If your scores on the SAT are on the lower side, you will benefit more from prep strategies that are targeted towards your specific situation. High and low scorers usually have different struggles and goals on the SAT, so the methods that work best for each of them will differ significantly.
In this article, I'll cover the reasons why high and low SAT scorers should prepare differently and which strategies SAT low scorers should and shouldn't use to have the best chances of improving their scores.
Why Should High and Low Scorers Prepare Differently for the SAT?
It’s common for prep books and services to advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing for the SAT. This strategy can be harmful because high and low scorers have distinct needs. Students at different score levels should approach the test in different ways so that they end up with the best chances of improving their scores.
High scorers are students who are consistently scoring 1800 or higher on SAT practice tests, and low scorers are students who are consistently scoring below 1500 on SAT practice tests. Students who are between these two scores may find advice for both scoring categories helpful depending on the types of mistakes they tend to make.
High scorers usually make different types of mistakes than low scorers. Their problems are more likely to come from careless mistakes and rushing. The problems that lower scorers have might be a result of gaps in content knowledge or focusing too much on difficult questions and running out of time. It's more challenging for high scorers to improve their scores. The closer you get to a perfect score, the more of a difference one or two incorrect answers will make.
High scorers who hope to do even better will have to zero in on the minutia of test-taking, but low scorers will benefit more from taking a broader approach and attacking the test at a basic level. The goal for low scorers is to try and answer all the easy questions and not waste time on difficult questions that they’re less likely to answer correctly. The goal for high scorers is to answer every question regardless of difficulty level and avoid running out of time or rushing and making careless mistakes.
Remember, these aren’t fixed categories, just suggestions based on your starting point. A low scorer can ultimately turn into a high scorer and should make changes in his or her testing strategies accordingly. In the rest of this article, I will go over the best strategies for students who are currently in the "low scorer" category on the SAT.
Strategies for Low SAT Scorers
Your goal as a low scorer is to get the maximum amount of points in the least amount of time. This means that you will have to approach the test strategically and avoid wasting time on questions that won't help your scores.
It's best to look at the test as a fast-paced game or competition — you're not striving for perfection at every stage of the process, you're just trying to get through it and snag as many points as possible in the limited time you have. Here are some of the best strategies for low scorers who are looking to improve their performance significantly.
If you’re trying to improve low SAT scores, it’s really important that you know where you’re going wrong and what might be holding you back. As a low scorer, you’re more likely to have problems with the content on the test in terms of math concepts and grammar rules, but you might also be making mistakes as a result of careless errors or misunderstandings. Most errors fall into one of these four categories:
Careless mistake: you should have known the answer, but you got the question wrong because you rushed or didn't read carefully.
Time issue: you didn't make it to the question before your time for the section was up.
Misunderstanding the question: the wording of the question confused you, so you interpreted it wrong and answered incorrectly or were forced to guess.
Lack of content knowledge: you never learned the fundamental skills that you needed to answer the question (this happens most often in the Math section).
It’s a good idea for you to take a practice test or two and categorize your mistakes. This way, you can start practicing targeted studying that’s directed towards fixing the specific problems you have on the test. Consult our article on understanding your mistakes (link in the title of this section!) to get a more complete overview of this process. I'll also give some more specific advice about how to address common mistakes that low scorers make in the next couple of sections.
Prevent Time Issues: Skip Difficult Questions
If you’re scoring relatively low on the SAT, getting stuck on difficult questions can hurt your score. It’s in your best interests to skip any questions that are especially challenging for you. The best strategy is just to skip questions that you don’t know at first glance so that you have enough time to get through the whole section. Make sure you have time to answer every single easy question so you don’t miss out on any points!
You might be able to go back to difficult questions at the end if you still have time, but these questions should be your last priority. Leaving the most difficult questions blank won’t ruin your scores if you’re not aiming for perfection. In the Reading section, for example, you can technically skip twenty questions and still get a 600. You need to focus primarily on accuracy in your answers to questions that you understand better.
