It seems like every year the process of applying to college gets more complicated. Students make interview videos, assemble elaborate resumes, and pull together transcripts from high school, online learning, and sometimes even college courses.
Earning the best standardized test score you can is usually part of that process. Everyone needs to figure out how to do so as quickly and easily as possible because every high school student’s time is limited.
I think one of the toughest things about figuring out how to get through the process of taking the SAT is that it can feel like everyone on the planet has an opinion about it. If you’ve applied to college in the last 80 years, you’ve bumped into the SAT in some way, shape, or form.
In the name of clarity, here’s a definitive look at the SAT as it is now and how to plan your test dates and study process. We’ll look at timelines, facts about the tests, and then direct you to further resources on nuts-and-bolts study tips that can help you earn the score you deserve.
When you’re applying to college, you really only have three choices:
There are plenty of colleges that are test-optional, but keep in mind that test-optional doesn’t mean that a good score doesn’t help you get in if you do choose to submit one.
You need to take that “option” with a large grain of salt.
Remember, if you’re taking the SAT over the ACT, you’re avoiding the notorious Science subtest on the ACT, but you’re taking on more challenging reading passages with elevated vocabulary and quirkier math questions on the SAT.
Let’s get your preparation started.
The Question and Answer Service (QAS) is available for the October, April, and May test dates, at which time you can receive not only a digital copy of your answers—so you can see what you got right and wrong—but also a complete copy of that day’s test.
Purchasing your QAS is a great way to get extra practice problems and assess your performance as you prep for the SAT over time.
Of course, one of the best things you can understand from the QAS is why you’re losing points. You don’t want to merely think, “Oh, I got that wrong.” You should know why you didn’t get credit for your response.
If you’re doing a thorough review of your QAS, use four main categories for tracking your incorrect answers to get the best possible study experience:
Were there questions about, say, semicolons or completing the square that were simply outside your knowledge areas? Topics that were beyond your grade level that you haven’t learned in school yet?
Write down everything you notice on the test that you actually just need to learn. Remember, if it was on the test once, it’s likely that it’ll be on the test again.
There are questions that will almost always be confusing even though you know the fundamental material required to answer it. There are patterns in the way the SAT makes questions confusing. Remember, the SAT is standardized. That means that all the mean tricks the test-makers use to distract you from the correct answer must be totally predictable.
If you’re human, you know these questions. These are the questions that you look back on and say “I can’t believe I got that wrong!” Maybe you put answer A, 8, and the answer was D, – 8. Maybe by seeing the correct answer you can identify that you overlooked a key detail in the passage and got tricked with something like hidden redundancy because you were rushing.
Track how frequently this happened to you (and, if you’re really committed, how often it happens while you’re studying), because you’ll want to know if this is the primary reason you’re getting things wrong on the test.
It’s not uncommon for students to discover that half the things they get wrong are because of these kinds of mistakes. Practicing for successful execution under timed pressure is a different animal than studying to learn new material and tricky question types.
You’ll remember from your test date if you felt rushed and needed to bubble at the end. As you work on timed pacing practice for your next test date, use the handful of questions that you needed to guess on at the end of the test as a benchmark for your pacing.
Congratulations if you’re a great guesser—not everyone is. But don’t give yourself tons of credit for getting a standard deviation or semicolon question correct if you don’t know how to use them properly and making the mistake of not studying that topic later on down the line.
Instead, be thankful that a good guess protected your score and consider what your score would have been had you not guessed correctly—that score is more indicative of your current performance level.
Acknowledging when you got lucky is one of the hardest elements of academic integrity and it’ll follow you for the rest of your years in school. Avoid the temptation to not review unfamiliar topics because you got a question about that topic right on one test, one time.
Be honest with yourself: Study what you don’t know and reap the rewards later.
I noted in my book Acing the ACT that “the path to your top score is buried under your personal habits.” Be methodical in how you approach the SAT. Don’t just take a zillion practice tests and “go over what you got wrong.”
For starters, take a practice test—but make it as recent a test as you can possibly find. In his book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Benedict Carey points out that “Taking a test on a subject before you know anything about it improves subsequent learning.” Carey’s advice is great—make sure you do it right:
If you choose to take a practice test at a tutoring center, be sure that the diagnostic you’re using is from the last two years. Some test centers use Official SAT Practice Tests One through Four, and the scoring scales on these tests do not reflect current score trends.
An “autopilot problem” isn’t a question type; it’s an issue you’re likely experiencing when you make what teachers and parents traditionally call “careless errors.”
It always bothered me when my teachers would tell me that I was making careless mistakes, as though anyone outside my brain were able to tell me how much I cared about… well, anything. Of course I cared and of course I didn’t want to make mistakes on tests.
It took me until I was working directly with students myself to realize that carelessness is usually a total myth. What actually happens are predictable mistakes that unfold when you have an early sense that you genuinely understand the problem. We make mistakes on things we’re sure we should have gotten right and it looks like we just “didn’t care.” This phenomenon happens on questions we are mostly likely to be able to answer correctly.
Here’s how it happens: When you see a problem and think “Oh! I know right where this is going,” your brain calms down… and it disengages, just a little bit. I’m not saying that your mind automatically starts wandering, but it stops the obsessive vigilance that happens when you’re stimulated and concerned, like in a fight or flight situation.
Brains like to be lazy. Physiologically, brain laziness actually saves calories, which is typically more important to your brain than the fact that you’re taking a test that can impact, in some ways, the rest of your life.
When you start studying for the SAT, a good deal of your effort will be put into 1) learning things you didn’t know before you started prepping for the test, and 2) understanding the tricky elements of SAT questions that make them different or more difficult than the typical test questions you encounter in school.
As the test material gets easier for you, you’re going to become more likely to make silly mistakes because you don’t “need” to think as hard to figure out what the questions are about. Once you’ve gotten the material under your belt and you know those tricky questions when you see them, that’s when you have to mindfully shift your effort and prevent your brain from making mistakes.
All to say, once the SAT starts to feel easy, you’re in a danger zone, and you have to consciously shift your attention to execution. As you become more comfortable with the SAT, in some ways it gets more difficult to perform perfectly.
In other words, you have to coach yourself to
all the way through to the moment you’ve bubbled in the correct letter on your answer sheet.
Exercise the discipline to get it done during your prep so you’re able to stay on top of things on test day.
52 questions, 65 minutes
The average American teenager gets 7.5 hours of screen time every day. You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that between those hours and school, typical students just aren’t reading books and periodicals like the generations before them.
I know I sound snarky when I say this directly to my students, but I mean it sincerely: On what grounds can anyone who doesn’t read regularly expect a top score on a reading test compared with those rare students who read all the time? That’s like never even going for a walk and then being shocked when you can’t run a 7-minute mile.
The classic mistake everyone makes on the Reading section is presuming that it doesn’t assess your vocabulary because the sentence completion section was removed from the test in 2016.
However, the vocab isn’t gone; it’s embedded in the reading passages themselves. The passages are more difficult and more varied than they used to be. If you want to read easily, bump up your vocabulary.
Categorically, the biggest thing the test-makers use against you is that they know you don’t want to read the words on the page of the test. It’s not a secret: Because of the real pressure of time constraints on the SAT and the frequently bland and challenging topics in the passages, we all know you want to read as little as humanly possible when you take the test.
Your strongest choice on the SAT Reading section is to commit to reading a little more than the test tells you to.
It seems so silly to have to say, but as an effective critical reader you have to respect the passage’s author and the work the author did to put the words on the page.
That means two things:
In other words, the SAT is a distilled critical reading exercise, and ignoring the natural structure of the written words will get you nowhere.
If you’re thinking this could never be you, it often sounds like this during a tutoring session:
Me: Wait. How’d you choose C again?
Student: Well, I remembered reading something about wild horses, and it said “wild horses” in answer C.
Me: But the passage says up here in line 27 that real wild horses live in Chincoteague and the answer choice you picked says “Wild Horses” was a huge hit by the Rolling Stones.
Student: Oh. I guess I didn’t really read that part. I just saw “wild horses.”
You think I’m kidding—and, of course, to some degree I am. We all know passages about the history of pop music aren’t on the SAT; that’d be too much fun.
But students habitually ignoring the contents of the passage? That happens all the time.
