Early on a weekend morning?
All in one sitting?

Practice tests are a necessary element of any SAT prep plan. The test itself is a harrowing and protracted experience, and if you haven’t put yourself through rigorous simulations a few times before you sit down for the real thing, you’ll be at a real disadvantage.

(Click here for links to free official practice tests.)

It’s important to note, though, that although practice tests are an important part of the prep experience, if you only take practice tests and do little else, your scores aren’t likely to improve much. Practice tests are, as students of philosophy are wont to say, necessary but not sufficient. But you knew that already.

Anyway, here’s how you take one. First, drag your lazy bones out of bed early on a weekend morning. Set your alarm to go off early enough that you’ll have time to eat breakfast, take a shower, and be fully alert by about 8:30, when you should start testing.

Your bedroom isn’t the worst place to practice, but if possible, get yourself to a public place that you can expect to be fairly quiet, but that will have some ambient noise—a public library is perfect. Part of the SAT experience is the fact that someone next to you might have the sniffles, or the hiccups, or…worse. A few minor distractions during your practice tests will help you to be better prepared when something noisy or smelly happens on test day.

Take the whole test in one sitting*. Yes, even the essay. And for Pete’s sake, actually bubble your answers on the bubble sheet, rather than just circling them in your book. Bubbling actually takes time, and if you’re shooting for accurate simulation, you should account for that time. As you work, make sure to circle any question you’re uncertain about on your answer sheet. That way, even if you get it right, you’ll remember that it’s something you should revisit.

No finishing early and moving on to the next section. If the section’s supposed to take 25 minutes, you work on it for 25 minutes Give yourself a 5-minute break after the 2nd section, the 4th section, and the 6th section. No finishing early and moving on to the next section.

Score that bad boy up. This might seem simple, but it’s actually a pretty important part of prepping for the SAT—to do as well as possible you need intimate knowledge of how the test is scored. Blue Book tests have a worksheet at the end to teach you how to do this.

Keep a record of all the questions you miss, or guess on and get right. Do your best to categorize them, so you can keep a tally of how many verb agreement mistakes you made, or how many right triangle questions stumped you. This way, each time you take a practice test you’ll be building a database of your weak areas, which you can then use to focus your prep.

Do not simply grumble about your score and then take another test. Taking the test helps you build stamina, but reviewing the test is how you actually learn. A good rule of thumb is that you should take at least as long to review the test as it took you to take it in the first place. Go back and look at all your mistakes, and think them through until you’d be able to explain them to a total SAT neophyte. If there are any questions that, despite your best efforts at review, you still don’t understand, ask someone for help.

* If you really want to go H.A.M., find an extra 25-minute section from another test (maybe your old PSAT practice book or something) to use to simulate the experimental section that all Blue Book tests are missing. So if, like Blue Book Test 1, your test is missing Section 4, give yourself an extra section to do between the Section 3 and Section 5.