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  • Writer's pictureWill Helms

Last Minute SAT Thrive Guide

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

A week ago, I posted an ACT Thrive Guide. This week, I'm taking on the SAT. It's a very different test, but one I often encourage students to take instead of the ACT. While it's fairly difficult to know which test you'll prefer, there are some ways to guess which test will give you the better score. I've got a long-form article about how to decide between the two here.

This is a "thrive guide". We're not simply trying to survive the SAT, we want to excel. Obviously, there's no substitute for long-term studying/test prep, but there are ways to raise your score a couple of points, even if it's the day before the test. Those things are what I'll focus on in this post.

Understanding the Test

The SAT, unlike the ACT is a critical thinking test. The reading section wants you to read between the lines and think like the author would think or write like the author writes. That sounds scary, but unlike the ACT, the SAT doesn't include nearly as many topics as the ACT.

When people ask what's on the ACT, I sarcastically answer, "Yes." It's all fair game, anything from sixth to 11th grade. The questions are normal enough, but there's a lot of "stuff" to remember. The SAT isn't like that at all. Five main math concepts make up about 75 percent of the math test (More about that in a bit). A lot of times, this makes it easier to study for the SAT.


Another part of the SAT that people prefer is the extra time. The SAT moves quickly, but not nearly as quickly as the ACT. Here's the SAT breakdown:

Reading: 65 minutes, 52 ?s (75 seconds/question)

English (Grammar): 35 minutes, 44 ?s (48 seconds/question)

Math (Calc. Inactive): 25 minutes, 20 ?s (75 seconds/question)

Math (Calc. Active): 55 minutes, 38 ?s (87 seconds/question)

While you still need to move quickly, the SAT gives you at least extra 12 seconds per question than the ACT. It's much, much easier to finish each section on the SAT than the ACT.

You need to move quickly, because it's important to answer every question, but you're won't have to move at a borderline insane pace like the ACT. Or, for a visual representation:



The SAT gives you more of a cushion with which to work, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't move quickly. The key here is to not waste time on questions you don't understand. If you focus your energy on the questions you can answer, you'll have plenty of time. For you track runners, think of the SAT as a cross-country pace and the ACT as a 400-meter pace.

You should be able to at least read every question on the test. Make that the goal. Getting to every question is the easiest way to raise your score.

Understanding the Sections


The SAT sets up differently from the ACT. You'll do all of your reading/English first, then finish with two math sections. Timing on this section can often be difficult. As a result, you need to prioritize your passages. If you can't read every passage and still have plenty of time to devote to the questions, then you need to make sure you don't "double dip" so to speak.

What I mean is that there's probably a passage you will struggle to understand. Make sure that's the one you have to rush through at the end. It doesn't make sense to struggle through a passage and then have to rush through a different passage (Maybe one you'd probably be good at under normal circumstances). Instead, do the hardest passage last.

Here's how: Each passage has a brief description with author name, publish date and other useful info. There are five passages; one is a narrative (story), one is social science (think psychology), one is natural science (like Biology), one is humanities (history) and the fifth is some other non-fiction passage (Often a third science). Before you start reading passages or answering questions, read the descriptions of each passage then pick your favorite and least favorite. Some things to look for:

  • Year published: Is it from the 1800s? 1700s? If so, it probably has some funky language or difficult concepts

  • Translations: Was it originally written in another language? It might be difficult to understand

  • Topic: If you hate science, you probably want to leave one of the science passages until the end

  • Type of publication: Reading a newspaper is different from reading a book.

So read the descriptions first. Pick your favorite (Keep in mind, it's the SAT, the passages aren't supposed to be super exciting, you may have to settle for the least bad as your starting passage) and your least favorite. Start with your favorite, end with your least favorite (Just make sure you bubble correctly!).

Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. Start with the best, end with the worst

  3. Actually read the passages, if you can do so in a reasonable amount of time.

  4. Answer the double questions (The first asks a question and the second asks where to find the answer) together.

  5. The SAT sometimes wants you to read into the passage. Don't pick an answer simply because you see a word that pops up in the passage.

  6. The questions go in order (As in questions about line 10 come before line 20) use that to help you.


The key to the English section is differentiating between "right answer" and "best answer" questions.

Right answer questions have only one possible answer, even before reading the choices. "There", "their" and "they're" are perfect examples. Even before reading the answer choices, you probably know you're looking for a particular answer. When you get a question like that, it's an opportunity to answer quickly and move on. If 'A' is right, there's no reason to consider B, C or D.

