One of the most common (and frustrating) questions SAT instructors hear from their enthusiastic but sometimes misguided students is this: is there a secret to dominating the SAT? As nice as it would be if there were some long guarded secret word or ritual that a student could invoke to dominate this test, there simply is no single secret. The SAT is a skills test and requires students to practice the skills it values. There are, however, a few tools that are useful on all tests which take the form of the SAT and use it to gain advantage. Here are 11 tips to help you on test day.
1. Don’t Eat/Drink Too Much Before the Test
This should be self explanatory, but the long and the short of it is that the SAT is a three and a half hour long test and as important as it is to stay nourished and hydrated (it is HIGHLY recommended to bring a snack like almonds or granola and some water) students should not be chugging and gorging before the test unless they want to spend the test sluggish or squirming until the next bathroom break.
2. Stay Positive
It is a cliché, but there are numerous studies that show that a student’s mindset affects the way he or she performs. If things get frustrating, take a deep breath and remember how intelligent you are. It will keep you in the mindset to attack the SAT, which is the mindset that is most effective.
3. Underline Words Like “NOT” or “EXCEPT”
Be aware of any words that change the meaning of a question to its opposite. It is very easy to misread a question and look for all the ways an author advises readers to be approached by strangers, instead of the ways the author advises to NOT be approached by stranger (which is likely more useful advice). Something simple like underlining or circling acts as a good reminder of what is being changed.
4. Circle the Unknown
Similarly, in math questions it is very easy to solve for x when the question asks for y. Circle the unknown or write “unknown (x, y, length of smaller side, etc.) =” on the test so that the question isn’t done until that unknown is filled in.
5. Do the First Step
This is especially helpful with hard math problems, but is also useful in the writing section. If a question is particularly convoluted or challenging, just do the first step, which is usually writing the known information and the applicable formulas. For writing, the first step is often reading without prepositional and descriptive phrases, then checking verbs and pronouns. Often times, doing the first step reveals subsequent steps, so just start working!
6. If You Have No Idea How to Approach a Problem Skip it IMMEDIATELY
If you try to do the first step and are totally lost, skip it IMMEDIATELY! Do not hesitate and sit for five minutes pondering the different ways this problem could be solved: move on! Because the SAT is a timed test, time that is spent on one problem is taking away from time to be spent on another. Perhaps it would be possible to answer four questions in the time it takes to come up with a strategy for another problem. That is a loss of 50-100 points on the test because of poor test taking strategies. Do what is easy first, then tackle the problems that don’t come as easily.
7. Always Give an Answer on the Grid in Questions
There is a deduction of one fourth of a point for every wrong answer (though this will change on the new SAT), thus if there is a question that is completely baffling, it is best to leave it blank. This is not the case for the grid in answers. Go ahead and take a guess, even if the question has not been properly answered. Better to try and maybe get lucky than to leave it blank.
8. Bubble Page by Page
This technique simply saves time. If there is a movement of paper, back and forth, every time a question is answered, then time is being wasted on this process. Answer a full page of questions then bubble in that full page of answers. This technique will also help to keep students from getting mixed up while bubbling by forcing them to compare the question number with the number on the answer sheet more frequently.
9. Use the Answer Choices to Your Advantage
Look at the form of the answer choices to help approach a problem, and feel free to plug in answer choices when possible. This is a sure fire step when another method isn’t obvious. Answer choices are usually listed from smallest to largest, so use this information to help narrow down the choices after testing the first choice. Eliminate obviously incorrect answer choices so they can’t distract from the correct one and can improve odds if guessing becomes necessary.
10. Plug in Numbers
Especially on “theoretical problems” or problems that say “for some integer”, “for all prime numbers” it is very useful to just pick numbers that fit the description and plug them in to the equation or situation described. Be sure to pick a positive and negative number when applicable as they can often create very different outcomes. Also, don’t forget zero if it is an option!
11. Do NOT Go Back and Check Your Work, but Check as You Go
Going back to check work wastes SO much time. It essentially forces students to do the entire problem again! Check arithmetic as you go with a calculator and double check to make sure you didn’t lose any negatives or improperly distribute something in parentheses. Also check again that you answered the question being asked and that you weren’t tricked by “NOT” or “EXCEPT”.
These are not magical techniques to ace the SAT. The SAT still requires students to practice the applicable reading, writing, and math skills, but using these techniques on the SAT, and other tests, will help to ensure that you are performing at the top of your potential. Happy test taking!
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.