Among the tidbits of wisdom that I attempt to impart to my students is the fact that it doesn’t really matter if they understand a particular rule/concept/strategy after I’ve explained it to them once. The real test is whether they can apply at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, when they’re still not 100% awake, and, oh yeah, are in the middle of taking an exam that will play a very significant role in determining where they spend the next four years of their lives.

In general, I do my best not to pile on the pressure for my students (they’re certainly under enough already, and I certainly don’t want to be responsible for anyone having a nervous breakdown!), but every now and then, when someone needs a reality check about what’s involved in really and truly mastering a concept, I give them that little speech. Usually it’s met with a small giggle and a look of minor incredulousness. Until they actually go through the process of taking the SAT and end up sitting in front of question 9 in section 10, desperately trying to wade through four-and-a-half hours of test-taking fatigue and figure out just what is wrong with the stupid sentence already, most people don’t fully appreciate what it means to understand comma splices.

So let me spell it out. If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, you might not quite believe, but trust me, it’s something to keep in mind as you prepare. True mastery of a particular concept, whether it be comma splices, dangling modifiers, or right triangles, means that you can always recognize when it’s being tested. Always. No matter how tired you are, no matter what you were doing beforehand, no matter how much room the people in the next room are making, no matter what angle it’s being tested from — the knowledge is just there.

If you can usually recognize comma splices on the SAT but use them rampantly in your own writing, that means you don’t fully understand them — which means that you still have the potential to get fooled on the exam.

Likewise, if formulating a clear thesis statement and composing an argument that adheres consistently to it something that’s just beginning to sink in for you, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to pull it off on the real test. This is not just a question of “getting familiar” with how the SAT works. Until you get to the point where it’s an extension of a real-life skill, one that you consistently apply in your actual schoolwork, there will always be an element of chance. (If you don’t believe me, ask a kid who got a 12 on the essay without doing a single practice run: I can virtually guarantee that coming up with a clear thesis and keeping their argument directly focused on it is something they can do in their sleep.)

I think, by the way, that this is part of why so many people perceive the SAT to be so “tricky.” If you’ve just brushed up on a couple of things for the test but haven’t fully assimilated them, of course you’re going to miss things; it’s inevitable, especially since the test is written to exploit those misunderstandings.

What does this mean in terms of studying? Well… I’ll put it this way. For most people, the inclination is to study until they’ve gotten more or less where they want to be. And then stop. But that doesn’t really work: just because you did incredibly well on one practice test doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily do as well on the next test (unless, of course, you really do know what you’re doing). So take another one. And another one. Do it until there’s absolutely no way you can possibly score below a certain level, even on your worst possible day. And when you go back and review the questions you’ve missed, make sure that you’re not just looking at the questions themselves but rather at the underlying concepts they’re testing. If you have trouble with subject-verb agreement, take a book and try to identify the subject and verb in every single sentence; if your ability to identify dangling modifiers is hit or miss, try writing some of your own. If you can produce it correctly, you’ll be a lot less likely to overlook someone else’s error.

You might not be able to master everything, but you can pick a handful of concepts that seem well within your control and focus on them. Even three or four more questions per section could boost your score well over 100 points.

The bottom line is that you never know just what’s going to happen when you go in and take the test. If you perceive your score as the result of chance, whether particular the test is “easy” or “hard”… well, chances are you’re not going to do nearly as well as you could have. Or, at the very least, you’re going to feel as if the whole experience is somehow beyond your control. But if you’ve trained yourself past the point of mastery, the whole experience might actually border on. . .maybe not quite pleasant, but at least not so bad.