Last-Minute SAT Tips to Boost Your Score

It’s 4:15am on a Wednesday. You shoot upright in bed in a cold sweat, suddenly wide awake. Why the sudden stress? Is it the college application essay you still need to write? The science fair project due next week? The looming existential threat of climate change? No, unfortunately it’s much worse—you just remembered that the SAT is this weekend and you’re DEFINITELY not prepared.

Don’t panic! There’s still time. Though the most thorough and effective SAT preparation takes place over a period of months, there are still things you can do in the next few days to improve your chances of earning a good score. Your friendly neighborhood test expert is here to cover some of the best last-minute tips to boost your SAT score; let’s dive in.

Table of Contents:

  1. Understanding The SAT Exam
  2. Overview of the SAT Structure
  3. A Look Into How The SAT Is Scored
  4. Last Minute SAT General Tips
  5. Last Minute SAT Math Tips
  6. Last Minute SAT Writing & Language Tips
  7. Last Minute SAT Reading Tips
  8. Tips For The Night Before & Morning of the SAT
  9. Last Minute SAT Tips For During The Exam
  10. After The SAT: Looking Ahead
  11. Frequently Asked Questions About The SAT

An Overview Of The SAT

The SAT is one of the two standardized tests utilized by colleges during the admissions process, with the other being the ACT. The test bordered on a mandatory rite of passage for high school juniors and seniors for many years; in recent years, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed a rapid proliferation of test-optional admissions policies, meaning that many schools no longer require the submission of SAT or ACT scores with students’ applications.

It’s important to note, however, that test-optional is not the same thing as test-blind. Schools with test-optional policies don’t require you to submit scores, but they’ll consider them as part of your application if you do choose to submit them; this means that earning a high score on the SAT relative to other applicants at those schools can be a major help during the admissions process. Because of that fact, a large number of aspiring college freshmen still sit for the SAT each year, oftentimes more than once.

Now that we’ve established why this test might still matter to you, let’s start our discussion of last-minute SAT tips with a quick overview of the test itself.

SAT Structure (Through December 2023)

The structure of the current version of the SAT is outlined in the table below. Note that, as indicated in the title of this section, this structure is only accurate until the end of 2023; at that point, the SAT will be transitioning to its new digital form for US-based testers, and the current paper-and-pencil version of the test will no longer be administered.

Structure and Length
Reading65 minutes
52 questions
Writing & Language35 minutes
44 questions
Math No Calculator 25 minutes
20 questions
(15 multiple-choice, 5 grid-in)
Math With Calculator55 minutes
38 questions
(30 multiple-choice, 8 grid-in)

Until recently, there was an optional fifth section of the test that was comprised of one essay prompt; however, that Writing section was eliminated a couple of years ago, and it is currently only administered on School Day testing dates in specific states.

SAT Scoring (Through December 2023)

Scoring on the SAT is reasonably complex, but understanding how it works can help you decide where to focus your time and effort while you prepare for the SAT. Here’s what you need to know.

Raw SAT Scores

First, you’ll receive a raw score for each of the four sections on the SAT; each raw score is simply equal to the number of questions you answered correctly in that section. This is the part of the post where I remind you that no penalty is applied for incorrect answers on the SAT, so you should always always always answer every question, even if it’s a total guess. If you don’t at least guess, you’re functionally leaving a quarter of a point on the board for every multiple-choice problem you don’t answer.

It’s important to note that your raw scores for the two Math sections will be added together to produce a single overall Math raw score. So although there are two separate Math sections on the SAT, you’ll only see one Math score on your final score report.

Equating / Scaled Scores

After your raw scores are tabulated, the College Board will use a process called ‘equating’ to convert them into scaled scores, which range from 200 to 800 for Math and from 100 to 400 for each of the other two sections (Reading and Writing & Language). These scaled scores take into account the difficulty level of the sections that you completed relative to the difficulty levels of sections that previous test-takers have completed over the last several years; this allows colleges to be sure that your Math score of 720 means the same thing as your older brother’s 720 from a few years ago.

