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A Top Scorer's Guide to the SAT

By Serena D | Sunday, September 19, 2021

Getting a high score on the SAT is no easy feat.  It takes dedication, preparation, and a lot of studying.  It also requires using the right tricks to boost your score.  As a high scorer and SAT prep tutor here at schoolhouse, I’ve done a fair amount of thinking as to what these SAT tricks are.   Below you will find my top eight SAT tips and tricks that will help you improve your score.

Tip 1: Practice Makes (almost) Perfect

It is no secret that practicing is one of the most important SAT studying tips.  Personalized practice, like the kind offered at Khan Academy, is even better.  In fact, just 20 hours of practice on Khan Academy is associated with a 115 point score increase.  Clearly, practice is an incredibly beneficial way of prepping for the SAT.  But why exactly does practice help improve scores?

When you do hundreds of practice questions, you will start to notice patterns in the material tested, types of questions, and correct answers.  You can then use this experience to come up with strategies for future questions and improve your score.  Furthermore, practicing with official SAT questions will get you accustomed to the level of difficulty of the actual exam, allowing you to do better on test day.

Tip 2: Reinforce Your Weak Points

In middle school, my band teacher required students to always have a pencil.  Whenever anyone messed up, they had to circle the problem area and write a little note about what to fix.  I am not a middle schooler anymore, but I still remember the lesson of never practicing mistakes.  The same applies to SAT prep.  When you make a mistake, figure out where your logic went wrong and try to make sense of the logic behind the correct answer.  If you are missing a lot of one type of question, or a lot of questions about one skill, focus on that weakness and try to overcome it.  The point of all of this work is to focus your practice on those areas that need help, which will give you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of score increases.

Tip 3: Prepare for the Time Crunch

One of the most common frustrations expressed by students studying for the SAT is that they run out of time on the sections.  The SAT is not forgiving with time.  On the reading section, you only have 13 minutes per passage, and the timing on the writing section works out to less than a minute per question.  The math sections have difficult time skews as well.  While overcoming the time crunch and fully completing each section may seem like an impossible challenge, it actually isn’t.  The key strategy that will improve your time and increase your scores is, once again, to practice.

Taking the SAT is like running a marathon.  When training for a marathon, you start at a manageable pace and distance, then work up to the full thing.  The same strategy applies when studying for the SAT.  Start with a pace you can manage, then gradually speed up until you are practicing with the actual SAT timing.  Successful time management will enable you to answer all the questions, making it one of the most important SAT tips.

Tip 4: Know Your Rules

On the Writing and Math section, you are racing against the clock to finish the questions.  To win this race, you need fast recall of grammar rules and mathematical formulas.  While studying, drill yourself on these rules and practice doing simple application questions quickly.  Many of the easy questions are all about recall.   When studying for the SAT, your goal should be to know these rules so well that you won’t even need to think, only bubble in the correct answer.

Tip 5: Manage Your Time Wisely

Managing time well is one of the most important SAT strategies.  If you get the timing right, you will be able to answer every question and may even have enough time to double check your work.  There are several steps you need to take to get the timing down.

First, pick a strategy for each section and stick with it.  Whether that is going through the questions in order or skipping around, find the strategy that works best for you and practice it until you can do the section in the allotted time.

Second, skip questions that start taking too long.  Remember that your goal is to get as many questions right as possible, not to spend 20 minutes figuring out the 3 hardest questions.  So, when you come across a hard question, skip to a different section, clear your head, then go back to the problem area.

Finally, pay attention while you are taking the test.  I know it can be really hard to focus as the test drags on, but do yourself a favor and stick with it.  Read the questions carefully and make sure you don’t make silly mistakes on questions.  Try to do as many questions as possible correctly the first time around so that you don’t have to waste time redoing them.

Tip 6: Double Check Your Work

If you manage your time well and work quickly, you may end up one of those lucky people who has time left over after they finish.  Use this time to double check your work, rethink any difficult questions, and ensure that you didn’t make mistakes.  You don’t need to redo every question, just flip through and look for any obvious errors in logic or calculations.

Tip 7: Answer Every Question

There’s a good reason this SAT trick is seen on nearly every SAT tips and tricks list.  It’s one of the easiest ways to attempt to nab a few extra points.  The SAT no longer has a “guessing penalty,” so missed questions won’t harm your score.  Thus, answer every question, even if you’re guessing, to maximize your score.  But don’t just guess blindly.  Either attempt to narrow down your choices through the Process of Elimination or guess the same letter each time.  Process of Elimination increases the chance you’ll get the correct answer by removing wrong answers from the mix.  On the SAT, a random guess has a 25% chance of being right. As you eliminate possibilities, this chance increases.  Of course, this SAT strategy takes time, which you may not always have.  If you are almost out of time (or completely stumped) pick a letter and guess it for every question.  This strategy ensures that you will get at least 1 out of every 4 questions correct, making it one of the most important SAT tricks.

Tip 8: Be Ready for Test Day

Last, but certainly not least, be prepared for the big day.  Preparation, such as sleeping well and packing a bag with everything you will need, will go a long way to reducing your stress levels the morning of the SAT.  Pack your bag the night before, and make sure to include the following:

  • A full water bottle
  • Snacks for breaks
  • A calculator (ideally a graphing calculator)
  • Sharpened no. 2 pencils (at least 3)
  • An eraser
  • A pencil sharpener
  • A watch, if you want to keep track of time
  • School ID

The morning of the exam, make sure you eat a healthy, filling breakfast to really boost your brainpower (and ability to tolerate painfully long exams).  Arrive at your testing center early to nab a good spot in line.  Once you get to your assigned room, remember to silence and power off your phone.  Finally, be mentally prepared for the never ending testing instructions and the bonus 5th section after the test (don’t worry, it doesn’t affect your score and is only used to test questions for future SATs).

But besides all of these, the most important SAT tip isn’t really a tip at all: it’s a mindset.  You already know everything you need to succeed on the SAT.  All you need to do is practice and learn how the SAT works (shameless self plug: schoolhouse is a great resource if you want outside help).  Study hard, use these tips, and you will see the effect it’ll have on your score.

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