Test Prep: 9 Tips for SAT Success

Find out if the SAT is the right test for you and, if so, how to improve your score.

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They're the three letters that strike fear into the hearts of nearly every high school student: SAT. The Scholastic Aptitude Test generally takes high school students about four hours to complete on sleepy Saturday mornings, and it plays a significant role in the college application process. To lessen the stress, it's important to get a handle on how this 170-question behemoth is structured.

The test is comprised of three primary components—writing, critical reading, and math. Each component is graded on a 200-to-800-point scale. The writing section consists of a 25-minute essay and 49 multiple-choice questions that are split between one 25-minute section and one 10-minute section. The critical reading component, which measures a student's ability to assimilate and analyze what they read, consists of three separate sections. Sixty-seven total questions are asked over two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. Like the critical reading component, the math on the test is broken down into two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. There are 44 total multiple-choice questions and 10 questions in which the student must solve the problem without the aid of multiple choice.

Use these nine tips to help decide if the SAT is the right test for you and to earn the best score you can:

1. There is an alternative. Before you embark on the arduous journey to earning a good SAT score, ask yourself an important question that many students often neglect: Is this even the right test for me? The ACT is an alternative to the SAT and, contrary to popular belief, is accepted at all four-year schools that accept the SAT. The ACT is different from the SAT in both structure and the type of questions that are asked. The best way to determine which is best for you is to take a timed practice version of each test. Yes, it's time consuming, but those hours you sacrifice are a wise investment, experts say. "Ultimately, the best way to know for sure is to take practice tests," says Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. "At the end of the day, until you're actually experiencing what it's like to go through the tests, it's hard to get a feel for which way you should go."

2. Love books? You'll love the SAT. The SAT directly tests vocabulary in its sentence-completion section. In order to excel, experts say students need to be well read and eager to look up words when they come across one they can't define in the years prior to the test. Experts say the test favors verbally inclined students and that the math is easier than that found on the ACT. While the SAT directly tests vocabulary, the ACT does not, so it may not be the right test for you if you've found yourself favoring your iPod over a novel during recent summers spent poolside. Joya Ahmad, a junior at William Penn Charter School near Philadelphia, received a perfect 2400 on the SAT she took this March. She credits her love of books over the years with her success on the verbal side. "I'm a hugely avid reader," she says. "I'll read through parts of the dictionary for fun."

[Find out if the ACT is the right test for you.]

3. Pressure cooker. If taking tests has not been your forte through your academic life, the SAT might not be your best option. Testing experts say the test is best suited for students who don't mind being under the gun repeatedly and thrive under pressure. The test has nine sections, which means students must be prepared to answer questions in short bursts, something that could pose a problem for students who need to take time or skip around broader sections like those found on the ACT. "[Nine] times you have this pressure, of 'Five minutes left … put your pencils down!'" says Ed Carroll, executive director of high school program development at the Princeton Review.

4. Don't get fooled. While the math on the SAT is a bit easier than it is on the ACT, it's certainly not simple. Rather than relying on complicated concepts or delving into trigonometry, the SAT math section will oftentimes try to trick students who rush and don't read each question carefully, according to Carroll. He notes that the tricks aren't intricate, but they can be easily overlooked by students who aren't paying attention to detail. "The classic example is that [the test] often asks, 'What is X+1?' instead of 'What is X?'" he says. "And of course, the bad answer will be there. Your math and your calculations are perfect. X equals five and you circle five, but the answer is six."