Composite SAT Score

Finally, your three scaled scores will be added together to produce an overall composite score that ranges from 400 to 1600, the highest score on the SAT. This score is the best single measure of your performance on the test, and it’s the score that colleges will primarily look at when reviewing your application.

Related Reading: How To Check Your SAT Score After You’ve Taken The Exam

General Last Minute SAT Tips

Now that we’ve covered the major logistical details of the SAT, let’s talk last-minute strategy. We’ll lead off with some general tips for how to maximize your time and optimize your preparation in the last few days before the test.

Take a practice test, ideally not at home

With a limited amount of time to prepare before test day, it’s imperative that you make the most of each hour. One easy way to do that is to ensure that you’re distributing your prep time in proportion to the areas of the test where you’re weakest. Start by taking one of the practice tests available on College Board’s website and then scoring it using the associated key and conversion table. Not only will this provide you with a baseline score that will allow you to set reasonable expectations for the real thing, it will also tell you which of Math, Reading, and Writing & Language needs the most attention.

The other benefit of sitting for a mock test is that it gives you an idea of what to expect on test day. Taking the whole thing in one sitting will give you a sense of the mental fatigue you’re likely to encounter during the real test, and going to a location other than your house (e.g. a library or a study room at your school) will provide a taste of the “production” that is test day and force you to focus on the SAT outside of the comfort zone of your desk or bed.

Know the structure of the test

If you read the beginning of this post or followed my advice in the section above, you’re already well on your way here. This one may seem obvious, but every set of directions you don’t have to read and surprise that you avoid on test day both saves you time and reduces your cognitive load. You don’t want to be spending time in the Math No Calculator section on the day of the test reading the rules about what you can and can’t bubble in for the grid-in questions—know that information coming into the test and save yourself those valuable seconds.

Focus on strategy over content

No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to learn every single comma rule in 72 hours; just typing that made me shudder. Yes, you should absolutely spend some time reviewing key concepts in Math and Writing & Language that you encounter on your practice test(s); however, things like macro-level strategies—e.g. knowing how you’re going to approach the passages in Reading—and question-type-specific techniques—e.g. variable plug-ins—are applicable across a wider range of questions than any specific concept and are therefore likely to be worth more points to you on test day. Don’t waste time by tunnel-visioning on the usage of ‘who’ versus ‘whom’ when that’s only going to come up 1-2 times on the average Writing & Language section.

Consider connecting with a tutor

Yes, I am a tutor, and yes, that makes it difficult for me to talk objectively about this part. Nonetheless, I’m going to do my best.

Look, tutoring can be expensive, and it’s simply not feasible for everybody. If that’s the case for you, know that there are a ton of very helpful cheap or even free resources out there—Khan Academy is one well-known example.

If you’re able to work with a tutor 1:1, though, even if it’s just for a couple of sessions prior to the test, it can be a helpful option. Your tutor can speed up the process of determining your strengths and weaknesses and help you map out the optimal way to use your prep time, as well as giving you some key techniques and concepts to work on. That way, even if the rest of your prep is independent, you can be confident that you’re practicing the right things.

Last-Minute SAT Tips Section by Section

We’ve covered the high-level tips; the next step is to zoom in on the individual sections of the test and discuss the best last-minute SAT tips to focus on for each.

Last-Minute SAT Math Tips

Make sure you have an SAT-approved calculator…

A graphing calculator is one of the most helpful tools that you can have for Section 4 of the SAT; however, not every type of calculator is permitted for use on the test. Be sure that you’ve checked the list of SAT-approved calculators and confirmed that yours is on it; you definitely don’t want to learn for the first time that it isn’t allowed when you arrive at your test center.

…and that you know how to use it.

This last-minute SAT tip really covers two things. First, literally know how your calculator works mechanically. Can you quickly graph equations, adjust your window, and ask the calculator to find intercepts and intersection points? Do you know how to use things like the ANS function to save yourself time? Are you comfortable using parentheses to accurately do arithmetic with negative numbers? All of these features should be second nature to you by the time you get to the test.

