Disclaimer: This article is for the 2005 SAT. Click here to learn about the new, 2016 SAT.
The SAT monster is poised to attack! With three sections of sharp teeth, your only defense is a number two pencil, and that might not seem like enough. The commonly-used Standardized Aptitude Test definitely looks daunting. And with scholarship money and even college admission on the line, that number two pencil starts to look like less and less of a useful weapon.
But here’s the deal.
Believe it or not, anybody can ace the SAT with the right amount of preparation. The questions aren’t trying to trick you. Each section has its own patterns and rules and clues, and this blog post will teach you the SAT tips and tricks for how to start looking for them.
Ready? Grab your pencil.
Let’s Take This SAT Monster Apart
So things aren’t ever as scary once you know what to expect. (Think: job interviews, first dates, jellyfish.) And the SAT isn’t any different. It has three parts:
Each section is worth 800 points. That might seem like a lot—but you’ll soon discover that it’s more than possible to gather enough points to achieve your goal score.
Again, the patterns and the language used on the test might seem mysterious, but it’s really not; it’s actually set up to help you.
SAT PREP MATH TIPS & TRICKS
Ah, math. Everybody loves to complain about math. (But not to the SAT’s face, for fear they’ll get bitten.) Now before your pencil starts shaking, remember that the SAT isn’t asking you to invent a new form of calculus or derive an equation for a plane engine. You’re not competing for a Nobel Prize. Nobody’s life is on the line. It’s just trying to test your knowledge of high-school math.
And there absolutely are strategies to help make it even easier.
1) You don’t even have to finish this portion of the test!
Hang on. Rewind. What was that?
Yep. You read it correctly. Unless you’re looking to get a 700 or above on the math section, you can leave part of it unfinished. (Note: A score of 700 is incredibly high, and unnecessary unless you’re applying to the super-elite schools.)
In fact, you might not want to finish the math section, because for every question you guess wrong, you lose a quarter of a point.
Hmm. Sounds intriguing. But how do you choose which part to leave unfinished? Well, how about…the difficult part?
The SAT math section is actually organized neatly into three parts, and the problems gracefully transition from an easy beginning to a medium middle to a decidedly difficult end.
So if you can ace the easy and medium sections, you don’t have to worry about finishing the hard part, and you can still walk away with a score you can frame on your wall and brag to your neighbors about.
And acing the easy and medium sections should be no problem, because there are strategies to make any problem a piece of cake. Take this one, for example…
2) You can estimate!
It sounds simple because it is. But what most people don’t know is that unless the diagrams on the test specifically say “not drawn to scale” underneath, they are always drawn to scale.
Use this to your advantage if you have to calculate the length of the side of a triangle or the area of a shaded region.
What if the diagram isn’t drawn to scale, though? Or if it doesn’t exist?
Use that number 2 pencil. Make it exist. Use the given information to draw the diagram as best as you can, and estimate from there. It won’t be exact—that’s why it’s called estimation—but it’ll get you close, and often, close is all you need.
Take a look at the example below. Using SAT strategies makes the test easy!
3) Take advantage of free online resources!
CollegeBoard, for example, offers tons of practice problems at no charge, tracks your progress, and explains why the correct answer is correct instead of letting you flounder.
Student-Tutor also has expert advisors dedicated to helping you Maximize your Scholarship Potential or Get Accepted to Elite Universities. Be sure to find our other blog articles on specific sections of the SAT.
SAT PREP CRITICAL READING TIPS AND TRICKS
If you’ve never liked reading, you might look at this test section and think you’d be better off smashing your thumb with a hammer or licking the glue on an envelope. Or calling your grandmother who really loves to talk about her fish’s daily adventures.
But no. Put down the phone. Really. (Really.)
This section can also be handily defeated with proper preparation and knowledge of strategies.
First of all, the Critical Reading section just wants to test your ability to a) read (which you seem to be doing an A+ job with, so far) and b) understand what you’re reading.
Quick raise of hands—do you know that this is a blog post about mastering the SAT? Yes? Fantastic start. Now imagine ratcheting it up a notch (just a notch).
1) Selective Attention
Just like you skim through your Facebook news feed to see if there’s anything interesting, skim through the passage you’re reading. Let your eyes glaze over it. Take in its essence.
Then read the questions (carefully).
For many questions, you’ll be asked about specific lines in the passage, and it will tell you exactly which lines they’re asking about. Go back and just read those lines (plus 5 above and 5 below for important context clues) in order to answer the question. This saves time and energy, it’s more effective than reading the entire passage intently before getting to the questions, and it’ll save you from pulling your hair out halfway through the passage.
2) Check out lists of the top 250 words tested on the SAT.
They’re available in all sorts of places—online, in books, in SAT classes. But the point is that the SAT committee doesn’t spend hours finding new vocabulary for the tests. The vocab repeats.
So why not just save yourself the heartache and memorize the vocab you’re most likely to see?
