SAT Study Guide

Starting your SAT journey can be exciting and challenging at the same time. Our comprehensive guide, crafted with care, will walk you through every aspect of SAT prep, covering everything from the critical reading and writing to math sections. 

In this guide, you'll find strategies and study tips to improve your learning, including time management, test-taking skills, and an understanding of the exam format, equipping you with all the tools to master the SAT.

We also cover what to do on test day and how to handle post-test actions, like score interpretation and deciding whether or not to retake the test.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a multiple choice, computer-based exam that’s used by US colleges and universities as part of their admission process. SAT scores are considered alongside a student’s grades, essays, interviews and recommendations.

There are sittings throughout the year and many people take the test several times. 

What does the SAT include?

How many questions are there in the SAT exam?

The test is made of up two sections: Math and Reading and Writing. In each of these sections there are two modules.

In total, there are 54 reading and writing questions and 44 Math questions.

How long is the SAT?

Students are allotted 64 minutes for the reading and writing section and 70 minutes for the math section. There is a 10 minute break between the sections.

In total, the test lasts 2 hours and 24 minutes.

How is the SAT scored?

Each section of the test is scored on a scale from 200 to 800. Therefore the highest possible combined score is 1600 and the lowest score is 400.

The new Digital SAT is an adaptive test, which means that a student’s score on the first module of each section determines whether they will take a harder or easier version of the second module. If a student fails to progress to the harder module, their score will be capped.

The student’s raw score is then converted into a scaled score, which is the number from 400-1600.

Because of the way scores are converted, each additional question does not increase the scaled score by the same amount. For students with very high or low marks, an extra correct answer can boost their scaled score a significant amount, while for students in the middle of the pack, it takes more additional correct answers for them to see the same increase.

An average SAT score is around 1050 and what is considered a competitive score will change from institution to institution.

When should you start preparing for the SAT?

The SAT covers a large amount of material and requires incredible precision to bag top scores. As many students take the SAT multiple times before they achieve the scores they go on to submit, we advise starting preparations as early as possible. It’s a marathon not a sprint!

By taking a diagnostic test after Year 11, students can assess how much time they will need to dedicate to SAT preparation and work out a schedule that will help them maximise their scores.

What is the best way to study for the SAT exam?

Good SAT scores require absolute mastery over a large swathe of content, particularly for grammar and maths.

Create a realistic study schedule

You will have a lot to balance with SAT prep, A-Levels, extra-curriculars and applications. Creating a study schedule can help keep you on track, and make sure you aren’t cramming the night before your tests and reduce exam anxiety.

It's crucial to set realistic daily goals to prevent feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by potential setbacks.

Choose the right materials

For the reading and writing module, regular reading of high-quality literature, print journalism (such as the New Yorker and Economist) and science journals greatly increases your speed with engaging with the material once you get to the test. Check out open access science journals, preferably Tier 1 journals, to access these latter materials.

Achieving high SAT scores demands absolute mastery over a large swathe of content, especially in grammar and maths. While GCSE Maths and English Language provide a strong base, A-List's Book of Knowledge is essential for a deeper understanding and practice of all necessary content for top scores. This guide covers crucial rules and includes targeted drills for the SAT.

Be strategic about answering questions

Each section requires appropriate use of technique and strategy for high scores. A helpful aspect of standardised testing is that you can use multiple avenues to get to the right answer.

Unlike GCSE Maths or English, you are not graded on working or reasoning (though you should always use both). A-List has developed proprietary techniques for each section that enable you both to access more higher-level questions and to improve your accuracy in general.

Even students taking A-Level Further Maths can strongly benefit from using maths techniques by reaching a greater number of high-level questions.

Get an SAT tutor

In education, one approach does not suit everyone. A personal tutor offers the tailored feedback, personal pacing and goal-setting that often are the keys to unlocking a whole new level of your potential.

Why get a tutor?

  • Tailored feedback: You will get personalised, real-time feedback and curricula, focusing on strengths and improvement areas, allowing for in-depth exploration of topics not covered in group courses.
  • Academic advising & pacing: A tutor ensures the right tasks are built in at the right time, including working around mock exams and half terms, to build long-term retention and consolidation.
  • Customised learning: Activities are tailored to your learning styles, making material more engaging and comprehensible.
  • Further room for growth: Private tutoring provides greater room for higher level thinking and and lateral thinking, fostering more polished and well rounded thinkers.
  • Personal support and mentorship: Tutoring includes mentorship, addressing psychological aspects of learning, anxiety management, and performance improvement. Individual tuition offers a space to open up about your struggles. Psychology plays a great part in the learning process. and developing personal strategies to manage anxiety and increase performance under pressure equips you to manage the stress not only of exam preparation but also of later life in a more productive fashion.
  • Revision support: A tutor helps you find the most suitable study methods and create realistic and thorough revision schedules.
  • Academic advising: You can also get help for academic development and preparation for university with a feasible schedule.
  • Convenience: A private tutor can offer support whenever you most need it from the comfort of your home.

SAT courses for additional support

Developed and refined for over a decade, our interactive SAT courses provide you with all the tools you need to achieve your target scores.

