So, you’ve taken umpteen practice tests, memorized every grammar rule under the sun, quizzed yourself on all of the math formulas you’ve been taught, and learned 2,000 vocabulary words, but your SAT score is stuck in the mid-600s.

What’s holding you back from attaining higher scores? Here are some common challenges you may have not even noticed were facing (and ways to combat them).

Challenge #1: You aren’t taking the easy questions seriously enough.

To do really well on the SAT, you’ve obviously got to get the hard questions correct—but you have to get ALL the easy and medium ones, too! Often, careless reading errors in sentence completions, writing multiple choice, and even math questions can throw us off track of the correct answer. We may skip over an important word (like NOT or EXCEPT), subconsciously correct a grammatical error, or neglect to finish reading the question. These flubs sometimes happen when we are parsing the answer choices too, making it even harder to get the question right. Careless calculation errors in math can also trip us up.

What’s the solution? Don’t rush! Read carefully, and take your time. Take every word on the test seriously. Using your pencil aggressively will help with this: trace the words you are reading with your pencil, underline or circle important phrases, and mark the “goal” of the question (i.e., what the question is really asking for). Use your scrap paper well, too. Organize your calculations and notes in a methodical way, and write out all of your scratch work for math.

Challenge # 2: You’re taking the hard questions too seriously.

The hard questions on the SAT are difficult not because they test advanced concepts, but because they require some mental gymnastics. Hard questions—in reading, writing, and math—will ask you to juggle multiple ideas, facts, numbers, and concepts to find a creative solution to the problem. However, our instinctive approach to difficult questions is to stiffen up, use esoteric formulas, or choose answers with academic-sounding language. This is the exact wrong thing to do.

Instead, to do well, you have to be flexible (or nimble like Jack). You may have to try several different starting points or take a detour from your intended path. Step back from the nitty-gritty of the problem before attacking it to help you think about possible paths to the answer. Then, think critically about the information given to you, and be strategic in your use of it. And, remember to use ALL of it! The SAT doesn’t believe in extra information—every bit of information it gives will be of use to you, even that seemingly random tone in a passage or superfluous measurement in a diagram.

Challenge # 3: You aren’t practicing smartly.

It’s one thing to ace practice sections, and a totally different thing to ace the actual SAT. If you’re practicing in fits and starts with materials that a test-prep company wrote without ever doing a full-length test, you aren’t giving yourself the full benefits of practice. First and foremost, make sure to use real test materials. It’s the only way to get a real approximation of the test and its questions. The College Board releases lots of past tests, so use them! Secondly, take full, timed tests at least once a week in the month before your test.

You need to practice for two main reasons: to improve your basic test-taking skills and to build your endurance. Let’s not forget that the SAT is a long test, and your high school classes do not prepare you to use that much brain power for that long of a period of time. The best way to get your body and mind ready for that kind of sustained effort is to train it.

If you look at most marathon training plans, they include short, medium, and long runs as well as rest days. The rationale for this is to slowly condition your body, without overtaxing it, to be able to handle the actual marathon in stride. This is also how you should train your mind and your body for the SATs. Think of your short runs as practice sessions to reinforce what you’ve already learned. The medium workouts are when you introduce, drill, and apply new topics and skills. The long runs are when you set up a realistic practice test for yourself in a quiet, timed environment. Don’t forget, rest is important too! You have to let it all sink in sometimes, and you don’t want to burn yourself out on the test. Built-up frustrations or roadblocks with particular topics or question types can get worse if you don’t let off some steam.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the reasons that you may find yourself plateauing, despite your best efforts. Implement these and practice carefully to move yourself forward. Of course, there are many other issues that could be holding you back from your ideal score, so if you’re still having trouble, give us a call and we’ll figure it out together.

*This blog post was updated on Oct 2017.

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