Posts tagged with: about the test

I’ve covered this before at length, but it’s important to remember that, in general, you’ll increase your score more by making fewer silly mistakes than you will by getting more of the hardest questions right.  I’ve always left the actual calculations and decision making in your court, though.

Well, the decision making is still in your court, but I’ve made the calculations a little easier for you. I went ahead and aggregated the scoring tables of a bunch of old tests, averaged the scaled scores, rounded them down to the nearest 10, and made a nifty little spreadsheet that you might find useful:

Based on multiple scoring tables…your particular scoring table obviously might vary a bit.

The bold rows are the rows that represent skipping the same number of questions per section. (For example, for a score of about 690, you can skip 6 questions, or two per section. If you just want to break 600, you can skip FIVE QUESTIONS PER SECTION if you get all the rest of the questions right. Seriously.)

This is not about limiting your scores; it’s about maximizing them. Questions on the SAT are arranged in order of difficulty, so you can predict very easily where the toughest ones will be. Take your time on the simple ones, make sure you collect all the easy points, and only then worry about the tough ones. If you run out of time and have to leave a few blank at the end, don’t worry about it. If you’re perfect (or almost perfect) on the ones you answer, leaving a few blank won’t hurt you much.

Much hay is made about what the SAT is actually testing. Does it function as some strangely-defined “college readiness” measurement? Is it a pure reasoning test? Is the SAT a test of innate intelligence, like an IQ test? Is it a completely meaningless hoop that you just have to jump through like a circus dog because everyone else does? The College Board claims only that the SAT tests “the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math.” Is that true?

The indefatigable Debbie Stier asked me for my take on this the other day, and I realized that I had never written about it on this site. My answer to all of the above is a qualified “no.” There’s a bit of truth to each claim, and you won’t have to look too hard to find people who’ll argue for any of them. You might even have a friend with a crazy theory of his own (Duuude, the SAT is an awesome predictor of alien abduction!). I’ve been working with the SAT for a while now, and I’ve come to my own conclusions.

The short answer: there is no short answer. Each subject tests different things, and although there are overarching themes, you’re not giving the test fair treatment if you try to encompass the whole thing in just a word or two. What follows is a bit of a brain dump. Chime in in the comments if you think I’m missing something.

Critical Reading
  • Deep Reading: Are you able to interact with a passage in such a way that you understand the author’s tone? Can you draw inferences about how the author might respond to counterarguments or criticism of her point of view? Do you understand why she might have bothered to sit down and write the passage in the first place?
  • Precision: Do you comprehend sophisticated writing (both in the passage and in the answer choices!) well enough to pick the one correct response from a list when the incorrect choices are often incorrect for subtle reasons? Often incorrect choices can be eliminated because of a single word in the choice! Do you know exactly what words mean? On hard sentence completions, it’s not good enough to have a vague sense that a particular word is “positive” or “negative.” You have to know precise definitions, and recognize appropriate use (not for every single word, mind you, but for enough to successfully eliminate incorrect choices).
    • Vocabulary: This is a corollary to the above, but obviously you need to possess a decent vocabulary to score well on the CR section.
  • Umm…math: How are your fundamental math skills? Are you comfortable working with right triangles, exponents, and percents? Can you reliably translate word problems into mathematical equations? There’s no way around this; there are many techniques that can help boost your score, but if your fundies are weak your score will be also.
  • Nimbleness: Do you see multiple ways to solve many of the problems? Are you willing to take shortcuts if they’re available (like on questions like these), or are you dogmatic in your methodology? Are you able to transition easily between techniques if the first one you try doesn’t bear fruit? Are you willing to try crazy things if you’re stumped?
  • Stick-to-itiveness: Do you persevere when your first approach comes up empty? I’ve been teaching this stuff for years and I don’t get questions wrong when I take the test, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t end up at a dead-end once in a while on my first go-through of a problem. The highest scorers cock their eyebrows, learn from their missteps, and reroute when they run into trouble.
  • Grammar: Can you spot common usage errors? The SAT doesn’t cover every grammatical rule, and it stays pretty far away from most grammar controversy. (Oxford comma? Not tested.) If you know the most common SAT rules, you’ll be in pretty good shape. If you’re looking for an exhaustive list of rules, Erica Meltzer’s got you covered.
  • Flow: Can you identify (in the multiple choice) and execute (in the essay) a logically structured, well formed sentence or paragraph? Are you able to recognize when contrast or transition words are appropriate, or when an edit might drastically improve clarity and readability?
The Bottom Line
It’s quite difficult to say, concisely, what the SAT is testing, and attempts to do so are often uselessly reductive (it’s what you learn in school!) or dismissive and curmudgeonly (the SAT tests you on how well you take the SAT). Students who work assiduously in school (not students whose grades are exemplary because of cramming skills) tend to do well because there is a fair amount of overlap between SAT skills and the skills ostensibly taught in high school, but it’s also very possible to raise SAT scores a great deal with focused prep because the SAT is fairly predictable, despite its breadth.
Regardless of what the SAT tests, your score is not a number that defines your worth. It is not tattooed on your forehead, and once your senior year is over it will very quickly be relegated to a dusty, rarely-traveled corner of your mind. As crazy as this may seem to you now, you might get to a time in your life when you can’t even remember what your SAT score was. But it is a number that may help you gain admission to the schools you pine after, so if that’s important to you, then you should take the steps to ensure that you’ll be happy with your score.

