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.


5. When in doubt, leave it blank … sometimes. One of the best-known strategies for tackling the SAT is to simply leave an answer blank if you don't know the answer. The test has a "guessing penalty" that punishes students who take a wild swing at a question that is beyond their intellectual reach by deducting points for incorrect answers. While leaving the answer blank on questions you don't know is a wise strategy, in some cases, it's actually better to guess. If you're able to narrow the answer down to two or three choices, guessing is the wiser option, as the odds of you getting the question right outweigh the penalty for a wrong answer. "I tell students, 'If you have no idea, skip it,'" says Carroll. "If you can narrow it down to two or three, you should be aggressive. Statistically, it will benefit you across the whole test."

6. Your mind may be ready, but prepare your body, too. Nervous students oftentimes spend the weeks leading up to the test cooped up in their rooms, studying feverishly. Sometimes it's best to put the books down, get some fresh air, and clear your mind. Ahmad, who got a perfect score, runs cross country and claims that she garnered tremendous benefit by taking some time away from cramming and lacing up her running shoes. "One of the best things is to center the mind, get rid of that nervous energy, and clear everything out so that I had room to absorb all of that information was to run," she says. "Staying active allowed my brain not to get overloaded because I had time to decompress."

Plus, at roughly four to five hours, these tests require physical stamina. It's important to be rested on test day and let your body acclimate to the testing experience by taking timed practice tests. Just like training for a sporting event, your mind and body will be better prepared for the testing situation if you've been through it before. Ahmad took five practice tests in the months leading up to her SAT. "[Five hours] is a long time to be in a highly focused state of mind—likely longer than most students' testing experiences," says Campbell of Kaplan. "So, you want to get a couple of those sessions under your belt before you go into the real thing."

[See the median SAT scores at America's Best Colleges.]

7. Know the classes that matter. On the math section, what you learned in algebra I and geometry comprise nearly everything on the test. It's most important to review those materials. There are some elements from algebra II, but they aren't tested heavily. The multiple-choice questions in the writing section test some of the basic elements of grammar, which regularly go uncovered in high school English classes. "If you've ever had a grammar class, that would help," says Carroll. "A lot of kids don't even know what a preposition is."

8. Don't fret about comma splices on the essay. Twenty-five minutes is not nearly enough time to craft an intricate, polished piece of writing, making the essay the most intimidating portion of the test for many students. But don't stress. There's no need to strive for perfection, experts say. Yes, grammar does play a small part in the grading of the essay, but essay readers are primarily looking for you to demonstrate that you can answer the question posed to you using a well-structured, coherent argument. If a few semicolons are misplaced and a few words misspelled, do not despair. "The essay is not as scary as it seems," says Carroll. "The best thing you can do is answer their questions clearly with support. Details like facts, spelling, and punctuation are not emphasized as highly in terms of grading. They certainly matter, but in reality, the essays are largely graded on how accurately you answer the question and the logic and support of your argument."

9. Use every second. If you get bogged down trying to answer a question that has you stumped, skip it and revisit it using whatever extra time you have after you've worked through the full section. "You will do better on the test overall if you give each question its fair share of time, versus spending all your time on question number seven," says Alexis Avila, founder and president of Prepped & Polished, a Boston area-based college counseling and tutoring firm. "If you get stumped on any question, circle the question and go back to it at the end if time permits."