When test day’s just around the corner, what final steps can you take to feel prepared? This guide will go over exactly what happens on the day you take the SAT so that you don’t have any surprises.
Read on to learn what will happen at your test center, along with an overview of the materials you need to bring. Finally, we’ll discuss some strategies you can use to deal with nerves and feel confident going into the SAT.
To start, let’s discuss what will happen when you arrive at your test center to take the SAT.
SAT Test Day: Arrival
What can you expect to happen between the time you get to your testing center and when you start in on your first section? First off, you’ll want to arrive at your testing center - probably your high school - between 7:30 and 7:45. The doors will open at 7:45 and close at 8:00 AM unless your admission ticket says otherwise. A closed door means no more entry, so arriving late is not an option.
Once you enter the school or testing center, you’ll likely be greeted by a few helpers signing people in and directing students to their testing rooms. You’ll show your admission ticket and ID and then find your testing room. You may have to store your bag or jacket in a locker or other designated area; other testing centers simply let you put your things under your desk.
Once everyone’s checked in and taken their seats, your test proctor will pass out your testing materials, like your SAT booklet and answer sheet, and begin to give instructions. You’ll spend some time filling out identifying information, like your name and contact details, as well as listening to instructions about timing and how to bubble in your answer sheet.
Depending on how long it takes everyone to get settled, all of these preliminaries will take about 30 minutes to an hour. Arriving at your testing room will likely be the easiest part of a challenging morning, but is there anything extra you can do to ensure an easy-going start to your day?
Tips for Arrival
Perhaps the most important thing you can do that Saturday morning is arrive on time. Getting to your testing center between 7:30 and 7:45 is ideal. Much earlier, and you might work yourself into a nervous wreck as you sit around in the parking lot. Any later, and you’ll be rushing in late or, worst case scenario, miss your test completely and have to reschedule.
So how can you ensure a punctual arrival? First, set your alarm early enough to give yourself the time you need to get ready (and actually get up when it rings, rather than playing a game of chicken with your snooze button). Second, figure out how long it takes to get to your testing center and what the traffic situation is like around 7:00 AM. Hopefully, it will be smooth sailing on a Saturday morning.
And third, make sure you’re confident about navigation, both in terms of how to get to your testing center and how to make your way around the building. Again, for most students, this should be easy, as they’ll be testing at their local high school. If you’re going somewhere unfamiliar, though, then you might do a test journey a few days before. Getting lost on the morning of the SAT is not a nightmare you want to experience!
In addition to ensuring you get from point A (your home) to point B (your desk for the next 3 to 4 hours) smoothly, you should also make sure to listen to all your proctor’s instructions. Fill out your answer sheet correctly so there’s no delay with your scores. Don’t open your test booklet until told to do so. And, of course, make sure your cell phone is packed away and definitely turned off.
After everyone’s seated and gotten through the first round of instructions, it’s finally time for the main feature: taking the SAT. What should you expect for the next few hours?
The day of the bubble sheet is finally upon you.
SAT Test Day: Taking the Test
Finally, you’re ready for the main event - actually taking the SAT. There’s no exact start time for the test; instead, it depends on how long it takes for everyone to get settled and your proctor to get through instructions. That means that students will start in on their first sections between 8:30 AM and 9:00 AM. For simplicity’s sake, you might expect that you’ll start testing at 8:45.
Your proctor should instruct you in everything, from when to open your test booklet to when to put down your pencils. Most proctors also give you a five or ten minute warning, usually writing on the board when your section’s almost over. Once you start testing, you’ll pretty much be focused in for the next three hours, or four with the essay, with just a few short breaks in between some of the sections. Here’s the exact structure to expect:
- Start with the 65-minute Reading section. You’ll get five passages with a total of 52 questions.
- Take a short break of 10 minutes. You can stretch, drink water, have a snack, and use the restroom. You can’t use this time to check your cell phone or charge any electronics.
- Sit back down, and start in on the 35-minute Writing and Language section.
- After Writing, your proctor will instruct you to move onto the 25-minute Math No Calculator section.
- At the end of the Math No Calculator, you get a second, shorter break of five minutes. At the end of this break, get out your calculator for the next section.