Because there’s a penalty of ¼ raw score point for incorrect multiple choice responses on the SAT, many students experience extreme trepidation about guessing when they aren’t sure about an answer. I’ve stated my general advice on guessing before, but the truth is that while I almost always find that my students benefit slightly from guessing more, I’m open to adjusting that advice if it doesn’t seem to serve a particular student well. If you’re not comfortable just taking blanket advice from a stranger on the Internet, there’s actually a very simple experiment you can perform to help you settle on a guessing strategy that works for you.*

Here it is: always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS GUESS on practice tests, and make little marks on your answer sheet to remind yourself which choices were guesses. When you’re done, score your test twice: once with your guesses in there, and once with all your guesses replaced by blanks.

What you’ll probably find is that there isn’t much difference either way, but once you’ve done this on 3 or 4 tests, you’ll start to get a sense of how guessing works for you. By the time the real test comes along, you’ll be comfortable in your guessing strategy, knowing that it’s based not on superstition or blind faith, but science.

If you want to get really crazy and add a bit of granularity into this, that’s possible too. Replace the little mark you were using to signify a guess with a number. Rate your guesses on a scale of 1 (no idea whatsoever) to 3 (got a good feeling about this), and score your test first with all the guesses, then with only the 3-rated guesses, then with the 3- and 2-rated guesses, etc. You could similarly use numbers to note how many choices (if any) you were able to eliminate before you guessed. I wouldn’t go so far down the rabbit hole though; I’m just spitballing here.

* Of course, the best guessing strategy is to never have to worry about guessing because you have prepared so well for the test that nothing can surprise you. But you knew that already, right?

journey of 1000 miles begins wit a single stepYou don’t need to move mountains to significantly increase your score; you just need to focus on weak areas, a few at a time, and make them strengths. This entire site is dedicated to the specifics of doing just that, but I wanted to take a bird’s eye view today and point out that in general, you can improve your overall score by about 100 points simply by making one fewer mistake per section than you made last time (not counting the essay, of course). Seriously.

Say your raw scores on Test 2 in the Blue Book looked like this:

CR: 53
M: 43
W: 42

That’d give you 650’s across the board (assuming an 8 essay). Now say you made one fewer multiple choice error in the 3 reading, 3 math, and 2 writing sections. That’s going to add points directly because of the correct answers, and it’s also going to erase incorrect answer penalties to the tune of 0.25 per answer.

CR: 53 + 3 + 0.75
M: 43 + 3 + 0.75
W: 42 + 2 + 0.50

Your new raw scores round up, so now they look like this:

CR: 57
M: 47
W: 45

Your score just went from 650 + 650 + 650 = 1950 to 690 + 690 + 690 = 2070. Get some.

Of course, the actual improvement you’ll see could vary a bit based on where you’re starting, but 100 points is a pretty good estimate for this kind of raw score improvement.

What does this mean for you? It means that if you can identify a few weaknesses that appear often on the SAT, you can really move your scores. Say you struggle with dangling modifiers, main idea questions, and questions that can be solved by plugging in. If you use focused practice on those kinds of questions until you’re a pro, you can see a big improvement, even if it’s late in the game.

It also means that although it’s obviously prudent to practice by taking whole tests, it’s also a good idea once in a while to buckle down with a drill that contains only the specific kinds of questions you’re looking focus on. One of the advantages of taking a good prep course or working with a tutor is that an experienced tutor or prep course teacher should, with all of her familiarity with the test, be very quick to help you identify your weak areas, and provide drills tailored to your weaknesses. If you’re studying by yourself (as most of my readers are), I’m trying to help you out by creating these drills built to identify weaknesses. They have answer keys that link directly to salient techniques to help you with the questions you missed, and to provide more focused practice with those kinds of questions. It’s a work in progress, of course, but I think what’s there is good and what’s coming will only make it better.

The bottom line: If your score isn’t where you want it to be yet, don’t freak out, and don’t try to do everything at once. You’re not going to jump from 1800 to 2100 (or 2100 to 2300, or 1400 to 1600) in one test. But if you can identify a few weaknesses every time you take a test, and you’re able to make sure you don’t make those kinds of mistakes going forward, you can eventually see a huge improvement. Look at your practice mistakes closely to try to identify patterns, seek focused practice based on your personal weak areas, and set reasonable goals to improve your performance on those specific things. If you do so diligently, you’ll be happy with the results.

