there are no surprises on test day.
This is not to say that third party books have no place in test prep. There are many books out there that are great for learning the concepts and practicing the necessary building blocks, but these books must be viewed as just that—a learning tool. They are not where your test prep should begin and end. When it comes to mastering the test as a whole, evaluating your progress, and establishing a high comfort level with the questions that show up, there is no substitute for official tests made by The College Board.
Do as many official practice tests as you can. Some students go through 5 and think that's enough. It's not. If you're looking for significant improvement, do at least 12. The more, the better.
3. Understanding why the wrong answers are wrong is just as important as understanding why the right answers are right.
For me, this was the key to test prep enlightenment on the reading and writing sections.
When I was first starting out, I would review practice questions by reflecting only on the right answer and why it was right. So if the answer was C instead of B, I would look back at answer C and say, "Oh, this is the correct answer because blah blah blah …" But I never really reflected on why answer B was wrong and what led me to choose that answer. I thought that if I could just learn to identify the right answers, I wouldn't have to worry about all the wrong answers. This sounds good in theory, but in practice, it's not enough.
When I review questions with students, I often find that they have no problem explaining to me in hindsight why D is actually the right answer, but then why weren't they able to stop themselves from choosing A in the first place!? The problem with only understanding the right answers is that you still haven't learned how to avoid the wrong ones.
Part of the issue is that for difficult and tricky questions, you will never be 100% certain about the right answer, especially under time pressure. Even for the best test-takers, there will always be some level of doubt and it's not uncommon to be torn between two answer choices that both "look right".
Being able to identify the wrong answers and pinpoint what makes them wrong gives you that much-needed confidence in your decisions. I cannot stress how important this confidence is. It's one thing to believe you have the right answer. It's another thing to believe you have the right answer and also have reasons for why the other three choices are wrong. Without this added confidence, you'll waste time hemming and hawing over answer choices and you'll inevitably choose tempting answers that seem right but miss the mark.
So when reviewing your mistakes, it's not enough to just understand the logic behind the right answer. You also need to look at all the wrong answer choices and work out the reason they are wrong. Spend just as much time dissecting the wrong answers as the right ones.
When you get good at pinpointing the wrong answers, you'll notice a shift happen. You'll notice that you're able to answer a lot of questions NOT by arriving at the right answer but by eliminating all the wrong ones. This ability is the key to perfect scores on the reading and writing sections. Effective process of elimination is what allows you to handle very difficult questions that might be impossible for you to answer correctly otherwise.
Now it's common sense that on a multiple-choice test, eliminating the wrong answers gets you to the right answer, but what most students miss is the order. Most students look for the right answer first. The best test-takers are so practiced at identifying the wrong answers that they look for the wrong answers first. Knowing which answers are wrong and why they're wrong upfront gives them the confidence they need to proceed.
4. Your vocabulary will determine your potential on the reading section.
This is by far the most often thing I tell students who are struggling with the reading section. If you don't have enough vocabulary under your belt, you won't be able to fully comprehend the passages and your score will plateau. There are no strategies, tips, or tricks anyone can teach you to compensate for not knowing the words.
And by vocabulary, I don't necessarily mean the "words in context" questions that show up on the reading section (In line 10, X most nearly means …). I mean the college-level vocabulary found throughout the passages and even the answer choices—words such as erratic, coerce, venerable, equivocal, engender. Until you actually review a few reading sections yourself, you won't believe how many errors you make that are caused by not knowing a word in one of the answer choices, much less the passages.
So there's no getting around it. To fully understand the passages and the corresponding questions, you MUST obtain the necessary vocabulary. This doesn't mean that you have to know every word that's ever showed up on the SAT. Far from it. You just have to know enough of the words so that your comprehension doesn't suffer.
There are a couple of ways to start building your vocabulary.
- When you're doing practice tests, circle the words you don't know. Make flashcards or a list.
- Work through SAT Vocabulary books. There are many out there.
- Use an app like Anki.
- When you write essays for class, use the thesaurus to discover new words.
The best way is the one that you can stay committed to because vocabulary building is a long-term process. You will not see results overnight, but if you keep at it and build up a strong enough vocabulary base, your reading score will start to improve by leaps and bounds.
There's a lot more to preparing for these tests than what I've just described, but these are the major pointers that have helped me improve my score. For more in-depth advice, check out the best articles from this blog.