The SAT, which is used to assess college and career readiness, is often the most significant standardized test you take as a high school student. Most (though not all) colleges require that applicants submit scores from either the SAT or the ACT in order to be considered for acceptance. Your scores, combined with your overall academic profile, essays, and recommendations, will weigh into the admissions committee’s final decision about your application. While a strong SAT score alone won’t get you into a college, a weak score can certainly exclude you from competitive schools.

For this reason, it’s important that you spend some time learning to take the test. Although you might be a strong student who generally grasps new concepts easily, taking a standardized test is a different skill set and your subject-matter knowledge will only go so far. You will also need to consider the test format, pacing, and scoring process to fine-tune your test-taking strategy.

The SAT was recently redesigned, and its new structure consists of two required sections and one optional section. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the test contains both a Reading test and a Writing and Language test, which contribute to your overall Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score. The Math section of the test contains a Math- No Calculator test and a Math – With Calculator test. These two scores combine to form your overall Math score. There is also an optional Essay portion of the new SAT.

To learn more about the new SAT format, read College Vine’s A Guide to the New SAT or check out Khan Academy’s video summary.

Although you will need to prepare specifically for each section of your SAT, considering the unique structure, content, and skills required for each, there are also some strategies that can be applied universally to both the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section. (Because it is entirely writing-based, the Essay section requires a different set of strategies altogether). 

For five simple strategies that you can use on any part of your required SAT, read on. 

1. Learn the Directions Ahead of Time

No matter how strong a test-taker you are, time-saving strategies allow you to focus more on the content of the test and less on the time constraints. Saving a precious minute or two across the course of a section could allow you the time to answer two more questions, check your work, or revisit a particularly challenging question.

Lucky for you, there is a very easy way to save yourself a minute or two on each section of the test, and that is by memorizing the directions ahead of time. The directions on each section of the SAT are the same every time it’s administered. Not only that, but they’re also the same directions as those on the official SAT practice tests. You don’t need to memorize them verbatim, but knowing what each section of the test is asking you to do will maximize your efficiency on test day.

For example, you should know how to complete the grid-in questions on the math test. You should know how to find embedded questions in the text of the Writing and Language passages. You should know which formulas are available in the reference sheet for the math section. You should know what the instructions for the Reading test are asking you to do. These are all things you can learn ahead of time, and waiting until the test to re-read them and clarify your thinking will eat into time that most test-takers can’t afford to lose. Do yourself a favor and know the gist of every section before you enter the exam room.

2. Have a Game Plan for Your Target Score

First of all, you need to have a target score in mind for both the Math portion and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portion of the SAT. For more information about how to select a realistic target score that’s within the range of scores feasible for acceptance at the colleges you intend to apply to, check out CollegeVine’s What Parents Need to Know About SAT and ACT Studying Prep, or contact one of the expert advisers available through the CollegeVine Mentorship Program.

Once you have a target score in mind, figure out what you’ll need to do to achieve it. That doesn’t mean studying quadratic equations or grammar rules, though it might ultimately include those things. What that means specifically is that you will need to know the raw score most likely to yield the converted score you’ve set as your target. This isn’t a precise science, since each SAT is scored slightly differently depending on its difficulty, but you can get a general idea of how many questions you can afford to get wrong on each section by looking at raw score conversion charts.

Start with the raw score conversion chart available for the official SAT practice tests. It can be found on page seven of the booklet, Scoring Your SAT Practice Test #1. A quick glance through this chart will reveal that in order to achieve a perfect 800 on the math test, you cannot miss any questions. To score a 750, you can miss four questions. To score a 750 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, you can miss up to nine questions on the Reading section, as long as you don’t miss any on the Writing section, or you can miss up to six questions on the Writing section, if you don’t miss any on the Reading section. Of course, there are all sorts of combinations in between.

