Studying for the SAT is a big undertaking, and you might not know where to start. A good way to get yourself into gear is to learn about the structure of the test and different ways you can adapt your strategy to improve on each section. In this article, I’ll provide you with a comprehensive list of the top 21 tips (broken down by section) that you should be using to get your best scores ever on the SAT.
Overall SAT Study Tips
Tip #1: Follow the Fundamental Rule
The most important rule to remember for the SAT is that there is only one correct answer for each question, and you should be able to eliminate all the others. This means that your number one strategy on the test is process of elimination. If you're struggling with a question, try to find reasons to rule out most of the answers rather than reasons why certain options could work.
Learn to be extremely picky about which answers to eliminate. This especially applies to the Reading and Writing sections. If a question seems subjective, keep reminding yourself that it’s an illusion. All incorrect choices are incorrect for good reasons, and it’s your job to find those reasons until you narrow your answers down to one possibility.
Tip #2: Always Understand Your Mistakes
This is vital if you want to see dramatic improvements. If you take the time to understand each mistake you make on practice questions, why you made it, and what you will do to avoid it in the future, you’re virtually guaranteed a good score on the test.
Mistakes usually fall into one of four categories:
1. Content weakness
2. Time pressure
3. Question comprehension issue
4. Careless error
After you finish a practice test, catalog all the questions you answer incorrectly so you can work on detecting error patterns. Did you consistently answer a particular type of math question wrong (content weakness)? Did you keep missing the words “except” or “least” (careless error) in questions? Did you consistently miss questions at the end of sections (time pressure)?
Whatever your issues, you have to understand them completely so you can fix the problems you’re having and see positive changes in your scores!
SAT Reading Tips
Tip #3: Pay Attention to Connotation and Context
This tip is critical for answering tough questions in the Reading section. Look for words that indicate positive or negative connotation in the part of the passage that the question references. This can help you to eliminate at least a couple of choices even if you have no idea which of the remaining choices is correct.
Context is also very important! Don’t just look at the exact line that is referenced in the question - look at the sentences around it too. Look for contrast words such as “however”, “rather than” or “still”. You should also pay attention to strong adjectives that might help you to determine connotation.
Positive or negative connotation - you decide. Also to whoever made this image: I think we know what thumbs up and thumbs down mean. The faces are overkill.
Tip #4: Use Find the Evidence Questions to Your Advantage
The new SAT contains questions that ask you to choose an excerpt from the passage that serves as the best evidence for your answer to the previous question. These new questions can help you tremendously in identifying mistakes and clearing up ambiguities. For example, say you've picked out two answers that you think could be correct for a reading question. If the next question is one that asks you to identify the best evidence for your answer, you can read through all the options it gives you and see which choice makes the most direct connection to one of your two potential responses. In almost every case, it will become abundantly clear which of the two choices is correct because only that one will have a corresponding tidbit of direct evidence tucked away in one of the answer choices for the find the evidence question.
Tip #5: Read Passages Strategically
Try to nail down a good passage reading strategy for the SAT before test day. This will save you time and stress later. There are a few methods you might use depending on how comfortable you are with the test and where you are in your reading comprehension skills.
Method #1: Skim the Passage First
This is the method I would be most inclined to recommend. You can get a sense of the main ideas of the passage without wasting too much time reading it closely. To skim effectively, just read the introductory paragraph, conclusion paragraph, and first and last sentences of each body paragraph.
Answer main idea questions first while the overall point of the passage is still fresh in your mind. Then you can read specific sections of the passage more closely as needed to answer questions about smaller details.
Method #2: Skip Straight to the Questions
Because the SAT gives you line numbers for questions on the Reading section, skipping the passage altogether can be an effective initial strategy. If you do this, you should answer questions about small details in the passage first, so you end up reading a bit of the passage while answering questions. Then, when you move on to main idea questions later, you’ll already have a solid sense of the message of the passage as a whole.
Method #3: Read the Passage in Full
If you’re both a quick and thorough reader, you might be able to pull this off without any problems. Just make sure it’s not slowing you down. There's more material to read on the new SAT, so this strategy might be less feasible than it was in the past. If you're reading this way and find you can save a few minutes (and not lose any points) by using one of the other methods, then you should do that instead. It’s always better to have extra time at the end so you can double check your answers!
