Last Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Ready to simplify the SAT?
So you’re about to take the fabled SAT and you’re terrified. Don’t worry—everyone else is too. Calm down and have a glass of water. Luckily, you have the Internet and this handy SAT quick guide to help you make it through each section!
Before the test
Take the PSAT
Figuring out the problems is hard enough. If you have to figure out the test structure too, then you’re fighting a war on two fronts without any need to. Not many people are good at taking standardized tests of any kind, so the PSAT is designed to help you become more comfortable with the entire operation. Let it help.
Take challenging classes
This is probably the best advice on this list. My first SAT score was 130 points higher than my PSAT score had been three months earlier. I didn’t buy any books or study intensely in the days leading up to the test, but I had been taking AP English and Calculus. There may not be any content from these advanced subjects, but classes like these will teach you how to think.
Ok, so you looked this article up 12 hours before the test starts and you definitely don’t have time to do those first two tips. You can still try for a good night’s sleep. Even if your nerves keep you up all night, try to lie down for eight hours. If nothing else, it’s less strenuous than sitting. And if you’re reading this at 3:00 am and have the test in five hours, stop reading and go to sleep NOW.
Eat breakfast and bring a snack
This is a long test that requires plenty of brain power, and you don’t want hunger distracting you. When I took the SAT, the whole thing was over five hours long. Don’t underestimate what hunger can do to your concentration.
Have a plan
If you do start to freak out during the test, have a poem, quote, or song in mind that soothes you. Bring your lucky quarter or tap your toe three times—whatever gives you confidence and doesn’t distract others or make noise is fair game. Panic will only lower your score.
And now tips for each section…
Remember unwritten rules
English is an odd and complicated language. Even though many of us have been hearing, speaking, reading, and writing in this language, most people can’t just rattle off English rules at the drop of a hat. Luckily, you don’t have to be a future English major to get a good score. Read the words in your head and see what sounds the most like something your English teacher would say. Whether or not you realize it, you probably know a fair amount on this subject from just living.
Make the test work for you
If you do come across a problem that you solved with the last tip, try to figure out why you went with the answer you went with. Often there will be at least two questions over the same rule. If you can discover the secret to it once, it will make any other questions much easier to deal with.
Skip if you have to
Don’t stare blankly at a question for more than a minute if you have no idea what to do. The time limit is supposed to knock off points like that, but don’t let it get you.
But when in doubt, guess like mad
There is no way to receive negative points on the SAT: you will get 0 points for a wrong answer and 0 points for no answer. If you are left with 10 questions and two minutes left, put C for everything—the odds are in your favor of at least getting one right.
Always be doing something
If you have five minutes left, go back and double-check your answers. Check to make sure the answers you wanted to put are the answers that ended up on your answer sheet. I managed to get a few extra points this way. No matter how smart you are, there’s always a chance of making stupid mistakes.
If there was one thing I wish I had studied the night before the SAT, it’s geometry. All the math I ran into was either from Algebra I or Geometry. If you have been taking math classes in high school, you’ve been keeping up with your algebra reasonably well, but often basic geometry principles are forgotten as you advance higher in math courses. I had not done a geometry proof in two years when I took the SAT, and there were times I had to strain to remember back that far. Likewise, if you haven’t taken either of these classes, I can’t recommend enough that you look into them on your own so that you have an understanding of them when you go in. The questions aren’t hard because of the actual math, but because you need to figure out what math to use.
Bring a calculator
And know how to use it. There is a good chance the testing site will provide you with a calculator if you have none, but trust me when I say you don’t want to go into this test with an unfamiliar calculator. In the same vain, don’t go out and buy an expensive calculator the night before the SAT. It may have the computing power to solve world hunger, but if you don’t know how to use it, it won’t be much help to you.
Check your work
These questions are written by the experts, and they are designed to mess you up. They know the most common incorrect answers and will put them on to try and trick you. Even if your answer is one of the multiple-choice options, always check your work.
If your answer isn’t one of the options, redo the problem, and if your triangle has 193 between its angles, redo the problem.
Do the free-response questions first. You have a 25% chance at randomly guessing on multiple choice at the end, but you will not correctly guess on the free response. Also, if you have no idea where to even start with a problem after looking at it for 30 seconds, move on. The time limit can be brutal, and there’s no point wasting the few precious minutes you are given.
Take it once
The essay adds another almost hour to your testing, is not required by all schools, and is completely optional. For that reason, many people don’t take it, but I’d caution against taking this easy way out. It’s better to do the essay and then never have any applications ask for it than to need the score to apply to your dream school and not have it. That said, I’d only ever take the essay once.
Don’t use slang terms
If the average 85-year-old wouldn’t understand it, it’s probably slang. Also, don’t use contractions. I know it may feel awkward to write out “do not,” but that’s what they want to see.
You may think that mixing up your writing will give the poor grader a welcome change of pace, but in reality, he just wants to check off his list saying that you know how to write using the English language properly. The easier you make it for him, the more he will like you and want to give you a good score.
Have any other easy tips and tricks for the SAT? Share them in the comments!