Familiarize yourself with this chart to get a general idea of the raw score you’ll need to achieve to get the converted score you want, but also know that these numbers might change very slightly from test to test. Use this knowledge to help shape your game plan for test day. If you know you want to score a 750 on the Math section, you can miss up to four questions. That means if you come to a question that seems nearly impossible, you can make your best guess and move on to the next question up to four times before you need to really worry about your score. Using this strategy means that you’ll have more time to focus on getting the easier questions correct and double-checking your work without totally jeopardizing your score or time management.

3. Check Your Pace

The SAT is a quick-paced exam. There is not a single section of the test that allows for more than 90 seconds per question, and much of the test requires you to move at a pace closer to 60 seconds per question. In addition, there are lengthy passages to read, graphics to interpret, and formulas to determine. Simply put, you will need to stay on top of your pace if you’re going to finish everything with time to check your work.

To accomplish this, first make sure that you have a watch. Although most testing sites will have a clock in the room, it’s not a guarantee, and you can’t be certain that you’ll be seated in a place where you can see it. Do yourself a favor and bring a watch to the exam so that you’ll know how much time is remaining at any given moment. Keep in mind, though, that a watch that makes any noise or serves any purpose other than keeping time is strictly prohibited and using one could result in your test being confiscated and your scores being canceled.

In addition to having a watch, you should also have an idea of the pacing you need to keep for each section based on your performance on practice tests. If you know that you need six minutes at the end of the Reading section to review your answers, you will need to make sure that you are done with the third reading passage and its associated questions with 30 minutes remaining. Keep careful track of time during your practice tests to help determine the pace you’ll need to keep on each section.

4. Use the Two-Passes Strategy

This is a time management strategy that will work on any section of the required SAT. Applying it ensures you have the time to answer the questions on the test that are easiest for you. If you run out of time before finishing every question, your score will suffer less because you’ve already answered the questions you were most likely to get right.

To implement the two-passes strategy, simply go through the entire section of the test, completing all the questions with answers that are easily apparent, and making a quick best guess on questions that seem like they will require more time and thought on your part. As you do this, be very careful to mark each of the “guesses” clearly on the answer sheet and in the test booklet. Filling in your best guess means that even if you run out of time before being able to review it, at least you’ve filled in an answer and have a chance of getting it right. Remember, there is no scoring penalty for wrong guesses so you should never leave a question blank.

Once you have gone through every question, return to the ones you marked as guesses, and give each a little more thought. If the answer still doesn’t seem apparent, try to move on to another question that might be easier for you. You can even use this strategy in combination with the game plan for achieving your target score, by skipping only the number of questions that you can afford to get wrong on your first pass in order to achieve your target score. To learn more about the Two-Passes Strategy, visit Khan Academy’s website.

5. Be Familiar With Informational Graphics

There are very few hard skills that will be valuable on every section of the SAT. This isn’t surprising since each section is designed to assess your skills in a particular subject area. For example, the Writing and Language test places a heavy emphasis on grammar. The Reading test assesses your ability to comprehend what you’ve read. The Math test measures your number sense and computational thinking.

But there is one common feature across all of these sections, and that is the inclusion of informational graphics. Both sections of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing test will include informational graphics, as do both portions of the Math Test. These types of graphics include tables, charts, maps, figures, and graphs in almost format including line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts, or more. To ensure that you don’t unnecessarily miss the questions referring to these, familiarize yourself with them ahead of time.

You can study them in context by paying close attention to them when they appear in your regular schoolwork. You can also seek them out in textbooks, magazines, and newspapers simply by flipping through the pages until you come across them. When you do find one, pay close attention to its title, labels, and any other descriptions. Look at how the axes or variables are labeled. Identify what the graphic shows and how it contributes to the text. If you don’t understand any part of it, ask a friend or teacher to help you interpret it.

The SAT is an important test when it comes to college admissions, but it doesn’t have to be unfamiliar. There are plenty of ways to prepare for it ahead of time, both by studying its content and preparing for its format. Test-taking strategies are a key component for students hoping to perform well on the exam. For more information about preparing for the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:

The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test

The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Writing and Language Test

The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Math Test

The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Essay

What Parents Need to Know About SAT and ACT Studying Prep

If you still have questions about SAT 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