There are many ways to prepare for the SAT. To get started, you need to understand the content and format of the test, as well as how content knowledge is assessed. You can study and prep all you want, but sometimes there’s no experience that can compare to actually taking your first SAT.

Suppose you’ve done some prep work and go into the test with some degree of confidence, but when your test scores come back, there’s room for improvement. Don’t sweat it. This is actually the case with most students after their first SAT. In fact, most students end up taking the SAT more than once. And with good reason: a study from 1998 revealed that the greatest score gains were achieved between the first and second SAT tests taken by students, with lower scoring students achieving greater gains.

If you’re looking to improve your SAT scores, this is the post for you. Here, we’ll outline our ten top ways that you can improve your SAT scores. Read on to learn them all.

1. Prep for your next SAT starts the second the prior test ends.

In an ideal world, as soon as you’re done taking the SAT and your materials have been collected by the test proctor, you begin to write as much down as you remember from the test. Take notes on what confused you, questions that you found difficult, and concepts or sections that were harder than you anticipated. These notes will help to guide your future studying and, along with your score report, will become an important tool in understanding where to improve.

But don’t worry, if your test is over and you didn’t write anything down afterwards, it isn’t too late. Set aside some time to think carefully about the test that you took, and see if you can recall any of the specifics from above. Do you remember a question that was so hard you didn’t even know where to start? Do you remember which sections of the test felt easy and which felt very difficult? Where there sections that seemed completely foreign? It’s never too late to think back to the test and recall as much as you can.


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2. Interpret Your Score Report

There is a ton of invaluable information provided in your score report. Your inclination is probably to glance at your total score and individual test scores and then toss it aside to celebrate or cry depending on your results, but make sure you don’t toss it too far.

Once you’ve recovered from the initial excitement, take a few moments to review it. In particular, pay attention to your subscores. These include a score ranging from 1-15 for each of the following categories:

• Command of Evidence

• Words in Context

• Expression of Ideas

• Standard English Conventions

• Heart of Algebra

• Problem Solving and Data Analysis

• Passport to Advanced Math

Try to identify areas in which your performance could be improved. Your goal is to get as specific as possible. Move from “I want to improve my SAT score” to “I want to improve my Math SAT,” to “I want to improve my Problem Solving and Data Analysis skills” to really target your studying.

For an overview of your score report, read The CollegeVine Guide to SAT Scores: All Your Questions Answered.   

If you haven’t yet taken an official SAT, start with the CollegeVine Diagnostic SAT. This free assessment tool comes with a personalized score report and study plan.

3. Set a Target Score

A good way to determine how much work is in front of you is to set a target score. Your target score should take several factors into account.

First, you’ll need to consider where you’re starting from. The good news is, the lower your score, the more room there is for improvement. However, improvement won’t come without hard work. You will need to set a target that maximizes your potential while remaining realistic. Generally, if you have a score below 500, an improvement of 200 points is a feasible target. For higher scores, you can aim to improve between 100 and 150 points.   

The other factor to consider when setting a target score is the list of schools to which you intend to apply. You should take into account the score ranges of admitted students at those schools when setting your targets. The College Board site BigFuture provides a college search tool with filters for test scores and selectivity to help you narrow your search.

4. Figure Out Which Mistakes You Make Most

While your score report will indicate which content areas are most in need of improvement, they will not reveal the specific kinds of error to which you’re most susceptible. The easiest way to reveal this is by taking a practice test and evaluating its results carefully.

If your score on your practice test is dramatically higher than your score on the actual SAT was, you probably fell victim to test anxiety. There are many ways to conquer this, but the best news is that test anxiety generally diminishes on its own with subsequent testing experiences. That is, the more you take the SAT, the less you will be affected by test anxiety. For more about test anxiety, read the CollegeVine post Dealing With Test Anxiety.

If your score is similar on the practice test, you will need to evaluate your mistakes. Generally, these fall into three categories.

Careless mistakes are the ones that seem obvious as soon as you review the question. These types of errors generally occur as the result of rushing through your work or experiencing test anxiety.

Pacing errors occur when you find that you are unable to answer all of the questions in the time allowed, or when your mistakes are clustered at the end of each timed section.

Content knowledge gaps occur when you are lacking some of the basic skills or knowledge to understand the questions at hand. These types of mistakes are generally most obvious on your score report because they are clustered according to subject or subscore.

Only once you know which mistakes you make most will you be able to start tackling the underlying causes behind them.

5. Join a Study Group

As the saying goes, there’s safety in numbers, and a study group is no exception. Having regular study dates with a consistent group of classmates can be a great way to set goals, share strategies, and hold one another accountable. You can check with your high school, local library, or even a local community college to find a study group.

If you can’t locate an existing study group, it’s also possible to form your own. In fact, the College Board has compiled a guide for Starting an SAT Study Group that includes a checklist for getting started and some general tips.   

6. Capitalize on Free Study Materials

There are tons of free study materials available to help with SAT studying and preparation, but knowing where to look for high quality materials is important. Many study guides have been self-published online by students with not much more experience than you. Instead, you should look for professionally produced materials that are based on a wealth of industry insights. No matter how much content knowledge you study, you need to know the format of the test and how it assesses this knowledge in order to be successful. Find study materials that include SAT-specific strategies and tips.

