Students are used to cramming for tests; it’s a routine practice to stay up late the night before a school exam and memorize facts, figures, formulas, names, dates, and so on. It would seem to make sense, then, that it would be productive to cram for the SAT the day before the test, and even more productive to cram the whole week prior!

That won’t work. Here’s why.

Notice the activities that you typically engage in when cramming for a school test: memorizing facts, figures, formulas, names, dates...but the SAT doesn’t test your memory; it tests your skills. And you can’t cram or memorize skills; you have to acquire them, and that process takes time.

The SAT is calibrated to assess your college readiness in three essential areas based on a scale that reflects a lifetime of learning, and it does an outstanding job at it. It would be a useless test if major gains could be achieved in a few days, and colleges would ignore the results. You can certainly pick up a few points if you didn’t understand the overall structure of the test, but the nature of the test precludes major gains in skill proficiency in a few days.

Sure, there are a few math formulas that are helpful for the SAT, but only a few; the overwhelming majority of what you’ll need for the math sections of the test isn’t formulas – it’s concepts and skills. And you can’t cram those.

For the Writing and Language section, you can read over lists of grammar rules, but that won’t help you develop any sort of feel for how they apply in real writing, so cramming those rules is of extremely limited utility.

For both the Writing and Reading sections, you might think you can cram lists of vocabulary words (note: “vocabs” is not a word, so please stop using it). After all, one of the biggest impediments to doing well on the English part of the SAT is a deficient vocabulary. But attempting to memorize words doesn’t work at all; to understand how words are actually used, and to retain that understanding, you have to encounter words in the context of writing, not in lists (see this article for more), and given how many words there are in English, you’d be lucky to encounter even one of the words you tried to memorize. Another strike against cramming.

For reading, things are even worse than they are for the other two sections; what are you going to cram? A bunch of dumb tricks?

And one more point: though it is little appreciated, there’s a really important phenomenon that’s part of nearly any skill-based learning process: results lag exposure, and exposures are most effective when separated with gaps in time. When you are exposed to new information, or you’re shown how to perform a task, even though no further instruction takes place, your acquisition of the knowledge or skill actually increases as time passes – all on its own. It “sinks in.” Think about it: haven’t you experienced the effect where you learn a new technique, but you still can’t use it to solve a problem. However, the next day, or a week later, you find that it’s taken hold, and you can confidently perform the new task?

This principle is well-known in the world of learning science; it’s called “spaced repetition,” and here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of it; this is a scientific study about it that you might find interesting. Though typically applied to simple memory activities, it applies to skill acquisition, too.

That means that even if you’re trying to absorb truly useful information and skills during that frantic cram period, there will be little positive effect on test day; you’ll still be absorbing the lessons for days afterwards.

So if cramming is pointless, what should you do over that final week? Reinforce the skills you’ve developed to become faster and more confident, and to make sure there’s no rust. Before a game, athletes warm up by exercising their existing skills – they don’t try to learn new techniques. They understand the process. Take a lesson from them.