Tip #6: Don’t Ignore Passage Introductions
At the beginning of every passage on the SAT, there is a little italicized blurb giving you a bit of context about the passage and its author. This introductory blurb contains valuable information, and if you skip it, you could miss out on easy points. At the very least, it gives you context for what you’re about to read so you aren't too confused about who’s who or where the passage is set. Even if your method of attack for SAT passages is to skip straight to the questions, you should still make a point of reading the italicized intro before you do anything else.
Tip #7: Get Interested in the Passages
If you want to retain information as you’re reading passages on the SAT, the best way to do it is to force yourself to engage with the material. Treat this as a learning experience, not a chore, and you’ll find it much easier to remember what happened in the passage. If your brain is in “wow, interesting” mode rather than “blah, blah, just have to get to the questions” mode, you’ll have a more pleasant experience on the test and a better time answering the questions overall.
Tip #8: Look for Direct Evidence
Though questions on SAT reading may sometimes seem subjective, the reality is that you should always be able to find direct evidence in the passage or chart you are referencing to support your answers. Even inference questions, which ask you to look beyond the literal facts in the passage, will be backed up by logical deductions that can be made from the evidence that is presented. This is a situation where you might end up looking beyond the sentence referenced in the question to find the evidence you need. It's always in there somewhere!
If you’re thinking about choosing an answer that seems like it could be correct, but you can’t find any evidence for it, hold off. Any answer that can’t be backed up by specific information in the passage has to be incorrect.
U on the SAT irl
SAT Math Tips
Tip #9: Focus on Filling Content Gaps First
If you have problems with basic math skills, it doesn’t matter how many practice questions you do - you’re going to have to dig deeper to see improvement. If you notice you’re missing practice SAT Math questions because you are uncomfortable in a certain content area, work on your content weaknesses before you do anything else. This is the fastest way to dramatically improve your scores. You can go from here to fix other types of mistakes that are more surface-level (such as reading questions wrong or basic carelessness).
Tip #10: Re-Solve Questions You Missed Before Looking at the Answer Explanations
This is the best way to make sure you truly understand how to solve questions you initially messed up on the Math section. It’s one thing to read the answer explanation and say “oh, of course, that’s how you solve it," but it’s a completely different matter to work out the problem yourself. The process will stick in your mind much better if you have gone through it rather than just reading about it. Look at what the correct answer choice should be and try to get there yourself before you read the explanation.
Tip #11: Underline Key Parts of the Question
You should use this tip on the math section if you've been missing questions by accidentally solving for the wrong value. Underline what you need to find in the question so you don’t get confused during the calculation process.
Sometimes math questions ask you to solve for a value that necessitates solving for something else along the way. That something else will often be one of the incorrect answer choices (though this sort of tricky incorrect answer choice is less likely to show up on the new SAT). Many students accidentally pick the trick answer choice because they lose track of the value that they were originally supposed to find. You can avoid this by underlining relevant parts of the question to maintain your focus.
Tip #12: Memorize Formulas
Although the SAT math section does provide you with a list of formulas, you’ll lose time and momentum by constantly turning back to reference them. It's best to have all the formulas memorized beforehand. Check out our article on the formulas you need to know for the SAT Math section to make sure you’re prepared.
You can use a calculator for half of the Math section, but if you don't know the formulas, it's not going to be much help.
SAT Writing Tips
Tip #13: Memorize Grammar Rules
The SAT Writing section has a specific standardized approach to grammar, so it’s useful to memorize the rules to reduce confusion. Even if you think you're pretty good at grammar, it’s not always enough to just go by what "looks right" to you.
If you’re not used to some of the more archaic grammar rules tested on the SAT, you should memorize them. This will prevent you from accidentally choosing NO CHANGE for phrases that have errors according to the SAT's formal grammar guidelines. Check out this article for a review of all the grammar rules you’ll see on the SAT!
Tip #14: Be Careful with NO CHANGE Answers
If you notice that you’re answering NO CHANGE for lots questions on the Writing section, you should go back and double check your answers. NO CHANGE will only be the answer for 20 percent or less of the questions where it's an option. If you’re choosing it more than that, you might be missing something. Be sure to verify it again before you commit. On the flip side, you also shouldn't be overly worried about choosing NO CHANGE. It will inevitably be the correct answer a few times, so don't get too caught up in second guessing yourself.
