If you want a top SAT score, you need more than a desire to succeed. Determination and hard work are two vital ingredients for acing the SAT, but also you need to use effective study strategies to help you reach your goal.
I've helped hundreds of students prepare for the SAT, and I know the best methods to utilize to conquer this exam. In this article, I'll explain exactly how to ace the SAT, including how long you need to study, the best SAT prep strategies, and key test-taking tips.
What Is Acing the SAT?
For the purposes of this article, acing the SAT refers to getting a score over a 1400. Getting this score will make you competitive for admission to the vast majority of colleges, and based on past results, if you get a score higher than 1400, you’ll likely score better than 95% of students who take the SAT. To get this score, you’ll only be able to miss a handful of questions on each section.
However, for the most selective colleges, you may need a score of 1550 or higher for your SAT score to help your chances of getting in. Depending on your college goals, figure out your target score and what a good score would be for you.
Regardless of whether you’re aiming for a 1400 or a 1600, if you follow the advice in this article, you’ll be on the path to success.
How Long Do You Have to Study to Ace the SAT?
Often, this is one of the first questions students want to know. Primarily, the answer depends on your starting point and your target score. How much you need to improve will determine how much you need to study to achieve your goal.
If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, take an official practice test simulating real testing conditions to determine where you’re at and how much you need to improve.
Here’s a rough estimate of how long you’ll have to study based on how many points you need to reach your goal:
- 0-30 point improvement: 10 hours
- 30-70 point improvement: 20 hours
- 70-130 point improvement: 40 hours
- 130-200 point improvement: 80 hours
- 200-330 point improvement: 150 hours +
This is just a rough estimate based on our data from the old version of the test. However, it should give you a general idea of the amount of time you’ll have to put in to ace the SAT.
Know how long you need to study.
Acing the SAT: Best Ways to Study
You don’t just need to put in the necessary hours to ace the SAT; you need to study efficiently. Regardless of whether you’re using test prep books, you have a tutor, or you take an SAT prep class, you should be incorporating these practices into your SAT studying.
#1: Use Real or Realistic Practice Questions
The best questions to study from are those that will most closely resemble the questions that appear on the SAT. The SAT is unlike tests you've taken in school and its format is unique; the more comfortable you get with correctly answering the types of questions that will be on the SAT, the better you're likely to do on the test.
A huge flaw of many test prep books is that their practice questions are either much harder or much easier than those you’ll find on the SAT. Also, some books present questions in a different format than that of the SAT.
Instead of relying on those sources to prepare, you should focus on studying with more realistic practice problems. Undoubtedly, you should use the four official practice tests provided by the College Board.
Also, Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board and provides many realistic practice questions.
Furthermore, the official PSAT practice test has quality practice questions.
And because there are striking similarities between the SAT and ACT, you can use official ACT tests in your studying. SAT Reading and Writing are very similar to ACT Reading and ACT English.
If you’re looking for an online prep program, the PrepScholar SAT prep program has thousands of realistic practice questions created by SAT experts.
Use real SAT questions in your prep.
#2: Focus on Your Weaknesses and Analyze Your Mistakes
You’ll make the best use of your study time by focusing on why you’re missing questions and trying to improve your weaknesses. If you just do a ton of practice questions, but you don’t stop to figure out why you’re getting questions wrong, your score won’t improve much. If you want to ace the SAT, you’ll have little room for error. You’ll want to understand every type of question and be able to finish each section in the allotted time.
For every practice test or question set you do, mark each question that you’re even 20% unsure about. Then, when you’re reviewing, thoroughly examine each question you got incorrect or guessed on. Make sure you understand how to correctly answer the question and what you didn’t grasp or did wrong.
Keep track of all of these questions with specific notes about what you need to improve. Figure out exactly why you got questions wrong. Be as specific as possible.
These are the major areas you might need to improve.
Again, to ace the SAT, you need to thoroughly understand all of the common topics that are tested on the SAT. The SAT tests you on a number of concepts related to reading, writing, and math.
By identifying the specific types of questions you get wrong, you can identify the topics you need to learn better.
Once you diagnose your content weaknesses, study the content. We have articles on this blog related to every type of question. Once you’ve become more familiar with the content, do a ton of related practice questions and understand how to correctly answer each practice question.
Know where you're weak.
Even if you understand SAT content and how to do each question, you may struggle finishing sections in the allotted time. If you're finishing sections with more than five minutes remaining and making careless mistakes, then you're rushing.
If you’re rushing, all you may have to do is slow down and read the questions more carefully.
If you’re having trouble finishing questions on time, monitor your time spent per question during your practice. Also, you may increase your speed as you improve your content knowledge.
Finally, you may be able to better your time management by adopting quality test-taking strategies. For Reading and Writing, you need to figure out the most efficient way for you to read the passages to maximize your score. Drill your approach in your test prep so that you’re comfortable with it. For Math, memorize all formulas you may need to know.
Some students are comfortable with the content and don’t have issues with time management, but they’re still missing questions. Usually, this occurs because of a lack of understanding of SAT strategy. If you succumb to common SAT tricks, then you likely need to improve your knowledge of SAT strategy.
For example, if you know the grammar rules that are tested on SAT Writing but you’re missing questions because you’re not reading the whole sentence, you need to work on your SAT strategy.
Strategy errors occur when you understand the content that’s being tested, but you need to improve your approach or understanding of the questions.
Acing the SAT: Top Test-Taking Tips
Following these tips will help you avoid strategy errors and enable you to correctly answer questions more quickly and efficiently. Make sure to use these tips when taking practice tests so they become habit for you.
#1: Answer Every Question
Before the redesigned SAT was introduced in March 2016, incorrect answers were penalized. Now, there's no penalty for incorrect answers, so it's in your best interest to answer every single question. Even if you have no clue, you should guess, since you have a 25% chance of randomly picking the correct answer on the multiple choice questions.
This is also why it's important to have good time management to ensure that you're able to complete each section and have an opportunity to answer all of the questions. If you're running out of time and know you won't get to the end of the section, you should still fill in random bubbles to give yourself a chance at getting extra right answers.
#2: Underline Key Words in the QuestionsRegardless of the section, underlining key words can help you make sure you know what the question is asking and avoid careless mistakes. For example, in Math, you can check to see if you should be solving for x or y. In Writing, you can ensure if a question is asking you whether a sentence should be added or deleted.
#3: Eliminate Wrong Answers
While this strategy may sound obvious, it’s important to use, especially if you’re not immediately 100% certain of the right answer. In Reading and Writing, there may be answer choices that seem plausible, but if anything about the answer choice isn’t correct, it must be eliminated.
Similarly, in Math, if you have a rough estimate of the correct answer, you can eliminate any answer that isn’t close to your estimate. Or if you know the answer is positive, you can eliminate any answer that’s a negative number.
Eliminating wrong answers will increase your chances of getting questions right and help you arrive at the correct answer.
#4: Finish with Extra Time to Recheck Your Work
You should try to finish each section with roughly 5 minutes remaining. During the remaining time, check any questions you were unsure of. I recommend marking any questions you’re uncertain about while you’re taking the test.
Double check how you got your answer. Once you feel confident in your answer, go to the next question. If you’re still unsure, stick with your initial guess and go to the next question.
After looking over questions you were unsure of, check that you did all your bubbling correctly.
Inspect Your answers.
Final Advice: How to Ace the SAT
Acing the SAT isn’t easy, but it’s possible with enough diligence and a good plan. If you need help with organization, motivation, or test-taking strategies, you may benefit with the help of a tutor, in-person class, or online program like PrepScholar.
For thorough explanation and more detailed instructions for acing the SAT, you may want to read our articles for how to get a perfect SAT score, and how to get a perfect score in Reading, Math, and Writing.
If you want to ace the SAT but you're busy with your academics, learn how to balance your test prep with school.
When you're taking your practice tests, make sure you avoid these 11 things to help best prepare yourself for the SAT.
Finally, only use the best SAT test prep books in your studying.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.