Some high school juniors and seniors who have their heart set on a certain score may have a vision of how the SAT prep days leading up to the test should go: 1) Get Mom to buy a bulk pack of Red Bull from Costco to fuel manic cramming sessions, 2) Study four hours every night up until and including the night before the test, and 3) Review with one’s personal SAT prep tutor, via text, in the car on the way to the testing site.
While this sounds ambitious, it could actually be counterproductive. In the days before you take the SAT, whether it’s your first time or the last time, you want to strike a balance between clocking solid study hours and staying relaxed.
Here’s a plan for the 10 days leading up to the SAT:
Day 10: “Try to study two hours a night,” says Nadine Spring, the owner of Spring to Success, a New York City-based tutoring company that focuses on SAT prep. “Study for an hour, then take a short break, and then study for another hour.” Spring acknowledges that this is a lot of work, but not so much that it’s not sustainable for 10 days.
Day 9: See if one of your teachers would be willing to stay after school one day to teach an SAT study workshop. Maxine Frendel, a high school junior in Mahwah, N.J. is preparing to take the SAT for the second time and she enjoys going to casual SAT review sessions with her friends. “My school offers free SAT classes after school that my math teacher and English teacher do together,” Frendel says. “It’s nice because they know how I learn and where I’m at, and it’s free!”
Day 8: Rick Ehrstin, a Michigan-based SAT tutor who was the 2008 Kaplan Tutor of the Year, recommends working on your mental endurance. “Try to sit and focus for long periods of time: that’s half the challenge of the SAT. If you get there and you tire out after an hour, it doesn’t matter how much you know.”
Day 7: Sign up for the College Board’s SAT Question of the Day online. If you check your e-mail every day, then you’ll see SAT material every day and be reminded to study.
Day 6: It’s equally important to keep an eye on your stress level every day, says Cathy Wasserman, a Brooklyn-based therapist and life coach. “Say you study in your basement or at your desk in your room. Be sure that you leave that area when you’re done studying or when you’re taking a break. Go somewhere that is concretely more relaxing and not connected to the anxiety of the exam,” Wasserman says.
Day 5: Make sure you’re familiar with the rules of the SAT. “There is a finite number of grammar and math rules that you have to know that are tested every darn test. Half of the SAT is just rule-based,” Ehrstin says.
Day 4: Plan what you’re going to wear to the test and what you’re going to bring. Spring suggests preparing an SAT kit. “It’s a Ziploc bag with your government ID, calculator, pencils with erasers that erase clearly and a calculator with new batteries.” Keep it by the door so you can grab it and go in the morning.
Day 3: Keep studying … and give yourself a pep talk. “Write down quotes that are both motivating and calming and you can repeat them to yourself like a mantra,” says Wasserman.
The day before the test: Plan to do whatever will be most relaxing Friday night, like going out with friends or hanging at home with the family.
The day of the test: Ehrstin recommends getting up just a little earlier to take a brisk walk. “Nothing that gets you panting, but something that gets you swinging your arms and gets your heart rate up.” And what about energy drinks and coffee—can they help on test day? “Drink what you normally drink,” Ehrstin says. If you have coffee every day, don’t skip it on SAT day. If you never drink Red Bull, today isn’t the day to start.
After the test: “The SAT requires a lot of hard work and preparation, so students should celebrate once it’s over!” Spring says. Arrange for your friends to meet afterwards and refuel with a fun group breakfast. One rule: no discussing skipped math questions or reading comprehension passages. At this point, it’s out of your hands. Phew!
Liz Funk is the New York-based author of Supergirls Speak Out, a non-fiction look at the lives of overachieving girls in high school and college.