SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The Best SAT Diagnostic Test


If you’re preparing for the SAT, you may know how important it is to take a diagnostic test early on in your studying. An SAT diagnostic test will give you a baseline score you can use to develop an individualized study plan that’ll target your weaknesses and help you reach your target SAT score.

In this guide, we’ll explain what an SAT diagnostic test is, where you can find the best free SAT diagnostic tests, and exactly how you can use every piece of information you get from the diagnostic test to create the best SAT study plan for you.


What Is an SAT Diagnostic Test? How Can It Help You?

An SAT diagnostic test is a practice test that you take at the beginning of your SAT prep to determine what your strengths and weaknesses are and how much you need to improve.

Your diagnostic results give you an estimate of how well you’re currently scoring on the SAT and which parts of the test you’re struggling with. Without an SAT diagnostic test, it’s much harder to study effectively for the SAT because you don’t know how much progress you need to make or in which areas.

Before you take a diagnostic SAT, you should know your goal score. A goal score is the score you're aiming for on the SAT, and it's based on the average SAT scores of admitted students for the colleges you're interested in attending. Check out our guide to learn how to set your own goal score.


Where Can You Find the Best SAT Diagnostic Tests?

The best SAT practice tests are always official tests, and this is also true for SAT diagnostic tests. Official practice SATs are made by the same people who create the actual SAT. This means that, if you take an official practice test for your SAT diagnostic, you can be sure you’re getting an accurate idea of the real SAT's content and difficulty, as well as how the questions are worded and how they can trick you.

We have links to every free and official SAT available online. Use one of these for your free SAT diagnostic test. You can also take an official SAT practice test on Khan Academy which will automatically score your results for you. However, we don't recommend taking your SAT diagnostic test online since you'll be taking the real SAT with pencil and paper. 

Are there shorter options for a diagnostic test? We highly recommend taking a full-length SAT as your diagnostic test to give you the most accurate results, but if you really can’t find the time to do this, Khan Academy does offer short diagnostic quizzes for the SAT on its website. There are four quizzes for SAT Math and four for SAT Reading. Each quiz is ten questions long. You won’t be able to translate these results into an estimated score for the SAT since the format is so different, but they can be used to help you figure out which areas you need to improve the most in.


How Should You Take Your SAT Diagnostic Test?

When you take your SAT diagnostic, it’s very important to mimic real testing conditions as closely as possible so that you can get the most accurate score from your diagnostic. If you give yourself more breaks or time than you’d get on the real test, your diagnostic test results won’t be as useful because the extra time could cause you to get a higher score than you would on the real SAT.

Here are the main rules you should follow when taking your diagnostic:

  • Take the test with pencil and paper
  • Take the test all in one sitting
  • Keep strict timing for each section (don’t give yourself even one minute extra to complete a section!)
  • Use only the breaks you’d get on the official exam (5 minutes after the Reading section, 5 minutes after the Math No Calculator section, and 5 minutes before the Essay if you’re taking it)
  • Minimize distractions (no music, tv, people talking in the room, etc.)

For a more in-depth look at the best way to take SAT practice tests, check out our guide specifically on the topic.




How Should You Analyze Your SAT Diagnostic Results?

Once you’ve taken your SAT diagnostic test, your work isn’t over! The reason you took the diagnostic was to get useful information from it, so these next two sections will explain how you should analyze your test results. In this section are four big picture questions you should ask yourself to see how much you need to study and what major areas your study plan should focus on.

Grade your diagnostic test (all official practice tests include instructions on how to do this), then think about the following questions.


How Far Are You From Your Goal Score?

This is the key question. How far are your diagnostic test results from your SAT goal score?

If you’re close to your target score, great! You may not have to do much studying beyond some quick review and taking a few more practice tests.

If you’re farther from your SAT goal score, you’ll probably have to put some more time in, but that’s why you took the diagnostic test, to figure this out early so you have plenty of time to develop an SAT study plan. Keep reading for tips on how to figure out exactly where you can improve and what you can do to raise your score.


