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David Recine

How to Take Good SAT Prep Notes


As you study for the SAT, certain note-taking approaches are especially helpful. Check out this comprehensive plan for note-taking strategies that has been tried and tested, which will help you on your way to SAT success!

Notes on academic content vs. notes on test strategy

As you learn how to take good SAT prep notes, it’s important to differentiate between the two kinds of things that you’ll take notes on. Some of your notes will focus on academic content, such as math operations, English grammar rules, and the meaning of SAT vocabulary words. Other notes will cover tips and tricks about SAT test strategy– how to approach multiple-choice questions, pacing on math problems, ways to build SAT Reading comprehension skills, and so on.

Learning academic content and developing test skills are very different activities, and they require different note-taking skills. In this post, we’ll go over suggestions for taking good SAT prep notes for both areas.

Taking good SAT prep notes for academic content

The academic content of the SAT is really a list of concrete facts. You have your SAT Math formulas and procedures, your SAT Writing and Language rules (grammar, punctuation, etc…) and vocabulary for both SAT Math and Verbal (math terms, vocab for reading comprehension, transition words for writing, and so on).

As you try to remember all of these academic facts, there’s a risk that you’ll memorize them only through rote memorization. Rote memorization happens when you remember facts simply by repeating the exact same words, phrases, and sentences over and over. This kind of memorization gives you a very shallow understanding of academic content. When you memorize by rote, you focus on getting the words right rather than truly thinking about underlying academic concepts. So how you can make those underlying concepts stick?

Revise your notes several times

By revising your SAT academic content notes a few times, you get a chance to paraphrase and rethink the important academic info the SAT. Write all of your notes about SAT Math and Verbal content once. Then go back through your notes and write them again… but make sure you change the wording in everything from your original notes. Restate each academic concept in a different way. By changing the words you use to describe these academic facts, you force yourself to think about the underlying meaning behind the concepts. And you shift your focus away from just memorizing words and phrases.

Example of how to revise your notes

Let me give you an example of how this kind of note revision works. In one set of SAT Math notes, you could write:

  • A number to the power of 1/2 is the same as the square root of that number

And then your next revision of  your SAT notes, you could restate this SAT math principle as:

  • X, with 1/2 as its exponent= the square root of X.

Then, in a third revision, you could express this same concept in pure mathematical notation, as follows:


If you find it hard to change up your wording when you revise your notes, there’s another trick that can help you reinterpret your notes. You may have an easier time coming up with paraphrases if you alternate between writing your notes by hand and typing them. Handwrite your notes once, then make a typed revision. Then revise your typed version in a third hand-written revision. From there, in your fourth revision, type your notes into a computer again. Changing your physical method of note-taking can help you shift your whole perspective and think of fresh new ways to word the academic content of your SAT prep.

taking good SAT prep notes

As you revise your notes on the SAT’s academic content over and over, two things will happen. First, you’ll find that you’re able to remember the academic content of the SAT more and more clearly with each revision. Second, you’ll find that each set of notes gets shorter and shorter. This is because you find simpler and more elegant ways to explain academic content as your understanding increases. Your notes will also get shorter because you’ll start to know some SAT academic facts so well that you don’t have to write them down at all.

Of course, this is just one approach to taking good SAT prep notes for academic content. There are other approaches that may work for you as well. But I’ve seen the “multiple revision” note-taking technique work for a lot of my students. And this approach has also allowed me to score well on several standardized tests, including the SAT.

Taking good SAT prep notes for test strategy

As you prepare for the SAT, be sure to record important things you learn about the exam. This includes basic facts about the SAT that you can get from the College Board, such as the number of questions in each section, the academic topics that come up on the test, SAT section time limits, rules for calculator use in SAT Math, and so on.

This test knowledge is the foundation for your notes on test strategy. Test strategies that you take notes on can come from the College Board or from third party sources like our very own Magoosh SAT. But a lot of the SAT strategies you write about in your notes will come from you. As you prepare for the SAT, you’ll notice your own strengths and weaknesses and start making a personal SAT success plan. This brings me to one recommended approach to taking good SAT prep notes about test strategy….

Treat your notes like a journal

I always encourage my students to keep a journal of their progress as they prepare for the SAT. This journal is not like a diary where you write your experiences in narrative form. Instead, it’s a series of self-observation notes. To inform your SAT strategies, take notes on how you do with practice question sets. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How many answers are you getting right and wrong?
  • What parts of the SAT are easiest for you?
  • Which sections are the hardest?
  • What question types, academic content, or skills are you the strongest and weakest in?

