How to Prepare for the SAT

Take the SAT with Confidence by Using These Tips
Meet the Experts
Pam Andrews View Bio
Erin Goodnow View Bio
Kevin Wilson View Bio
Written By:
Kenya McCullum View Bio

Every year, college hopefuls take the SAT to help them get into the school of their dreams. But before they can get that coveted acceptance letter, they have to earn a good score on the test. This guide is designed to help students by providing valuable preparation tips, as well as resources they can use as they study.

What is the SAT?

Students know they should take the SAT in order to get into college, but they may not necessarily understand the role it plays in the admissions process. Pam Andrews, CEO of The Scholarship Shark, sums up the reason students take the SATs this way: “Grade point averages and the rigor of courses vary from school to school, so the SAT allows the college to compare one student from one high school, city, or state to another from another high school, city, or state quantitatively,” she said. “Another reason the SAT is important is because colleges use it as a way to determine your preparedness.”

In order to compare students and evaluate whether or not they’re ready to attend college, the SAT is made up of an evidenced-based reading and writing section and a math section. The reading section, which is 65 minutes long, is made up of 52 questions that are based on informative and narrative passages. The writing and language section of the test, which has 44 questions, is 35 minutes long.

In the math section, students are tasked with answering 58 questions across two sections. This part of the test takes 80 minutes to complete and includes questions about geometry, algebra, and linear and quadratic equations.

In addition, the SAT includes an optional essay section that is scored separately from the rest of the test. Students are given 50 minutes to complete an essay that will be evaluated based on writing, reading, and analysis.

How the SAT Is Scored

Students can earn between 400 and 1,600 on the SAT, with the math and evidence-based reading and writing sections being worth between 200 and 800 points each. Also, the optional essay is worth between six and 24 points—with the writing, analysis, and reading elements each receiving a score of between two and eight—although it is not factored into the overall score students receive.

But what is considered a good SAT score when applying to college?

According to Erin Goodnow, Co-Founder and CEO of Going Ivy, it depends on the school.

“All colleges say that high school GPA and the rigor of the courses you took in high school are the most important factors. For many schools, next comes your SAT or ACT score. Some schools have a certain metric they use to put students on a scale of one to ten based on the GPA and SAT/ACT,” she said. “But things are changing. More colleges are becoming test optional. If you don’t want to submit your SAT or ACT score, you don’t have to. These test-optional colleges are going to look more at your essays, activities, letters of recommendation, and perhaps an interview.”

Comparing the SAT and ACT

While some students are spending their time preparing to take the SAT, others are doing the same to get a good score on the other standardized test that schools also consider when evaluating prospective students: the ACT. In some cases, a college may prefer one test over the other, but in other cases, students may actually get to choose which test to take. As a result, it is important to understand the similarities and differences of the SAT and ACT. This section provides a comparison of these tests.

Location

Whether or not students takes the SAT or ACT may actually depend on where the schools they’re applying to are located, says Kevin Wilson, Testing Technician at Missouri State University. He explains how location may play a role this way: “The SAT and the ACT differ from one another in usage according to location, meaning colleges and universities that accept the SAT are often located on either the East or West coasts, while the ACT is more typically required in the Midwest.”

Test structure

While the SAT is made up of math, reading, writing and language, and essay (optional) sections, the ACT has reading, math, science reasoning, and English sections, in addition to an optional essay. In the math section of both tests, students can expect to be asked questions covering arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, and geometry. However, the math section of the SAT also covers data analysis and the ACT includes questions on probability and statistics. Also, these tests have different rules on calculator use: On the ACT, students are permitted to use a calculator on all of the math questions, but they can only use a calculator on a portion of the SAT.

There are also differences in the reading and essay portions of these tests. When taking the SAT, students answer questions based on five reading passages and ACT test takers’ questions are based on four. The optional essay of the SAT is evaluated by how well students comprehend a passage and on the ACT, essay scores are based on students’ ability to evaluate and analyze a complex problem.

Test length

Students who take the SAT without an essay are given three hours to complete the test, while the essay version takes three hours and 50 minutes. Those who take the ACT get two hours and 55 minutes if they don’t take the essay version and three hours and 35 minutes if they do.

Scoring

Students taking the SAT can get a score between 200 and 800 points for each section, for a total of 400 to 1,600 points. The ACT is scored on a one to 36 scale for each section and the final score is the average of all section points. The optional essay for the ACT is scored on a two to 12-point range, and the SAT’s essay is scored on a one to eight-point range.

