Taking an SAT practice test is one thing, and using the results to actually improve your scores in the future is another. If you’re spending five hours on a practice test, you should make sure that you’re getting the most out of it and not sweeping your mistakes under the rug. In this article, I’ll give you some different strategies for making your practice test sessions count.
Mistakes on Practice Tests: What They Look Like and Why They're Important
After taking a practice test, it’s extremely important to look back at the questions you answered incorrectly and make assessments about which areas need the most improvement. You’re not going to be able to raise your SAT scores until you get to the bottom of what’s holding you back. Through evaluating your mistakes and fixing them methodically, you can make dramatic changes to your performance on the test. Most mistakes on the SAT will fall into one of four categories:
Ran Out of Time
Basically, this applies to questions that you missed because you didn’t get to them or you just guessed randomly at the end. If you end up with a lot of these types of mistakes, you'll need to revise some of your strategies for test taking. See our articles on how to stop running out of time on SAT Reading and SAT Math for advice.
This type of mistake means that you didn’t understand the underlying concept that was being tested. This will come up most frequently on the math section. These mistakes can be broken down into more specific categories like “confusion about factoring” so that you know exactly which materials you need to study to improve your weak areas.
Misunderstanding the Question
This is a mistake where the phrasing of a question confused you and prompted you to answer incorrectly. These are tricky mistakes to fix, but it’s important to pay attention to them. Usually misunderstandings can be at least partially remedied by practice with the format of the test and greater familiarity with the types of questions that the SAT likes to ask.
These are the mistakes you made that seem absurd in hindsight. You might have missed a “NOT” or an “EXCEPT” in a question, or you might have solved for the wrong value in a math problem. Usually these mistakes are a result of not reading carefully enough and letting your anxiety get the best of you.
All of these mistakes can be remedied if you acknowledge them and adjust your study strategies appropriately. In the next section, I'll give you some tips on how to reflect on the results of practice tests by categorizing your mistakes and fixing them methodically.
It's corny, but it's true.
How to Understand and Reflect on Practice Test Mistakes
Depending on how much time you have, you might use different strategies to reflect on your mistakes on practice tests.
If You Have 20-40 Hours to Prep:
You’re going to need to work fast to fix your mistakes, so you might not have time to get into the deeper issues you have with content weaknesses. After you take an initial practice test, you should see if you noticed any obvious areas of weakness.
If you noticed that running out of time was a big issue, you might need to pace yourself better next time you take the test. Most of the time, this just means skipping difficult questions when you start to spend too much time on them (more than 30 seconds). Answer all the more straightforward questions first, and then go back and work on the hard ones so you don't miss out on any easy points at the end of the section.
If you made a lot of careless mistakes, you should remind yourself to read the questions more carefully next time and check your answers at the end of each section. Careless mistakes sometimes mean you're rushing too much, so you may need to remind yourself to slow down a little and think through each question thoroughly before answering.
If you notice some relatively superficial content weaknesses, you may be able to study up on those and fix them, but if you’re confused about a big topic area it’s best to just focus on more easily fixable problems in the short time you have before the test.
After you spend four hours or so analyzing your mistakes, adjusting your strategies to account for them, and doing relevant practice questions, you can take another test and see how you do. Repeat the same process of fixing your mistakes with the second practice test, and then take a third and final practice test when you’re done. If you have a little more time and you've noticed that you're improving significantly (by 50 to 100 points) with each new practice test, you can repeat the process again before your real test date.
If You Have 40-100 Hours to Prep:
If you have this much time, you can do a complete analysis of your mistakes on practice tests. First, take an initial practice test to get a baseline reading on your scores. After you finish scoring the test, you should go back through all of the questions that you answered incorrectly and categorize them based on the types of mistakes I mentioned in the previous section.
Once you’ve categorized all of your mistakes, you can rank your areas of weakness from most frequently observed to least. This will allow you to get a better sense of where most of your mistakes are coming from and which areas need the most work.
Then, you can start fixing things in order of which mistakes will respond the fastest to corrective prep measures. Usually, this means starting with content weakness since these mistakes can be fixed simply by studying up on the material you don’t know. They have the least to do with the format of the test itself, so they will respond more quickly to your studying efforts. Then, you can move on to formulating better strategies for coping with issues like time pressure and careless mistakes.
After you’ve done a thorough assessment of your mistakes and corrected the most glaring problems you noticed, you should take another practice test to see whether you've improved. If you notice significant improvements, you can do another assessment to reevaluate your mistakes and shoot for even higher goals. If not, you should reconsider the manner in which you addressed your mistakes initially and see if you need to push your studying further and do more practice questions in order to break through to a higher score.
Repeat the process of taking practice tests and assessing your mistakes until you reach a score level that makes you happy. You can consult this guide for advice on calculating a good target score for your needs. You might also decide to adjust your study time between practice tests to accommodate your personal level of focus and learning style.
Taking a practice test is like sending out a crash test dummy for your SAT scores. When you reach your target score, you're safe to drive on the real SAT.
Smart Practice Testing Strategies (Based on Your Score Level)
In order to make the most out of each of your practice tests, you'll have to use test-taking strategies that work to your advantage. Many improvements are dependent on adjusting your strategy, especially when it comes to issues with running out of time and careless mistakes. The most effective strategies may differ depending on how well you’re currently scoring on the SAT.
Crucial Tips for Taking a Practice Test, Regardless of Your Score Level:
- Stick to the real time constraints
- Take the test in a quiet, distraction-free environment
- Only use the materials you will have access to on the real test
These tips are important because if you take practice tests with a longer time allotment or with more resources that you'll have on the real test, you won't get a realistic prediction of your performance. This will only hurt you in the long run when you end up getting scores that are lower than you expected on the actual SAT.
Below are some more specific strategies for high and low scorers. I've divided the strategies this way because high and low scorers on the SAT often have very different needs. Low scorers may be able to afford to skip difficult questions completely, whereas high scorers need to try and answer most if not all of the questions in each section. People at different score levels also tend to make different types of mistakes, which I'll get into in a minute. You would be considered a high scorer if you're consistently scoring an 1800 or higher on practice tests. You would be considered a low scorer if you're consistently scoring a 1500 or lower.
For High Scorers:
You should approach the test with an eye towards avoiding careless mistakes and preventing yourself from rushing on complex questions. Careless mistakes are usually more common for high scorers. Students who are already doing well on the SAT tend to rush through sections and not take “easy” questions as seriously, so they end up missing things.
Glance at the time now and then to make sure you’re pacing yourself appropriately.
You should also be sure to double check your work at the end of each section; you can catch a lot of silly errors if you make a habit of doing this.
For Low Scorers:
The best strategy for taking practice tests if you’re scoring low on the SAT is to take a quick pass through each section initially and answer all of the easy questions first. This ensures that you won’t run out of time before you get to all the questions that you have the potential to answer correctly. After you finish answering all of the easy questions, you can go back through and spend more time on medium difficulty questions while feeling less pressured to get through the rest of the section.
Using these strategies will help you to maximize your score and reduce mistakes progressively on each practice test. You'll be teaching yourself valuable skills for avoiding unnecessary pitfalls on the real test and increasing your familiarity with question types and test content along the way.
It might be slow going at first, but with lots of practice you can make big positive changes in your scores.
Looking for some alternate SAT prep resources? Check out our article on the best websites to use for SAT prep.
If you're not sure how much you need to prepare for the SAT, this guide will tell you how long you should be studying for the test based on your goals.
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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.