Blue Book & Prep Materials

In this section we’ll discuss what books/resources you’ll need beyond this guide. Luckily, this’ll be short.

The Blue Book

The Official SAT Study Guide Second Edition is commonly referred to as the Blue Book. It is the best resource because it has 10 real exams that you can use to practice, and it has solutions online. The first three exams were previously administered exams.

Because much of preparing for the SAT (especially with respect to the Critical Reading section) is getting a sense of how the College Board and ETS write their questions and what the proper thought processes are in order to arrive at their answers, no other company’s practice tests will hold nearly as much value—they may even throw you off by presenting questions that are not the same in type, content, or difficulty as those on the actual SAT.

There are, however, some successful SAT-takers who have claimed that other companies’ tests were valuable when they ran out of Blue Book tests; in particular, the other companies’ Math sections are known to be fairly reliable (Critical Reading is difficult to reproduce). I recommend turning to other tests only when you have exhausted the College Board’s official resources and you feel that you still have room for improvement. Just make sure that you do not use those tests as meaningful indicators of what you will score on the actual SAT, as unofficial tests vary wildly in difficulty (most tend to be harder, though). The Princeton Review’s practice tests seem to be the most well-received of the unofficial tests and may be the most accurate in indicating how you will score on the actual SAT. Nevertheless, I must reiterate: The Blue Book is by far the most valuable source for practice tests. In fact, aside from Direct Hits (which I will touch on soon) and this guide (which I truly hope is helpful), The Blue Book may be the only resource that you need to realize your potential on the SAT.

There is another potentially helpful source of official tests: The Official SAT Online Course. I have not personally tried this out, but most people have positive things to say about it as an alternative when The Blue Book has been fully exploited. Additionally, I have been told that some high schools freely offer this course to interested students; consult your guidance counselors. Signing up for the College Board’s free SAT Question of the Day is not a bad idea either. You can find an archive of some of those Questions of the Day here.

Also, the College Board releases a practice test each year. You can usually get these online or from your guidance counselor.

How to Use the Blue Book?

The actual strategies in The Blue Book are not very helpful, so jump straight into the practice tests. Do not feel compelled to time yourself right away; instead, go through the sections carefully and spend as much time as you need to in order to feel confident that you have answered the questions as well as you can. You need to first get your question-answering skills down before you move on to working quickly.

Once you finish a section and check your answers, go back to the section and attempt to figure out on your own why you missed the questions that you did. After you have done this as well as you can (sometimes you might not be able to rationalize an answer, and that is OK), check the official solutions provided by the College Board for every question that you missed or were even somewhat unsure about. The biggest mistake that people make when going through practice tests is that they feel too rushed to get a test done and move on; they erroneously equate the number of questions that they have answered to how well they have prepared. You can get a lot out of even one test if you take the time to understand why you missed each question and how to approach it correctly. On Math questions, for example, do not just glance at the solutions and tell yourself Oh, I can solve those now. Instead, take the time to understand how you would solve similar questions and then retry the problems another day when the explicit memory of the solutions has faded—hopefully, the implicit memory of the skills that you acquired to solve the problems is retained.

Remember that every question must have one right answer and the other ones must be wrong. It is incredibly helpful to go through the questions and establish WHY the wrong answers are wrong. You can go back to passages and see what makes them wrong, or label the grammar rule, or try to identify what calculation error would result in this exam. Do this thoroughly and the SAT will unravel like an open book.

Once you are comfortable enough to move on to timed sessions, do so; ideally, this is no more than three or four practice tests into The Blue Book. Even at this point, though, do not just forget about the questions that you could not get in time. Once time is up, make note of how you would have scored but continue working as long as you need to in order to ensure that each question is answered to the best of your abilities. Hopefully, the period required for this eventually reaches the time that you are allotted. In this way, the time limit will not be a major stressor when taking the SAT, as you have eased into it while still being aware of it.

Some successful test-takers even like to reduce the time that they give themselves to below what is ordinarily given, so that they have a cushion when they are taking the real thing. (For others, that practice of reducing the time is unhelpful, however, as it can lead to habits of careless rushing; see what works for you.

Though rather clichéd, another point is worth mentioning: do not give up. Do not be discouraged if your scores do not steadily and consistently rise with each practice test, though for many of you they might (and that is great). As long as you are preparing effectively (i.e., consistent with the above advice), you will get better.

One final point is to read this whole guide before going into the Blue Book. Learn all the concepts tested so you’re not “learning” new material. Use the Blue Book tests to understand the exam and format and build your test taking skills, not your base knowledge.

What is Direct Hits?

Direct Hits Core Vocab and Direct Hits Toughest Vocab are two books with a few hundred SAT words. In general, it is a bad idea to look at massive word lists because most of those words don’t show up on the test. The Direct Hits authors are smart guys who really looked through SAT exams to see how/why words repeat and curated their list. They’re constantly testing to update the list, and each word has a really interesting blurb that helps you remember. The blurbs also reference other words in the book to help build your mental models.

Many testers have made great gains on the vocab part of the exam simply by leveraging Direct Hits. In the next section we’ll discuss SAT CR strategy to get away from memorizing words, but these books are exceptionally useful and actually fun to read, so I recommend you pick them up.