Practice Alone Is Not Enough

Learn why it's important to prepare for the SATs.

Practice Alone Is Not Enough

One of the contenders for the title "world's worst SAT advice" is the following sparkler: Just take the SAT without preparing, to see how you'll do. You can always retake the test later if you're not happy with your score. This advice is often said especially of the PSAT, because "it's just a practice test, it doesn't count, and colleges won't see your score."

That advice is easy for others to say: they don't have to live with your scores afterwards. Here's the truth: for every hundred students who "just take" the SAT without preparing, 99 will be disappointed with one or more of their reading, writing, or math scores—sometimes crushingly disappointed. (That other student either is incredibly lucky, or doesn't care about the SAT one way or the other.) And once someone is disappointed, that makes the inevitable subsequent preparation all the harder.

Look, there's just no way you're going to do anywhere near your best unless you prepare for the SAT; that just stands to reason. I know you realize how important preparing for the SAT is: that's why you're reading this book. But it's even important to do some preparation for the PSAT—the test may not count for others (though it does for many scholarships), but it does count for you! You needn't do a lot of preparation for the PSAT, just enough so that you know what to expect and so the test is a positive experience. The PSAT is especially useful as a trial to see how you handle "curve balls" (the unexpected difficulties that are part of every SAT and PSAT) and how difficult it sometimes is to apply what you know under the pressure of actual exam conditions.

Incidentally, a common myth is that students generally improve the second time they take the SAT, even if they don't prepare between tests. Yes, it's true that students at the average score level (500 per section) tend to improve a bit. The higher your starting score is, however, the less "practice effect" you get (the improvement resulting simply from retaking the test). In fact, scores greater than 650 on any section tend to decline on retesting—if a student does not prepare. Ironically then, the higher your starting scores, the more important it becomes to prepare between the PSAT and SAT, or between your first SAT and second SAT (if you decide to retake the test).

Another all-too-common fallacy about preparing for the SAT is that all you need to do is "familiarize yourself" with the test by taking some practice exams. Yeah, right, that's like saying the way to become a great basketball player is to familiarize yourself with a basketball court and practice taking a few shots.

Michael Jordan once said that there's a right way and a wrong way to practice basketball. He said that it doesn't matter if you practice eight hours a day—if you're practicing the wrong way, all you're doing is getting really good at doing the wrong things.

Merely practicing won't significantly improve anyone's score unless coupled with smarter test-taking strategies. Fortunately, you're holding those strategies in your hands right now.

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