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How to Get a High Score on the SAT

You’ve decided to take the SAT! Congrats!

And you’ve set your target score! Way to go!

What’s left? Studying and practice!

While the SAT assesses skills and knowledge that you should have learned in high school, the test still requires you to learn its unique format and repeatedly practice working within this format.

In other words, just like how you have to use a language or you lose it, you have to keep practicing and studying the SAT or you will lose your understanding of the test.

But first, how should you overall approach the test?

What is the General Strategy for Getting a High Score on the SAT?

The SAT has a reputation among students that it is the “harder” test when compared to the ACT. Since colleges accept either ACT or SAT scores in applications, the notion of one test being easier than another seems questionable at best. The tests are different, and one of the major differences is that the SAT challenges students with its unique approach to concepts.

Concepts. You have taken English classes. You have studied algebra and geometry and pre-calculus. You have written essays. The SAT should be a piece of cake, right? In a different world that would be the case. But alas, we must abide by the laws of College Board. So even though you may have had A LOT of exposure to the concepts tested on the SAT, your biggest hurdle will be funneling your knowledge and skills into the tight parameters of the test. There is a major learning curve for the SAT’s style of asking questions. Master it.

Answers. The SAT is actively trying to make you fail. This is not a pleasant online quiz that spits out which Simpsons character you are. College Board -- and colleges -- want to see a range of scores, and they want the 1600 to be a prize meant for the best of the best of the best. How do the test creators make it so coveted? By tricking you and making you question yourself.

What about time? It’s a thing, yes. But timing on the SAT typically is not the major obstacle. You may have some issues with pacing when you start studying the test, but you won’t feel the need to be a speed demon as you would on the ACT.

So How Do You Approach Studying the SAT?

[This general approach is the same as the one for the ACT.]

Stage 1 -- a.k.a. The “Diagnosis” Stage

Take one practice test untimed and one practice test timed. For each practice test, complete the entire test in a single sitting and in the best testing conditions possible; the only difference should be that one is timed and the other is not.

Compare the two tests, noting which problems/concepts you miss when you are timed vs. untimed. If you don’t miss a lot of questions, or you cannot determine a pattern in the questions that you are missing, then continue to assess yourself by taking additional practice tests paired as timed vs. untimed.

Stage 2 -- a.k.a. The “Improvement” Stage

If you get questions wrong on the untimed test, study more of the rules/concepts and practice with individual sections. Build up your knowledge and skills before throwing in the stress of time.

If you get questions correct on the untimed test but wrong on the timed test, then work more directly with practice tests, but also study the concepts more to tighten up your thinking and solving processes.

Stage 3 -- a.k.a. The “Assessment” Stage

Once you have been completing individual practice with Reading, Writing, Math, and Essay, return to taking full tests as practice, again splitting them between untimed and timed. Note any differences if you had to work on building up your subject knowledge or if you had to work on working through problems faster.

In other words, always keep your process focused on the following:

  1. Diagnose

  2. Improve

  3. Assess

You can do this for each section or the entire test. You can do this one time or ten times. The execution is up to how much time and energy you can commit, but no matter what you do, have a specific goal and process for reaching the goal. Otherwise you will be frustrated and lose sight of your progress. Keep a clear head!

How Do You Get a High Score on SAT Reading?

The Reading section has two main subject areas:

  1. Passage content - i.e., literature, social science (e.g., economics), history, and science (e.g., biology)

  2. Question types -- i.e., main idea, tone, detail, inference, evidence, graphics, and vocabulary

The strategy:

  1. Know what each of the question types wants and how to generally find the information in the passage (line references, keywords, and understanding text structure). For example, fiction passages require students to understand main ideas that are different from, say, social science passages.

  2. Identify which passage content is easier and harder for you. Focus on building up your skills for the harder content. Many students struggle with literature and history. Read many of those passages and related texts. Also, you don't always need to solve multiple-choice questions to gain the experience necessary to master SAT Reading.

  3. Practice a lot with articulating how you get answers correct (what justifies the answer?) and why incorrect answers are wrong (what word or phrase makes the whole thing a big no-no?).

Common mistakes:

  1. You spend too much time trying to understand the passage BEFORE looking at the questions. You should be skimming or at least reading without stopping or restarting. Don’t get bogged down in the details; let the questions do that for you. You are smart! Also, vaguely understanding the passage is all you really need to do before looking at the questions.

  2. You are too confident in your understanding of the passage, so you don’t look back for EVERY question. Some people hate flipping pages back and forth. I get. Sadly, that’s just the way things work on the SAT. Embrace the page flip, press the pages down like a book if you must, but don’t let sheer laziness prevent you from getting into Harvard, where you can start the page flipper club and probably win a Nobel prize.

  3. You try to apply ALL of the passage information to each of the questions. DON’T DO THIS. You should be answering questions on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. In other words, if Question 3 is based on Paragraph 3, completely forget whatever’s in Paragraph 4. (Obviously there will be some exceptions, but this is the general rule).

How Do You Get a High Score on SAT Writing?

[Note: Because the SAT Writing and ACT English sections are nearly identical in format, these tips are the same as the ones for the ACT English. The major difference between the two sections is that ACT asks questions about the whole passage and SAT tests data interpretation.]

The Writing section includes two main subject areas:

  1. Grammar and punctuation rules - e.g., run-ons, pronouns, verbs, and commas

  2. Paragraph structure and content - e.g., adding/remove info, reorganizing info, and transitions

The strategy:

  1. Learn the grammar and punctuation rules tested and master those FIRST. There are about 10-20 rules that you should have down, and most of them deal with pronouns, subject-verb agreement, tenses, and punctuation.

  2. Study the paragraph/content questions SECOND. These questions are more abstract and often less clear in what they want. Thankfully, they aren't a majority of questions.

  3. Read passages fully and solve as questions appear. Do not jump from one question to the next without reading the text between questions. Context is not always clear from the sentence with the underline, so you must read surrounding sentences.

Common mistakes:

  1. You don’t really know the grammar. Just because you get grammar/punctuation questions correct does not mean that you know the rules. You cannot rely on “what sounds good” as a method to get a correct answer. If you cannot articulate a rule or an exact reason for the correctness of an answer, then consider the question a weakness.

  2. You don’t have a method to simplify paragraph questions. Paragraph questions/content questions are more like reading questions. Link the question, the passage content, and the correct answer through wording. The same goes for transitions and reordering passages. Find word links.

  3. You don’t know the quick tricks. Many correct answers for grammar problems are the shortest ones; be concise. If you have the option to clarify a pronoun’s meaning, typically you should. If you are asked to delete a word or phrase (not a whole sentence), then you most likely should.

How Do You Get a High Score on SAT Math?

The Math section has four main content areas:

  1. Heart of Algebra (e.g., linear equations and systems)

  2. Passport to Advanced Math (e.g., nonlinear equations)

  3. Problem Solving and Data Analysis (e.g., word problems and graphs)

  4. Additional Topics in Math (e.g., geometry and trigonometry)

The strategy:

  1. Spend only about one minute on each problem. If 30 seconds have passed and you have not made substantial progress on the question, circle it in your test packet and move on. Remember, each question is worth the same number of points: it's not worth it to waste five minutes on a problem and not have time to get to the last five questions on the test.

  2. Limit your use of the calculator. Most problems on the calculator section can be solved without a calculator. In fact, many questions on this section can be solved more quickly without a calculator. It is more important to show your work so that you don't have to start the problem from the beginning if you realize you made a mistake. If a calculator is necessary, be sure to show all your work by hand first and reserve the calculator only for making final calculations.

  3. Make a list of all the topics you are getting wrong on each practice test you take. For example, your weakest subject in math may be probability, but in creating a log, you will notice that probability is a concept that is tested very rarely. By making a log, you will know how to best spend your study time and what subjects/topics are more commonly tested and require additional attention.

Common mistakes:

  1. You do not solve enough practice questions and you do not review incorrect answers.

  2. You try to solve problems without writing in the test booklet. Writing out the steps that you are doing will help you keep track of your work; it can also aid you in figuring out where your thought process went wrong, if necessary.

  3. You misread the question. SAT is notorious for phrasing questions in such a way that they want you to solve for a solution and then do something with it. Make sure you are answering what they are asking you to do.

  4. You lack a deep understanding of the basics. For example, understanding what is a slope and how it applies to real-world problems will answer more questions than just knowing how to solve for the slope.

How Do You Get a High Score on the SAT Essay?

The Essay has one type of prompt:

  1. Write an analytical essay that describes how an author uses rhetorical strategies in an article.

The strategy--pre-writing:

  1. Read sample essays. This is the easiest way to understand what SAT graders are looking for and how simple or complex your ideas should be.

  2. Learn rhetoric terms, like pathos, ethos, and logos, and be able to identify them in writing.

  3. Practice reading op-eds in quality newspapers, such as New York Times, Washington Post, Economist, New Yorker, LA Times.

The strategy--writing:

  1. Write a five-paragraph essay:

  2. introduction

  3. rhetorical strategy #1 (e.g., statistics)

  4. rhetorical strategy #2 (e.g., word choice)

  5. rhetorical strategy #3 (e.g., personal experience)

  6. conclusion.

  7. Do not simply say the author uses “pathos, ethos, and logos.” State what the author actually does. For example, "the author uses emotionally charged testimonies of native fisherman."

Common mistakes:

  1. You spend too much time analyzing the article and figuring out what specific examples to write about, so you don’t give yourself enough time to write the essay. Practice. Learn the rhetorical strategies that normally appear in these articles. Also, remember that College Board gives you the article’s thesis in the prompt.

  2. You do not write enough analysis. Providing examples is great, but you have to write at least 2-3 sentences of analysis to explain how the examples support your point. If you feel like you’ve made your point in one sentence, still push yourself to add more.

Final thoughts

Just like when learning a new language, it is best to practice the SAT a little bit every day. If you take tests on the weekend and don’t practice during the week or over a sustained period of time, then you are doing yourself a disservice and essentially wasting time. Since test scores are one of the key criteria for determining merit-based scholarships and college admissions, it is worth carving out some time so that you have an advantage.

Planning on taking the upcoming SAT test? Need helping determining your weaknesses and which score you should target? Sign up for a FREE 1-1 consultation with one of our directors. Already know what you need to work on and just want some more help? Check out our SAT tutoring and classes.


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