Second, know when to use your calculator and when not to do so. You shouldn’t need to pull out the old counting machine for the answer to 3 x 5, and sometimes you may even be more comfortable doing more complex calculations, such as fraction multiplication or division, by hand rather than on the calculator. When it comes to things like graphing equations or doing multi-digit arithmetic, however, your calculator is almost always going to be both faster and more accurate than you. Be sure you’re on the lookout for opportunities to let your trusty TI do some of the heavy lifting for you.

Master the art of the plug-in.

As I alluded to earlier when talking about content versus strategy, becoming comfortable with a specific technique is almost always going to be better than mastering one particular concept, as techniques tend to be applicable to a wider variety of questions. The biggest example of this is the plug-in strategy, of which there are two main flavors.

Answer plug-ins represent a strategy that is familiar to almost every student who’s taken a multiple-choice test before: when the answer choices are simply a list of numbers, plug each one back into the question until you find the one that works. This is a fantastically intuitive technique that, while it can sometimes be slightly time-consuming, rarely leads students astray.

Example of an answer plug-in question

The other, and arguably more useful, side of the plug-in coin is the variable plug-ins technique. This approach is designed to allow you to remove the abstraction from questions so that you can focus on the core math mechanics. If you notice that most or all of the answer choices in a given problem are in terms of a variable or variables, then the numerical answer to that question depends on the value of those variables. There’s a pretty good chance that you have the flexibility to come up with your own numbers to stand in for the variables and answer the question using those values.

Example of a variable plug-in question

Fill in as many content holes as possible, working in order of priority.

Though strategy tends to trump content in terms of its range of applicability, there’s a very firm limit to how much you can improve on the SAT Math section without reviewing the actual material that’s being tested. After you take that initial practice test that we discussed earlier, review the questions that you missed in the Math sections and look for patterns. Are you struggling with quadratics? Systems of linear equations? Geometry? Focus on reviewing as many of those items as you can, starting with those that show up the most. Khan Academy, which I mentioned earlier, is a great resource for this specific part of the prep process.

Last-Minute SAT Writing & Language Tips

Focus on mastering the ‘question-questions’.

I like to sort the questions in W&L into two main categories. Answer-questions (AQs) don’t have any question text because they’re all asking you to do the same thing: choose the best option from four versions of an underlined portion of the passage. These questions tend to focus mostly on grammar mechanics. The rest of the problems in the section are question-questions (QQs), which focus on the rhetoric of the passage—asking you whether a particular sentence should be inserted into the paragraph, for example, or requiring you to choose the best introductory sentence for a paragraph.

Because AQs test grammar mechanics or standard English conventions, they typically require some piece of outside knowledge, like comma rules or guidelines for subject-verb agreement. QQs, on the other hand, give you all the information you need to get the question right: the decision you have to make (e.g. to insert or not insert a particular sentence) and the context of the passage. These questions are much more about pattern recognition than content knowledge; the more you practice them, the more you’ll understand what the test is looking for on each type and the more your accuracy level will rise.

Don’t get me wrong, QQs can still be difficult, and they still require practice to improve. But with fewer sub-types than the AQs and no complex grammar rules that must be mastered, most students find that getting better at QQs takes less time and work than it does for AQs.

For answer-questions, trust your ear…

As I alluded to earlier in this post, there’s no chance that you’re going to be able to re-learn every necessary SAT grammar rule in 2-3 days of prep, and you shouldn’t try. Instead, focus on letting your instincts guide you for many of the AQs. If you’re a US-based student, chances are that you’ve been speaking English for a lot of your life; even if you’re an international student, you’ve probably taken English classes. That means that you’ve encountered all of the concepts being tested on the SAT W&L section in writing or conversation before, likely a bunch of times.

I always give my students a hard time when they justify an answer in this section by saying that it “sounds right”, but that’s because they’ve had time to review the relevant rules and supplement their instincts with, you know, actual grammar knowledge. When you’re working on a tight timeline, a good last-minute SAT tip for the grammar on this test is actually to trust your ear.