Fees

No matter which standardized test students take, they are required to pay a fee. In order to take the SAT, students pay a $47.50 fee if they take the regular exam or $64.50 if they take the optional essay test. For the ACT, students who take the test with no essay pay $50.50 and those who choose the essay test pay $67.00.

15 Tips to Help You Prepare for Test Day

Although standardized tests are not the only factor that colleges look at when deciding who to admit, they do play an important part, so students should take them seriously. The following are some tips that students can use to help them perform at their best on test day.

  • Become familiar with the testing location.

    “Before your exam date, if possible, visit the testing center you chose at registration, and find the building and the room if possible, learn where to park, and note how long it takes to drive there,” said Wilson. “Allow yourself plenty of time to arrive on test day. This helps to alleviate one’s stress and test anxiety on the morning of one’s test.”

  • Take the test as early as possible.

    Although some students take the SATs as they are preparing college applications, Goodnow suggests getting it out of the way as early as possible. “If you start practicing and studying early, you can be finished with your official test (and maybe a second or third attempt) by the end of your junior year,” she said. “Then you’ll have all summer and the beginning of your senior year to work on your college essays and other parts of your application.”

  • Understand what the test looks like.

    When taking the SAT or ACT, students should understand exactly what they’ll be expected to do long before they sit for the exam. In order to do this, they should familiarize themselves with the structure of the test, so they know how many questions will be asked in each section, the types of content on which those questions will be based, and how many points they earn per question.

  • Understand the rules.

    Just as students should know the structure of the standardized test, they should also know the rules for taking it. “When you register for the SAT, please assure yourself you’re following the rules clearly,” Andrews said. “Bring only allowed items. Do not bring ink pen or other items not required. Bring an approved calculator; there will be a person who will inspect it to see if it meets the requirements for the test.”

  • Plan around other activities.

    Students should remember their other obligations when they schedule their ACT or SAT, so they don’t end up double booking their time. “If you are the star soccer player on your team, do not schedule your test the same Saturday as your soccer team’s championship game,” said Wilson. “Both are obviously important. Do not place yourself in a position to have to choose between the two.”

  • Evaluate strengths and weaknesses.

    Every student has areas of strength and weakness, and understanding them will let them know how to best use their study time. By taking at least two timed practice tests early in their preparation, students are able to identify the types of questions they can already do well on and which ones they will need to practice more leading up to test day.

  • Set a realistic goal.

    After getting a good idea of where they stand by taking practice tests, students should set a goal based on not only on the requirements of the college they want to attend, but also based on how much time they are giving themselves to prepare. The more points they want to improve by, the more time they should dedicate to studying. However, the longer they wait, the more they will need to adjust their expectations to something within their reach.

  • Create a study schedule.

    The ACT and SAT are not tests students can cram for, so it’s best to create a study schedule and stick to it. Setting aside a specific period of time each day will help students reach their score goals, as well as get accustomed to dedicating time to test prep on a regular basis.

  • Take a preparatory class.

    Students who find it difficult to study on their own, as well as those who want to augment their solo study time, can sign up for a preparatory class. This allows students to get feedback from an instructor and gain accountability for their progress.

  • Work with a private tutor.

    Students who want one-on-one assistance may consider working with a tutor instead of taking a prep class. A tutor can provide immediate feedback, as well as adjust lessons based on where students need work.

  • Watch out for answers that seem obvious.

    “When you are studying for the test, you will stumble across answers that seem obvious. The answers will make you feel like you are giving the wrong answer,” said Andrews. “However, sometimes it’s the correct answer, so trust your abilities since your answer may be correct.”

  • Read additional books.

    The books that students are required to read for classes can certainly help them prepare for the test, but it’s best to read books that have not been assigned—particularly nonfiction. Since the required reading lists for high school students are filled with classic fiction, students should read as much nonfiction as possible to get used to processing the kinds of passages that appear on the ACT and SAT.

  • Brush up on skills.

    Brushing up on basic grammar and spelling can help students boost their score on the verbal section of the test. In addition, practicing the ability to do mental math can help students do well on the parts of the SAT that don’t allow a calculator and save time on the parts that do.

  • Rest the night before the test.

    Although it sounds counterintuitive, students should relax the night before the test. Having some downtime after a long period of studying and getting a good night’s sleep will help students be calm and alert on test day, as well as help to boost their confidence.

  • Be active during break periods.

    During the break periods on test day, Goodnow suggests that students get the most out of the time off by getting away from their desks. “Walk around, touch your toes, do some stretches and get your body moving physically,” she said. “You need to keep your energy and endurance up for these lengthy tests.”

More on SAT Prep