As SAT prep experts, we talk a lot about how to raise your test score: getting better at the content that the SAT tests, paying attention in school and making a study plan that works for you.  What can we say — keeping things positive just comes naturally to us.  

But . . . not to be a bummer, but a topic we also need to address is how to ensure you’re not losing any points on the SAT.  

Let’s be honest — the last thing you want when you get your results back is to be disappointed, discouraged or in disbelief.  And in the spirit of honesty . . . you might be sabotaging your test prep or test performance without even knowing it.  Even if you think you have the perfect study plan, the perfect mindset or perfect preparation, you could still be losing yourself points on the SAT by making honest mistakes. 

It’s all well and good to set a goal, make a plan and think positively, but you also need to know how to overcome any obstacles that might stand in your way.  Kind of like how Harry Potter needed to know how to overcome his evil teachers, a giant snake, dementors, a dragon . . . on second thought, maybe this actually isn’t the best comparison. 

Thankfully, we can avoid discouraging scores completely, and we don’t even need magic to do it.  All we need to do is help you identify any mistakes you’re making!  If you’re prepping by yourself, it’s especially important to pinpoint these mistakes, because there’s no one to catch them for you. 

Unless you want there to be someone to catch them for you . . . in which case, we’ve got you covered. 

We want to catch any bad habits or critical mistakes as early as we can, so that you can maximize your score and take the SAT as few times as possible (which is not only cost-efficient, but also time- and energy-efficient.  Can you believe this blog is free?). 

Whether your local SAT proctors know you by name or you’ve just signed up for your first SAT, you can benefit from these tips.  You can study all you want (or actually, maybe not — more on that next week), but at the end of the day, you can still come away with a disappointing score if you’re making preventable errors.  

This will be a two-part post, so today we’ll address the most common SAT mistakes you’re making on test day.  But don’t worry — we’ll give you some solutions for each one.  Bear in mind that not all of these errors have quick fixes; they may have to be solved in practice.  With that being said, here are the first four of the top 10 SAT mistakes you’re making that are hurting your score.

Mistake #1: Having poor time management

Poor time management can manifest in many different ways on the SAT, but we’ll talk about a few of the most common ways you may be using your time inefficiently.

Not skipping questions

This is probably the number one time management problem I see with SAT students.  Whether due to perfectionism, lack of awareness or thinking they could get the problem right with just a liiiiittle more time, many students have a bad habit of sinking time into problems they should just skip. 

If you have no clue how to approach a question in the first 30 seconds, or you quickly realize the question, while doable, will take a while to complete, you are better off skipping it and returning to it later.  

You could easily spend several minutes on a tricky question, and that is time you simply do not have — even if you end up getting the answer right.  

In the best case scenario, you spend minutes on one question, manage to get it right and end up having to rush through other (possibly easier) questions later.  In the worst case scenario, you spend several minutes on that question, still end up getting the answer wrong and also run out of time to complete easier questions you’d have had a better chance of getting right.  That’s at least a triple whammy.

Solution: Be decisive.  Skip questions that stump you.  Come back to them later.  Who knows — maybe all you needed was a little time, and when you return to a question you’ll suddenly remember how to solve it. 

Reading with no sense of urgency

On the Reading section of the SAT, sometimes students read to really absorb the material, the way you might if you were reading a book for class.  

The thing is, on the SAT, you really don’t have time to read for deep comprehension . . . and it doesn’t make sense to try.  With around 80 lines of text and 10-12 questions per passage, there may not even be a question about that chunk of text you’re struggling to understand.  

Yes, of course, you should read for comprehension; but if you’re constantly re-reading large chunks of text for greater understanding, trying to follow the exact timeline of a scientific experiment or commit each plot point to memory, you are reading too closely.  After all, deep comprehension doesn’t help much if you don’t have time to read every passage. 

Solution: Read with a sense of urgency, and let the questions guide you back to the areas of text you should focus on.  If something confuses you in the passage, don’t reread it immediately — put a star next to it and come back to it later if there is a question about it. 

Not knowing how long to spend on each section

Take it from me: there’s no worse feeling than turning the page to the last passage on the Reading test, then hearing “You have five minutes remaining.”  