If you read a sentence “out loud” in your head a couple of times, do you instinctively pause at the same point every time? There’s probably a comma there. Do you have a gut feeling that a particular preposition should be attached to a specific verb? That might be because you’ve heard or read the expression used before and didn’t consciously process it. This trick won’t work every time, because the SAT is good at writing questions where the incorrect answer “sounds right”, but it’s a good starting point for students with limited time to work.

…but review as many major concepts as you have time for.

As in the Math section, there’s a very firm limit to how much you can improve on the SAT Writing & Language section without reviewing the actual material that’s being tested. After you take that initial practice test that we discussed earlier, review the questions that you missed in the W&L section and look for patterns. Are you struggling with transition words? Subject-verb agreement? Comma placement? Focus on reviewing as many of those items as you can, starting with those that show up the most. Your ear can be a helpful foundation in this section, but past a certain point, you’ll need knowledge of some grammar minutiae to continue to raise your score.

Last-Minute SAT Reading Tips

Be literal…

If I could give students only one piece of advice for SAT Reading, it would be this. The Reading section is fundamentally different from the others because it involves analyzing and interpreting a piece of text, which can easily become a subjective exercise. In grammar and math, there’s only one right answer; if you try telling your English teacher there’s only one correct interpretation of The Great Gatsby, they will likely try to bludgeon you to death with the nearest Hemingway novel. So how do we standardize reading comp? By removing as much of the interpretation from the questions as possible, keeping them superficial and thereby ensuring that there can only be one correct answer.

Why should you care about this? Because the way it manifests in the test is that all of the questions are directly tied to the text of the passage at hand. The best answer choice to any given question is the one where you can put your finger on a selection from the passage and say, “This is why I’m picking this choice.” If you catch yourself looking for subtext, guessing at the writer’s true meaning, or ‘telling yourself a story’ to justify a particular answer choice, stop—the question is probably a lot simpler than you’re making it.

…but read for context.

With all that being said, College Board still has to find a way to make the questions difficult; the SAT wouldn’t be much of a test if everybody got a 400 on Reading. One of the main ways they accomplish this is by adding some amount of misdirection to their questions through the use of context. You’ll notice when working through a passage that several of the questions flat-out tell you where in the text to look. For example, the omnipresent vocab-in-context question: “In line 11, the word gaslight most nearly means which of the following?”

The line numbers they give you in these questions and others like them aren’t exactly wrong, but they are… let’s say ‘misleading.’ Typically, the line number in the question refers to the line that contains the exact word or phrase the question is asking about; however, that’s not all that is necessary to get the correct answer. Most of these questions require you to understand how that word or phrase fits into what’s around it so that you can interpret it correctly.

As a last-minute SAT tip, you should read a few sentences above and a few sentences below any line number that is given to you in a question. So if we really want to understand how the author is using ‘gaslight’ in our earlier example, we might want to start by reading lines 8-14; if that still doesn’t feel like quite enough information, we can seek out more as needed.

Address the section in the way that makes the most sense for you, not necessarily in the way the test lays it out.

This is a rule that really applies to all sections of the SAT; in the Reading section specifically, it manifests primarily in the order in which students approach the questions.

As a general paradigm, think of the questions in SAT Reading as falling into three categories: broad questions, narrow questions, and proof-pairs. Broad questions require you to understand a substantial portion of the passage to be able to answer them, while narrow questions can be answered with a relatively small amount of reading, ranging from a sentence to a couple of paragraphs. Proof-pairs are the paired questions where Q2 asks you to pick the excerpt that best supports the answer you selected for Q1.

The SAT frequently front-loads its passages—putting the broad questions at the beginning and the narrow questions after—in order to make students think that they need to read the entire text before they can start the questions. In reality, though, it pretty much always makes more sense to do the narrow questions first, followed by the proof-pairs (which can generally be thought of as harder narrow questions). That allows you to build your understanding of the passage without doing a ton of unnecessary re-reading; then, when you move to the broader questions, you can use the themes you discovered in the process of answering the narrow questions to make the broad questions quick and easy.

