SAT Study Tips and Tactics for the Most Improvement in the Least Amount of Time

The tips below come from a highly recommended book Make It Stick, which deconstructs the learning process and examines what makes it most efficient. Everything is backed by scientific evidence.

1. Focused, then Varied

Two college groups were taught how to find the volumes of four weird geometric shapes.

  • One college group worked on practice problems that were grouped by shape (30 problems involving X shape, then 30 problems involving Y shape,...).
  • Another group did worksheets that mixed up all the practice problems (X shape, Y shape, X shape, Z shape,...).

During practice, the first group averaged 89 percent correct, while the second group only averaged 60 percent correct.

But on a final the week later, the first group averaged only 20 percent correct, while the second group averaged 63 percent correct.

Mixing up the problems actually boosted final performance by 215 percent.

In another study, eight-year-olds were asked to throw beanbags at a bucket. One group practiced on a bucket three feet away. Another group practiced on buckets that were two feet and four feet away.

After twelve weeks of this, they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket.

The kids who did the best by far were those who had practiced on two- and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets.


The key takeaway here is that mixing up what you practice on is tough at first, but worth it later. You'll do better initially by repeating the same question type over and over again, but later on, you won't retain as much as you would have if you had mixed up the practice.

What does this mean for your SAT/ACT study?

It means that first, you must get a decent hold of the basics. But to fully understand each concept after that point, you must mix it up with various practice problems that poke at different aspects and subtleties. Don't drill on the same exact concept for too long. For example, don't just do circle questions involving their area. Mix those up with circle questions that have triangles, questions that deal with circumference, questions that have multiple circles. Then to take it one step further, mix circle questions with other geometry questions that have nothing to do with circles. Varying up your material will stretch your brain further and maximize performance down the line.

That's why The College Panda books, there is a huge mix of practice problems at the end of each chapter, all poking at different aspects of the given concept. Then at the end of the book, there are practice tests that mix everything up. It's painful at first because you can't just follow the same script for every question, but it's by far the most efficient way to study.

2. In order to Memorize, Forget

Forgetting is seen as a bad thing. It's why we cram for tests. We're afraid of forgetting.

But to really develop a true understanding of what we're trying to learn, forgetting is the key to success. It's a crucial step we must cross. If you haven't forgotten something, you haven't truly learned it. Why? Because you haven't been forced to recall it.

It's a well-known fact now that cramming doesn't work. You might retain everything for a day, but a week later, you remember very little.

In 1978, studies showed that cramming leads to higher scores on an immediate test but faster forgetting afterwards. Just two days after the immediate test, those who crammed had forgotten 50 percent of what they remembered on the first test. Those who spaced out their study time had forgotten only 13 percent.

In another study, subjects were asked to memorize word pairs such as arm-sleeve. Arm was the trigger word; sleeve was the word they had to recall. After they studied the list of word-pairs, a researcher would show them trigger words one at a time and ask them to recall the corresponding word-pair.

The study found that long-term retention was greater if arm-sleeve was shown after 20 other word-pairs rather than immediately after it was studied.


The more effort you use in recalling certain information, the better that information will stick in your memory.

Space out your practice. This is where repetition comes in. Do a practice test once per week. Memorize your vocabulary everyday for the two months leading up to the exam, not in the two days leading up to it (Check out this post for the best way to do this). Study a grammar concept and repeat the same practice exercises two weeks later. The more you forget, the better. By reviewing what you forget, you're immunizing yourself from losing the same information again.

3. Testing, Testing

In 2010, The New York Times covered a study that showed that students who read something and took a test on it recalled 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who read the same thing but didn't take a test on it.

In a 1939 study, over 3,000 sixth graders studied six-hundred-word articles and were tested at various times before a final two months later. The experiment showed that

  • The longer the first test was delayed, the more the student forgot.
  • But once a student had taken a test, the student then forgot very little, even on subsequent tests.

That's the dilemma: testing yourself is really hard at first because you haven't mastered enough of anything and it feels like it's pointless. After all, why test yourself on stuff you don't know? But realize that's exactly the point. It forces you to recall things. It forces you to confront what you don't know. You cannot fool yourself like you can when you're rereading from a textbook in front of you; you have no choice but to go over what you missed.

It's like riding the bike for the first time. After you get over that initial hump, everything gets easier.

The point is to test yourself, even before you think you're ready. Most students think that the test is for the end, when they've "learned" everything they need to do well on it. That's backwards. The test is how you learn everything.

Practice tests are what you study with, not what you study for. They're the single best study tool ever known.

4. The harder, the better

Remember the study about word-pairs? Well, it turns out those who studied arm-sleeve (the full word) had lower subsequent recall than those who studied the pair from a clue as obvious as arm-sl__ve. The small effort required to come up with the words while studying the pairs strengthened memory of the target word tested later (sleeve).

What does this mean? The harder you make your practice, the better you will perform later on.

If you're always doing the easy questions to feel good about yourself, you're not making progress. You're just coasting on what you already know.

Practice should make you feel uncomfortable.

It should feel like you don't know what you're doing. You should be having to look stuff up. You should be feeling like you need help. You should be squirming in your seat. That feeling is how you know you're learning and challenging yourself. Embrace it and push onwards.

Too many students waste time by making their practice easy. That way, they can feel like they did something. Don't fool yourself. Always be leaning outside the bubble of what you know. Scared of triangle questions? Do more of those. Find reading passages boring? Read even more of them. Don't know some words? Look them up.

No pain, no gain.