[Update: this post was written for the "old version" of the SAT--prior to March 2016. Although much of this still applies, it has not been revised yet to reflect the new version.]
You know what my favorite pages of the big blue SAT prep book are? The answer sheets. When I tell my students that, they usually laugh. But I’m serious! They are the most helpful pages in the book, but not just because they give you the answers. They are the most helpful because they give you data about your errors. What if I told you that you didn’t have to keep taking practice test after practice test? What if I could tell you exactly which questions you had to practice to get a better score? Well, I can. And, frankly, so can you. Here’s how:
As you already know the Critical Reading section is broken up into two parts: the sentence completion section (aka The Sucky Vocab Part) and the passage-based reading section. The vocab questions will be either the first five, six, or eight questions, depending on the section. Just looking at the answer sheet will tell you where the division is. See how the difficulty level goes from 1 to 5 and then drops back down again? That’s where it switches from vocab to passage-based reading. I usually draw a little line between the numbers on the answer sheet to show the division.
Most people will find a cluster of errors at the harder-level questions of that vocab section. Is that you? Then that means you need to practice the last few questions of every vocab section on the test. Go through the whole book and just try to tackle those Level 4 and 5 questions, and it wouldn’t hurt to read my post on Improving Your Vocabulary.
What about the rest of the Critical Reading section? Do you have an isolated error here and there, or do you have a cluster of errors somewhere? If you have a cluster, go back to the section and see what kind of passage that was. Was it non-fiction essay? A novel excerpt? A Passage 1/Passage 2 comparison? Then look through the book for similar passages and practice that type of passage repeatedly until you feel confident.
The Math questions go from easier to harder, so for most people the errors are clustered towards the end of each section. Don’t do more work than you have to! Do you keep missing the last two questions of a section? The last five? The last ten? See where the problems start for you and then go through the remaining practice tests just working on your errors of weakness. If you errors aren’t clustered only at the end of the sections, take a look back at the type of questions you are missing. Do you see a pattern? Is it only geometry questions? Do you need to brush up on your exponent rules? Look for patterns and study that. Not sure how to solve some of those cryptic upper-level problems? I have some more help for you in my Math Tips and Tricks post.
The Writing Skills is broken up into three pieces: Improving Sentences, Identifying Sentence Errors, and Improving Paragraphs. For almost everyone, it’s the middle section—Identifying Sentence Errors—that is the most difficult to master. On every test, these questions are #12-29. They also go from easier to harder. So are you seeing a cluster of errors in the last half of that section? Perhaps about #22-29? You are not alone. By now, you know what to do. Go through the book and just practice #22-29 until you have mastered this section. It is possible that you are also missing some questions around #9-11. That is because these are the harder-level questions in the Improving Sentences section. Same thing applies here; just work those problems in every test until you’ve mastered it. For more Writing Skills tips, visit my post on the Must-Know Grammar Rules.
The bottom line is DIAGNOSTICS. Use the data from your errors to diagnose your errors of weakness. Then streamline your prep to pinpoint those errors until you’ve mastered them. The more tests you take, the more date you have. Anyone can do this on their own, but if you want someone to lead you through it and teach you all the insider tricks, I’m here to help. Look into my private tutoring packages to get your best score.