Most of what you’ll read below can be found couched in more confusing language right at The College Board’s own Score Choice™ website, or in their Score-Use  Practices report. The College Board, obviously, is the final authority since they make the rules, but since I’m often inundated by these questions, I thought it’d be nice to put all my thoughts down in one place. Ready? Me too!

  • Can I send only my math score from the March test? No. If you want a school to see any of your March test, you have to send the whole thing. Obviously this applies for any test, not just the March one.
  • Then what’s the point of Score Choice™? Depends who you ask. The more cynical among us think it’s just a ploy to get kids to take the test more to fill the coffers of The College Board, or a response to the fact that the ACT has always had score choice options. I see it as a big improvement because it allows you to strike a truly putrid performance from your record once you know the score, obviating the need for the panicked same-day-score-cancellation-because-you-sneezed-three-times of yesteryear.
  • So then, how does this work? Basically, you choose which scores to send to which schools, and which scores not to. For the SAT, you can choose to send whole scores from one particular test date, or not, but you can’t, as mentioned above, break it down further and sent only your math score from the March test and your reading score from theMay test. For SAT Subject Tests, you can choose which scores to send by subject. So even if you took Subject Tests in chemistry, US history, and Literature on the same day, you can decide to only send your US history score if that’s the only one you like.
  • Should I send 4 scores for free when I take the test? I advise against it. There’s a chance now that you won’t end up wanting those scores to see the light of day, but once they’re out they stay out. You can’t call up an admissions office and ask them to ignore scores you’ve already sent them. My parsimonious friends complain that it’ll cost you a little more to send scores later, but I think it’s a fair price to pay for peace of mind. Don’t send any scores until you’re DONE taking the SAT.
  • But my school doesn’t participate in Score Choice! Listen. I’m not going to sit here and tell you to lie to any schools to which you apply. If you end up attending that school, it’ll be weird that your very first interaction with them involved academic dishonesty. It will slowly consume you from the inside out, until you are little more than a dull-eyed husk shuffling back and forth between endless meaningless errands, waiting for your merciful release from the crippling guilt. It will never come. But you’re being misled if you think your school has some sort of exemption from The College Board’s rules. From their own site:

    Is there a loophole that allows colleges to “opt out” of Score Choice?

    Colleges cannot “opt out of” or “reject” Score Choice. Score Choice is a feature available to students. Colleges set their own policies and practices regarding the use of test scores. The College Board does not release SAT test scores without student consent. This will continue under Score Choice. Colleges, universities and scholarship programs will receive the scores applicants send to them.

    I should add that although it’s unlikely, there’s a chance your high school might include SAT scores on your official transcript. If you’re planning to leave off a score that you shouldn’t be, make sure you confirm with your counselor that this won’t happen to you. Maybe it’s apocryphal, since I’ve never actually heard of it happening, only heard of someone who knows someone to whom that happened, but you should ask just to make sure.

  • What does “super score” mean? Most (but not all) schools consider your best score from each subject (as opposed to your best single-sitting score) when they look at your application. People like to call this “super scoring.” This was done before Score Choice™, too.
  • How will I know whether my school looks at “super scores” when it considers applicants? You could call them and ask, or you could find your school in this .pdf from The College Board
  • Why do you keep using the ™ symbol in this post? The College Board site does it a bunch, and it just kinda cracks me up. It’s not like “Score Choice” is a super cool phrase that a competitor might want to steal, but someone decided it needed to be protected. I’m just having a bit of fun with it.
  • My scores are _____, what scores should I send? General advice: send scores from every date where you got your best score in at least one section. You’ve got a tougher decision to make if your scores look like this:
    • March ’11: 700R 600M 650W
    • May ’11: 450R 650M 650W

    I honestly don’t know what to tell you about that. Personally, I’d be reluctant to send May ’11, because that 250 point drop in Reading looks pretty terrible. That said, if your school does the kind of super scoring where only your best scores even cross the desk of the admissions officer, you could get away with it. In the rare case that your scores look crazy like these, don’t look to the Internet for advice; call admissions offices directly and get advice from the source.

Well, that’s all I can think of. Did I miss anything?

Assuming (C) is the most common answer makes no sense. Just like this picture.

People say dumb things about the SAT a lot. It’s really common to hear someone say the thing about the most common answer being C. Honestly, I set out to write this post to eviscerate those people, but then I did my own research and saw that they’re wrong, but not as obviously as I had thought. So this’ll be more of a light ribbing than a true evisceration.