- Get to work on your 55-minute Math section. For this section, you can use your calculator.
At this point, you’ve been testing for three hours. It will be sometime between 11:40 and 12:10. If you’re not taking the essay section, then you’re all finished with the SAT! You’ll wait for the proctor to collect your test booklets and, when instructed, you’ll be free to go.
If you are taking the essay section, then you’ll have a very short, two-minute break and then get started on this 50-minute section. After time has been called, then you’ll be all finished with the test.
Tips for Taking the Test
Assuming that you’ve already spent time prepping for the SAT, there are a few other things you can do as you’re taking the SAT to perform your best. Simply familiarizing yourself with its exact structure and format, for instance, will reduce any distracting surprises and help you know how to manage your time. You should listen to your proctor’s instructions, but ideally, they’ll just be a repeat of everything that you already know.
Make sure that you only work on the designated section and don’t flip through the book. College Board is very strict with its guidelines; if a proctor sees you jumping ahead, then your scores could be completely canceled. I once worked with a student who flipped through the pages and ended up having her scores canceled. Since College Board isn’t very forthcoming with its communication, she didn’t actually know her test had been invalidated for a couple of months! Don’t let this happen to you.
Another way you can make the most of your test-taking experience is to take advantage of your break times. Even though they’re short, they’re valuable opportunities to get up, move around, and re-energize. Just looking and moving around will reduce eye strain and get your blood flowing. Make sure to stay hydrated and eat a healthy snack to fuel all that mental exercise. Also, make sure to use one of the first two breaks if you need to use the restroom — you won't be allowed to leave the room between the second Math section and the Essay.
Finally, make sure to be aware of your rights and speak up if your testing center doesn’t honor them. You’re entitled to a quiet testing space and two break times (or three with the essay). If there are issues, or you don’t get your breaks, speak up! The SAT is meant to compare students on an equal playing field, so testing conditions should be fair across the board.
Once you’ve gotten through the hard part of actually taking the SAT, how is your test day going to conclude?
It's almost time to celebrate...
SAT Test Day: Finishing Up
Your end time depends on whether or not you’re taking the essay section of the SAT. If you’re not, then you’ll be finished after three hours, sometime between 11:40 and 12:10. You’ll wait for your proctor to collect all materials and then be free to leave the room.
If you are taking the 50-minute essay section, then you’ll have a short break after Math and be all finished around 1:00 PM. As with the students who already left, you’ll close up your test booklet and wait until your proctor collects everything. Once you’re given the green light, you can leave the testing center, turn your cell phone back on, and go home or out for ice cream sundaes. Your final step? Celebrating the fact that you finished the SAT!
Tips for Finishing Up
There are just a few things to keep in mind as you finish up your test. First, don’t leave until instructed to do so. College Board is stringent about test confidentiality, so you don’t want to encounter any issues. Make sure your proctor has collected all test materials and told everyone it’s time to go.
On a similar note, you shouldn’t immediately start talking about the test with your friends. College Board prohibits discussing test questions and can cancel your scores if they heard that you publicized specific questions in person or online. These guidelines around confidentiality are another reason that you shouldn’t turn your cell phone on until you’ve left the testing center.
If you’re not taking the essay section, make sure to respect those students who are still in testing mode. Quietly gather all your belongings and leave the testing center before you start cheering about having finished.
When you are finally done, congratulate yourself on all your hard work! You should receive your scores online in about three weeks.
Now that you know exactly how your morning will proceed on test day, let’s rewind to the days and weeks leading up to the test. To begin, what materials do you need to bring to the SAT?
Pockets are your friend on SAT test day.
What Do You Need to Bring to the SAT?
There are a few essentials that you absolutely must bring to the SAT (hello, admission ticket), as well as some other items that could enhance your testing experience. These are the critical materials: printed admission ticket, acceptable photo ID, Number 2 pencils, a calculator, and an eraser.
Additionally, you should bring a drink, along with some energy-boosting snacks. Some people like to bring a watch to keep track of time, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, as there’s no way of knowing whether it matches up exactly with the clock the proctor will be using. If it helps you, go for it; if it’s distracting, then leave it home.
Finally, you may want to bring a bag that will help keep everything organized. It’d be nice to know exactly where your calculator is, rather than having to rummage around in a black hole of a purse (story of my life) for the things you need. In addition to packing an organized bag, what else can you do to prepare everything you need for the SAT?
Prepare Your Bag the Night Before
With a 7:45 arrival, you’re looking at an early wake-up the morning of the SAT. I highly recommend getting everything packed and ready to go the night before. Make sure you’ve printed out at least one copy of your admission ticket - two is even better, just in case. Printers apparently have a built-in autodestruct feature if you try to use them right before an important deadline, so don’t wait to print out your ticket at the last minute.
Calculators can also be unpredictable tricksters, so make sure that yours is in full working order and has a fresh battery with hours of life ahead of it. You might even bring a backup battery. You should place your calculator somewhere that’s easy for you to access between the No Calculator and Calculator math sections.
As for drinks and snacks, opt for something wholesome and sustaining, like mixed nuts and fruit, over something that will just make your energy spike and then collapse. Think whole grains and protein, rather than sugar. Your brain’s actually using up a lot of energy answering all those grammar and math questions; fuel up just as you would for a work-out.
Finally, don’t bring any prohibited technology or anything that makes sounds. Make sure your cell phone is off and out of sight by the time you enter the testing center. Apart from packing your bag with everything you need the day before, what else can you do to feel prepared for the SAT?
How can you get in the right headspace for test day?
How to Feel Confident for SAT Test Day
Everyone feels nervous going into the SAT. It’s an important test day, and you’ve probably been experiencing weeks, if not months, of anticipation. While some adrenaline can actually help you focus and do well, too much stress could distract you from the tasks at hand - and just be unpleasant besides.
So how can you achieve that sweet spot of focused but in control, aware of the high stakes and confident about achieving your goals? Read on for a few tips for staying in control so you can show up to the SAT feeling good.
Let Yourself Relax the Day Before
Rather than spending the day before your SAT with an all-day cram session, let yourself take a break and relax. You may spend an hour or two reviewing those last minute tricky concepts and strategies, but otherwise, you should trust that you’ve done everything you could at this point to prepare.
Instead of over-studying, use the day before to let the work you’ve done sink into your consciousness. Spend your time taking care of yourself with activities that make you happy, like spending time in nature, journaling, listening to music, reading inspiring quotes, or hanging out with friends (just not too late!). Choose activities that bring you peace of mind, as well as ones that reduce stress - like exercise.
Fun fact: "power posing" for two minutes can change your body chemistry and enhance your confidence. So try doing your best Wonder Woman before the SAT!
Establish an Exercise Routine
It’s a well-supported fact that exercise reduces stress and enhances mental clarity. If you don’t already have a physical outlet, make it a priority to find one that suits you, whether it’s sports, walking, running, lifting, swimming, or yoga. Exercising for just half an hour about three to five times a week can significantly reduce anxiety.
While exercising won’t completely eliminate nerves before the SAT, it will help reduce them, especially if you’re prone to test-taking anxiety. Plus, meeting physical goals can further fortify your confidence in your ability to overcome challenges. Even though you’re busy studying for the SAT and school, making the time to take care of your physical health will only improve your mental game. Exercise can also help you sleep better, a helpful side effect before you take this early morning test.
Studies have shown that "blue light" is great during the day, but disastrous for sleeping. Dim the lights and step away from screens before bed to improve your sleep.
Make Sleep a Priority
Getting enough sleep is always important to our well-being, especially so before the intensive SAT. The night before, try to go to bed early. That means actually turning off the lights and trying to sleep, rather than inadvertently adding three extra hours of pre-sleep cell phone and laptop time.
Of course, worrying about the SAT can make it hard to sleep that well. If you have a night of tossing and turning, you can still do well on the test and just crash afterward. Still, you can set the conditions for quality sleep by getting into a calm space Friday night. Step away from the cell phone, make some herbal tea, and even try turning off all sources of "blue light" in your room so you can sleep and wake up refreshed for your early morning alarm.
Resist the Snooze Button
What’s almost as stressful as the SAT? Running totally late in the mornings when you have to be somewhere important. As discussed above, you can’t be late for the SAT, as doors will close on you at 8:00 AM.