Easily, the element I’ve found students struggle with the most on the Reading section are the supporting evidence paired questions—pairs of questions in which the first inquires about something in the passage and the second, follow-up question asks students to identify the lines in the passage that support their answer to the previous question.
For starters, this is where using an approach with a strategic, standardized testing perspective can be really impactful. You have to go into these questions with a plan so that you aren’t distracted by the—frankly—excellent tactics used by the test-makers to make these questions challenging.
First, continually scan ahead for these paired questions as you’re working through passages. They aren’t called out as pairs on the test, and the test-makers try to hide them by using cheap tricks, like putting the first on one page and the supporting evidence question on the following page.
When you come across a pair, treat them like a unit to complete them most efficiently. Do this by reading the first question and ignoring the multiple choice options after that question. Don’t read them yet! Instead, skip to the supporting evidence multiple choice answers in the following question that call out the line references.
Referring to the line references in the following question keeps your line of thinking on track with the test-maker’s—and helps you find their answer as quickly as possible. After all, they’re telling you exactly where the answer is, so it keeps you efficient. You don’t have to scan the entire passage in order to answer the preceding question.
On the other hand, some students are prone to answering questions without referring to the passage at all. You must come to terms with this ahead of time: You have to refer back to the passage while you’re answering the evidence-based questions. You cannot attempt to do this from memory because the answers are designed to dupe you.
While you’re reading the selected lines, scan for the tricks the test-maker uses to distract you from the answers.
We all know that the first sentence of a paragraph is usually its topic sentence, and yet most students are perfectly willing to ignore it if the line numbers don’t include it. Meanwhile, the topic sentence tells you what you’re reading about.
If you’re reading about they or this method or that time, you have to skip above and find out what they’re referencing. This is manufactured confusion by the test-maker.
Read one more sentence than the lines ask you to: That next sentence often
clarifies or wraps up the explanation you’ve just read, sometimes to a comical degree.
In sum, read more. It makes the test easier.
44 questions, 35 minutes
The Writing section tests basic writing and editing concepts and grammar fundamentals by asking students to edit short reading passages. Small portions of each sentence are underlined, and students are asked to either keep the portion as it is or replace it with alternative phrases.
Almost everyone is at the same disadvantage on the grammar and editing section because most high schools have abandoned high school English courses that include technical grammar instruction. I’m convinced that’s why a section like is on both the SAT and ACT: There’s no getting around having to learn it—even if they didn’t teach it to you in high school—because there is no getting around having to use appropriate grammar in college.
The following things will affect your bottom line score on the writing section.
In fact, test-makers mess with your ear on every test in a predictable way: on matters of singular and plural subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement.
Check out this example sentence:
The jury announced its verdict after much deliberation.
The first thing here is that the subject of the sentence, the word jury is singular even though it’s a term for a group of people. Many students would want to switch its to their, and that would be incorrect.
The test-makers, though, go a step further. They would likely offer a more complicated version of the sentence for editing, like this:
The jury, a group of remarkable people, announced its verdict after much deliberation.
Most students would take that its out and choose an answer that changes its to their, and those students would be incorrect. Not only are you responsible for knowing that jury is singular, but you also need to notice that the test-maker is messing with your ear, reinforcing the potential for you to choose a plural pronoun by interjecting the plural word people in the sentence before you get to the pronoun. This skill is on every test.
The same thing happens with subject-verb agreement.
I work with students from all over the United States, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that teenagers are “comma happy.”
Here are a handful of the comma rules the SAT tests predictably:
The comma splice:
When you put punctuation between the subject and verb of a sentence, the rule of thumb that saves sanity is that you can either have two commas between a subject and a verb or no commas between the subject and verb, but never one comma between them.
Yes: The walrus, laying out on the rocks, looked happy and calm.
Yes: The walrus looked happy and calm.
NO: The walrus, looked happy and calm.
Comma + conjunction:
The only time a comma is strong enough to hold together two sentences (two independent clauses) is when it’s paired with a conjunction such as and or but.
Subordinate clauses are just like sentences in that they include a noun and a corresponding verb, but they don’t include the subject and verb of the sentence.
On the SAT, failure to recognize subordinate clauses means you may choose answers that “sound good,” except that they’re fragments. You might think of subordinate clauses (aka dependent clauses) as having been demoted; you can identify them because they start with a particular subset of words.
