A high SAT score can open up more colleges for you to attend to or even be worth thousands of dollars of scholarship money, but motivating yourself when the rewards seem so far away can be difficult. Here’s how to motivate yourself to study for the SAT, even when times get rough.
1. Write down what will happen
What will happen if you get a good score on the SAT? Will you be able to go to your first choice of college? Will this mean that you’ll get a lot of scholarship money? Can you brag about it? Will your parents be happy? Write down on a sticky note what getting a good score out of the SAT will help you achieve, and go back to that note whenever you have a hard time remembering what you’re doing it all for.
2. Set Smaller, Achievable Goals
To take a page from Emily Nagoski’s Burnout, your brain has a little ‘monitor’, a watcher, in it who monitors your ratio of effort to progress. When you’re putting a good amount of effort into something and making good progress, it’s happy and you feel pretty good. If you’re putting a good amount of effort into something and are making not as much progress as you like, you might feel a little annoyed, but that can motivate you to work even harder. If it sees a lot of effort being put into something with no visible progress, it gets frustrated and angry, and your motivation suffers.
The long term goal of “get a higher score on the SAT” is an admirable one, but without a real test in front of you, your progress towards this goal can be very hard to judge. Not to mention, some accuracy-boosting tactics for improving your score might take more time at first and cause a drop in your score early on if you don’t make it through all the questions. Even if you were on the right track, getting a lower score back will feel terrible.
The solution is to set smaller, more achievable goals that you can measure your progress with. These goals should be Soon, Certain, Positive, Concrete, Specific, and Personal. An example of a good small goal would be: today, I’m going to read the SAT Grammar Mastery section on parallelism, and complete the practice test for that section.
I can complete this goal soon. It requires no patience or waiting on my end. I can do it today.
Completing the practice test is certain because I have control over whether I finish the practice test or not. Getting a perfect score on the practice test would not be certain, because I can’t fully control the difficulty or trickiness of the questions. Completing the practice test without my brother interrupting me would not be certain because I have no control over what my brother does. Keep it to things you can control.
The goal is concrete because there is an external sign that I’ve finished: reaching the end of the practice test. You want to be able to know when you’ve succeeded.
The goal doesn’t say “I’ll do some grammar”; I’m specific and say exactly what section(s) I’m going to complete. The more specific you an be about what you’ll do, the more likely you are to do exactly that.
The goal is personal, because I want to understand parallelism fully, so it matters to me. I also know that it will help me get a better score on the SAT. Find out how this ties into what you want, and make the goal matter to you.
Setting these smaller, specific goals regularly will help you stay in touch with the progress you’re making and motivate yourself to study for the SAT.
4. Make a Habit of Studying for the SAT
Turn studying into a habit, and you’ll actually have to spend effort to avoid it. Sometimes, that extra bit of “ugh, I don’t want to break my streak” can be the thing that forces you into a chair and pick up the book again. Fifteen minutes of studying every weeknight will quickly add up, if you can maintain the habit. Once it becomes a part of your daily ritual, it becomes a lot easier to motivate yourself to study for the SAT. Apps can really help with this! Now, because I’m a huge nerd, I use Habitica, a habit building app where you get a little hero and fight monsters with the real world tasks you do. This might work for you, or set reminders or written lists could be a better fit. Everyone’s wired a little different, and you should find the habit building strategy that works for you.
5. Remove Temptations
Nothing saps motivation like the temptation of other activities. Before you ever sit down to study, you can do things like clear off your study space. Put away any video games, turn off any noise making devices, and make it clear that you need to study at this time, and won’t be called away. If your phone or computer presents a significant distraction, lock them down with an app or a timer. Leave yourself nothing to do but study, until your next break.
6. Take Breaks
Even the SAT has breaks. You’re not going to sit down and do nothing but study for four hours. At least, not without suffering diminishing returns after the first hour. Breaks help keep you sharp and motivated to learn. They also keep you from burning out on studying. Set a timer and use these breaks to move around a little bit and let your brain wander. You want to rest, but still be aware of time. Try and avoid YouTube or TikTok, as they’re purposefully designed to have you restlessly jumping from video to video.
I find that for myself, 30 minutes of studying broken up by 10 minute breaks help me get started on a project if I really dread starting it, but I can go up to 90 minutes with a 15 minute break without loss of productivity if I’m very motivated. Your ideal balance depends on you, but 20/10 is a good place to start if you’re really dreading studying.
7. Make A Community
You don’t have to do this alone! Some of your friends are going to be studying the SAT too, so make an SAT group chat and support one another. Tell each other weird things you’ve noticed about the test, make fun of the most ridiculous questions, and comfort each other about the worries that come with the SAT. Motivating your friends to study for the SAT helps you motivate yourself to study for the SAT! Even just one friend who you can vent to will help you return to the SAT each time refreshed and ready to take it on!
8. Don’t Obsess Over Failures
Look, sometimes, people mess up. Sometimes, you fail at something. Now, you can blame yourself and punish yourself all you want for those failures, but how do you feel after that? Do you want to crack open an SAT book and get studying, or do you want to curl up in a ball and regret being born? Do you really feel motivated to study for the SAT? Punishment seem justified, but it’s often not very useful as a motivator. If you beat yourself up, you have to spend time healing from the damage that you’ve done to yourself. Hurting yourself won’t make your SAT scores better, you’ll just hurt.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t feel sad or angry over a setback. That’s normal, and perfectly valid. It sucks to get a low test grade back, even if you know you did your best. Let the emotion flow through you, and let it fuel your resolve to improve. There will be other opportunities, and you are going to seize them. You’ve got this.
I believe in you.
That’s all! Now go motivate yourself to study for the SAT! If you want more SAT and ACT prep advice sure to join our mailing list for a free 27-item checklist and 30-day free SAT email course.