Just as printing your admission ticket and packing your bags the day before will help you have a smooth morning, so too will leaving yourself enough time to get ready in the morning. You might leave yourself a checklist of everything you need to do, which hopefully is a short list comprised of getting dressed, brushing your teeth, and remembering your bag of pencils and snacks.
Don't give into the temptation of the snooze button; just get up as soon as you can after your alarm goes off the first time. That way, you'll also have time for the most important meal of the day.
Grab a banana for breakfast or a snack on SAT test day. Not only are they yummy, but studies have shown that bananas make people happier!
Eat a Nutritious Breakfast
Exercise and sleep have a big effect on your mood and feelings, just like the food you put in your body. Processed and sugary foods, like muffins and tons of cereals, might give you an energy rush and then leave you feeling sluggish and hungry. Foods with protein and whole grains are a safer bet - eggs, whole wheat toast, oatmeal, vegetables, and fruits are all good options.
If you’re someone who’s just not hungry that early in the morning, I still recommend trying to eat something, or at least bringing along enough snacks to recharge during your test breaks. You don’t want to be distracted by a grumbling stomach or, as discussed in the next point, an itchy wool sweater.
Wear Comfortable Clothes and Layers
Another way to take care of your physical state is to wear comfortable clothes and prepare for fluctuating temperatures in your classroom. By wearing layers, you can prepare for a room that’s too warm or too cold. Wear clothes that are comfortable - you’ll be sitting at a desk for three to four hours - and that make you feel confident.
All of the above considerations - exercise, sleep, breakfast, clothes - will help you take care of your physical state and, indirectly, your mental and emotional state as well. You can also use mental strategies to boost your confidence and reduce stress before the test. For instance, don’t underestimate the power of “positive self-talk.”
Identify Negative Thoughts, and Replace Them with Positive Ones
If you’re thinking the SAT is a scary, horrible test that will make or break your entire future, then it totally makes sense that worry and stress would immediately follow. Our thoughts and our feelings are inextricably linked. Even if we’re not consciously aware of a worry, we might still experience a nagging sense of anxiety because that concern is sitting in the back of our mind.
If you’re stuck in negative thoughts about being a bad or slow test-taker, then these worries may act as self-fulfilling prophecies. But if you can reframe your negative thoughts in more positive and productive ways, then you may feel and, as a result, perform even better!
Instead of ruminating about running out of time on the math section, for instance, think instead about all the ways that your prep has helped you improve. Instead of assuming that missing one Reading question means you tanked the entire section, think about how the next questions are opportunities to do better. If you can identify thoughts that cause you distress, you may be able to change unhelpful thoughts patterns and, consequently, your feelings about taking the SAT.
Let your inner dialogue sound like the words of encouragement you might give to your best friend. The nice, reassuring things you’d say to him or her are the same kind of pep talk you should give to yourself. Positive thinking may help you feel better, and feeling better may help you do better on the SAT.
Be the tree! Embrace your growth mindset.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
On a similar note, embracing a “growth mindset” (as termed by Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) throughout your SAT prep may help maximize your improvement. Rather than seeing your skills as fixed, and, therefore, unchangeable, you could embrace the idea that you can continuously learn and develop with effort and persistence.
Maybe you didn’t understand quadratic equations when you started prepping, but you’ve mastered them now. Perhaps you kept running out of time on SAT Reading, but after trying out skimming strategies and taking numerous practice tests, you’ve gotten much faster and more efficient. By believing that you can improve and using failure as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a dead end, you can continuously grow and work towards your goals.
This growth mindset will help if you encounter a difficult question or section or even if you decide to retake the SAT for a second or third time. Ultimately, you can achieve your SAT goals, along with your other academic and personal goals, by truly believing that you can and continuing to put forth your best effort, persistence, and preparation.
Now you know what to expect on test day, but are you familiar with the exact structure of the test itself? Check out this guide for the start and end times of each section of the SAT, along with how many passages and questions you can expect to encounter in each.
Have you registered for your test yet? These guides will help you choose your best test dates and figure out how many times you should take the SAT to reach your target scores.
Are you interested in strategies for reducing stress and clearing your mind? Check out our article on mindfulness and how this practice can help improve your focus and sense of well-being.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top five strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.