Know your strengths and weaknesses.

As with the test as a whole, understanding the structure of the Reading section is an important part of doing well. Remember that this portion of the test contains five passages: one fiction passage (always first), followed by two natural science and two social science passages. One of the five passages will be split up into two shorter texts, with questions asking about only Passage A, only Passage B, and both Passage A and Passage B.

Much like the way we talked about answering the questions out of order in the previous section, addressing the passages out of order can be a powerful tool in your arsenal of last-minute SAT tips. Do you hate fiction? Save the first passage for last. Did you find the paired passage to be more time-consuming than the others when you did your initial practice test? Save it for last. Make sure you’re banking all of the ‘easier’ points, then throw your remaining time and energy at the portion of the section that’s most challenging for you.

Tips For The Night Before and Morning of the SAT

You’ve maximized your last few days before the SAT; hopefully you followed my tips above, and hopefully you’re feeling more prepared and less panicked than you did 72 hours ago. The next stop in our tour of last-minute SAT tips is the hours right before the test—the night before test day and the morning of test day.

Last-Minute SAT Tips: The Night Before

  • Check your calculator’s battery level. Make sure it’s not dying or dead BEFORE you turn the page in your test booklet on test day and start the Math section.
  • Pack your bag. You can find a list of must-haves and should-haves for test day on College Board’s website. I highly recommend bringing your own watch; they list it under ‘Nice to Have’, but I’ve heard too many horror stories about students who couldn’t see the clock from their seat, so I always recommend bringing your own timing device.
  • Know where your test center is, when you need to leave in the morning, and when you need to wake up. I’ve never been a morning person, especially not in high school, so most mornings when I had to be a certain place at a certain time involved a lot of my mom yelling, a lot of me running around frantically, and a lot of me not having time to eat breakfast. Don’t be like me!
  • Get a good night’s sleep. I thought this was obvious; I really did. Then I was debriefing with a student after her scores came back and she wondered out loud if the fact that she did worse than she was hoping could have been partially caused by the fact that she went out with her friends the night before the test. Please, for the sake of my blood pressure—don’t do that.

Last-Minute SAT Tips For The Morning Of The Exam

  • Eat a good breakfast. At this point, I’m starting to sound like my mom, but whatever. Thinking and focusing take energy, and your brain needs fuel to be able to do them well. Eat some eggs.
  • Wake your brain up. I typically recommend that students wake up 15-20 minutes before they absolutely need to and do something that requires some thinking. Read a chapter in a book or a New York Times article; do a crossword or a Sudoku. Whatever your thing is, spend a few minutes using it to get the gears in your head turning; you don’t want the Reading section of the SAT to be the first time you’ve used your brain that day.
  • Dress comfortably. A guy on my hall in college used to say, “Dress well, test well”; every time he had an exam, he’d walk out of the dorm in a tie and jacket. If that’s your thing, more power to you; you can catch me in the back in sweatpants and a hoodie. No matter what your preference is, just wear something that you’ll be comfortable sitting in for 4ish hours.

Last-Minute SAT Tips For During the Test

Finally, here are some last-minute SAT tips concerning things to remember while you’re testing.

(Note: Please don’t try to read this section of the post during the actual test. It will not end well for you.)

  • Answer every question. Remember that there’s no penalty for wrong answers on the SAT. If you leave a question blank, you’re not saving yourself any points, and you’re giving up the opportunity to guess the problem correctly. Make sure you answer every question!
  • If the test feels hard, you’re not doing something wrong. Remember that this test is SUPPOSED to be difficult; that’s what makes it a useful tool for colleges. Even if you do happen to get a harder Reading section than average, for example, that will be reflected in the scoring conversion: you’ll have more margin for error to miss questions while still earning a solid score.
  • Don’t give up on the entire test because you have a bad section. First of all, you probably didn’t do as badly as you think you did, for the reason I mentioned above. Second, remember that most schools will superscore SAT results from multiple administrations—so even if you don’t perform to your highest level on the Verbal half of the test, you should still try as hard as you can on the Math half, as you may be able to lock in a great score there.
  • Take advantage of your break. You’ll have a 5-10 minute break between the Writing & Language section and the first Math section, so make the most of it. Get up, stretch your legs, and get some blood flowing to your brain; even better, go out into the hall and eat your snack, as that will give you an energy boost for the second half of the test.

