How to Study for the SAT: Essential SAT Tips and Tricks for Taking the Test

Learn some of the best strategies for taking the SAT, including tips on each section of the test, how long the SAT takes, and how the SAT is scored.

How to Study for the SAT: Essential SAT Tips and Tricks for Taking the Test
Timur Shakerzianov

The dreaded SAT. College-bound high school juniors view the test as the be-all and end-all of getting into their top choice schools. However, knowing how to prepare for it will relieve some of the pressure, and ensure that you perform to the best of your abilities. Not everyone can afford a private SAT tutor or pay for SAT prep classes, like those offered by Kaplan. However, there are tips and strategies that every college-bound student can learn to help them when taking the SAT.

Read on for some essential SAT tips and strategies for SAT test taking.

Table of Contents

What is the SAT?

First things first: What is the SAT? As you may have surmised from the all-capitalized letters, SAT is an acronym, which originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test. Over the years, the SAT has been modified, sometimes minimally, sometimes substantially, to the point that the original meaning of the acronym is no longer very relevant.

For a long time, the SAT was the only pre-college standardized test, but over the years, the now well-known ACT exam came into existence and became very popular as an alternative or supplement to the SAT. The SAT is a classic pencil-and-paper test, created and managed by the College Board.

What Are the SAT Sections on the Test?

The SAT is broken up into several sections, covering different areas of knowledge and skills. The SAT sections that are included in the current form of the exam include the following:


Time per Section

Number of Questions/Tasks


80 minutes



65 minutes


Writing and Language

35 minutes



180 minutes


The way the SAT sections are arranged on the test is always the same. The first section on the SAT is Reading; followed by Writing and Language; then you’ll have the Math section where you aren’t allowed a calculator, and then a Math section where a calculator is allowed.

SAT Time Breakdown: How Long Does an SAT Take?

The SAT time breakdown is as follows: A total of 65 minutes for the Reading section, 35 minutes for the Writing and Language section, and 80 minutes for the two Math sections. Thus, in total, the SAT takes 180 minutes, or 3 hours (this may sound long, but for the author of this article, it is an improvement on the SAT I took in 2005, which approached 4 hours due to a temporary modification in SAT sections included in the exam).

Based on the SAT time breakdown, you’ll get 1.4 minutes per question in the Math section; 1.3 minutes per question in the Reading section; and 0.8 minutes per question in the Writing and Language section; overall, you’ll get 1.2 minutes per question on the whole SAT exam. Interestingly, according to the College Board website, you get 43% more time per question versus the ACT exam.

How Is the SAT Scored?

In order to maximize your score, it is essential you understand how the SAT is graded. The highest SAT score possible is 1600. The lowest SAT score possible is 400. Although there are three SAT sections, the way SAT scoring works is that you can score:

  • Between 200 and 800 on the Math section (composed of one section where calculators are permitted and one where calculators are not permitted).

  • Between 200 and 800 on the Reading, and Writing and Language sections, which are for scoring purposes, combined into a so-called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing component.

For each of the SAT sections, you receive a raw score, which is equivalent to the number of questions you answered correctly. Your raw score is then converted to a scaled score between 200 and 800. The reason why there is this conversion from raw score to scaled score is because different versions of the SAT vary in difficulty. Thus, for example, on a “harder” version of the SAT, you may get a perfect 800 score for the Math section if you got 57 out of 58 questions right; but on an “easier” version of the SAT, you may only be able to get a perfect 800 if you got all 58 questions right in the Math section.

When Should I Start Preparing for the SAT?

One of the most common mistakes both parents and students make in their view of preparing for the SAT is not getting started early enough. Now, this doesn’t mean that parents should force their students into SAT preparation from the day they set foot in high school. Instead, parents and students should think about the various challenges students will encounter when trying to study for the SAT during their junior year of high school.

For example, students in their junior year of high school, have to deal with schoolwork, researching and visiting colleges, and taking part extracurricular activities, be they athletics, clubs, volunteer groups, and similar. Thus, even students with excellent time management skills can have difficulty fitting sufficient SAT prep time into their hectic schedules.

Hence, one of the best tips for the SAT is to begin SAT preparation during a student’s sophomore year of high school. Getting started SAT prep in a student’s sophomore year enables them to get a clearer sense of the test itself during a less academically demanding time in their high school career. What’s more, getting an earlier start on SAT prep offers bigger opportunities for improvement on the coming SAT exam while avoiding the imminent stresses of junior and senior years of high school, replete with their heavy activities focused on college admissions, such as filling out college applications, visiting colleges, gathering up letters of recommendation for college, and much more.

Getting an early start on SAT prep is merely one important tip for how to study for the SAT the right way. But, equally important, is how a student studies for the SAT. Figuring out how to study for the SAT, meaning, figuring out where a student’s strengths and weaknesses lay, the frame of mind to have when taking of the SAT, how to break down SAT questions into digestible parts, etc., all of these are just as, if not more, important as getting an early start on studying for the SAT.

