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Ready, set, SAT

Oct: Worried about college entrance exams? Stress preparation and study skills now, so you don't get stressed out later.

Someday, you'll look back on the SAT as simply another steppingstone in your 17-plus years of formal education. You'll view the test as part of being a teenager and an experience that, while stressful, made you a better person.

Today is not that day.

The SAT -- offered several times over the next few months, with the first date set for this Saturday -- is one of the most important tests you'll ever encounter. How are you supposed to keep everything in perspective while everyone seems to have gone SAT crazy?

Here's some advice

Good SAT study habits

Start early. Studying properly will require dozens of hours of preparation. While cramming may have worked for you in the past, it won't work here. At the latest, you should begin studying during the spring of your junior year.

Plan your studying. When you first start preparing, map out a plan of attack. Figure out what you need to learn and practice, and understand which materials you need for each section.

Study in a consistent time and place. You'll be more relaxed and efficient if you set aside a time and spot to study.

Work for at least an hour at a time. The SAT takes more than four hours to get through. Patience and improving your attention span are key skills. Studying for 15 minutes at a time may help you review concepts, but it won't help your brain get in shape for the actual testing environment.

Time yourself. The SAT is what's known as a "speeded" test -- time is definitely a factor. If you haven't been practicing doing questions with a clock or timer, then you're not ready.

Test-taking strategies

Keep your own time. Don't rely on the wall clock or on the proctors who are supposed to remember to call out time. They have the final word, of course, but it's dangerous to rely on a clock that you may not be able to see well or on monitors who may forget to call out warnings.

Don't waste time with multiple-choice guessing shortcuts. The SAT is put together by psychometricians, who design multiple-choice tests for a living. You can't outsmart them. Just because C hasn't come up for a while doesn't mean it's due.

Skip the toughest questions. Unless you're planning to get a nearly perfect SAT score, there will probably be a handful of questions that you should skip. Then you'll run out of time on the hardest questions (the ones you skipped) instead of simply the ones at the end, which may not be hard for you.

Maintain your focus. The SAT is a marathon, not a sprint. Hunker down over your answer sheet, move quickly and answer each question as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Know how the question order and timing work. Most of the SAT sections are 25 minutes long. Others are 20 or 10 minutes long. Know not only those times, but also how you should be progressing through each section. How long does it typically take you to do the sentence-completion questions? To read and complete an eight-question reading passage?

Take shortcuts. No, guessing tricks don't work. But only the right answer matters -- no one is grading how you got to your answer, or whether you did a good enough job of showing your work. So don't write out every step to a math problem unless it's necessary.

Go ahead and guess. Although students are typically told not to guess randomly, on average, the wrong-answer penalties will cancel out the points from correct guesses. So if you have no clue on a question, you can either guess or not guess. And if you can eliminate even one possible answer, guessing is a no-brainer.

Get going

Need to take the SAT this year? It's time to register. It's already too late to sign up for this Saturday's test, but today is the deadline for the Nov. 3 test. (Other upcoming SAT test dates include Dec. 1, Jan. 26, May 3 and June 7.) Get information from your school or at www.collegeboard.com. If you plan to take the ACT, five test dates are scheduled for this school year; Friday is the late-registration deadline for the Oct. 27 test. Find out more at www.actstudent.org.

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