After the SAT: What Next?

Once you’ve survived the ordeal that is the SAT, the next step is to wait for your scores. Scores are typically released roughly two weeks after the test date, though that can vary a bit depending on when the test occurred and whether you had testing accommodations. See the College Board’s website for a complete list of the release dates for scores from various test administrations.

When scores are released, you’ll access them by logging into your College Board account. Once you’re in, simply select ‘My SAT’ from the menu near the top of the page and then scroll down. You should see a section titled ‘My Scores’ right below the portion of the page that shows your upcoming test dates. Here you’ll be able to see your composite scores for all the SAT administrations you’ve sat for, as well as a breakdown of your section scores.

Now it’s time to start thinking about retesting. How do your scores compare to the middle 50% of applicants at your target schools? How much improvement would you need to hit that range? Do you think it’s feasible for you to dedicate the prep time you would need to make that improvement possible while also balancing your school and extracurricular commitments?

If possible, I recommend that most students plan to test at least twice, for various reasons. The first and most obvious reason is simply that, statistically speaking, you are likely to score better on your second test. The College Board reports that 2 out of 3 students will perform better on a second exam. Furthermore, as we discussed above, many colleges will superscore the test, meaning that they will select your highest section scores from each test sitting and consider those for your admission decision.

If you do decide to take the test again, we’re here to help! Our team of Pros has decades of combined experience with the SAT, and they’d love to help you earn the highest score you can.

Want To Achieve Your Highest Possible Score On The SAT?

Last-Minute SAT Tips: Frequently Asked Questions

Is it okay to study the day before the SAT?

Of course; in fact, taking some time on the day before the test to do things like look over old practice sections and review math formulas can be a great idea. With that being said, I do typically recommend that my students give themselves at least the evening off to let their brains relax and to make sure they get a good night’s sleep, as being rested and ready for the test is essential to performing your best.

Can you prepare for the SAT in a day?

You can prepare for the SAT in a day, but very few people can be prepared for the SAT after only a day of work. Studying for the SAT is a process that can last anywhere from 4-5 weeks (if you only take the test once) to several months (if you decide to test multiple times). Generally speaking, you’re always better off allowing more time to prepare versus allowing less time—to a point, of course.

Is studying two hours a day enough for the SAT?

I don’t believe in giving students specific amounts of study time to aim for every day. Every student is different—they have different schedules, different levels of commitment to things other than SAT prep, and different processing and working speeds. What I’ll say is this: generally speaking, you should aim to do some work in every area of the SAT every week. As my students approach their test dates, I typically ask them to try to complete one practice test per week.

Do colleges care how many times you take the SAT?

I don’t claim to be an admissions expert, so the first thing I’ll say is that you should consult your college counselor—or even the admissions officers at schools in which you’re interested—for the most specific and accurate answer to this question.

In my career, I have not encountered students who took the SAT “too many times” in the sense that it harmed their chances of college admission. With some exceptions, most schools don’t require that you submit scores from every single SAT administration you’ve sat for; instead, they really just care about your highest score(s). That means that for the bulk of your applications, the school you’re applying to probably won’t even know how many times you’ve taken the SAT.

With that being said, there are some schools which do ask that you submit a complete report of all of your SAT scores with your application. In those cases, I’ll return to what I said at the beginning: talk to your college counselor, or reach out to those schools directly for more information about their policies regarding testing.

Related Reading

An Overview of SAT Costs & Fees

SAT Test Dates For 2024