SAT Tips and Tricks: How to Study for the SAT

With the preliminaries about the SAT now out of the way, let’s get into actual tips and strategies for how to study for the SAT effectively. Some of these SAT tips and tricks may be obvious while others are less well known. All of them, however, can help you when it comes time to studying for the SAT. Here’s a detailed look at how to study for the SAT:

Practice Makes Perfect

The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is a good way to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are, so that you can study more efficiently for the SAT. Typically, the PSAT is offered early in your junior year of high school. When you receive your test results and have reviewed your areas of weakness, check out a book like “The Official SAT Study Guide,” which will take you step-by step through the SAT-taking process. Don’t spend too much time on the sections you know you’ll do well on. Depending on your level of discipline, you may choose to pay for an SAT study course, like Kaplan or Princeton Review, or to study on your own. In either case, it is important you have a set study schedule, and that you begin six to eight weeks before the SAT date. 

Find the Best SAT Prep Materials

One of the difficulties of figuring out how to study for the SAT the most effective way is because there are so many organizations that proclaim that they have the best SAT prep books and courses around. It is true that many of the skills and explanations these SAT prep courses and textbooks offer can lead to real success on the SAT if you follow their curriculum and lessons closely. However, although these SAT prep books and courses can definitely help students, their content generally doesn’t come close to what you can achieve by using the free resources offered by the College Board itself and reallocating money from the so-called “best SAT prep book” to getting an SAT tutor to help you with more personalized SAT advice. 

What’s good is that you don’t need an entire SAT prep course or a Kaplan-certified tutor in order to find a great tutor for the SAT. There are many of local SAT tutors who may or may not have any certifications who can be excellent tutors, helping create a more personalized strategy that appeals to you and your test-taking abilities (the current author went to a local SAT tutor who was a retired teacher and merely enjoyed continuing to teach and help young students).

Another great move made by the College Board is that in recent years they began publishing past official SAT tests online to offer students the most accurate materials possible. You can go to the College Board SAT Suite of Assessments site and download eight official SAT practice tests for free. These tests contain real questions from actual past SAT exams, which not only enables you to practice the necessary skills that you’ll need for the test, but also to learn how the SAT will ask you to use your skills. Once you start taking tests and evaluating your skills, you can then purchase SAT prep books that are tailored to help you with specific parts of the test. 

Identify Your Weaknesses and Work on Them

It is very common that students will perform better on certain SAT sections versus others. If you’ve been a bookworm your entire life, then it’s not unlikely you’ll naturally do better on the Reading and Writing and Language sections than the Math section. If you’ve always been a numbers person, then the opposite could be true. Or maybe you’re equally weak in both areas. Either way, finding out your weaknesses is not a reason to be discouraged, but should be seen as an opportunity to improve. 

The SAT exam does not simply reflect your innate abilities and skills. The SAT exam is something you can study for, improve upon, and break down into workable parts just like a school subject you may not be naturally good at but can get better at through studying or a tutor. Students who struggle in math or writing may wrongly believe that they are just bad at those subjects. However, with the SAT, you can identify and memorize SAT patterns, particular grammar rules, and mathematical formulas, and thus boost your scores in sections you thought you were naturally destined to perform poorly in. For all the variety of questions in the SAT exam, there are dozens of identifiably patterns and themes that can be broken down into problems with specific strategies to solve them.

Set an SAT Score to Aim For

Instead of approaching the SAT as trying to get as close to 1600 as possible, you should figure out an SAT score to set as a goal to hit and work towards — and maybe even exceed. For instance, according to the College Board, the average SAT score in 2019 was 1050. Thus, any score that’s higher than this is considered better-than-average, and many colleges will recognize this. According to the same webpage, a score of 1350 that year would place you in the top 10% of SAT test takers. Having a clear SAT score as your goal puts the test in more tangible terms; this can help you approach the test in a more manageable fashion, such as by focusing on improving the score in your weaker areas while counting on a solid score in the areas in which you’re already strong. What’s more, by setting a concrete SAT score goal to hit, if you attain it, get close to it, or even surpass it, the feeling of achievement and surge of confidence it’ll give you is immeasurable in making you a better student and test taker. Plus, if you take the SAT exam and hit the goal that you set, you might feel so confident that you’ll sign up to take it again and beat it (that’s what the current author did).