Although Sam stayed out late, he woke early the following morning.
In this example you’ll see that Sam stayed, but the subject of the sentence is he and woke is its corresponding verb. We can identify the subordinate clause because it begins with the word although. Understanding this is critical to appropriately punctuating sentences on the SAT.
Memorize this list so that you notice dependent clauses:
that, which, who and after, although, as, before, because, if, since, unless, until, when, while.
You know the forms of the verb to be. It’s the most used verb in the English language, and it’s so intuitive in your everyday language that you don’t really think about it—which is why it’s so dangerous on the SAT.
Any time you see forms of the verb to be on the SAT, something is up—usually sneaky subject-verb agreement like we talked about above.
Memorize this list of words so you know what to scan for:
am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had, do, does, did.
When you see any of these words in your answer choices, slow down, because something sneaky is invariably going on.
Read for context and use your common sense. One way the test-makers knock down your score is by penalizing you for not reading for context. Some sentences read perfectly fine as stand-alone sentences but do not work in the context of the passage: They are either redundant or in the wrong tense.
The editing portion is in a passage on purpose. Read the passage!
Naturally, it’s not possible to delve into all the different material and question styles you’ll see on the SAT in a pocket guide. After all, the test covers everything you learn starting around third grade all the way through some topics in precalculus and statistics.
What we can talk about here is how to approach the math on the SAT in a way that’ll jump-start your studying.
For starters, you’re going to need to accept early on that the SAT explores math topics you most likely haven’t seen in a long time (if you’re an advanced math student) or in a manner that’s different than you’re studying in school (if you’re still studying Algebra I and Geometry in high school)—or maybe even both.
SAT math just might turn out to be old material approached from a totally new perspective. I see that with my own students all the time.
The unusual vibe of the SAT is a source of angst for students of all levels. After all, if you didn’t learn a topic this way in school, why do you suddenly have to learn it now?
While that’s a useful question in the national debate about education, it’s useless while you’re prepping for the SAT. The sooner you let go of the frustration of unpacking new material, the more easily you’ll find it to embrace new approaches and perspectives on math.
The amount of Algebra I on the SAT is truly shocking; they take up around 60 percent of the test. It also goes into “tricky” things you may have focused on a little less in Algebra in school.
If you’re going for a top score, be sure you know how to:
You’ll also need to:
The number of geometry topics that qualify as fair game on the SAT is broad. Frankly, it’s a little ridiculous: You’ll see everything from simple line geometry to shapes like hexagons and other polygons.
You’ll also use formulas from physics involving velocity, viscosity, and mass, but those formulas will be provided.
Fortunately, the geometry sections make great use of special cases in geometry: Some of the special triangles you’ll recall from geometry class like 30-60-90s, 45-45-90s, and Pythagorean triples like 3-4-5 and 5-12-13 are on every single test. You’ll also see similar triangles show up in unexpected ways.
To take the SAT within time, memorize everything that’s given at the start of the section.
Why do you need to memorize formulas if they give them to you? Because if you don’t know that special triangles exist and don’t have them memorized, you don’t know how to use them when they pop up in the context of a question.
When you don’t recognize them, you don’t look them up, so it doesn’t matter that they’re at the front of the test. You’ll only recognize them in action if you have them memorized in the first place.
You’ll notice that the SAT math sections proceed in what is usually thought of as order of difficulty. Straightforward questions are early in the section; questions that more students are likely to get wrong are at the end.
Don’t confuse fewer people getting a question correct with it being innately difficult. You may have no problem getting the last questions on the Math section wrong, so make sure that you see everything on the test.
Each SAT section also includes grid-ins: questions for which there are no multiple choice. Instead, you have to come up with an answer on your own, just like a typical math test.
The multiple choice questions go from simple to challenging and then the difficulty level drops back down once the grid-in section starts. In other words, #15 will be really difficult, but #16 and #17 will be relatively easy. Don’t kill too much time on extremely challenging problems and miss those opportunities to grab easy points.
20 questions, 25 minutes
Common sense is called for here: If there’s a No Calculator test, it exists to check your ability to work in mathematics without relying on your calculator for so much as quick arithmetic.
