The simple guide to stress-free SATs

Ten easy steps to helping your child crack the SAT code.

By GreatSchools Staff

1. "Get" the test

Understand how the SAT works and what it actually measures. First: It comes in two parts, the SAT I (also called the SAT Reasoning Test) and SAT II (the Subject Test), which assesses students' knowledge of history, languages, math, and science. Second: Everyone can relax — the SAT is not an IQ test or a memory-retention test. The goal of test prep is not for your kid to suddenly become smarter, but to become well acquainted and comfortable with the questions and format so that he or she can learn how to get a high score on this particular exam. And it is possible.

2. Make the Net your friend

There's a huge amount of resources on the Internet, from scheduling aids to study guides to test questions galore. Start with the College Board, a truly helpful and well-made website from the folks who invented and administer the SAT. You and your teen can register for the test there as well as find great advice and study tools (many of them free!), right down to an SAT question of the day. A word of warning: There are a lot of for-profit SAT-prep services online, so be careful. Don't spend any money you don't have to — or spend it too soon.

3. Choose a target date

Work with your son or daughter to plan the prep-and-test process, counting back from the big day to the PSAT test date. Schedule the SAT 16 to 18 months before the first year of college (which usually means the spring of junior year in high school). And make that reservation well in advance so you both know the exact date, time, and location. Less suspense = more serenity.

4. Take the PSAT

Have your child take the PSAT (P is for "prep," of course) during his or her sophomore year in high school (most high schools automatically schedule it for September or October). You'll get the scores (on a scale of 20 to 80) before winter break for critical reading, math, and writing skills, and even more information on your child's specific performance. Use this as the ultimate guide for what you need to work on, as a team, in the months to come … and don't be afraid to have your child take it a second or even third time to track his or her improvement. Once again, the College Board's website gives great insight on how to interpret the scores.

5. Get a study guide (or two or three)

There are a couple zillion out there — check any bookstore, library, or online bookseller. The trick is to not load up on expensive stuff your child doesn't need. Instead, identify possible weak spots with the PSAT, and then find a book that specifically fits his or her needs. And keep an eye out for extras like online updates and resources with practice exercises and tests. The best thing study guides can do is help test-takers become familiar with the format of the SAT and the questions to be found on it.

6. Consider classes, in person or online

If you and your child agree that even more individualized attention would be worthwhile, there are plenty of classes available through popular storefront operations like Kaplan or the Princeton Review or online programs like Grockit. But keep in mind: These all cost money, and your teen may not need them as much as you both think at first. Yes, you'll get lots of review materials, sample problems, and personal attention this way, but be sure your student really needs that level of attention before you buy in (another reason to get started early).

7. What about tutors?

They're out there, that's for sure, and some will try to scare you into using them. Plenty are offered through storefront operations or advertised online. But they're an expensive option, and you need to be double sure of any potential tutor's credentials and track record. Don't be afraid to ask for proof of expertise and current, reachable references — and make sure it's someone who can help with the specific areas your child needs to work on, not just "SAT success" in general.

8. Take a practice test

The questions on the real SAT will vary, but the test format and the structure of the questions won't. So having your teen take practice tests is key. They're available online and in books; your child's high school may even have some. Practice tests are also a great way to gauge strengths and areas for improvement. And have your teen use a stopwatch to improve his or her completion time (remember, there’s a clock running on test day). Take a look at the College Board's free practice questions or the official SAT practice test.

Then have your teen take another practice test. Seriously. This isn't a one-time thing. Scheduling more than one practice test over a period of months — rather than studying or cramming at the last minute — is a proven strategy for improvement. Among the better resources: Number2.com, a free test-prep course, or Tutor.com, which even includes videos.

9. Don't study the night before

It isn't that kind of test, so take comfort in the fact that your kid can't cram for it or write crib notes on his or her arm. If you've made a plan, kept to it (even roughly), and taken the time to help him or her improve, none of that last-minute mania will be necessary. (It won't help anyway.) Just make sure your teen has a good meal and some solid rest, and avoid any additional drama. All will be well. (And in the event that it isn't, your kid can always take it again.)

10. When the big day arrives, take it easy

It’s your job to project a consistently non-anxious attitude. Tell your child, "You're ready — you've done your prep. You're good." Then make sure he or she has a nice breakfast (easy on the carbs), and be sure to arrive at the test site well in advance of the start time so there's no last-minute rushing. Some folks swear by deep breathing, affirmations, or promises of big rewards after it's over, but one thing's for sure: It will be over soon … and you will both survive.