SAT Tips and Tricks: Strategies for SAT Test Taking

So, you’ve done all the right moves when studying for the SAT exam during the prep stage. Now, it’s time to actually take the SAT exam. Fortunately, there are SAT tips and tricks not only for how to study for the SAT in the best way, but also for taking the SAT exam in the most effective way. Let’s take a look at some crucial strategies for when you’re actually taking the SAT:

SAT Tips and Tricks for the Reading Section

The first of the SAT sections you’ll encounter will always be the Reading section. You are given 65 minutes to answer 52 questions in total. There are five passages in the SAT Reading section, four passages being single, standalone pieces; and then there will be a fifth “passage” that is actually a pair of passages that you’ll read, and you’ll answer questions that pertain to one or the other passage as well as questions that compare the two passages. Here are some tips for the SAT Reading section below:

Pay attention to the description of the passage before jumping in immediately

Before every SAT Reading passage, the test provides a short description of where the content comes from, background on the author, and when the passage was written. Typically, students skip over this information and jump right into reading the text of the passage itself. Try to refrain from this and instead read over pre-passage information because it sometimes will be relevant when it comes time to answer questions about the author and the broader context of the passage.

Take notes and mark up the Reading section passages

Marking up the Reading section passages and taking margin notes is called active reading. And active reading is a significant part of achieving success on the SAT, because of the time constraints, you’ll want an easy way to refer back to key parts of the passage. As you read through the passages, you should mark up the main ideas, themes, theses, and any other information that seems critical, because many of the Reading section questions will often ask you to identify these points. If you’ve already marked up what seems to be important parts of the passage, you’ll already have a leg up on the question portion before you even finish the passage. If you don’t use such active reading techniques, you’ll often waste valuable time going back and rereading parts of the passage to address the questions.

Learn how to spot incorrect answers

This is a hugely important strategy that applies to the whole SAT exam — being able to identify which answer choices are wrong. Remember that with multiple choice questions, not only is there one right answer, but all the other answers are wrong; and if you can work your way backwards from the incorrect answers, you can get to the right one. There are four principal reasons that SAT answer choices can be incorrect and everyone taking the test should know them:

  1. The primary type of wrong answer on the SAT Reading section are answers that are totally irrelevant to what is discussed in the passage or passages. 

  2. A second type of wrong answer are answers that correspond to the opposite of a relationship described in the passage; a test taker going too fast through the Reading section questions are often snagged by these types of wrong answers.

  3. A third type of wrong answer are answers that are somewhat different from what is described in the passage or answers that contain correct information that is mentioned in the passage yet also include some superfluous information that is not described in the passage. These types of wrong answers are tricky because they present the SAT test taker with vaguely recognizable information that seems right or is objectively correct based on outside information, but are incorrect answers based on the information given in the SAT exam. 

  4. Lastly, a fourth type of wrong answer are answers that are reasonable interpretations of the reading passage but are not supported by any direct evidence provided by the passage. Like the third type of wrong answer, this type of wrong answer plays on a test taker’s assumptions and conclusions often learned in high school classes. When taking the SAT Reading section, you must bear in mind that, unless the question asks for an interpretation, the correct answer will only include information that is explicitly covered in the passage.

SAT Tips and Tricks for the Writing and Language Section

The second of the SAT sections you will encounter is the Writing and Language Test, consisting of 44 questions and 35 minutes to answer them. The questions in this section fall into two principal categories: 1) questions that ask you how to improve the expression of ideas in the passage; 2) questions that ask you to recognize and correct errors in grammar, word usage, sentence structure, and/or punctuation. Here are some SAT tips and tricks for the Writing and Language section:

Memorize grammar rules

This may be a boring and annoying strategy, but it is one of the most essential SAT test taking strategies for the Writing and Language Test section. You need to memorize grammar rules. These kinds of grammar rules include, but are not limited to: 

  • Proper sentence structure, such as most sentences having two or three clauses (for example, having a ‘subject’ plus a ‘verb’ plus an ‘object’).

  • Connecting ideas with the right conjunction, such as using “but” to express a contrast; using “because” to give a reason for something; using “and” to provide an additional idea or point; using “so” to describe a consequence. One of the simplest SAT tips and tricks is the key to the writing section: memorize grammar rules. The SAT writing section tests if students can recognize proper English constructions and proper use of conventional English punctuation. 

  • Making sure sentences display parallel structure and correcting sentences that do not, such as writing, “You like running, visiting parks, and taking art lessons,” rather than, “You like running, the park, and to take art lessons.” 

  • Understanding the right punctuation to use, such as how to correctly use a comma, colon, or semicolon, in a complex sentence.

  • Knowing homophones and contractions, such as the difference between “they’re”, “their”, and “there,” and that you cannot condense “there are” into a contraction.

Simpler is usually better

Another helpful strategy for the SAT Writing and Language section is that often the shortest answer — that is also grammatically correct — is the right answer. Don’t be enticed by answer choices that contain unnecessary or redundant information simply because it makes the sentence more stylish looking. You should first identify the shortest answer choices and, as a back-up to this strategy, make sure the other answer choices do not contain superfluous information before selecting them.

