How to Start SAT Prep in 8th-10th Grade

Whenever students take the PSATs – whether it’s PSAT 8/9 taken as early as fall of 8th grade, or the traditional PSAT/NMSQT taken in October of junior year – the scores and tests are posted on the student’s College Board account within two months of the test. That’s a great study tool for the next step – the SATs. Or the ACTs. I strongly recommend all students review their PSAT results, going over the questions they got wrong using the online tools, redoing them and then looking at the correct answers and explanations. It’s good to do that before too much time goes by so it is still instructive and students remembers more of what they were thinking when they did the test originally.

Eighth grade and freshman year are early for formal test prep: Students have not yet been taught all of the math skills tested, particularly for the ACT. In reading and writing, the difficulty of the test passages and vocabulary are high for younger students. Nevertheless, students can and should begin to build skills specific to the tests. 

Here are 3 specific actions 8th -10th grade students can take to build a solid foundation for the SAT and ACT:

1) Add a daily regime of challenging periodical reading, starting with The New York Times or other sophisticated daily newspaper. (News aggregate newsletters are not recommended because it is important to build skills in sifting through the material and choosing for oneself.) 

– Read at least 10 minutes/day: short articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post are ideal.

– Read a sampling of the top stories and at least read the headlines – especially in those topics that are more difficult, e.g. politics. 

– Then read whatever topic in the paper interests you and also the opinion pieces (editorials, reviews of movies, etc). Movie reviews can be fun and easy for students to relate to if they’ve seen the films. This type of writing is very helpful in building vocabulary and rhetorical skills and comprehension.

2) Start a formal regime of vocabulary-building, 1-2 new words/day. Many students find the free Visual Vocab CORE app a great way to start! Other excellent vocabulary building tools include the Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop series and SAT-level word lists at Majortests.com.

3) Use official CollegeBoard practice PSATs to build math skills, tackling only those topics that are within range of subjects you’ve learned in school. Rather, than tackling an entire timed section in Math, do individual problems, reviewing the answers and explanations afterwords. Advanced students may want to purchase PWN the SAT Math text to take advantage of the challenging quizzes offered to textbook owners. 

When should students begin their test prep in earnest? Summer between sophomore and junior year is the best time to do a formal course or tutoring program, continuing at a lesser pace or with a break during junior year, depending on when tests are scheduled. That is the time, as well, to choose between SAT and ACT. Much earlier than that, students really haven’t studied enough of the material that is on the tests for the comparison to be valid.

Bad PSAT scores? Here’s what to do

1) First, don’t despair! Go over your PSAT results in depth. Don’t focus on the scores; those are just your starting point. Go to the College Board website and follow the links to review your results in detail. That’s how you learn and improve!

Analyze your errors: Were you rushed? Did you lose focus? Were there math topics you haven’t learned yet? Was a reading passage too dense?

2) Plan your study time in order to make substantial score improvement – at least two hours of prep every week until your SAT. Once a month, take a full, timed practice test and then analyze your results, learning from your mistakes.

3) Take advantage of College Board and Khan Academy resources by registering for a free account on Khan Academy and linking it to your College Board account and test scores to get free personalized practice for the SAT.

4) Build your SAT power using great study tools. The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board has sample SAT exams written by the writers of the real SAT – with full explanations for every question, both in the book and on the College Board website. For more practice tests, The Princeton Review, Kaplan and Applerouth offer good facsimile SATs. For Math, get the terrific PWN the SAT: Math. For a comprehensive list of the best study resources for both SAT and ACT, here‘s a full, annotated list.

5) Finally, there’s one more thing to do: Check out the ACT. You may find it a better fit. Download and print the official ACT practice test on the ACT website. Take the test under timed conditions in one sitting, using the bubble sheet, and without distractions. Compare your results and consider which test you can most improve upon – not just which score was better now.

Whichever test you choose to take, you can thank your bad PSAT scores for the wake-up call. Now is the time to start your test prep in earnest.

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