I could tell you to start studying early and to memorize 5 words a day for 50 days. (Which isn’t a half-bad idea, by any means.) But, of course, you could also:
3) Brush up on your vocabulary in interesting ways.
Don’t think you have to buy a vocab book and spend hours memorizing it. Integrate it into your life.
- Play some free SAT prep games online.
- Sign up for Dictionary.com’s word of the day.
- Challenge your genius neighbor to Scrabble or Words the Friends and take note of the words he/she uses to beat you.
- Read more!
Now, if you’ve never been a big reader, the idea of reading every book on the classics list sounds impossible. (And, personally, it sounds impossible if you are a big reader.)
So don’t focus on digesting thousands of pages of material—focus on paying attention to what you’re already reading. Circle words in magazine articles that you’ve never heard, and Google them. Do the same thing with news articles. Turn the subtitles on when you’re watching something on Netflix or Hulu and keep a running list of new vocab words. (Afraid you’ll miss something? There’s a pause button for a reason.)
Analyzing and dissecting what you’re already reading is like finding a job where you get paid to do something you do anyway—like running errands or blogging.
SAT PREP WRITING TIPS AND TRICKS
Okay, okay. So the math and critical reading sections are mainly multiple choice, and there are obviously strategies with multiple-choice questions.
“But,” I hear you asking, your pencil all a-tremble again, “how am I supposed to write an essay if it’s not my strong suit?”
With practice. And strategy.
Sounding repetitive? That’s because it is.
When you’re writing an essay for the SAT, give yourself a break—don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Just follow this tried-and-true formula:
Congratulations! You now have your very own essay.
But if the idea of writing a whole essay is still scary (and it can be, even if you’re a seasoned writer), don’t focus on the whole essay. Divide and conquer. Let’s look at the steps again simplified:
STEP 1: Read the prompt.
STEP 2: Pick a side! This will become your thesis — the whole point of your paper. The main idea that your paper is trying to prove.
STEP 3: Think of two reasons why your thesis is right plus one thing someone might say to argue against your thesis and then explain why they’re wrong.
STEP 4: Expand. Turn what you have into a clear 5-paragraph essay format.
STEP 5: Wrap it up with a quick conclusion (your 5th paragraph). Spend the least amount of your time here.
Make sure your essay flows and always reiterates your point of view. Do not waiver! The toughest part is getting started and making sure your structure is set up to prove your position. But once you get good at this, the SAT monster does not stand a chance.
Outline one practice question. Then another. Then another. Practice until you can create an outline in five minutes or less because that’ll give you more time to write, and the more time you have for that, the better.
In fact, you might even be disappointed at how easy it becomes.
The SAT Has Definitely Been Conquered Before
And not just by brainiacs who were raised in a library. By people who have studied the strategies.
1) Shaan Patel
Take Shaan Patel, for instance. He grew up in Las Vegas, attended urban public schools, and scored a 1790 on the SATs the first time (just under 600 per section)—but by studying strategy, he raised that to a perfect 2400.
This opened HUGE doors; doors worth $230,000 in scholarships, actually. Inspired, he created his own SAT prep system to help others and has been reaping the benefits ever since.
2) Debbie Stier
And then there’s the Perfect Score Project—a blog started by Debbie Stier. She’s a 48-year-old mom with two teenage kids, and figured she might get her son interested in the SAT if she tried her hand at it.
So she dove in, studied strategy, started a blog, and wrote a book about the year-long journey, called “The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT,” which will come out in February of 2014.
In the book, she gives SAT tips alongside the story of how she grew as a mother and actually succeeded in uncovering the hardworking and driven parts of her son. This son, by the way, got into his first choice school, where he’s about to begin his second semester.
(And she overheard her son telling a pretty girl that the SAT was “fun.” Witchery!)
3) There are even stories like this at our very own Student-Tutor!
Here is a note we received from a student who took our full-length class (6 weeks long) in 2013. Read for yourself! Click here to try our SAT prep service risk free!
Tuck these stories away in your memory banks. Know that it can be done. Know that the pencil is enough—if you know how to wield it.
Basically, Just Remember
You’ve already learned all the material that you need to know. That’s what sitting through high school has done for you.
Now it’s just about mastering strategy, which is what SAT classes are really all about. And if you can learn to answer these questions, you’ll have an incredible SAT score, and a much better shot at the college of your choice—and even some scholarship money.
Keep holding onto that pencil. You’ll do great.
Dressler Parsons spent most of her childhood in an adobe house her father built in rural Arizona. Right now, she's taking so many business and art classes at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, and plans to graduate in Fall 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Intermedia. And, handily enough, her SAT scores and grades qualified her for ASU's Presidential Scholarship (worth $24,000), as well as the AIMS tuition waiver. She is passionate about showing people their potential for a bright, beautiful future. In her free time, she cooks edible things and knits inedible ones.