If you’ve been studying for the SAT, you should know the time constraints for each test as a whole.  But if you haven’t broken that down further, you’re doing yourself a disservice — and it could come back to bite you on test day.  You never want to guess about how much time you have left in any section.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of how much time you have within each test: 

  • Reading: 65 minutes, 5 sections; 13 minutes per passage 
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions; ~45 seconds per question 
  • Math No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions; 75 seconds per question
  • Math Calculator: 55 minutes, 38 questions; ~85 seconds per question

These are rough guidelines.  But bear in mind that just because you have a minute and a half to spend on each Math Calculator question doesn’t mean you necessarily should.  There may well be moments you want to spend more or less time on certain passages or chunks of questions, which brings us to our next mistake . . .

Dividing up your time equally

If you’re a detail-oriented person, you might have already taken the step of seeing exactly how long you have per passage or per question.  Great job!  You’re one step ahead of us. 

But let’s take it a step further. 

On the SAT, there are sections of the test that are bound to be more difficult for you than others.  Those are the sections we want to reserve as much time as possible for.  The way to do that is by figuring out which sections of the SAT are easier for you, then completing those more quickly.  

The Math tests, in general, move from simpler to more complex and from easier to more difficult.  You should be moving through the first chunk of questions at a fairly fast rate so that you have extra time to spend on the more complex problems.  Often, the last few questions of the aren’t really that difficult — they just involve multiple steps, making them more time-consuming.  If you’ve banked some time early on, you have a much better shot at getting these questions correct.

Math solution: Spend the least time on the first ⅓ of the math sections, the next most time on the middle ⅓ and the most time on the last ⅓.  Don’t forget to skip questions you are stumped by, regardless of what section they’re in. 

We can also use a similar approach on the Reading test.  It consists of five passages: one Literature passage, two History or Social Studies passages and two Science passages.  Some of these passages will likely be more challenging for you than others, and you should try to give yourself as much time as possible on them. 

Reading solution: Take plenty of practice tests and make observations.  Which genres come most naturally to you?  In which sections are you consistently missing the most questions?

Once you have an idea of which sections give you the most trouble, try to shave a couple of minutes off of easier passages, then give yourself extra time on the sections where you’re losing the most points.  

This is where it comes in handy to know how much time you generally have per passage.  With the Reading section, you could take up to 13 minutes per passage, but maybe you only really need 11 minutes each on the Literature and Social Studies sections.  Then, for example, you could spend up to 17 minutes on the History section or 15 minutes each on the Science passages. 

Mistake #2: Not reading closely enough

We’ve already covered the importance of not reading too closely, but there is a flip side of that coin that is wrecking your SAT score: not reading closely enough.  

If you skim through the Reading section without really absorbing any plot points, details or information whatsoever, you need to read more closely.

You might think that by reading so quickly, you’ll have a greater amount of time to spend with the questions.  The issue with that approach, though, is that if you don’t absorb anything the first time through, you’ll end up rereading large swaths of the passage anyway . . . which will cost you just as much time, if not more.  And after all that, your comprehension still may suffer. 

You could also read so quickly that you misread certain details, misattribute beliefs or attitudes to the wrong character or person or fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of an experiment or plot point.  What you might think is “reading efficiently” could really just be an efficient way of tanking your SAT score. 

But beyond the Reading section, you can also make this mistake on any question in any section of the SAT.  Taking just a little more time to fully read and understand each question can save you time in the long run: not only will you be much more likely to get the answer correct, but you’ll also make sure you’re doing only what is necessary to answer what is being asked — and nothing more. 

Solution: On the Reading section, read closely enough to understand the major points or plot points and basic relationships, hypotheses or attitudes.  Don’t read so quickly that you end up having to reread huge chunks of text as you’re going through the questions.  Fully read each question, and make sure you know what you’re really being asked. 

Mistake #3: Making careless mistakes

This category of SAT mistakes encompasses a large variety of errors, and it would take a while to address them all.  To that end, we’re going to focus on only the most common mistakes we see on the Math and Writing and Language sections: issues with writing your calculations and punctuation issues. 

On the Math sections of the SAT, the majority of careless mistakes we see from students are either due to writing sloppily or not writing down every step.  You may be mislabeling variables, forgetting negative signs, skipping a step in your calculations or relying on “eyeballing” when it comes to questions with graphs.  