The best place to start is Khan Academy. This is the official College Board SAT practice partner, and the website contains a wealth of materials from practice tests to strategy sharing. By creating a free online account, you can receive personalized, interactive practice that is tailored to your specific SAT needs.

In addition, you can download the Official SAT Study Guide from College Board.

There are also many free study guides available online. CollegeVine provides the following SAT study guides and resources:

7. Get Help

You might perceive SAT tutors as a privilege that not everyone can afford, but there are options out there to suit almost any budget. Sometimes, an SAT tutor can simply be a mentor, teacher, or guidance counselor who has helped to coach other students through the SAT in the past. Ask around at your school or public library to find if there is anyone with this sort of experience and expertise who might be willing to help you.

You can also find paid tutoring services available locally, or online. CollegeVine online SAT tutors scored in the 99th percentile on the section of the exam they are teaching, and our custom tutoring plans save time and money by using the exact amount of prep needed to help you achieve your ideal SAT score.

If cost is a concern for you, you may be able to find pro bono tutoring services in your area, or apply for a scholarship with a larger tutoring company. The CollegeVine scholarship program provides free tutoring, mentoring, and essay help to qualified students. Alternatively, some local tutoring companies also offer pro bono tutoring services to students who qualify. You can search for opportunities near you by conducting an online query with the terms “pro bono SAT tutor” and your city name.

8. Learn the Material That’s Easiest to Memorize

The SAT consists in large part of abstract skills that can be quite difficult to study in isolation. That being said, there is a pool of content knowledge necessary for success on the test, and if content knowledge was a weakness on your practice or diagnostic SAT, you should be certain that you’re reinforcing it before you take the test again. If you need advice on where to start, we recommend learning the material that lends itself best to rote memorization.

In particular, you should be familiar with the math skills and conventions of standard English that are required on the test.

The math skills will include the following content areas:

  • Heart of Algebra: linear equations, systems of linear equations, and the relationships between them. Linear equations always involve two variables that change according to a consistent pattern. These questions often involve distance, speed, mass, volume, or even everyday budgeting or financial issues.
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: application of ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning. For these questions, you’ll need to demonstrate your ability to create and use a model and to understand the distinction between the model predictions and data collected. This includes skills like understanding the difference between simple and compound interest.
  • Passport to Advanced Math:  complex equations and functions typically needed in STEM-based careers. This could include adding, subtracting, and multiplying polynomials, dividing a polynomial by a linear expression, or manipulating expressions involving exponentials, integer and rational powers, radicals, or fractions with a variable in the denominator.   

Standard English Conventions on the SAT include:

  • Sentence structure: Modifier placement, parallel construction, subordination and coordination, sentence boundaries, verb tense, and pronoun agreement.
  • Conventions of usage:  Pronoun clarity, possessive determiners, agreement, frequently confused words, logical comparison, conventional expression.
  • Conventions of Punctuation: End-of-sentence punctuation, within-sentence punctuation, possessive nouns and pronouns, items in a series, nonrestrictive and parenthetical elements, unnecessary punctuation.

To read more about the Standard English Conventions required on the SAT, see Chapter 15 of the Official SAT Study Guide.

9. Employ the Process of Elimination

No matter how difficult any question on the SAT is, you will have a 50% chance of getting it right if you can eliminate two of the answer choices. It’s likely that all studying aside, you will probably encounter during the course of the test at least one or two questions on which you will need to make your best guess. Capitalize on these opportunities to earn an extra point or two by making the smartest guess possible.

If you really have no clue about how to solve a problem, try working backwards from the answers. See if there are any answer choices that you can immediately rule out. Even if there are not, try to plug some answers into the question to see if any can be eliminated that way. Think of it this way: a completely random guess of the four answer choices has a 25% chance of being correct. If you can eliminate one more answer choice, you suddenly have a 33.3% chance of guessing correctly. And if you can eliminate yet another choice, you’ll be up to a 50% chance of guessing correctly. Those aren’t bad odds for not knowing the answer to a question.

10. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

We say this in pretty much all of our SAT advice posts, but the reason we repeat it so frequently is because the SAT is one of those tests where the best preparation is the test itself. Second to that, practice tests are the most foolproof preparation there is for a test that measures almost as much test-taking strategy as it does content and skill.

Start by taking untimed practice tests, one section at a time. Identify your weaknesses and work to improve in those areas. Gradually, as your skills grow, begin to take each section of the test with time constraints. And finally, take a few complete practice tests under testing conditions as similar to test day as possible.

You can find seven official SAT practice tests available at Khan Academy

While the prospect of improving your SAT score can definitely seem daunting at first, it’s reassuring to know that most students take the SAT more than once, and the majority of them experience the most significant score improvements between their first and second SAT. In fact, the lower your score to start with, the greater the chance that you’ll achieve significant improvements on your next test.

If you still have questions about SAT preparation or strategies, or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.

To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist