A Comprehensive Guide to Conquering the SAT

For many high school juniors and seniors, the SAT causes a lot of stress and anxiety. In their quest to get the perfect score, they’ve turned prepping for high stakes tests into a multi-billion dollar industry. While there’s some value to the expensive prep courses and gigantic test prep books, you don’t need a fancy program to help you improve your score. In many cases, you can ensure you do well on the SAT by doing some free prep work at home and using some key strategies while taking the test. We’ve rounded up some of the best tips to help you conquer the SAT.

Get to Know the Format of the Test
One of the best tips for doing well on the SAT, or any other big test, is to get to know the format. Do you know how many sections are on the SAT? Do you know how many questions you have to answer in each section?

We’ll help you out.

How much time do you have to finish the SAT? 3 hours (65 for reading, 35 for writing, 25 minutes for no-calculator math, 55 minutes for calculator-allowed math), plus 50 minutes if you complete the essay

How many sections are on the SAT? Five: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (with calculator), Math (no calculator), and Essay (optional)

How many questions do you have to answer in each section? 55 reading, 44 writing, 58 math, 1 optional essay

Beyond that, you need to know how the questions are asked. For example, you’ll be asked to answer 13 student-produced response math questions. You’ll also have to know how to read the underlined portions of the passages to answer the writing and language questions.

A Comprehensive Guide to Conquering the SAT General Tips
Answer every question
The current test does not have a guessing penalty, so it is better to answer every question, even if you have to guess. Use the process of elimination to eliminate at least one answer choice and improve your odds of getting the question correct.

Determine how much time you have to answer each question
Don’t spend a lot of time during the test looking at the clock, but as you practice for the SAT learn each amount of time feels like. If you’re spending too long on a question, move on and come back to it at the end.

Change the way you bubble
Consider bubbling at the end of each section or page so you don’t have to flip back and forth between the test and answer sheet. This will buy you some time. Just circle your answers in the test booklet and flip to the answer sheet at the end of each section or page.

Double check your answers at the end of the test
If you have time, go back and make sure you bubbled in the correct answer for each problem. Circle the answers in your test booklet to make this process smoother.

Try to answer the question without looking at the choices
Immediately after you read a question, take a second to see if an answer comes into your head. Then read the answer choices. If the answer you came up with is one of the choices, chances are it’s the right answer.

Underline key parts of the question
Many questions contain key words that tell you what to do. Underline these words to help you stay focused as you answer the questions.

Don’t fall for traps
Make sure you answer what is being asked. The most obvious wrong answer will always be one of the answer options, so it’s easy to get tripped up.

Trust your gut
You can easily get caught into the trap of second-guessing yourself. If your gut says it’s correct, then stick with the answer and move on to the next question.

Take some time to relax before the test
It doesn’t matter how prepared you are for the SAT; if you’re stressed out, you won’t perform as well. The day before the test be sure to get some sleep and take some time to do something fun. Go see a movie. Play a video game. Hang out with your friends. Don’t spend all your time thinking about the test.

Tips for Taking Practice Tests

Taking practice tests is an important part of preparing for the SAT. Don’t just sit and click through sample questions online. Instead, print out or get a practice book that has multiple practice tests in it. As you complete each test, try to mimic test day conditions, including following the time limits, using an answer sheet, and creating a test-like atmosphere.

When you’re finished with a practice test, score yourself. For any questions you missed, before reading the answer explanation, see if you can determine how to come up with the correct answer on your own. Also look over your answers and see if you can find a pattern of errors. Did you miss certain question types or specific math or ELA skills? If so, you know that you need to brush up on those areas before test day.

Brush Up on the Basics

Because the SAT covers so much information, there isn’t nearly enough time to learn it all again. However, you can brush up on some of the basics to help you do your best on your test. Some skills to look at in order to prepare include:

  • Grammar Rules
  • Math formulas
  • Data interpretation and graphing skills
  • Making calculations without a calculator

A Comprehensive Guide to the SAT Reading and Writing
The SAT largely measures language arts and math skills. The reading and writing sections have changed over the years. Not only has an optional writing section been added, but the emphasis on definining higher-level vocabulary words and completing analogies has been decreased. In the reading section, you’ll be asked to read high-level passages and answer questions. In the writing section, you’ll be asked questions related to grammar, spelling, conventions, and general writing techniques.

Here are some tips to help you do your best on the reading and writing sections of the test:

1. Read the questions first
If a question is passage-based, it helps to have a purpose for reading. Look at the questions related to the passage before you start reading so you know if you’re looking for parts of the passage related to a particular idea or character.

2. Read grammar questions and answer choices aloud
While you can’t talk loudly during the test, you can whisper the sentences that are part of grammar questions to yourself. Often you’ll hear an error better than you can see in on the page.

3. Pay attention to connotation and context
In reading and grammar, connotation and context play a large role. By looking at both, you may be able to distinguish between two very similar answer choices and choose the correct one.

4. Look for small errors
The SAT question writers are not trying to trick you with grammar questions, but they may include some very small errors in answer choices to make them incorrect. Pay close attention to punctuation marks, plurals, pronoun-antecedent agreement, parallel structure, and subject-verb agreement.

5. See if one question clues another
Question writers work hard to avoid cluing (where one question gives you the answer to another) in a test, but sometimes, particularly in evidence-based questions, you can often find some help.

6. Read all passage introductions
Often there’s a lot of useful information in the short paragraphs that introduce the passages and questions in the reading and writing sections. There can be a lot of helpful information in the instructions on other parts of the test too, so make sure you read all of them carefully.

For more help with the reading and writing questions on the SAT, use Help Teaching’s SAT worksheets to brush up on your vocabulary, identify sentence errors, and read some SAT reading passages.

A Comprehensive Guide to Conquering the SAT Mathematics
The math section of the SAT has both multiple choice and open-ended math questions. There’s also a section where you’re not allowed to use a calculator. The open-ended format can see intimidating, but if you prepare for the test, you can feel confident in your answers no matter what type of question is asked.

Here are some tips to help:

1. Substitute in a number
When answer choices do not have numbers, rather equations or expressions, you can still plug in a logical number and see which one works. Pick a logical number or numbers if needed. For example, 1 is a good starting place, 100 if you are dealing with percents, multiples of 10 if angle measures, etc.

2. Substitute in answer choices
Substituting the answers choices in for variable is a huge time saver – “plug and chug”. You’re looking to get the correct answer as efficiently as possible, not please your math teacher!

3. Simplify or rewrite in another form when you can
Sometimes a question masquerades as something more complex when all you really need to do is simplify it. For example, an improper fraction may reduce to a whole number.

4. Brush up on time savers
These include the Pythagorean Triple (3-4-5 and 5-12-13 specifically). Remember that any multiples of those numbers are also triples (6-8-10, 10-24-26). You can also brush up on special right triangle rules or other ones learned in school.

5. When in doubt, draw it out
Draw a picture, graph, table, diagram whenever you can to help visualize the problem.

6. Memorize and become familiar with formulas
The SAT will give you a reference sheet with common formulas, but it’s time-consuming to constantly take it out and refer to it. If you are familiar with common formulas, you can answer most of the questions on the test without referring to the formula sheet.

In addition to the tips above, you can find resources to help you prepare for the SAT on Help Teaching’s SAT Preparation Resources page.

Still worried you won’t do well? Don’t stress. Not all colleges require the SAT or ACT. Check out FairTest to discover a list of colleges and universities that are “test optional” or “test flexible” when considering students for admission.

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