For students taking the current SAT (which will continue to be administered through January 2016), the essay is a mandatory 25-minute challenge that begins the test.
Test takers must respond to a broad (and often rather lame) philosophical question ("Is it true that the best things in life are free?" or "Is optimism less valuable than hard work?"), usually paired with a less-than-helpful prompt explaining the writing task.
Those who are well-prepared will have a few key recyclable examples in mind – Martin Luther King, Jr., The Great Gatsby, World War II, and Macbeth are perennial favorites – and be ready to quickly cobble together a few paragraphs that include a succinct introduction, one body paragraph for each of the detailed examples mentioned in the intro, and a snappy conclusion.
Then they'll sprinkle some literary "fairy dust" on top to make their essays fly: a smattering of big words, varied punctuation, a rhetorical question perhaps to rouse a drowsy reader, and some quotes or statistics for extra flavor.
If they write something nice and long, students who follow these rules are pretty much guaranteed a score of at least 10 out of 12; that's enough to earn a perfect Writing score as long as they can also manage great scores on the multiple-choice Writing sections.
The New Test
Come March 2016, the game changes. A lot. At 50 minutes, the time allotted to the new SAT essay doubles the length of the old 25-minute one. Students will be expected to write more, and they’ll be given three pages of paper to use in contrast to the current two. Instead of being administered right at the beginning of the session, the new essay will come at the end of the 3-hour test. And for the first time, writing the essay is optional, though students who are applying to selective colleges will probably need to complete it. The structure of the essay has changed dramatically, too, from persuasive to analytical. Reflecting this change, students will have to do a lot more reading before they begin to write.
The scoring system is also new. Instead of a 1–6 scale representing a holistic judgment, the new essay will be evaluated along three specific dimensions — Reading, Analysis, and Writing — with scores of 1–4 for each of these sub-scores. Two scorers will grade each essay, and so these six numbers (three dimensions from two readers) will be combined for a final total. These scores will not be included in the old-but-new-again 1600-point final SAT score comprising Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. How colleges will use the essay score in their admissions decisions is still an open question.
The Passages and the Prompt
The reading passages may come from academic articles, literature, essays, or speeches. The question accompanying the passage, however, will always be the same: Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds her argument and analyze how she uses evidence, reasoning, and style to support her point.
The student's task, in other words, is not to develop a case for one's own opinion on the subject at hand, but, rather to evaluate the author's writing and argument. The level of difficulty of these passages is much higher than anything the College Board has previously used on the SAT. Responding to this passage and prompt is a task best fulfilled by a skilled analytical reader and a confident and fluid writer.
5 Tips for a Top Essay
1. Study the examples.
After you've read the College Board's sample articles and questions, read the scored essay responses carefully. Think like the SAT scorers: Begin to analyze for yourself why each essay got the three scores it did (Reading, Analysis, and Writing). Focus on the higher-scoring examples and look for qualities to emulate.
2. Understand the author’s position.
When you are ready to write your first practice essay, be sure you understand the passage and the essence of the author's argument — not just the topic and your position on it. Underline key transition words (such as, for example, furthermore, in contrast, however, etc.) and think about how they contribute to the author’s overall stance. Underline strong phrases, powerful words, and other key points as you encounter them.
Think about what the author is trying to say. What supports the main claims in the passage? Is the evidence relevant and persuasive and laid out in a clear way? Are there particularly strong or weak points in the author's argument? Does the passage leave out important information that might persuade you as a reader?
3. Spend time planning.
Like fine carpentry, the construction of a great essay hinges on thoughtful and thorough prep work. Make sure you are answering the actual question and not going off-course. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of the essay section to outline your response could save you precious time revising after you’ve finished drafting. Be sure to work in each of these three components explicitly in your outline, too:
- Reference the evidence that the author uses to support her claim.
- Discuss the ways in which the author uses reasoning to develop her ideas and argument.
- Address the author's use of style and rhetorical devices to engage readers and convince them of the points in the passage.
4. Be concise but dense.
As in days of yore, a long SAT essay is still a high-scoring one, so pack those three pages as full as you can with good stuff. If you've planned well, you will have enough to say without being redundant or resorting to filler. If your handwriting is too big, practice writing smaller. You should work on efficiently using all the room you have. Try not to leave any space in the margins except for indentations to introduce new paragraphs. Do not skip lines; they could be filled with your point-earning words!
5. Sprinkle some fairy dust on it.
For a high-scoring essay, don't forget to use some rhetorical flourishes of your own: big words, literary devices, and even statistics and quotations you’ve memorized as part of your test prep. Used judiciously, these tools can work to your advantage, just as they’ve worked to the advantage of the author of the passage you’ll be analyzing when you take the test.
Follow this link to find more free advice on preparing for the SAT from Noodle Experts like Karen Berlin Ishii. Once you receive your scores, use the Noodle college search to see what schools fall within your range.