SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Is the SAT Hard? Expert Analysis of 8 Key Factors

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Sep 17, 2016 9:00:00 AM

SAT General Info



A test that has so much influence over where you go to college is bound to be a bit scary, but how hard is the SAT, really? Despite its fearsome reputation, the test isn't as difficult as it seems at first glance.

Overcoming the difficulties presented by the SAT is a matter of spending enough time studying areas that are tough for you and practicing questions that you might find confusing at first glance. Whether or not you find the SAT hard initially, this article will give you the tools you need to surmount its challenges and come out on top.


Is the SAT Hard?

The SAT is intimidating if you don’t know much about it, but it's far from an insurmountable challenge if you prepare properly and understand the format. The test covers concepts that are typically taught in the first two years of high school, with a few more advanced concepts sprinkled into the mix. That means if you take the SAT junior year, you probably won’t run into anything that's completely unfamiliar to you. 

The main difficulty lies in understanding the specific way the SAT asks questions and accepting that it’s much different from most in-class tests. The best way to overcome the challenges on the SAT is by preparing yourself for the types of questions that will be asked and becoming familiar with the way the test is structured. 

Again, the content itself is almost certainly within your abilities. The key to acing the test is spending time getting cozy with the questions and fixing whatever mistakes you encounter on practice tests. In the next couple of sections, I’ll give you a rundown of a few different factors that might make the SAT more or less challenging. I’ll follow up these sections with a final list of tips on how to make the test easier.


4 Factors that Might Make the SAT Harder

Here are a few different factors that make the SAT a difficult test for many students. They include time pressure, challenging math concepts, difficult reading passages, and a high-stress environment. 


Time Pressure

The SAT is a timed test, so even if you understand all the content, time pressure can lead to careless mistakes and excessive anxiety. On the Reading section, you'll have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions, which comes out to one minute 15 seconds per question. This is without factoring in the time it will take to read the passages. That’s why developing an efficient passage reading strategy before you sit down to take the test is critical. On the Writing section, you have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions, which comes out to 47 seconds per question. All Writing questions are also passage-based, so you may have to spend a bit of extra time reading in this section as well.

You won’t have much time per question on the Math sections either, and it’s easy to get stuck on problems that stump you. On the Math section with no calculator, you get 25 minutes to answer 20 questions, which comes out to one minute 15 seconds per question. On the Math section with calculator, you get 55 minutes to answer 38 questions, which comes out to one minute 26 seconds per question. Because of these time constraints, a critical skill is knowing when to move on if you find yourself struggling on a problem for too long.   


Unfamiliar Math Concepts

Although the content on the SAT is unlikely to go far beyond the scope of what you’ve already learned in your high school math classes, there may be some questions that ask about concepts that have since faded from your memory. The test has also added some slightly more advanced concepts, including basic trigonometry. If you feel shaky on any of the topics covered by the math section, you’ll need to revisit them before you’re ready to answer questions in a high-pressure testing environment.


Challenging Reading Passages

Passages on the SAT are all excerpts from real published texts (and at least one historical source text), so they’re written at a fairly high level. You'll sometimes encounter language that’s a bit old-fashioned and hard to understand. If you’re not a big reader, these passages might take a bit more effort to comprehend. You’ll need to spend time practicing your passage reading strategy before jumping into the test.


High Stress Levels

Finally, a major reason the SAT is so hard for many people is that they get themselves super worked up about it. It’s not hard to see why this happens: colleges do rely heavily on standardized test scores to judge potential applicants, so it sometimes seems like your whole future is riding on this one test. If you obsess too much over how critical it is to do well, you could end up with crippling test anxiety, leading to the opposite outcome. Learning how to cope with the stress associated with the SAT might be the most important thing you can do to make the whole process more manageable. 


body_anxiety.jpgTesting anxiety is serious. Maybe not as serious as my concerns about why this child is trapped in what appears to be some sort of burlap sack, but still. 


4 Factors That Might Make the SAT Easier

There are also some aspects of the SAT that can make it seem like an easy test compared to some of the exams you’ve taken in your high school classes. Here are a few of the most prominent factors.