Let’s be clear: it’s not true that C is the “most common answer” on a given test. It’s straight-up not, and guessing based on that is tantamount to relying on thaumaturgy to improve your SAT score. It’s a poor excuse for strategy and preparedness.

However, it turns out that if you look at all the tests in the Blue Book in aggregate (my raw data is here, in case you’re curious where I’m getting all this) C is, in fact, more common than most answers, and only less common than D. The least common answer is A. WTF?

Answer choices are ostensibly determined at random, so you’d think with a large enough sample size (the Blue Book is 10 tests x 160 questions per test, so 1600 questions) all the answers should appear pretty close to an equal number of times. Across all 10 tests, here’s how it actually breaks down:

A: 290
B: 319
C: 337
D: 340
E: 314

Honestly that’s more variability than I expected, but it’s not outlandish and it does nothing to prove that the answer distribution isn’t random. It’s still superstition to say that the most common answer is C (and don’t get any ideas about assuming it’s D now instead) but it turns out it’s also a dumb rumor to say that every answer appears an equal number of times on every test. So…yeah.

The tests in the Blue Book (besides the first 3) aren’t released tests, so maybe it’s different with the real things? Looking at the data just for the first 3 tests (below), I’m thinking probably not.

Test 1:
A: 24
B: 30
C: 37
D: 31
E: 38

Test 2:
A: 30
B: 32
C: 35
D: 30
E: 33

Test 3:
A: 28
B: 31
C: 36
D: 37
E: 27

Three different tests (all actually administered), three different winners in the “most common answer” contest.

Bottom line: basing any sort of guessing decisions on what’s the most or least common answer probably isn’t going to help you out, so don’t do it.

UPDATE: Interesting, if slightly mocking, discussion going on about this at Make special note of the post about the random integer generator for a pretty convincing argument that any Blue Book variability really is just noise.

I figure now is as good a time as any to answer publicly some of the questions I’ve been asked more than once privately. Some of these are great questions. Some are…not.

  • Should I take a practice test the night before? No. Relax on the night before. If you’re cramming now because you didn’t prepare enough ahead of time, it’s probably not going to help and you’ll only stress yourself out more. Remember that feeling of unpreparedness and channel it into preparing more assiduously next time. If you really must do something, go through your vocab words one more time. Then get to sleep.
  • What should I bring with me to the test? Admission ticket, photo ID, 4-5 sharpened pencils (better safe than sorry), a calculator with fresh batteries (I have experienced the death of a calculator mid-test and it’s not fun), and a watch so you can keep your own time since you can’t count on the proctor to give you regular warnings about timing. See the College Board’s own checklist here.
  • Should I drink coffee/Red Bull/5 Hour Energy before the test? Only if that’s part of your routine every morning. If it’s not, you’re only setting yourself up to have to drop a huge deuce in the middle of the test. Your best-score scenario does not involve a stall with a broken door in the 2nd floor men’s room in the middle of section 5.
  • Should I take Ritalin/Aderall before the test? I swear to God I’ve been asked this a million times. Has it been prescribed to you by a doctor and do you take it every day? If not, then don’t be an idiot. Look, I know that stuff is available pretty readily to those who go looking for it, and while I’d rather you not abuse drugs period, I try not to make it my business. But if you’re so stupid that you think it will help you concentrate just because it’s prescribed to some people who have trouble concentrating, then you’re hopeless. ADHD drugs are basically amphetamines. You’ll be bouncing around the room, and you’ll deserve the horrible score you get. Kindly remove your head from your rear end.
  • What if my proctor makes a mistake? The College Board tries to make the test experience as uniform as possible, but at the end of the day it’s up to your proctor to make sure things go smoothly. Proctors are not infallible, and it’s actually fairly common for one to muck up. If it’s a mistake in your favor (I’ve heard of proctors leaving vocabulary word posters up in test rooms, and accidentally adding 10 minutes to sections) then don’t be the nerd who corrects her, lest you incur the justifiable hatred of your peers in the test room. If it’s a mistake that could hurt your score (too little time?), speak up. 
  • What if something else weird happens? Honestly, all kinds of things might go wrong for you on test day. Maybe the lawn is being mowed right outside the window of your room. When I last took the test, it was an unseasonably warm morning in November and the school’s heating system was blasting anyway. It must have been 90 degrees in my room. There’s really nothing you can do about that kind of thing, unfortunately. Tough it out.

