As an test prep teacher (and let’s admit it—an SAT geek), I have worked with about a thousand students in my career. Nine hundred and ninety-nine of them have come to me with misconceptions about the test which ultimately led to errors in their execution. These errors make a test guru cringe, because they are easily preventable if you take the time to learn about the SAT before taking the test.
1. Omitting too many questions.
On the SAT, you should guess every time you can eliminate one or more answer choices. The average student in our courses can eliminate at least one answer choice on 95% of the Reading and Writing questions, but yet they will leave 10% to 20% of these questions blank. There is almost always one ridiculous answer in the Reading and Writing questions; eliminate it and take a guess.
2. Not guessing on the Student-Produced Response questions in the math section.
The Student-Produced Response questions, also called “Grid-Ins,” are not penalized for wrong answers. For this reason, you must always guess on these questions. Be sure to make educated guesses: if the question asks what fraction of the pizza remained, don’t bubble in 2! A better guess is 2/3.
3. Misbubbling the answer sheet.
Another reason to make a guess is to avoid misbubbling the answer sheet. If you do choose to omit an answer, be meticulous when transferring answers to the answer booklet so you can avoid a costly error.
4. Taking your cell phone into the test center.
Don’t do it. Cheaters use their phones to look up formulas, take pictures of the test, or share answers with friends. If a proctor spots your cell phone, you will be asked to leave and your score will be cancelled. Leave your phone in the car but bring the things recommended on our Test Day Tips page.
5. Not explaining how your essay example proves your thesis.
High school students are great at providing the background information about their supporting evidence, but they often fail to connect their example to their thesis. If you use The Great Gatsby as an example, you need not only to explain who he was, but also why he is the perfect example of your main idea.
6. Thinking the Math Section will be easy because you’re already in calculus.
Students who are in advanced math classes often choose not to study for the SAT because they think they have a solid understanding of Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry. But these same students fall apart when faced with a question about long division remainders, a skill learned in third grade. The SAT is not like any ordinary math test; the further students are away from the basic math courses, the more they seem to struggle with the reasoning questions on the SAT.
7. Blowing off the Writing Section.
In 2005, when the SAT was updated to include a Writing section, colleges and universities had no previous data with which to compare SAT scores, so most of them did not use the Writing score in determining admissions. This 9-year old practice still holds true for a few schools, but by now an overwhelming majority of colleges do consider an applicant’s Writing score. Even if the Writing score is not a part of admissions, it is often used for placement in English courses. Ignoring this section—both in your preparation and on the actual test—can be a costly mistake.
8. Not studying SAT Vocabulary words.
The College Board, the makers of the SAT, insist that their test is not a vocabulary test. And while it is true that you can get a perfect Reading score without knowing the definition of every word on the test, any test expert will tell you that vocabulary is important. In our experience, the average high school student knows about 50% of the vocabulary words used in the Sentence Completion and Passage-Based Reading questions. The other 50% are made of up a words used frequently on the test, so good word lists (like our Repeat Offenders) can help students tackle common SAT vocabulary.
9. Overthinking the Passage-Based Reading questions.
Most students report that they can narrow down a Passage-Based Reading question to two choices, and then spend too much time analyzing those two choices, only to select the wrong one. It’s often easier to eliminate the wrong answer than it is to choose the right answer; knowing the characteristics of wrong answers (such as extreme language, half-truths, and copycat text) can help you quickly pinpoint the correct answer.
10. Taking the SAT without studying.
The official SAT is no time for a practice test! Too many students take the test “just to see how I do,” and these scores are stuck with them forever. Most schools request that all scores be sent with the application, so even though the College Board offers Score Choice, you may not have a chance to use it. Only take a real SAT when you feel you are completely prepared. A practice test should be taken at home on the kitchen table or in a proctored SAT class, not at an official test administration!
Now that you have read this list, you join elite company, up there with the one student I encountered who did not have any misconceptions about this test. Of course, he had no reason to come see me, either. With an 780 Math score, a 800 Writing score, and a 800 Reading score, he wondered if I could help him stop making careless mistakes in the Math section. Um, no. But while I might not have been able to help him, I can help you avoid making careless and costly errors throughout the test by warning you about the Top 10 SAT mistakes.
Photo: Deliberate Mistake, courtesy of Nell Turner