Predictable Structure and Types of Questions

The sections of the SAT are always structured the same way: Reading, Writing, Math no calculator, Math with calculator, optional essay. This means that you never have to worry about being thrown for a loop on test day regarding the fundamental format of the exam. You can also predict the types of questions you’ll see and how they’ll be worded if you go through enough practice materials. The College Board writes questions in very specific ways that don’t change significantly from test to test.


No Memorization 

You don’t need to memorize a bunch of content to do well on the SAT. The Math section gives you most of the formulas you’ll need to answer the questions, and questions in the Reading and Writing sections are based on reading comprehension and knowledge of basic grammar. While it’s certainly possible to study for the SAT, it’s not the same kind of studying you’d do for other tests.


Almost All Multiple Choice

The SAT is much less labor intensive than a lot of tests you take in school because it doesn’t include any free-response questions in the main portion of the test. Everything is multiple choice except for the grid-in questions on the math sections, of which there are only 13 total (five on the no calculator section and eight on the calculator section). You may choose to take the test with the essay portion, but that’s optional, and it’s based on a passage provided by the test and not on your recall of outside information. For the most part, all the answers to the questions are right there on the test if you know where to look.


No Guessing Penalty

There are no points deducted for incorrect answers on the SAT, so you don’t have to worry about whether filling in an answer that you aren’t 100% sure about is a good idea. If you truly can’t decide between two choices or are totally stumped, just fill in a random bubble. If you get it wrong, it will be no different than if you had left the question blank, so it’s in your best interests to give it a shot. 


body_cactus.jpgSo many points!


How to Make the SAT Easier for You

Now that I’ve covered some of the fixed qualities of the SAT that may make it harder or easier, I’ll give you some tips for how to tailor your approach to the test to make its challenges more manageable.

Tip #1: Take Plenty of Practice Tests

This is the number one thing you need to do if you want the SAT to be a breeze for you. The main reason students end up confused and overwhelmed by the SAT is that they go into the test blind. When the questions are formatted in a way that’s unexpected and unfamiliar, it throws them for a loop (especially with the time pressure), and they think the test is impossibly hard. If you take practice tests, you’ll start to see that the test content is well within your abilities. You just have to get used to reading efficiently, pacing yourself, and staying calm in the face of questions that initially confuse you.


Tip #2: Learn to De-stress

Taking standardized tests is much easier if you avoid putting an enormous amount of pressure on yourself throughout the process. When you’re so preoccupied with visions of the supposedly catastrophic consequences of failure, every question you skip on the test will make you more anxious and less clear-headed. Learning not to sabotage yourself in this way will make the test much easier. I’d suggest reading up on mindfulness techniques that you can use during the exam to bring yourself back down to earth if you get anxious. 


Tip #3: Use Process of Elimination

Rather than viewing at all the answers for a question as possible options, take a look at them with an extremely critical eye. Try to find reasons to cross out answers that don’t make sense or that aren’t supported by concrete evidence in the passage. This is a big help especially in the Reading section where it can be difficult to sort out the answers that are almost correct from the one answer that is completely correct.


Tip #4: Examine and Correct Your Mistakes

You won’t be able to fix all your problems just by taking a bunch of practice tests without further analysis. After each test, go over what you missed and figure out how you can avoid similar mistakes in the future. Try to find other practice questions that test the same skills as the questions you missed so that you can learn how to solve them correctly. With each practice test, you should master more and more of the material until you reach a point where none of the questions on the exam can stump you.  


body_stump.jpgDon't get stumped. I know this is my second terrible image pun in one article, and I gotta say, I'm not sorry at all.


Bottom Line: Is the SAT Hard? Will It Be Hard for You?

Everyone has a different baseline level of comfort with the format and content of the SAT, but ultimately, the difficulty level of the test depends on how much you prepare. Be sure to take plenty of practice tests, address your mistakes meticulously, and learn strategies to decrease your stress levels if testing anxiety is an issue for you. If you do all of these things, there's no stopping you from earning an awesome score!


What's Next?

Thinking about getting a review book to guide your SAT prep? Read our reviews for the best SAT prep books released this year.

Should you start studying for the SAT now? Or is it ok to wait a little while? Learn more with our guide on how long you should study for the SAT based on your score goals. 

Choosing the ideal test date for getting your feet wet on the SAT isn't always easy. Read this article for advice on deciding when to take the SAT for the first time. 


Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

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.

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