  • Can I copy off this smart kid I know? No, dumbass. Not only would the guilt slowly rot you from the inside out until you were covered in boils and unlovable by anyone forever, but the people around you will have different section numberings.
  • Can I sneakily go back and work on sections I’m not supposed to be working on? I hear about people getting away with this all the time, but I also hear about people getting caught. You don’t need me to tell you that this is against the rules, so let me tell you instead that I very much doubt you’ll increase your score much by surreptitiously sneaking a look back at a previous section, and you’ll be assuming a huge risk (that you’ll be caught and all your work invalidated). Survey says: not worth it.
  • Should I cancel my scores? While you still have the option of cancelling your scores right after the test, it’s really stupid to do so these days because you have Score Choice™ after the fact. Basically, if your scores come back awful, you can decide to expunge them once you see them by not sending them anywhere, so you should really give yourself the chance to see them. Unless you projectile vomited all over the kid in front of you during the first section, don’t cancel your scores.
  • Should I send scores for free with my registration? I advise against it. Again, now that the game has changed with Score Choice™, you might decide later that these scores aren’t ones you’d like to send (say you take the test again in November and blow these scores away). Once a score is sent, it cannot be unsent. Even though it’ll cost you a bit of money later, I think the peace of mind is worth it.


I might update these as I’m reminded of more questions. In the meantime, post your own in the comments. Good luck!

I’m getting a bit tired of all the focus on #20, which is usually the hardest math question on the test. I guess I’m a bit complicit in all the hype, since I like to illustrate techniques on here using difficult problems, but that’s only because I like to show how powerful those techniques can be. Seriously, let’s be very clear about this: #20 is the LEAST important question on the test. You shouldn’t be worrying about it at all unless you’re getting 780’s or higher every time.  Here’s an argument based on a simple economic principle.

If you’ve taken or are taking an economics course, you’re surely familiar with the concept of opportunity cost. Put succinctly, opportunity cost is the cost of a certain decision in terms of the best available alternative. For example, if you choose to go to the movies (which costs you $10), but if there weren’t any good movies you you would have spent those two hours babysitting for $15/hour, then your opportunity cost for going to the movies is what you paid plus what you COULD HAVE made instead ($40). That’s an expensive movie, right?

Of course, opportunity cost is really just a way to codify the thought processes we have about the decisions we make: “if I didn’t do thing 1, I could have done thing 2 instead; the benefits of doing thing 1 are valuable enough to me that I will forgo the benefits of doing thing 2.” With that in mind, let’s look at some facts about the SAT math section:


  • Every multiple choice question is worth the same: +1 raw score point for a correct answer, -1/4 raw score point for an incorrect answer, +0 for a blank.
  • Although they’re worth the same, questions vary greatly in difficulty.
  • You have a limited amount of time to complete a section.
  • In math sections, questions proceed in an order (roughly) from easiest to hardest*.
So here’s the argument:
  1. Since the payoff for a correct response is exactly the same in raw score points no matter the difficulty, and since that’s the only thing that determines your final math score, the value of each question is exactly the same.
  2. Since you can’t really be doing anything else during the 25 minutes in which you’re sitting there taking a 20 question math section, the opportunity cost for working on (and answering correctly) any given question is equal to the time it takes you to answer that question (time that you could otherwise be spending answering the next question correctly).
  3. Since it takes longer to answer hard questions correctly than it does to answer easy questions correctly, questions on the math section have increasing opportunity cost (that is, they take longer) as you progress, even though their values are exactly the same.
  4. Since your mission is to maximize your score (by maximizing the amount of raw score points you secure) in a limited amount of time, the most important raw score points to collect are the ones with the lowest opportunity cost associated with them.
  5. Conversely, mistakes on easy questions are the most costly mistakes, since it would have taken so little extra time to get those questions right.
  6. If #20 is the hardest question in the section (this is usually, but not always true), then it has the highest opportunity cost, and is therefore the least important to get right.
  7. If it’s the least important question to get right, it’s also the least important question to attempt.

You should, therefore, be as positive as possible that you are correct in your response to every question you work on before moving on to the next question (which will have a higher opportunity cost for the same amount of raw score points). You should not even attempt #20 until you are sure you are correct on #19, which you shouldn’t even attempt until you’re sure you’re correct on #18, etc.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating here: You’ll increase your score more by getting fewer easy questions wrong than you will by getting more hard ones right.

* In the section that has the grid-in questions, questions go from easiest to hardest twice, once in the multiple choice (#’s 1-8) and then again in the grid-ins (#’s 9-18).

Holy mackerel are people misinformed about the SAT. And boy howdy do they like to disseminate their misinformation as though it’s gospel truth. I’ve heard some really dumb things coming even from people who should know much better, like high school college counselors/guidance counselors. In fairness, mastering the SAT (not just the test itself, but the system in which it resides) is a complex and ever-evolving task. Then again, The College Board’s own website is a veritable wealth of information, so if it’s your job to know this stuff and you don’t know it, you really don’t have a good excuse. The bottom line, though, is that I’d just like to hear more stories of a guidance counselor telling a student: “You know, I’m not sure. Let me check and I’ll get back to you,” instead of sputtering half- and untruths from a position of authority. I’m getting off-track. All of this is to introduce what will probably be a recurring feature on this site: dumb (but persistent) rumors about the SAT. Oh, here go Hell come.

