Why Your Tried-and-True Test Taking Strategies Probably Won’t work on the SAT (and how to fix them)

You’re about to take the PSAT or the SAT for the first time. Not a big deal, you’re thinking. It’s just a test. It might be longer than other tests I’ve taken, but I’m a pretty good test taker, so why should this be any different?

The problem with that thinking is the SAT is very different from other tests. What helps you succeed in the classroom most likely will not help you on this test. Of course there’s a small percentage students with high-level critical thinking skills that just “get” the SAT, and can get a high score their first time around, but that is the exception.

Here’s what we mean:

Strategy # 1: read the directions.

It’s a no-brainer, right? As soon as you open the test and see the first section, which will be Reading, you begin by reading the directions, which might take you up to a minute. That’s a minute you could have spent reading and answering questions. You don’t get any points for reading the directions, which you can get familiar with on the College Board or Khan Academy website. Over the course of the test, this strategy can save you up to ten minutes—minutes you can use to answer questions and score points.

Strategy # 2: solve math problems the way your math teacher would want you to solve them.

Have you every taken a math test and not had to show your work? Your teachers want to know that you’ve learned the material they just taught you, so they want to see that you can use whatever method that might be. On the SAT, methods aren’t important. Whatever is most comfortable for you, whether that’s writing an equation, drawing a picture, using your graphing calculator, or some other method, it doesn’t matter. You just need to come up with the right answer.

Strategy #3. it’s multiple choice, so just look for the right answer.

This one sounds even more simple than the first two. That is, until you find out that vocabulary questions in the Reading and Writing sections involve common words with multiple meanings—and all four answer choices are correct definitions. Only one however is correct in the context of the passage. Many of the writing questions give you the option of “no change,” meaning about 25 percent of the time, you’re looking for an answer to something that’s already correct.

Approaching the SAT like it’s a regular classroom test can put you at a disadvantage and have huge consequences for your score. Whether you work your way through all of the material on the College Board and Khan Academy websites, enroll in an SAT prep course, or take our SAT Bootcamp (we offering one for the first time this summer! Read more here), becoming familiar with the test and learning how to take it is a much better approach.