Last Updated On: November 16th, 2020

Get ready! You’ve decided to take the SAT as part of your college application submission. There’s a lot that you are doing right now, so let’s get started with this overview of things you will want to know as you prepare for the SAT exam!

Your Registration Information

As you prepare for your SAT test, you will want to know all the information about your registration. If you need registration information, go to the College Board’s Online Registration Information page: How to Register for the SAT Online

  • Date/location: In order to set a preparation schedule, you need to know how much time you have until your test day. Knowing your location will help you be able to plan your trip for the day of your test.
  • Accommodations: If you are requesting accommodations for your testing process or schedule, you will want the documentation to support your request submitted in time to complete the process for your desired test date. If you are looking for testing considerations, review the College Board’s Resource Page: Special Circumstances
  • Essay: The SAT Essay section is optional, so you will want to know if your colleges and programs of interest require or recommend the SAT Optional Essay section. This will affect your preparation content and timing.

The Test Format

To prepare for the SAT in the most effective manner, you need to be practicing in the same format that the exam uses. You will be working towards successfully completing the material on practice tests with the same timing as you will be using in the exam. In the beginning, you may choose to study test material separately, to learn the material well without the additional stress of timing, but you will need to be able to answer the test questions in the test format comfortably before the test date. These times are different than those in the PSAT/NMSQT exam, so even if you are comfortable with the PSAT/NMSQT test, review and follow the SAT timing. (*Note: times given are standard times without accommodations. If you will be testing with extended time, you will want to adjust these times accordingly)

  • Reading comprehension: The Reading Section is 65 minutes long and contains 52 questions on 5 passages: one literature, one founding document or resultant speech/essay, one social science, and two science. The founding document or resultant speech/essay and one of the science passages may be replaced by a set of shorter paired passages instead, so be ready for that.
  • Writing and Language: The Writing and Language section (commonly called the English Section) presents passages in a section 35 minutes long and contains 44 questions about small or large sections of the passages.
  • Math: The Math Section contains two different question formats and two different approaches to calculator use.
    • Multiple Choice: Most of the Math Section will be multiple choice formatted questions.
    • Grid Ins: Some of the math questions require you to grid an answer onto the answer sheet by bubbling it in.
    • Calculator: The larger math section (55 minutes/38 questions) allows you to use an accepted calculator. These questions require calculations that may be easier with a calculator.
    • No Calculator: The shorter math section (25 minutes/20 questions) does not allow use of a calculator. In this section, the calculations required should be simple, and the focus of the question is more on the process.

A final consideration that is often overlooked in SAT preparation is the length of the test. The SAT exam is an endurance test, as well as testing the more usually practiced sections. You can’t expect to have a maximally effective SAT study program without including a conscious decision to practice “the sit”.

The Material on the Test

The math section is separated into Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. It is less important that you know these categories; it is more important that your math skills are solid and recent. For your preparation, that means reviewing math concepts that you have not covered for a while so that you do not need to dig them out of your mental archives during the test. It means finally learning and getting comfortable with any of the basics that troubled you. It means reviewing test study guides, SAT practice tests, and subject videos. It means finding a mentor or tutor to help you out for any topic that you struggle with on your own or have mental blocks about addressing.

The Writing and Language section includes grammar material, so include grammar error practice questions in your SAT preparation study plan. You don’t need to know the definition of subjective and objective pronouns, but you do need to know how to identify if the wrong form is being used. The SAT and ACT use many of the same strategies and common errors in their grammar sections, so if you run out of practice materials for the current SAT format, an ACT prep book can offer extra material in the same format for supplemental practice questions and review.

Rhetorical skills
Again, in the Writing and Language section you won’t be looking at different forms of irony, but rather looking at the passage as a piece of writing and addressing the structure, function, and organization of the passage, or parts of the passage, as a writing sample. Clarity, conciseness, and an understanding of different writing styles will be more helpful to review than the definition of allegory. A question type of note in this section will give you a selection of similar words, and you will use the nuances of meaning to pick the most appropriate in a particular location. This question type is notable because it is one of the main places where the SAT observes its vocabulary-heavy past, so make sure that you don’t neglect your vocabulary flashcards.

Reading comprehension
The reading and writing section will test standard Reading Comprehension questions: main ideas, implicit and explicit information, words and phrases in context, etc. You will also see rhetorical skills questions here, testing your structure, function, and organization knowledge. A particular favorite is Command of Evidence questions, which will follow an implicit information question and ask for the line number(s) providing support for your answer. If you went back to the passage to find support for your answer in the implicit information questions (You did do that, right?), the Command of Evidence question should be answered already. Your SAT preparation will include review of the question types because familiarity with these is much more important than familiarity with the passage types for increasing comfort and performance during your practice.

The essay on the SAT is a critique on a persuasive writing sample. You will use evidence from the sample to analyze the author’s persuasive techniques. Familiarity with rhetorical devices and their effective uses within persuasive writing will help you be ready to identify the strategies most used by each author in your practice.

Standardized test strategy

To maximize your SAT score, you will want to include practice using standardized test strategies. The SAT tests your ability to answer questions using all your available resources. Many of these resources, like calculators and answer choices, are not used in the same way that you would in a classroom setting. Practice is required for masterfully using these test strategies because they are not your first default process, and you need them to be instinctive when you take your SAT exam. If you do not practice standardized test strategies to the point where they are extremely comfortable before the test, you will not apply them during the stress of the actual exam, and you will miss a great opportunity.

Process of Elimination
This is the most well known of the standardized test strategies. You may be comfortable using it occasionally; however, remember to use it not only on natural process of elimination questions, but also on any question before you guess to improve your probability of success. Process of elimination is also useful to narrow down unreasonable answer choices before you plug in numbers or answer choices.

Plugging in numbers/answer choices
This strategy works well for algebra questions and many word problems. Practice using these to save time and reduce the likelihood of math errors on algebra questions. Using your answer choices also works well in grammar questions to help identify what particular areas of an underlined section are being considered for change and what options are available for that change.

Pre-answer the question
Any time that you can pre-answer a question, you are less distractible by misleading answer choices. Practice pre-answering questions when you can.

Asking the answer choices
In the Reading and rhetorical questions of the Writing and Language sections particularly, you can get help on questions by asking yourself the answer choices. For each answer choice, ask yourself: Does it do this? Remember that you must answer yes to the entire answer choice. A half right and half wrong answer is still wrong.

Your current weak areas

It is easier to raise your lowest score, so start there when you are preparing. As you study, give your lowest area some extra focus and practice. When it is no longer your lowest score, readjust your focus to the new lowest score reports. This is not to judge you or any particular area, but to focus on where the improvement can come most quickly. Remember that each area can be raised up, avoiding the self-defeating idea that one area is “your worst” or that you are “bad at” a particular section. A section may be challenging you at one moment, but with practice, study, and understanding you will see that area improve. This material is learnable, and as you lift each section, you will raise your SAT score!

Your progress

Doing full-length practice exams as check-ins on your test scores can help determine your current lowest areas, areas where you have improved, and areas where your attention has slipped. You will want to schedule regular full-length practice tests during your preparation journey to check your comfort and your performance progression.

Your SAT test preparation journey may seem overwhelming at times, but it is a wonderful opportunity to practice the goal setting and studying strategies that will help you in your college experiences. Additionally, a solid SAT score as part of a college application can tell the college admissions at your college of interest that you have the skills to succeed not only on this test, but in their school as well!

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