When I hear people say this it drives me crazy: “Take the January test, because fewer other kids take it so the curve isn’t so bad.” Let me say this without equivocation: the SAT is not curved in the classic sense, and it doesn’t matter when you take it.

If grades in a class you’re taking are based on a curve, that means your teacher looks at the distribution of grades in your class, and assigns letter grades to ranges based on that distribution. So maybe instead of saying at the outset that a 90% or higher is an A, he’ll say “the top 10% of the class will get an A.” If the class is really hard (or he’s just not that great a teacher), maybe the top 10% includes scores all the way down to 75%. By that curve, a 79% is still an A, but that’s not decided until all the scores are in and the teacher can see the distribution. Curved grades aren’t finalized until all the grades are in, because curved grades depend on the performance of the entire group that took the test that day.

That’s not how it’s done on the SAT. Yes, it’s true that scoring tables vary by test. But that’s a function of the difficulty of the test as revealed in the equating* process, not of the ability of the test takers that day. Equating ensures that results are reliable across tests. Scoring tables are not based on a curve of the results from that single sitting. Although scoring tables are finalized after you take the test, there’s no looking at the results afterwards and assigning scores based on percentages. There’s no guarantee (although it usually happens) that anyone on a particular test date will come out with a perfect 2400. Your performance on the SAT has nothing to do with the performance of the kid sitting next to you on test day. If the best performance in the whole country on a particular test day is a 2390, that 2390 is the best score. It doesn’t get curved up. 

Still not convinced? Have a look at the year-by-year average SAT score data (page 3 of this PDF). It changes! I don’t know any kind of curving system that would allow this to happen: the same score is a different percentile depending on the year. The very existence of this table is proof that the SAT is not curved in the classical sense.

Let’s just look at this from one other angle. Pretend you’re a college admissions officer. Do you want to have to worry about what month a kid took the SAT because some months are easier than others? Wouldn’t that defeat the entire purpose of a STANDARDIZED test? I can assure you that no admissions officer has ever said: “Oh, John Smith got his 1900 in March and Katie Jones got her 1900 in January, so John’s actually a little smarter.” A 1900 is a 1900, period. That’s what equating does. It ensures that, no matter when you take the test, your score indicates (within a fairly small range*) your aptitude.

The bottom line: stop worrying so much about WHEN to take the test, and start worrying about getting prepared so that you know HOW to take the test.


The legendary Erik the Red put together a super-thorough chart of the curves of all released (i.e. QAS) tests, sorted by ease and by month. There’s no discernible pattern.

Here’s what the College Board itself has to say about how an SAT is scored:

How is the SAT scored?

Scoring is a two-step process:

1. A raw score is calculated.

  • One point is added for each multiple-choice question answered correctly.
  • For multiple-choice questions answered incorrectly, 1/4 point is subtracted:
    • No points are subtracted for incorrect answers to the mathematics questions requiring student-produced responses.
    • No points are subtracted for omitted questions.
  • Then, the total points answered wrong are subtracted from the number answered correctly. If the resulting score is a fraction, it is rounded to the nearest whole number—1/2 or more is rounded up; less than 1/2 is rounded down.
  • Questions in the SAT equating section do not count toward the score.

2. The raw score is converted to the College Board 200- to 800-point scaled score by a statistical process called equating.

  • Equating adjusts for slight differences in difficulty between test editions, and ensures that a student’s score of, say, 450 on one edition of a test reflects the same ability as a score of 450 on another edition of the test.
  • Equating also ensures that a student’s score does not depend on how well others did on the same edition of the test.

*Here’s a link to a really dense and boring white paper from the college board that still doesn’t really tell you how equating is done, but reinforces what I’ve said above, for the most part. Thanks to “fignewton” over at College Confidential for the link and clarification. I didn’t have this completely right when I first published this post.

Imagine you’re given the task of picking as many apples from a particular apple tree as possible, in a short amount of time. You know that none of the apples on the tree are any more or less delicious than any of the others, but of course the higher up they are, the harder they are to get.

Are you going to climb right to the top to get the most difficult apples first? Not if you want to get the most total apples. I guess if it’s important to you to brag to your friends that you got the highest apple, you might do that. But if that’s what you want to brag about to your friends, maybe it’s time to look at your life, and look at your choices.

In the SAT math section, the questions go roughly in order from easiest to hardest, but each question is worth the exact same amount of points. There’s no bonus for getting the hardest ones right. So if you’re skipping questions early to get to questions late, or if you’re rushing through the easy ones to get to the hard ones at the end, you’re doing it wrong. You’re spending precious time on questions that are very difficult without having given enough thought to questions that are much easier. If you prioritized your time differently, you’d probably see a higher score.