Tip #15: Analyze, Then Write
Essay prompts on the new SAT ask you to analyze an argument presented in a passage. The graders want to see that you fully grasp the author's point and can write a clear explanation of how he or she builds the argument. You have fifty minutes for the essay, and you should spend a good 10-15 minutes making sure you understand exactly what the author is saying and how you'll outline your essay based on your analysis.
Tip #16: Use Specific Evidence
Don't just describe how the author builds the argument in your own words; prove your points with specific examples. When you're first reading through the passage, underline sentences or phrases that provide evidence of the author's persuasive techniques. Direct quotes should be used in your essay to reinforce the most important points.
Using the evidence at your disposal, you will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the author committed the crime of having an opinion.
SAT Test Day Tips
Tip #17: Get Ready the Night Before
On the morning of the test, you'll inevitably be nervous. There's a lot of stuff you need to bring to the SAT, and you don't want to forget something at the last minute while you're distracted by your nerves.
Here's a checklist to ensure that this doesn't happen:
- Admission ticket
- Photo ID
- #2 pencils and eraser
We also recommend that you bring snacks and water as well as a watch to monitor your pacing. Just put everything in your bag the day before. Don't procrastinate!
Tip #18: Skip Difficult Questions
This is a key tip if you struggle with time pressure on the SAT. If you're having trouble with a question, skip it and move on before you waste too much time. Lingering on hard questions could cost you easy points if it means you’re not getting to questions later in the section.
For the Math and Reading sections, don’t spend more than a minute trying to figure out each question.
For the Writing section, don’t spend more than 30 seconds.
Circle any questions that you skip so that they’re easier for you to pick out when you go back through the section. You might find that after you’ve answered the rest of the questions, you’ll feel less pressure and be able to think more clearly on questions that initially stumped you.
If you still can't figure out the answer, take a guess! The new SAT has no guessing penalty, so it's always better to guess than to leave a question blank.
Tip #19: Bubble at the End
A good way to save a few minutes of time is to fill in all your answers at the end of the section. Circle your choices in your test booklet as you go along, then go back and bubble them in when you’re done with the section. With this tip, you’ll avoid going back and forth between your test booklet and answer sheet, which is not very efficient and adds a few seconds to your time for each question.
Make sure you only use this strategy if you already know you're capable of finishing the section with at least 3-5 minutes to spare! It would be terrible to answer all the questions in your booklet and not have time to fill in your choices on the answer sheet.
Tip #20: Double Check Your Answers
While it's tempting to take a rest if you have extra time at the end of an SAT section, you should always double check your answers first. When you initially make your way through each section, circle questions that you’re unsure about so you can double check strategically.
If you have lots of extra time, you might even go through and check every single one of your answers. This way you’ll pick up on any careless mistakes you might have made if you were rushing or missed a key word in a question.
Always double Czech.
Tip #21: Stay Calm
Above all, keep a cool head on the test. If you see a question you don’t understand, don’t let it psych you out. Just keep going. You might need to skip some questions at first, and that’s ok. Though there is a lot of pressure to finish each section on time, there's nothing wrong with doing the questions out of order. Look at each section with fresh eyes, and try not to dwell on what you might have gotten wrong earlier in the test.
In this article, I've given you 21 of our best tips for success on the SAT. Here's a quick list for review:
Overall Study Tips
1. Follow the fundamental rule
2. Always understand your mistakes
SAT Reading Tips
3. Pay attention to connotation and context
4. Use find the evidence questions to your advantage
5. Find a good passage reading strategy
6. Read the italicized passage introductions
7. Get interested in the passages
8. Look for direct evidence for your answers
SAT Math Tips
9. Focus on filling content gaps
10. Re-solve questions you get wrong before looking at answer explanations
11. Underline the key parts of questions
12. Memorize the formulas
SAT Writing Tips
13. Memorize the grammar rules
14. Be careful with "no error" answers
15. Analyze, then write
16. Use specific evidence
SAT Test Day Tips
17. Get ready the night before.
18. Skip difficult questions
19. Bubble at the end
20. Double check your answers
21. Stay calm
With these tips, you should be able to improve your performance on the SAT significantly. You should also pay attention to more in-depth strategies in your studying so that you can improve your content knowledge and feel more confident on the test!
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.