Best answer questions make you choose the best available answer from the choices, based on what the passage is doing. Remember, even if it's not exactly how you'd write it, the non-underlined parts of the passage are considered perfect. Your goal is to make the underlined parts match the rest of the passage. There may be multiple ways to do that in theory, but only one way among the choices given. Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. Eliminate obviously wrong answers (If there's an answer with one parenthesis and there isn't another in the passage, that answer is wrong)

  3. There are some very black and white grammar questions with three very wrong answers and one very correct answer. You either know the answer or you don't, there isn't much thinking to these. Eliminate wrong answers and guess if you don't know.

  4. Never choose an answer that has a "twin answer". If you have two answers that do the same thing, they're both wrong, after all they can't both be right. Examples of this include "therefore" and "thus" or "next" and "then".

  5. The SAT can't ask you to do something not indicated in the passage. It can't make you choose between "walked" and "ran" unless the passage clearly indicates which of the two happened.

  6. The SAT loves to put some easy questions at the end of sections. If you can, at least get to the point where you've read every question to see if you can find an easy question that takes 10 seconds to answer

Math- No Calculator

There are bigger differences between the two math sections than just having a calculator in one and not in the other. They're different enough to warrant having two sections here.

First, you would think the non-calculator section would test your ability to do complex math without help from your calculator, but that's just not the case. Instead of asking computation questions (Questions that require you to do complex multiplication or long division) this section asks concept questions.

What that means is that the hardest computation on the calculator inactive section might be something like 20 times 5 or 180 minus 37. Instead, the inactive will test things like your ability to isolate variables (Get x by itself) or recognize the correct slope equation for a line (Seriously, the SAT LOVES slope - review that. I'm beginning a series of SAT/ACT math topics over the next few weeks. I'll link them here as they are completed.)

The math progresses from easy to difficult on multiple choice (#1-15) and then resets to do the same on free response (#16-20). Don't panic on the free response because there's often 2-3 super easy questions on that part. Don't skip them all, you can probably answer a few.

Lastly, this is the shortest section of any standardized test you'll ever take. 25 minutes to do 20 questions isn't bad, but if you fall behind, it's hard to catch up. Be cognizant of time. Some tips:

  1. Work quickly

  2. The questions typically start easy and get more difficult until No. 15, then start over at 16.

  3. Concept over computation- About half of the questions require very little "Math" so to speak. Some are vocabulary questions.

  4. Know slope.

  5. Be ready to plug in answer choices if you don't know how to do the problem. Sometimes "guess and check" is a powerful strategy.

  6. The SAT gives you a formula page, but make sure you memorize area of a rectangle, triangle and circle. Know that there are 180° in a triangle and 360° in a circle.

Math- Calculator

Know yourself and your abilities. I am a math teacher and standardized test tutor and there are usually a few questions at the end of this section that I find difficult. There are also questions at the beginning of this section that I use as warm-ups for my seventh graders.

I'll post the scoring below, but like the ACT, you don't need to get 90 percent correct for a good score. Focus on the questions you can answer correctly and spend less time worrying about some of the more difficult questions.

About half of the questions on this section need to be done without the calculator. The calculator won't help you answer "Which equation fits this word problem?" or other, non-computational questions. A lot of the others pretty much require a calculator. How can you tell? Well, a lot of questions contain really weird numbers. Maybe it's y=3.621x-87.438; those are usually the questions that simply require you to plug in a number, graph a line or solve with basic operations.

Don't stress. This can be a tough section, but there will always be some really, really easy questions that help you boost your score. Some tips

  1. Work quickly

  2. Like the inactive section, the questions start easy (sometimes really easy) and generally get harder until #30 before starting over at #31.

  3. More computation- If you know how to do the problem, your calculator will help you do the rest. You can do some questions quite quickly.

  4. Understand slope (formula and what it means). If you do, go ahead and give yourself five free questions because it shows up that often.

  5. If you have a long paragraph, read the last sentence (the question) and the answers to see if you need to read the other stuff. Sometimes it's useless info and sometimes it's crucial. Reading the question and the answers first will let you decide more quickly which info is needed.

  6. Use the graphing tool on your calculator to help on graphs and equations.

Understanding the Scoring

The SAT is scored from 400-1600, 200-800 on the two math sections (scored together as one) and 200-800 on the reading and English sections (scored separately out of 400 and added together). For the most part, each question is worth about 10 points.

Like any standardized test, don't think of questions you don't know as possible lost points, but possible gained points. After all, you could guess the correct answer. That's why it's important to get rid of obviously wrong answers. Every time you do, you give yourself a better chance of gaining extra points.

Here's the complete scoring. Notice that you can get a really good score with just 50-60% correct. Always focus on where you're gaining points, not on where you're losing them.

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