Which Sections Did You Struggle the Most With?

Now, look at each of your section scores. How do they compare to one another? Is your Reading score pretty good but your Math score far from where you want it to be? Then you know to focus more of your study time on math. 

Students often divide their study time equally between each of the SAT sections or read entire prep books all the way through to make sure they’re learning everything they can. However, if your section scores vary widely, this isn’t the most efficient use of your time. You want to concentrate more on the section(s) where you need to make the biggest improvement. That’s the way to raise your score a significant amount.


Which Question Types Did You Struggle the Most With?

Now go one step further. If you’re unhappy with your Math score, look more closely at which types of questions you answered incorrectly. Did you ace the algebra questions but struggle with geometry? Did the grid-in questions throw you for a loop?

The more detailed your analysis is, the more it’ll help you develop a study plan that effectively targets your weaknesses and helps you raise your score. To help you with this, here are guides that explain every type of question you’ll see on SAT Math, Reading, and Writing. They’ll help you categorize the questions and figure out which ones you’re missing.


Did You Run Out of Time on the Exam?

Finally, did you struggle with the time limits on the SAT? Did you run out of time on any of the sections? Do you feel like you could have gotten a higher score if you’d had more time? The SAT expects you to answer a lot of questions in a short amount of time, and many students struggle with completing the test within the time limits.

If you feel you knew most of the information being tested but simply didn’t have the time to answer all the questions completely, working on your timing skills will be key to improving your score. We explain how to do this in the next section.




What Is the Best Way to Go Over Questions You Got Wrong?

After you looked at the overall patterns in your diagnostic score results, it’s time for a more detailed analysis. To do this, you should go through every question you answered incorrectly and figure out why you got it wrong.

This may seem time-consuming and boring, but don’t be tempted to skip it! Going over the answers you got wrong is the absolute best way to understand where you’re making mistakes and what you can do to correct them. Otherwise you’ll just keep repeating those same mistakes and not make improvements.

For each question you answered incorrectly on your diagnostic, think about why you got it wrong. There are generally four reasons people make mistakes on exams:

  • Time Issue: You were pressed for time.
  • Question Comprehension Issue: You had the knowledge to get the right answer, but the question was too complicated, you weren’t exactly sure what was being asked, or you were tricked by the question.
  • Procedural/Content Issue: You didn’t know how to solve a question, or you didn’t have the background knowledge needed to answer the question.
  • Careless Error: Often the most frustrating mistake, this is when you knew exactly how to get the right answer, but you made a silly mistake that caused you to choose the wrong answer.

We give detailed explanations for how to overcome each of these issues in our guide to going over SAT questions you missed, but below are key solutions for each of the four issues.


Time Issues

To figure out if you have time management issues, take a timed practice test (under realistic conditions). If you run out of time to answer all of the questions, continue answering questions, but mark the questions for which you needed the extra time.

How many questions did you get right with the extra time, compared to the number of questions you answered correctly within the official time limits? If your scaled scores differ by more than either 50 points on any section of the SAT, then you have a time management problem.

We have guides specifically on how to stop running out of time on SAT Math and SAT Reading, but below are a few key tips for helping you manage your time on the SAT better.

  • Know how long you have for each question: Having an idea of how long to spend on each question will help you plan out your time better and make it easier to stay on track.
  • Move on if you're stuck on a question: If you’ve stared at a question for 60 seconds and have no idea how to solve it, skip it and move on.
  • Practice, practice, practice: There’s a reason we keep encouraging you to take practice tests; they’re one of the best ways to get faster on the SAT. When you take practice SATs, you become more familiar with the exam and get a better idea of how long you can spend on each question, both of which help with your time management skills.


Question Comprehension Issue

This issue is especially common with people who read questions quickly in hopes of saving time. Even though you’ll be pressed for time on the SAT, spending an extra few seconds to figure out exactly what a question is asking you is well worth your time.

Many students underline key parts of a question to make sure they’re not missing any important information when they read it. It may also help you to write out the info a question gives you in a simpler form to help you understand it. This can be especially helpful with math questions that dump a lot of info on you in the question.