Jot down the answers to these questions as you continue to build your SAT skills. As this “journal” of your SAT skills progresses, the answers to the questions above will change. By reviewing your notes on your practice performance, you’ll be able to see the ways you are improving as an SAT test taker. Reflect on these improvements, and make note of the strategies that are working for you. Recording useful SAT strategies as you discover them will help you create a final list of strategies that you’ll use on test day.

Taking good SAT prep notes: Visual note-taking for both academic content and test strategy

The visual note-taking approach is especially useful for notes on SAT test strategy. But visual notes are also helpful for recording SAT academic content.

So what is visual note-taking? It’s the use of graphic organizers to connect, highlight, and illustrate ideas from your notes. If you have some artistic ability, or at least a love of amateur doodling, your visual notes can include pictures that act as memory aids. (Lucas touches on this in his post about how to take notes on the SAT.) But if you don’t feel comfortable drawing, don’t worry–the two best visual techniques for SAT prep notes do not require you to be an artist.

Use visual notes to create your test day strategies

On the home stretch to test day, look back on your “SAT journal” notes. Review the SAT strategies that worked the best for you. A final set of strategies–one you can use on the test itself–should come into view. This is when you’ll want to take a new set of notes, outlining your test day game plan.

As you take notes on the strategies you’ll use when you actually sit for the SAT, I recommend using visual note-taking methods. In visual note-taking, concepts are organized graphically on a page, so that you can picture the way that ideas connect to each other. Think of each tip, trick, and strategy as part of a bigger picture, a picture of the approach you’ll use to beat the SAT.

There are a number of different methods for visual note-taking. Two methods that work especially well for notes on SAT test strategy are mind maps and flow charts. Let’s see how these work and why they can help you take good SAT prep notes.

Taking good SAT prep notes: Creating a mind map

Mind maps are good for showing how different ideas and activities are linked together, such as ideas and activities related to SAT Reading comprehension.

A mind map places the most important idea in the middle of your notes. From there, you draw lines that connect other less important ideas to the main idea…and to each other. Here is an example of some mind map notes for SAT Reading strategy:

Taking good SAT prep notes

In the mind map above, the main concept–the SAT Reading section–appears in the middle of the map, circled. Lines lead out to other three other circled ideas (OK, they’re actually squared) that connect to SAT Reading. These “branch” ideas on the mind map are vocabulary, structure, and author.  Then the map shows the elements of these three big SAT Reading ideas. Vocabulary has elements of word definitions and contextual meaning, the structure of an SAT reading passage involves main ideas, themes, and paragraphs, and so on.

Taking good SAT prep notes: Creating a flowchart

Flow charts show how a process is completed, and can be used to illustrate things like the steps to solving complex algebra in SAT Math.

Flowcharts use arrows to show steps in a process. In your SAT prep notes, flowcharts are very useful for showing how to select the right multiple choice answer. Below, you can see a flowchart for SAT multiple choice strategy.

taking good SAT prep notes

As you can see, the arrows show two different paths to getting the correct answer on an SAT multiple choice question.

Taking good SAT prep notes: Combining mind map and flowchart techniques

The visual elements of mind maps and flowcharts can be blended for dynamic visual note taking during SAT prep. Check out this page of SAT prep notes that combines mind map “branches” and flowchart arrows:


Here, we see a mapped connection between SAT math and its two sections (the calculator and no-calculator sections). And we see further mapping of mental math and estimation strategies, as they connect to the no-calculator section. We also see the way certain activities in the calculator section of SAT math “flow” into calculator use. And we see the way that mental math and estimation techniques flow into multiple choice strategies.

How to use visual note-taking for academic content

In the examples above, I focus on notes related to SAT test strategy rather than the academic content of the SAT. However, you can use these kinds of visual notes for academic content, too. You could make a flowchart, for instance, for the steps in a geometry operation from SAT Math. And a mind map could be used to show an SAT vocabulary word and its “branches” of meaning: different definitions, parts of speech, connotation, etc…. There are really many possible ways to use these visual devices to take good SAT prep notes. Be flexible, use your imagination, and your notes for the SAT can become powerful visual memory aids.

About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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