To go back to the apple tree example, skipping early questions or rushing to get to the hard ones faster is like climbing to the top of the tree before you’ve picked all the easier apples towards the bottom — the ones you can reach from the ground without climbing at all. You’re risking your entire day’s work by doing so. You might get fired from your apple picking job for being insanely inefficient. How will you feed your famished children?

Let’s look at this one more way to really drive the point home. Every test’s scoring table is slightly different, but you can usually break 700 with 48 raw score points. There are 54 raw score points available (that’s if you get every question right), so you can actually skip 6 questions (or get 5 wrong) and still get your 700 if you’re perfect on the rest.

Do you understand what that means? That means you can get a kick-ass score without ever tackling the two hardest questions in each math section! And if you stop rushing to get to them and sweating through them and often still getting them wrong, you’ll probably make fewer mistakes on the easier questions.

This is a subtle point, but it’s a huge factor in whether your math score is going to see an impressive improvement. If you really want your score to go up, start prioritizing the easy points. Once you’re consistently getting all of those (seriously, nothing difficulty 3 or under wrong ever), then you can start to worry about the hard ones.

Some tutors and courses assign students “target numbers” to try to hard-code this concept into their prep. They’ll say, for example, that you should always skip the last two questions in each section (well, #8 and #18 in the Grid-In section) and use the time that saves you to work on easier questions. Don’t be obstinate! It’s good advice! They’re not trying to limit your score, they’re trying to maximize it. Unless you’re already breaking 700 (or whatever your “target score” is), getting the easy questions right more often is the easiest path to a better score.

Conclusion: Don’t worry if you don’t finish the hardest question or two in a section if you’ve made sure you got the easier ones right. That’s a good trade-off and you increased your score by doing so. I’ll say it once more: You’ll increase your score more by getting fewer easy ones wrong than you will by getting more hard ones right. So slow down, work carefully, and bask in the glow of your score report when it arrives and proves me right.

Note: This post is about the old SAT (pre-2016). The “new” SAT does not have a penalty for incorrect answers. 

In short: almost always.

(Note: This is generalized advice; if it doesn’t sit well with you, read this.)

I’ve encountered a lot of misinformation about the SAT in my travels, but the single subject that generates the most confusion and rampant speculation is The Guessing Rule.  So here it is, as plainly as I can put it: If you have read a question and thought about it for more than 5 seconds, you should not leave it blank.

Here’s how it breaks down:
Every incorrect answer in a multiple choice section* costs you 1/4 of a raw score point. Every correct answer, of course, gives you a whole raw score point. A blank has no positive or negative effect on your score. Fractional points are rounded to the nearest whole number when scores are compiled.

Imagine two ne’er-do-wells, Johnny and Morrissey, are taking a much shorter test with the same scoring scheme. Johnny doesn’t give a damn about the test, and guesses C for every question without even looking at it.  Morrissey cares even less than Johnny, and just leaves the whole thing blank, opting instead to stare out the window dolefully.

Question #

When you guess completely randomly, like Johnny did, what are your statistical odds of getting a question right? Well, there are five choices, A through E, so that’s a 20% chance (or 1 in 5 odds) that you’ll get any particular question correct. Since our test had five choices on it, Johnny will get one of them right, and the other four wrong.

Question #
C +1
[blank] +0
C -1/4
[blank] +0
C -1/4
[blank] +0
C -1/4
[blank] +0
C -1/4
[blank] +0

Note that when you total up Johnny’s score, it’s the same as Morrissey’s! Both get a grand total of 0 raw score points. Now, it makes sense that they both would earn a goose egg — they both did about the same amount of work. It would be unfair to give Johnny a better score simply for picking up his pencil and bubbling randomly (note: this is what the ACT does).

It might be clear by now why the SAT’s scoring system works the way that it does. It’s not to penalize you for wrong answers; it’s to prevent people from gaining an unfair advantage. Say your proctor calls time at the end of a section that neither you nor the person next to you has finished. You put your pencil down like the obedient student that you are, but your conniving neighbor hurriedly bubbles in random guesses for the last few questions. That person shouldn’t have an advantage over you, and the SAT’s scoring system (on average) ensures that she doesn’t.

So the obvious implication is that random guessing doesn’t pay. Why, then, am I arguing that you should guess whenever you’ve had time to read and consider a question? Simply put, because then you’re not randomly guessing anymore, so you’re tipping the scales slightly in your favor. You will still get more questions wrong than you will right when you’re guessing, but even if you only eliminate one bad choice before doing so, the math says your score will slowly go up.

Let’s look one more time at Johnny, but change his strategy a bit. Let’s say now that he’s still randomly guessing, but before he does so he’s putting in the minimal effort of eliminating one choice he knows is wrong before doing so (so his odds of a correct answer are 1 in 4). Let’s also say the test got a little longer…say it’s 8 questions now. That means, statistically, that he’ll get 2 right, and 6 wrong.