Procedural/Comprehension Issue

Both of these issues can be solved by building up your knowledge of what the SAT tests and how it tests it. For procedural problems, the best way to improve is to answer lot of practice questions so you become familiar with what SAT questions look like and the ways they ask information. Prep books can also give you insight into how to solve questions.

For comprehension issues, you can brush up on the content the SAT tests by using class notes, textbooks on the material, an SAT prep book or a complete prep program like PrepScholar.


Careless Error

The best way to overcome careless errors is to stop and think about why you’re making them. Were you pressed for time? Then improving your time management skills will help. Did you get tripped up by one of the SAT’s common tricks, like only solving for x  when you were supposed to give the answer for 3x? Then taking more practice tests will help you identify these tricks more easily. Leaving yourself a few minutes at the end of each section to go over your answers can also help you avoid careless mistakes.




How Can You Create the Best SAT Study Plan for You?

Once you’ve taken your SAT diagnostic test and gone over your results, you can use that information to develop an SAT study plan completely tailored to you. Below are the five steps to follow to create a study plan that’ll help you build up your weaknesses and reach your target score.


#1: Figure Out How Much Time You Need to Study

Your first step for your study plan is to figure out how many hours you need to devote to studying. This is based on how much you want to improve from your diagnostic score results.

Here are our estimates for the total number of hours you'll need to prep based on the SAT score improvement you want:

  • 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+

Once you know the number of hours you plan on studying, you can decide how many hours you want to study a week and work backwards to figure out how many weeks/months you’ll need to prepare and when you should take the SAT.

For example, if you’re hoping to improve your score by 150 points, you’ll need to spend about 80 hours studying. If you can manage ten hours of SAT prep a week, it’ll take you about ten weeks, or 2.5 months to be fully prepared.


#2: Get High-Quality Prep Materials

You can create the perfect study plan, but if you’re using low-quality materials, it’ll be hard for you to make real improvements. We’ve already mentioned the importance of using official practice tests when you study. Unofficial practice tests can sometimes vary greatly from the real SAT, which means you’ll be taking tests that don’t help or, worse, prepare you for the wrong material. Always use official practice tests when you can.

A prep book can also be one of the most useful tools for your SAT studying. They can be especially helpful at explaining difficult concepts and breaking down how to solve different types of SAT problems. Check out our guide to the best SAT prep books to learn which are the best prep books out there.


#3: Drill Your Content Weaknesses

As we mentioned above, it’s important to identify your weak areas and prioritize strengthening them. Once you know which subjects or question types you want to improve in, there are several ways to go about doing this:

  • Reviewing content, either in a prep book or school notes
  • Answer practice questions
  • Asking for help if needed. If you’ve read through all your relevant notes on a subject, you may want to try asking a classmate who’s also taking the SAT for help or look into getting a tutor.


#4: Take Regular Practice Tests

Your SAT diagnostic test isn’t the only practice test you should take before exam day. Regular practice tests will help you track your progress and get more familiar with the exam. We recommend taking three to six full-length practice SATs. There are currently eight official practice SATs available for free, so definitely make good use of them.


#5: Analyze Your Progress

During your preparation for the SAT, you should regularly step back and analyze how things are going. Are you making the progress you’re wanting? If not, what do you think you should change about your study plan? Are you able to get in the number of study hours you want to? Where are you still struggling? How can you fix that issue?

This is a really important step to follow because if something’s not working, you’re not going to see the improvements you want, no matter how often you keep doing it.

If you’re stuck you might consider looking at tutors or reading our list of the 23 best tips for the SAT to get some new study ideas.


What's Next?

Want to get a perfect SAT score? Take a look at our famous guide to a 1600, written by an expert 2400 SAT scorer.

Looking for practice tests? We have links to every free and official SAT practice exam available.

Aiming high on each SAT section? Then read our individual, in-depth strategy guides to help you reach an 800 on SAT Reading, SAT Math, and SAT Writing.


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:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points


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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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