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How to Improve your SAT Score (or ACT Score) Through Deliberate Practice

If you really want to get a high SAT score, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that “talent” or “IQ” matters far less than you think. There are not really “math people” or “natural readers.” What matters is the amount and quality of your SAT prep, which of course is influenced in large part by how passionate and genuinely interested you are in doing well on the SAT or ACT. So if you want to get a 99th percentile SAT score or a 34 on the ACT, it’s possible that you can do it.

There are a number of very specific things you’ll need to do to score well on the SAT that this article will not address. There are specific math, English, and writing concepts to ensure you know. There are different sections of the SAT and question types to understand. You need to know how it’s scored. You should build a customized SAT study plan and take official practice tests to measure your progress. 

But in this article, we are going to focus on the importance of believing in and leveraging the power of deliberate practice as you prepare for the SAT and do practice problems.

What matters more, IQ or hard work?

Some people believe talent (or IQ) and hard work combine to determine success on tests like the ACT or SAT, with talent assumed to be more important. But, talent or IQ often seems more or less uncontrollable—you either have it or you don’t. Interestingly, many famous people at the top of their crafts, perhaps annoyed by the lack of recognition given to the thousands of hours they’ve spent practicing, clearly disagree with the talent hypothesis as an explanation for elite performance.

Talent is to actors what luck is to card players. It's not really anything; it's just a fictitious word that people have created and labeled things. Talent is like, you know, I never really believed in talent, I believed in drive and determination and preparation, but talent is sort of like luck. 

- Shia LaBeouf, actor

Indeed, there is scientific research piling up, supported by the case studies we see from students that have invested in SAT tutoring, that there are simple to understand but difficult to execute keys that can unlock drastically better performance on the SAT. These keys have little to do with how smart or naturally talented you are. As we’ll see, it’s not a question of IQ or hard work. It’s the right type of hard work that matters when it comes to improving your score on the ACT or SAT.

Here are some important mental steps to take as you engage in SAT prep.

First, adopt a growth mindset.

Understand that your level of intelligence and skill in almost anything can be improved over time with the right approach and behaviors. This is the essence of the “growth mindset.” A “fixed mindset” would suggest that you have an innate level of talent that is hard to overcome in any given area of your life. The research suggests you really can control your own destiny, even become an expert, in academic subjects or other areas of life in which you are currently average (or worse). This certainly applies to the process of preparing for and doing well on a standardized test like the ACT or SAT.

I've always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous insane obsessiveness for practice and preparation. 

- Will Smith, actor

Next, understand the importance of deliberate practice in skill development.

Adoption of a growth mindset is inextricably linked with a belief that hard work and the right type of practice, not natural talent, explain excellent performance. For this growth-minded individual, the secret to building skills in any given area is deliberate practice. Research suggests that Mozart, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan—and the list goes on—all spent thousands of hours engaged in intense, deliberate practice. They created their talent over time. Research by Anders Ericsson, a leader in the study of deliberate practice, suggests that most experts, including almost anyone who seems to have incredible natural ability, have actually spent at least 10,000 hours deliberately practicing their craft. So if you want to get a high score on the

For example, Ericsson looked at amateur vs. expert pianists. When it comes to playing the piano, we’d probably all agree that hard work matters, but we’d probably also say things like, “She’s such a natural,” or “She has so much potential,” or “She’s so talented.”

But if you read the graph below, you’ll notice that, on average, by age 13, an expert pianist has practiced for almost 3,000 hours, while an amateur pianist has practiced for about 750 hours. It’s an obvious point, but practicing for 3,000 hours instead of 750 hours will certainly make you a much better pianist. What isn’t obvious is that this fact suggests that calling someone a “natural” at age 15, for example, doesn’t make much sense. Instead, that person should be praised for his or her focused investment of time and effort to build their skill. (See chart below.)


But again, it’s not just the amount of practice that matters. It’s the quality of practice. In fact, too much low-quality practice will erode your skills. You’ll be more tired, you’ll get sloppy, and you’ll actually be learning how to do things the wrong way.

Finally, use specific deliberate practice principles during your SAT prep process.

Deliberate or “deep” practice is practice that results in a very high amount of learning per minute of time invested. When someone does ACT practice questions deliberately, they are intensely focused, they identify and address mistakes immediately, and they typically receive expert coaching, sometimes from an ACT tutor, although that is not necessary. Deliberate practice is typically a mentally draining process because you are building new neurological circuity in your brain by testing and pushing yourself. It’s very different from passively reading a chapter in a textbook, for example.

Here are some key expert-recommended steps that can help you practice deliberately during your SAT prep process:

  1. Set clear and specific goals. If you don’t know exactly what ACT or SAT score you are shooting for, you can’t build a study plan that measures your progress to propel you from point A to point B.
  2. Build skills “from the ground up,” starting with the simplest component of a skill. Master that component and build from there so your ability to repeat the more complex skill becomes automatic. If you are doing SAT math questions and don’t understand something basic, stop. Focus on just that idea or concept until you understand it.
  3. Study or practice intensely for small stretches, consistently and frequently—not for long stretches of time. In an SAT prep context, what many students typically call cramming doesn’t work very well at all, and someone practicing deliberately would never do it. Give yourself at least three months to prepare for the SAT.
  4. Receive continuous feedback from an expert. As soon as you do something incorrectly, the expert can step in, identify the mistake, and explain how to correct it. In the context of SAT prep, an “expert” can be an SAT tutor, video explanation, or written problem solution. As long as you can review a mistake, recall what you were thinking when you made the mistake, and then have the correct approach explained to you, you are getting continuous feedback.
  5. Continuously push to and beyond the limits of your SAT skills When practicing deliberately, you tend to always feel stretched and even a little uncomfortable. So if you are spending an hour preparing for the SAT, and finding it really easy, you probably aren’t practicing deliberately. This could mean that, instead of doing math problems, which you are already good it, you should be studying for the writing and language section, which you are not as good at.

The notion that deliberate practice builds skill isn’t just a theoretical one that seems to hold true when you observe individuals who practice a lot in a focused manner and then perform well in school, athletics, and music. Neuroscientists have actually identified a substance in the brain called Myelin which, according to recent studies, is both highly correlated with having advanced expertise and skill in a given area and can be observed expanding over time when deliberate practice is maintained.

Final Thoughts

Many researchers now believe that the average person’s conception of what it means to be “naturally smart,” “highly intelligent,” or “academically gifted” is fundamentally flawed. Sure, on some level, some of us are genetically wired to process information faster, have better memories, recall information more quickly, etc. But those traits are really just starting points, and they have only a minor influence on how we develop as people over the course of decades. We observe someone arguing a point in a debate or performing well in school or getting a great score on the SAT, and we make a judgment about their “intelligence.” But we are actually observing the results of the combination of several factors that have built up over years or decades: their genetic starting point, the amount of practice they’ve put in, and their ability to concentrate based on their interest and passion in the subject, etc.