As a general rule, skip a question if you find yourself spending more than 30 seconds on it. For more in depth pacing strategies, take a look at our advice on how to stop running out of time on SAT Reading and SAT Math.
Skip it, just like this creepy child.
Fill in Content Gaps
As a low scorer, it's very important that you diagnose and repair any gaps in your knowledge that you notice through taking practice tests. Content gaps are a common issue on the Math section because some students may have forgotten mathematical concepts that they learned a while ago or didn't fully understand in class. Filling in these gaps in your knowledge can go a long way towards building your confidence on the test and raising your scores.
Learn to Eliminate Question Misunderstandings
Question misunderstandings are a common problem on the SAT for low scorers in particular. Since the wording of SAT questions is often weird and confusing, it's easy to mix up what the test is asking for and make a mistake. A good overall strategy for avoiding this is to write down what the question is asking in a simpler form that makes more sense to you. For math questions, you can also underline the value that you're being asked to find so that you don't get sidetracked in your calculations.
For questions in the reading section where the wording is confusing, underlining the most important parts of the question can also be helpful. This will remind you of what you should be focusing on as you read relevant information in the passage and prevent you from choosing answers that deviate slightly from the question's main focus.
You can also prevent yourself from falling victim to these types of mistakes just by doing more practice questions. The more comfortable you are with the format of the test, the less prone you will be to misinterpreting questions.
Ha it's focusing on the piece of paper that says focus. Genius. But seriously, focusing on the most important parts of each question is the key to avoiding misunderstandings!
Strategies Low Scorers Should Avoid
Just like there are study strategies that are especially helpful for low scorers, there are some that are especially unhelpful if you have low SAT scores. Make sure to avoid these common mistakes in how you approach the test.
Focusing Too Much on Careless Mistakes
As a low scorer, you may be making some careless mistakes, but it's likely that you have larger problems that need to be addressed first. High scorers need to devote time to fixing the problems in their testing strategy that cause careless mistakes because they are aiming for elite scores. Low scorers need to focus on deeper issues with time, content, and question misunderstandings before delving into the realm of careless mistakes.
Many students also have a tendency to diagnose too many mistakes that they make on practice tests as just "careless" when the mistakes are actually part of a different problem with their understanding of the question or with time management. You may find that your careless mistakes as a low scorer will automatically decrease as you begin to fix other issues that you have with the test. After you've fully understood and fixed other types of mistakes, you may find that you've moved up into the high scorer category and can begin to zero in on smaller issues like careless errors that are only causing you to lose a few points here and there.
Pressuring Yourself to Answer Every Question
High scorers who are aiming to get perfect or close to perfect results on the SAT need to make sure that they answer every question. Low scorers, however, can damage their scores if they subscribe to this mindset. As I said earlier, even if you leave twenty questions blank on the Reading section (and get everything else right) you can still get a 600. This tells you that trying to answer every single question is not a productive strategy for low scorers.
If you have it in your head that you need to answer all the questions in each section, this can make it more difficult for you to focus and cause greater test anxiety. This may ultimately lead to lower scores in the long run if you spend too much energy trying to figure out difficult questions and don't have enough time to grab all the easy points. There's no need to put this kind of pressure on yourself as a low scorer!
Don't let yourself get to the point where this seems like a good idea.
Students with low SAT scores should use different strategies than high scorers to prepare for the SAT. You're more likely to make certain types of mistakes as a low scorer, and most of your energy should go towards fixing those problems. The best strategies for low scorers include:
- Understanding your mistakes
- Skipping difficult questions
- Filling in content gaps
- Avoiding question misunderstandings
Low scorers should avoid strategies like focusing exclusively on careless errors or attempting to answer every question on the test. As your scores improve, you might end up reaching a level where these strategies are more relevant, but for now you should focus on the deeper issues you have with content and format on the SAT.
You should also check out these fifteen quick tips for improving your overall scores on the SAT.
Struggling with the SAT essay? Here are a bunch of different strategies for improving your score.
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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.