Many students in the 21st century want to go to college, and getting to college is filled with many requirements and lots of stress. Commonly, one of those requirements is taking the SAT, a college-readiness test created by The College Board. Since not all students with similar high-school grades are on the same level in terms of college readiness, the SAT compares students with a common measurement, which colleges use to determine which ones are the most ready.
Preparing for the SAT can be a daunting task, one you may not know how to begin or what to aim for. Here are some tips on how to prepare for the SAT and achieve your highest possible score.
1. Get to know the test
The regular SAT test consists of three hours of content with two breaks built in. There is an optional SAT with Essay you can sign up for if you wish to present evidence of your writing ability on your college application. Here’s what to expect from the different sections of the SAT:
- Reading Test: 52 multiple-choice questions in 65 minutes.
- Writing and Language Test: 44 multiple-choice questions in 35 minutes.
- No Calculator Math Test: 15 multiple-choice questions and 5 student-produced questions in 25 minutes.
- Calculator Math Test: 30 multiple-choice and 8 student-produced questions in 55 minutes.
- Essay Test (optional): 50 minutes to read a passage and then write an analytical essay. This test is scored separately and does not affect your overall score.If you don’t sign up for the Essay, you will most likely be given an additional fifth section of either Math, Reading, or Writing and Language. The College Board uses this “experimental” section to test-drive new content and question styles. This section does not count toward your SAT score. It’s a good idea to work on improving your writing skills before tackling this section.
The questions in both Math sections move progressively from easy to medium to hard, but such is not the case in the other two sections. Since there’s no penalty for guessing, make sure you have an answer shaded in for every question.
2. Find out if you’re eligible for extra time
The College Board understands that learning disabilities are a real thing for many students. If you have been diagnosed with a learning disability and are receiving extra time on tests in school, then you should be able to obtain the same accommodation on the SAT. If you call The College Board, someone will put you in touch with the appropriate department. Just make sure you have the necessary documentation of your diagnosis and the accommodation you receive.
3. Understand your scores.
Your SAT scaled score will range from 400 to 1600, with both the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (combination of both Reading and Writing and Language) and the Math (combination of both Math sections) score comprising 200-800 points of the composite score. While a 1600 constitutes a perfect SAT score, you don’t necessarily have to get every question correct to achieve a 1600, as each test has its own scoring scale.
What is a good SAT score?
Rather than thinking of your score as a fraction of all possible points, you should look at your percentile—i.e., what percent of test-takers scored lower than you. If you’re in the 90th percentile or above, you’re doing great!
4. Start preparing early
Few students are equipped to guide their own test preparation. Sure, you can practice on your own, but most students need some form of direction to determine just what content and skills they should be learning. This is where having access to SAT tutoring is critical. Before your sophomore year ends, you should reach out to an SAT tutor in order to hit the ground running during the summer months.
During the school year, many students struggle to make time for SAT preparation in the midst of all their regular academic responsibilities. In the summer, you can focus on SAT prep, and scheduling will be much easier for both you and your tutor.
5. Set goals for yourself.
Not everyone can get a perfect SAT score, but it is possible for you to achieve your full potential. In order to get your highest SAT score, it’s best to set some goals.
You should begin by visiting the websites of the colleges you’re interested in and finding out what range of SAT scores applicants are expected to achieve. Knowing this information can both help you set a reasonable goal and challenge you to work hard to reach it.
After you have taken some practice tests and had some sessions with a tutor, you can come up with specific goals in areas such as overall and section scaled scores, average raw scores per section, and timing on both entire sections and individual passages.
6. Begin your SAT prep by reviewing content
The material on the SAT Math tests falls into four categories: Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Problem Solving and Data Analysis (all official SAT categories), and Additional Topics, an unofficial catch-all category covering geometry, trigonometry, and imaginary numbers. Once you update yourself on these areas, you should refresh your skills by working on SAT-style questions. There is a host of resources providing such targeted practice, and a good SAT math tutor can help direct your review so that you’re focusing on the most relevant material.
You will also benefit from reviewing the basics of reading and writing. A capable SAT writing tutor can help by reteaching the grammatical rules tested most often in the Writing and Language section, and an SAT Reading tutor can instruct you on how to interpret each question and scan the text to identify key information.
7. Refine your test-taking skills
This is the area where an experienced SAT tutor can be most helpful. While you are probably familiar with some basic strategies that can be used on multiple-choice tests, your tutor can teach you how and when to use process-of-elimination, show you when to skip questions and return to them later, and guide you on how to work backwards from the answers in the Math sections. An SAT math tutor can give you detailed direction on how to use strategies like Plugging in the Answers and Plugging in Numbers, as well as teach you how to use your calculator more effectively.
8. Keep your options open with the ACT
Since the SAT overhauled its format in 2016, it’s now much more comparable to the ACT. But while both tests assess college readiness, they have a number of significant differences. The ACT Math section is all multiple-choice and permits the use of a calculator throughout, but it covers a wider range of math topics than the SAT. The ACT’s English and Reading sections are extremely similar to the SAT’s Writing and Language and Reading sections, but the ACT moves at a faster pace, with less time allowed per passage. The ACT also has a Science section, which tests a student’s ability to analyze and interpret scientific data and draw logical conclusions.
It’s almost impossible to tell in advance which test you’re better suited for, so it’s a good idea to take the ACT in addition to the SAT. Once you have experienced both tests, you will have a feel for which one caters to your strengths. After that, focus on one of the two tests as you continue to prepare.
9. Take the test more than once
If you don’t get a perfect SAT score the first time you take the test, there’s no need to worry. You are permitted to take the test more than once—up to 12 times, if you want! The vast majority of colleges accept your Superscore, which is the composite score of your best Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score and your best Math score. When colleges refer to the average SAT scores for applicants, they are almost always referring to Superscores.
10. Keep practicing and reviewing
So far, the College Board has released 10 official practice tests to help you prepare for the SAT. Those tests can be accessed for free online, or you can purchase The Official SAT Study Guide, which includes eight of the practice tests (including bubble sheets), as well as answer explanations and some helpful chapters on preparing for the test. (While only The College Board makes official practice tests, many test-prep organizations make their own practice tests.)
Ultimately, the SAT is a test of how well you can take the SAT, so the more you practice, the more you will recognize the different question types and thus settle more quickly on the right strategy. An expert SAT tutor can give you the best chance of achieving a perfect score by helping you review and evaluate your SAT results and practice tests. While you may recognize your mistakes after looking at the answers, a tutor can better identify which strategies may have been more appropriate and how to make more efficient strategy decisions in the future.