Of course this is stressful, because most students find that once they’re in an Algebra class they’re usually permitted to use a calculator all the time. That’s great in Algebra and Geometry classes themselves, right? After all, if we let you use a calculator, you can focus your energy and problem solving skills on learning new math processes and ideas.
Which is exactly why there’s a No Calculator test now. Once you’re off to college, it’s usually been years since you’ve done math by hand, and the ability to do math using your memory and ability to apply mathematical processes reflects your number fluency—that is, understanding things like how basic operations like multiplication and division relate to each other or how place value works.
Just like being permitted to use a calculator frees up your mind to focus on problem-solving when you first began Algebra class, here’s a list of things that you can memorize and re-learn ahead of time that’ll free you up to focus on the math questions on the SAT—both on the No Calculator test and the Calculator test.
This process is called front loading and it can save your life on a standardized test.
To maximize your SAT math score, in addition to the geometry formulas we talked about memorizing above, memorize this list, too:
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’ll prime you brain to be on the lookout for classic, predictably “tricky” questions.
38 questions, 55 minutes
The most important thing you have to understand about the Calculator section is that it’s the calculator permitted section, not the always use your calculator section. Students who use their calculators effectively, which means using them as little as possible, are the ones who finish this section on time.
This section is quite a bit like the No Calculator test, but it expands into a little bit of probability and statistics, including topics like:
The Calculator test also includes grid-ins, and this section is where the endurance portion of the SAT comes into play. It’s widely acknowledged that these grid-ins include downright evil twists.
Specifically, you have to be sure to answer the question the Calculator grid-in asks you. That means you might find the price of something and then have to give the answer to the nearest tenth of a dollar. If you find the price is $1.52, most people would never stop to think the answer would be 1.5, especially not 4 hours into an exhausting, high-stakes testing situation.
Remind yourself that you have to answer the question as you pull into these last few questions to protect your score.
For a full-length lesson on how to write the SAT essay, check out this post.
The SAT’s scoring scale has flip-flopped a bit over the last few decades, so you may have much older siblings or other friends with SAT scores out of a possible 2400 points.
As of 2016, however, the SAT’s scoring scale reverted back to its classic 400 to 1600 scale: That’s a possible score range of 200 to 800 on each of the two sections, “Math” and “Evidence Based Reading & Writing.”
The optional essay portion of the test is scored on a scale of 2 to 8 (like a reduced version of 200 to 800) in three different areas: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.
When tests are set on a curve at school, the curve compares all test-takers to each other. Everyone’s performance is ranked on that single test, so if the best student in the class only got 90 out of 100 questions correct, a 90% turns into the virtual equivalent of a 100% and sets the scoring for everyone else by shifting up everyone’s scores ten points.
The SAT doesn’t work like that. Instead, the SAT scoring scale is created so that any individual student’s performance can be compared to any other student’s performance on any other SAT test.
In other words, the scoring scale creates an equating measurement that allows colleges to compare students from different areas taking different tests on different test dates. In other words, it says that Susan’s score of 720 on Math in October shows comparable ability and performance to Jai’s 720 on Math in April.
All the common wisdom you may hear about why you “don’t want an easy SAT” is pointless. Some people think that if you have an “easier” SAT, you’re out of luck because you need to get so many questions correct in order to earn a high score. In other words, “easy” SATs have very little wiggle room at the top of the scoring scales. You can’t miss much on those tests to get top scores.
This is totally misguided logic, though. The scoring scale ensures that no matter how seemingly challenging or easy the SAT you take is, your performance will be accurately compared with how you likely would have done on a different test on a different day.
Since you can trust the equating scale, take the test when you’re most prepared, preferably multiple times.
Many colleges allow “superscoring,” which is the sum of your best Math and Reading scores, even if they’re from different test dates.
The College Board allows you to send only your best scores to those colleges that accept superscores. When you log in to send your scores, you’ll actually be able to send only your strongest Math subscore from one test date and, if you did better on the Reading on a different date, you can select that subscore to send, too.
Piecing together your scores using Score Choice can give you a sense of calm about the unknown: A weaker performance on a particular test date won’t even subconsciously affect an admissions committee’s impression of your abilities.