Question #
C +1
C -1/4
D -1/4
C -1/4
C -1/4
B +1
E -1/4
A -1/4
+2/4 = +0.5

When it comes time to calculate final scores, that half a point will round up, and Johnny has just (amazingly) helped his score.

I want to be clear here: this is not going to net you hundreds of points. This might get you 10 points on a test, or it might get you none. Since it’s purely theoretical, it might even cost you points on a particular test if your luck is worse than average (remember, even though statistically you have a 50/50 shot when you flip a coin, sometimes in real life you can flip heads 10 times in a row).

This guideline is kinda like the rules a Vegas blackjack dealer has to follow. I know you’re probably not in casinos very often if you’re worrying about the SAT, but maybe you’ve been to a charity casino night at your school? At my school that was one of the attractions of the post-prom party. But I digress. The object of blackjack is to get as close as possible to 21 without going over. If you’ve got 18, but you’re feeling lucky, you can take another card to try to get closer. It might not be smart, but you can do it. The dealer, on the other hand, cannot. He has to stop if he’s got 17 or higher, even though he can see your hand and therefore might know that 17 is a losing hand for him. Why? Because someone very smart at a casino a long time ago figured out that if he always does that, always, then the house will slowly but surely win money, even though some individual players might walk away from the table with more money than they came with.

So it is with you and guessing on the SAT. If you always guess when you’ve read a question and thought about it for more than 5 seconds, you’ll win more points than you lose, even while you’re getting more questions wrong than you’re getting right. It might take some getting used to, but that should be your new guessing rule.

One last note that should be obvious: guessing is for emergencies only. The better way to improve your score (and the only way to improve it more than a minuscule amount) is to learn some techniques to help you actually get the questions right. Hopefully I can be of service there too.

*There’s no penalty for guessing on a grid-in in the student produced response part of the math section. Why do you think that is?

While it’d be nice if you could expect to go up exactly 2400-p points (where = your starting score), it’s a good idea to have more tempered expectations as you begin your SAT prep journey. What follow are some generalizations based on my experience. Your mileage may vary.

  • Improvement is relative. If a course or tutor claims an overall average improvement (“our students improve 200 points on average”), keep in mind that figure doesn’t take into account the starting scores of the students. It’s a lot easier to bring a 1500 to a 1700 than it is to bring a 1700 to a 1900. It’s even harder, of course, to bring a 2100 to a 2300. A 200 point improvement is a great goal if you’re starting around 1700. It might be less realistic (though not impossible) if you’re starting at 2000.
  • Improvement takes time. I like about 2 months of regular prep before the exam, but I’ve worked with lots of kids whose improvements have taken longer. If you start your prep 3 weeks before your test, you’ll probably be disappointed in your improvement.
  • Improvement depends a lot on what you already know. One of the best ways to improve your math score is to get into the habit of working with real numbers instead of variables whenever possible. This is the first thing most tutors and courses will teach you. If you’ve already been doing that on your own, then obviously you’ll see less benefit from that technique than someone who’d never thought to try it before. The same can be said of studying vocabulary. If your vocabulary is awful when you start, and then you learn a ton of words, you’ll probably see a nice reading improvement from that alone. If your vocabulary is already really good, then it’s still a good idea to learn as many new words as you can, but it’s going to help your score less.
  • It’s easier to improve in some sections than it is in others. The writing section (the multiple choice section of it, anyway) tests you on mostly straightforward rules, so once you nail them down, (especially if you didn’t know what to look for before) you should see a HUGE improvement there. Some of the hardest math questions are susceptible to a few simple techniques, but the SAT will also throw some really difficult questions at you that those techniques won’t help you with, so you might see a nice initial score jump followed by a plateau that’s hard to overcome. The reading comprehension section follows patterns too, but they’re much more difficult to learn, so large improvements there will require the most dogged persistence. Expect your reading score to improve slowly.
  • All that having been said, it doesn’t take a miracle to raise a score. A good rule of thumb is this: one fewer mistake per section should add about 100 points to your score.  See for yourself if you’ve got a scoring table handy from a test you recently took. Changing one answer from wrong to right in each multiple choice section will add 3.75 raw score points to your reading and math scores, and 2.5 raw score points to your writing score. For example, if you scored 650 in each subject on the first test in the Blue Book, adding those points would get you: 690 reading, 680 math, and 690 writing (assuming an essay score of 8). You went from 1950 to 2060. Not bad, eh?
So, how much should your score go up? Tough to say with much certainty, as you’ve hopefully gleaned from above. However, if you give yourself enough time, put in enough effort, and are willing to change your old habits, you should be able to make progress. Good luck!