The following is an excerpt from the Standardized Tests chapter of our Best Book.
Taking the SAT was not fun for me. The math section was not bad – I did practice problems and did some review, and felt pretty comfortable about it. The hardest part for me was memorizing the vocabulary. Since I had lived in Taiwan from fourth grade through ninth grade, my English vocabulary was not as strong as my classmates’. I bought a few self-study guides and mostly studied on my own. I did take one prep class, which helped me review some of the high-level concepts.
I spent a long time studying for the SAT – it felt like the hardest part of the application for me.
My advice for the math section is just to practice. Even if you’re really good at math, it’s helpful to get a book to look over what the common pitfalls are and just see what the problems are like.
For the verbal section, it’s more about consistency and reviewing and learning new vocabulary. For me, that’s really what the test was about – if you didn’t know a given word, you didn’t even know what the question was asking.
I didn’t take the ACT, but in hindsight, I think that’s something that I might have looked into more. Everyone I knew in California took the SAT – that just seemed like the dominant test.
For University of California (UC) schools, you’re required to take three SAT IIs. If you’re interested in going into engineering, you’re required to take writing and math. I also took biology, physics, and Chinese. I picked subjects that I thought I could do well in, but were also related to what I wanted to major in. In the case of Mandarin, I took the test because I knew the language and thought I excel.
The thing I like about the SAT IIs is that you have a lot of options to choose from. Part of why I took so many was so that I had options for which test score to submit as my third, along with the required writing and math scores. I submitted different third scores depending on which program at which university I was applying to.
If you have time, I think it’s probably best to tailor your application for each various school, and especially for your dream school. The Common App is probably less flexible on this, but I think that to the extent that you can, it’s good to adjust your application for each individual school.