Read well-written works of literature or nonfiction

This is an SAT tip that requires you do some work before the test but can be very helpful while taking the test itself. While studying for the SAT, read examples of good writing, with correct punctuation, sentence structure, and proper grammar. Often, fictional literature will take liberties with grammar rules, so sometimes it’s more helpful to read nonfiction academic writing to get a good idea of what well-written content looks like. Having this background can be one of the most invaluable strategies for SAT test taking.

SAT Tips and Tricks for the Math Section

The third and last of the SAT sections you’ll encounter is the Math section. The first portion of the SAT Math section is the one where no calculator is allowed. The second portion of the SAT Math section is where calculators are allowed. For the no-calculator portion, you’ll get 25 minutes to answer 20 questions. For the calculator portion, you’ll get 55 minutes to answer 38 questions. In the no-calculator portion, you’ll face 15 multiple choice questions; and in the calculator portion, you’ll face 30 multiple choice questions. In the no-calculator portion, you’ll face 5 “grid-in” questions (“grid-in” are questions where you’re asked to write the answer by shading in circles with your pencil that contain numbers, such as writing “2.5” by shading in the circle containing “2”, the circle containing “.”, and the circle containing “5”); in the calculator portion, you’ll face 8 “grid-in” questions. Here’s a look at some SAT tips and tricks for the Math section:

Understand the SAT test structure

The way the SAT Math sections are structured is that they begin with the easiest questions first and then steadily raise the difficulty over the course of each section. When you get to the grid-in questions, this pattern will repeat, with the easier questions first, then gradually getting more difficult. If you’re aware that the beginning of the sections is easier, then you can prevent yourself from overthinking what should be more straightforward math problems. If you’re spending a lot of time working on early questions, then the chances are that you’re not doing it right and should restart with a different approach. Just as significantly, if you know that the Math section multiple-choice questions gradually get harder and that this pattern resets with the first couple of grid-in questions being easier, then if you are weaker with the Math section, you should skip the last few multiple-choice questions and snatch up easy points on the early grid-in problems before hunkering down to focus on the most difficult questions of the section.

Apply active reading techniques to math problems

Just like in the Reading section, you should mark up the critical parts of word problems, read them very meticulously, and sketch pictures for problems that involve geometry. Marking up math problems will help you understand all aspects of the problem and will help prevent you from missing crucial information that might alter the basic outcome of the problem. For instance, if the test says two lines are parallel and may depict them perfectly horizontal, do not just assume these lines are actually horizontal; redraw them parallel but diagonal in order you stop yourself from making an assumption the math problem is not making. 

Plug and play with variables

A big part of the Math Test section of the SAT is what’s called “Heart of Algebra,” which tests your mastery of linear equations and systems. These questions naturally use variables like “x” and “y”, among others. If you’re having trouble understanding a problem with algebraic variables on the multiple-choice section, you can always choose to plug numbers into whatever equation the test gives you to find the correct answer. Bear in mind though that resorting to this strategy can be time-consuming, so you shouldn’t do it for every problem, but it can still be a useful strategy for the Math section. 

Make sure to memorize math formulas (as many as you can)

The SAT exam does provide a reference section containing a specific set of formulas and equations, such as the formula for calculating the area of a circle — area = πr2 — and many others. However, the reference sheet provided is not exhaustive and does not include common equations, such as the quadratic formula — x = (-b±√(b²-4ac))/(2a) — or the formula for determining the slope of a line — m = (y2 – y1)/(x2 – x1) — so prepare yourself by memorizing these kinds of formulas. When you study for the SAT exam, you should take note of the problems that you don’t know how to solve and, after reviewing the question, check to see if there is a formula that would’ve given you the answer. If there is a formula that would’ve solved the problem quickly, then you write it down and memorize it.

The Bottom Line on How to Study for the SAT and SAT Test Taking Strategies

Ultimately, the SAT is not the only thing colleges consider when reviewing an applicant. So don’t stress out too much – prepare as best you can, and you’ll perform the best you can. The majority of people tend to think of the SAT as a one-and-done process; that once you take it, then you're done. However, the truth is that many students take the test multiple times. A simple reason for this is that studies have demonstrated that retaking the SAT exam can result in higher scores. This is due in part because you may know what to expect the second time you take it, and because you may also have spent more time preparing for the exam and working on your weaknesses by the time you take the SAT a second time.

What’s great for SAT test takers is that the College Board changed the way the SAT is scored, originally penalizing test takers for guessing wrong answers; when this was the way it was done, the strategy taught to students was to leave blank questions they couldn’t answer or provide a solid educated guess on. Now, thanks to the lack of score deductions for wrong answers, you should make sure that you answer every question on the SAT exam, even if you arrive at the answer by blind guessing.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.