Each 5-day course, led by our team of expert instructors, acts as a condensed intensive program, offering individual coaching and consistent feedback throughout the week.

Comes with two full-length proctored tests for you to familiarise yourself with the real SAT format, and personalised feedback for improvement.

Available online and in-person.

What to do on the day of the SAT exam

You’ve put in months of hard work to prepare for just a few all-important hours. All the late nights, endless practice tests and tearing your hair out over grammar rules have been leading up to this: exam day! No matter how prepared you feel, here’s our tips on how to put your best foot forward for your SAT:

Focus on core strategies

  • Reading: Always go back and check the text and ensure you choose an answer choice based upon textual evidence and reasoning. Ensure the whole answer choice matches the question and actively seek parts of answer choices that do not fit to eliminate them.
  • English: Always read the full sentence, find the subject-verb pair, and circle any punctuation in the sentence. This will help you deduce the sentences’ structures correctly.
  • Math: Use the A-List SAT math techniques (our Book of Knowledge also covers them thoroughly). Write out all your working, double-check the question AND your working.
  • Skip 'black hole' questions – questions that will take a long time to answer because they are very complicated. Guess something and move on.

Treat your body well

You ask a lot of your body on test day – prepare it well. Ensure you get lots of sleep for the two nights before the test (not just the night before), eat a protein-heavy breakfast and drink water throughout the test to stay hydrated. During breaks, as well as helping yourself to a slow-release energy snack (like a banana, nuts, dried fruit and natural energy bars high in protein), walk around the room or corridor and stretch to get the blood flowing well again. This is crucial to aid your stamina in the latter part of the test.

Be kind to yourself

Standardised tests are not designed to be enjoyable so do not worry if the test feels uncomfortable. You are aiming for improvement and to increase your understanding of the test, rather than perfection. You can place into a competitive university with below 1600! Focusing on what you can improve rather than putting pressure on yourself to get every question right frees up your mind to work more flexibly and quickly to solve the problems in front of you.

Can the SAT be taken more than once?

You can take the SAT as many times as you like. In fact, most students take it multiple times to improve their scores.

Many elements need to come together optimally in order to achieve a good SAT score: your use of techniques, your pace through the sections, and how you respond to trickier questions than you perhaps anticipated. These are the academic and mental challenges for which you have prepared.

Despite thorough preparation, unforeseen variables like distractions, nerves, and exam hall conditions can affect your SAT performance. Your first SAT attempt is crucial for experiencing and adapting to these elements, enhancing future performance.

However, no matter how ardently you have strived to ensure your practice SAT tests replicated the exam scenario, there are always going to be differing variables when it comes to the real test day: distractions from other students, nerves, even the temperature of the exam hall. Your first SAT attempt is an excellent way to experience and adapt to these elements to strengthen your future performance.

Your first official SAT test is a reconnaissance. Treat it as such. When you are in the test itself, focus on the essentials: reading the question carefully and underlining key words, writing out your work, utilising the techniques that you have worked on with your private tutor.

What happens after my first SAT?

After the test, take ten minutes and write out what you remember: how was your timing, what SAT math content came up, were there any grammar questions about which you felt unsure etc. Also write out how you felt going through the exam: did you struggle with nerves, did you find it difficult to concentrate, how did your stamina last? These are crucially important observations for you to take to your private tutor to evolve your academic planning for the next test.

Now that you have done your reconnaissance, you can target your preparation on the areas for improvement you noticed in your first standardised test. We recommend focusing on the following particular areas:

  • Accuracy: If you signed up to receive the score breakdown from CollegeBoard you will be able to see how many questions are right and wrong in each section and what type they were. Discuss with your private tutor how to minimise your errors: this may well lead to you aiming to answer fewer questions on your second standardised test.
  • Timing: Connected to the number of questions you will be answering is the amount of time you spend on each. Now you know how the nerves of the exam affected you, you might want to give yourself more time per question. Remember: accuracy is more important than bulk.
  • Content: Under pressure, were there areas in SAT math or grammar that you couldn’t quite remember? Be sure to focus on repetition of exercises for these targeted areas so that you store the information and approaches in your long-term memory.

Academic planning is the key to good SAT scores. To help with your SAT journey or discuss any element of your academic planning, our expert tutors and Academic Team are here to help.

SAT resources

SAT preparation with A-List Education

All of our tutors are first class graduates from leading US universities - including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth and University of California - they combine in depth subject knowledge with insight into what it takes to succeed in some of the world’s most demanding academic environments.

For each subject area, we train our students in a thorough grounding of foundational to advanced content, stretching them with material beyond past papers and drills to produce articulate, well-rounded thinkers.

To enquire about A-List SAT support services, contact our Client Services team at +44 (0)20 3004 8101 or, anytime during our office hours Monday - Friday, 9am - 6pm.

Discovery Session

Guiding Your Journey from Start to Finish

If you are new to US universities and the application process, we offer a free 15-minute session to guide you. Whether you are unsure about attending a US university, curious about your chances, or making a last-minute decision, our team are here to provide guidance and support.