Side note: On the SAT, you should not be doing mental math.  Unless it’s for something very simple like your multiplication tables, doing calculations in your head is a surefire way to forget or miss a step.  

These are bad habits, not just for the SAT, but in your math classes as well.  Seriously, stop doing math in your head and your teacher will love you forever. 

Solution: Practice tests, and lots of them.  I mean it.  Take as many practice math tests as you can.  Each time you miss a question, make note of whether it was due to a careless error.  If it was, write down the category of error (missing negative sign, missed a step in the calculation, misread the question, sloppy writing, etc.).  Now every time you do a similar question or calculation, take extra care to execute it properly. 

You may also be missing out on points on the Writing and Language section of the SAT.  The most common careless mistakes here normally involve punctuation.  There are often minor changes to punctuation in the answer choices, and these differences, while nuanced, can completely change the meaning or correctness of a sentence.  If you overlook the addition of a preposition, comma or conjunction, you could choose the wrong answer without thinking twice.  

Those careless mistakes aren’t just because of answer choices, though — they can also be because you overlooked a dash or verb tense change elsewhere in the passage.  In these cases, choosing the correct answer hinges on whether you were paying attention to the punctuation or verb tenses that had already been used. 

Writing and Language solution: Pay extra attention to any minor changes in the answer choices.  Plug each answer choice back into the original sentence or paragraph to check for any grammatical changes in the sentence (such as fragments, run-on sentences or other errors).  If it’s helpful for you, circle punctuation in sentences — especially dashes — so that you don’t forget the punctuation that has already been used. 

Mistake #4: Always solving problems the long way

You might think this goes against the advice we just gave about writing everything down on the Math sections.  But to be very clear, mental math is not the same as doing things the short way.  There are plenty of shortcuts on the Math sections, so you don’t need to do mental math to speed up. 

In fact, on the SAT, sometimes we don’t even need to use calculations to get to the answer.  

You may be able to solve the answer just by working off of your answer choices.  You can eliminate choices that are clearly wrong, then use the plug-in method for any remaining choices.  With these two strategies alone, you could avoid doing long, time-consuming calculations (which provide more opportunities for mistakes to happen) . . . or possibly any calculations at all.  

Now, this method won’t work for every problem.  But even if not, your answer choices can still give you valuable information.  They can help you figure out where to start; when you’re confused, they can help you determine what the question is actually asking; and they can help you see what information is relevant.  Always use the answer choices to your advantage.

There are other strategies and shortcuts for the Math sections — in fact, there are too many to address all of them in this post.  However, we recommend learning as many (mathematically sound) shortcuts as possible to maximize your time.  

Solution: Know what the question is really asking you, and know what information to ignore.  Whenever possible, work off of the answer choices to help guide you.  Through process of elimination, you might land on the correct answer, no calculation needed.  As you practice, look up explanations for each answer, not just the ones you got wrong.  You might find there was a faster way to get to the solution.  

Final thoughts

Even though most of these SAT mistakes can be classified as test-day mistakes, they are best solved in practice.  Mistakes are often the result of bad habits, and bad habits take time to undo —  you can’t always stop just by being aware of them.  

For instance, it will take time to learn how to read more closely, or to learn how to read more quickly.  It will take practice to start catching yourself before you make a careless mistake.  And it will require discipline to let go of a question and come back to it later.  

In your preparation, take care to focus not only on learning the SAT concepts themselves, but also on your test taking habits and practices.  

To recap, here are some questions to ask yourself to evaluate your test-day practices: 

  • Am I reading too closely and costing myself time that I need to finish? 
  • Am I not reading closely enough and sacrificing comprehension? 
  • Do I double down on questions that trip me up, instead of skipping them and coming back to them later? 
  • Do I divide my time equally, rather than splitting it up in a way that is more advantageous? 
  • Am I making careless mistakes on the math or Writing and Language sections? 
  • Do I need to find ways to be more efficient on the Math portions of the test? 

If you’re making any of these mistakes, don’t despair — you just need a little fine-tuning.  

Speaking of tuning, tune in next week to find out how you’re wrecking your score with the other six SAT mistakes you’re making . . . in your preparation process. 

Katherine Webster
Katherine was a Program Advisor at Test Geek. She loves acting and singing and making your dreams come true.

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