Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students as young as those in middle school to begin preparing for the SAT for several reasons. Enrichment programs like CTY will require or recommend a standardized test score, so young students are compelled to start thinking about the SAT early on. Some magnet high schools or private schools may ask for a test score encouraging students to take the test to fulfill requirements or enhance their applications. Some students want to begin preparing for the PSAT (the SAT on a smaller scale) which is usually taken in your sophomore year of high school, because of the benefits it offers, like awards and scholarships. Other students might feel pressured to begin prepping early to ease the preparation during their rigorous high school years. Needless to say, there are several things to consider when thinking about getting started early.
SAT prep courses are extremely popular, for both new learners who are just getting accustomed to how the test works, and for the seasoned who are trying to raise their score the last few hundred points. However, test books that some teachers require and the classes themselves can add up in cost, and end up being wallet guzzlers. For those who can afford several years of courses, test prep classes are an incredible option. Some classes offer exclusive practice tests and individualized attention, and many of the courses will guide students through test taking strategies, such as what to watch out for with regards to time, point deductions, and so forth. However, it’s not unheard of to worry if the classes aren’t giving you plenty of bang for your buck. In this case, my #1 recommendation is to begin with math/English teachers, your guidance counselor, or the career counselor at school.
Unfortunately, so many high school students go without speaking more than a few sentences to their guidance counselors, and may not even know that their high/middle schools offer great information. Remember, the counselors and teachers at school have several years of experience regarding standardized tests that they would be more than willing to share! From experience, as someone who took the SAT early, many teachers (even in middle school) would have something to say about test taking. Your English and Math teachers may even be able to tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are for more focused test prep. In middle school, since test-prep classes may not be the most accessible option, practice tests can prove invaluable.
Now, the hard part: lowering your expectations. If you’re an 8th grader taking the SAT, you’re taking a test made for students who are in/have finished 11th grade. This means that most of the students taking the test have years of practice in school that you have yet to acquire. Usually, students could be at all different levels of writing and reading, and so the math section proves most difficult because it is more content based. The SAT tests mostly up to the level of Geometry, including Algebra I. Depending on your level of math, you may have taken both in middle school, or still need to learn the content in high school. Based on your level of mathematics and reading, keep your expectations at a practical level in order to reduce stress and increase confidence for your scores.
If you’re preparing early, another thing to keep in mind is to practice vocabulary. For students of all levels, one of the toughest sections is the Critical Reading section due to some admittedly obscure words the SAT tests on. Word roots (the Latin/Greek etymology) may help distinguish certain words and extinguish certain options. However, as a young test taker, these words are not the ones to focus on. Instead, versing yourself on common but useful vocabulary (there are several lists to practice with online) will go a long way.
But if you’re not one of the students worried about using the test scores for admission purposes (to high schools or summer programs), then you may not need to crack down real fast and prepare early for the SAT–however, it’s still a fantastic idea to take the SAT once before high school because the College Board will not record your score if you choose not to reveal it. That way, you can take the SAT in a real setting in which your scores will be compared nationally, to see how you do in comparison to others. This can be a great “milemarker” to see where you might need to improve.
All said and done, the SAT is a tricky thing. Many take the SAT for the first time in their junior or senior year of high school, whereas other students are driven to take it earlier on. The school years will naturally add on to your score, so you can hopefully expect it to increase along the years. However, other than the costs of prep books and classes, there are many advantages to preparing (or at least taking the test) early that could save you time and stress in the long run.