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Written by: Rachel Kapelke-Dale
When you're prepping for a test as hyped as the SAT, it can be tempting to dig your old algebra notebooks out of the attic and try to make sense of them (you saved those, right?) But while I run across a lot of students who have piles and piles of notes from their classes all ready for review, I run across far fewer who realize: the SAT is its own thing. Some of what you learned in school will be tested, definitely! Do you need to read through three years of English notes, though? Absolutely not.
You can spend your time better than that! And I'm here to tell you how.
Math is the subject on the SAT for which students are most likely to dive for their class notes. But guess what? You're actually better off just refreshing the topics you kind of remember and learning new material (or re-learning things you've forgotten) in your SAT prep. This sounds like overlap, but it will actually save you time in the end.
Why? Because the SAT tests these topics in multiple-choice format, in very particular combinations, and in very particular ways. The best way to prepare is to take several practice tests and do series of practices problems to get used to the way that these topics appear.
And now, what you've been waiting for…here's what you can expect to see on test day (for SAT Math):
Combinations and permutations
That's not actually a huge amount of material. And while, yes, "algebra" is a big topic, the SAT likes to use it in several scenarios, often in combination with geometry or other categories, that you'll learn about with a good study guide and by doing practice problems!
Now, on to the subject that students are least likely to turn to their class notes for. After all, how likely is it that you'll see passages that you've read in class on the SAT? Not at all. And you're right about that! Which is why, for this section as well, I'm going to suggest (you guessed it), learning SAT-specific strategies for reading that focus on evidence (this is a big thing on the test these days).
What's the best way to practice this? Practice tests. Practice sets. But make sure you've got your strategy down first by reading a good SAT guide—otherwise, you may waste precious time!
You might have heard rumors about the crazy grammar rules the SAT tests…well, that was the old SAT! The post-2016 SAT actually is all about grammar and rhetoric in context. Now, on SAT test dates, you'll be asked to pick the best option for a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, given the surrounding text.
With that in mind, memorizing lists of grammar rules won't be of much help here! What will be helpful is doing lots and lots of practice problems (do I hear an echo?). The more you do, the more you'll see the patterns that emerge pretty quickly in this section—definitely the most formulaic of the three.
A Final Word
The best way to use schoolwork in SAT prep is sparingly. That is, as a last resort when you've narrowed down exactly which topics in which areas are giving you trouble (an SAT practice test can give you a sense of this). Because the SAT is written very specifically, the best way to spend your time is by preparing specifically for the exam, with test-specific resources, like an SAT study guide. That way, when you get your SAT scores, you'll know that they reflect your hours of studying materials that applied to this exam and to your future college career—and not to recapping the ten or eleven years of school that you've already finished! Remember: the SAT is all about the future—not the past.
Rachel Kapelke-Dale is a test prep expert with Magoosh, specializing in undergraduate and graduate admissions exams. She has worked in test prep and education for over a decade. Rachel has a BA from Brown University, a Master Recherche from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She currently divides her time among Paris, London, and Wisconsin (the glamour!).