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Each student’s scores in Math, Reading, and Writing are calculated and sent to colleges and scholarships to be compared and analyzed as an important portion of the student’s application (at least, at most colleges).
As I will explain, the SAT has developed a reputation as being hard and extremely stressful. I’ll even go into some of the reasons that I speculate are at the root of this misled assessment of the test, which not only demonizes the idea of test prep (if it’s so hard, why even bother?) but stresses students and parents out unnecessarily.
Your problem, if you’re worried about how “hard” the SAT is, is that you’re asking the wrong questions. But first, let’s quickly review what the SAT is, and find out just why it might make a high school student fearful.
What’s the SAT and what’s it about?
Ok, you can skip this if you feel pretty much familiar with the SAT test and its basic details and requirements.
If you’re totally new here, the SAT is a long (3 1/2 hours long) and wide-ranging test that covers a variety of topics from high school (as well as some “wild card” random topics).
The major sections of the SAT are:
- Math (mainly basic Algebra I and intermediate Geometry and Algebra 2)
- Reading (vocabulary and reading speed usually limit students)
- Writing (English grammar and usage, plus a timed handwritten essay)
The SAT is noteworthy in that it is very “tricky” rather than super “hard.” In this case, “tricky” literally means “full of tricks” like:
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- Fake-out answers
- Plenty of places to make careless errors
- Giving multiple contrasting viewpoints within a single reading passage
- Using very difficult or nuanced arguments in reading passages
- Using tough vocab that means something way different than how it sounds
- Reviewing math topics you haven’t seen since 5th grade
- Testing tricky grammar rules that (I’ve noticed) teachers give up on
If you need to improve your Writing score, focus first on studying your grammar rules (please permit me to remind you that I’ve written a book all about acing the SAT Grammar section!)
Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff on the test, no doubt about it, and I think that’s part of the reason that students consider it so difficult.
Why people think the SAT is hard:
Hey, the main point I’m trying to make here is that you’re not crazy to think the SAT is a hard test – I can see how you developed that theory about it.
Read the following list of possible reasons you think the test is so hard (and leave a comment if you agree, disagree, or have something to add to my list – I’ll update it!)
Lots of stuff on it: Simply because there’s so much material on the test, drawn from so many different subjects (math, reading, grammar, essay-writing), it can be a very intimidating experience, especially before you’ve really gotten started figuring out your weak and strong points.
It gets a bad rap: Whether it’s the news media, your teachers, your parents freaking out, classmates who want to pass their bad feelings to you, older siblings who didn’t study… whoever it is, I guarantee there are multiple people in your life who are telling you that the SAT is really hard (probably without having any clue what they’re talking about!)
People say the ACT is easier: I can’t completely explain this one away, but I think it’s partially because the ACT is newer and people are excited about it… especially when they think they might have an easier option that lets them avoid taking the dreaded SAT.
I’ve taken both tests many times, and for me, the SAT is actually easier.
It’s just not actually like that, although some people may favor one or the other. In the end, it’s accurate to say that they each have their own unique challenges.
Urban legends about the SAT can confuse and intimidate people: Like anything that gets a lot of attention from a bunch of high schoolers, urban myths and legends have sprouted up about the SAT, and they always and only seem to be about how hard the SAT is… and usually spread by students who have only taken the SAT once, or not at all… but if you want to know if the SAT is hard or not, wouldn’t you rather take my opinion?
I’ve taken like 40 SATs and teach it professionally for a living, and actually enjoy analyzing and breaking the test down!
“This SAT was especially hard”: Speaking of urban legends, this is a classic that I hear a lot, especially from parents that are trying to protect their students from the results of unsatisfactory scores. People convince themselves of things like “the October test was really easy, but the January test this year was super-hard.” That doesn’t make sense… it’s a standardized test.
The entire point is that it doesn’t matter where or when you take it. The entire system is curved, designed, and adjusted to eliminate this kind of difference from month to month, so I wish people would stop using the excuse that the SAT is “sometimes harder than usual.”
“This sounds weird”: The authors of the SAT know that without previous training, you’ll go for “weird-sounding” options in the Grammar section. But guess what – a lot of the time, that’s what the test wants.
There are a lot of bad tutors out there: On a weekly basis, I have to correct and deal with misinformation and bad advice that students have gotten from previous tutors or SAT prep classes. I’m sure that many of these tutors have an interest in making their students believe the SAT is really, really hard in order to keep them coming back as paying customers.
Comparing instead of improving: Here’s a bit of advice that works well no matter what you’re working on – you will never be happy, or get anywhere in life, if you’re focused on comparing yourself to other people.
If you compare your SAT score to family, friends, classmates, or competition, it will always seem “low” to you until you hit a perfect 2400, which the majority of people will probably never do or need to do in order to reach their life goals.
Focus instead on learning the rules of the test, applying appropriate strategies, and getting real concrete practice with SAT tests.
The SAT is the longest test you’ve ever taken: This is a pretty simple reason to think of the test as a “difficult” experience – the whole experience is going to take like 4 hours out of your Saturday morning.
However, I’m sure you’ve spent 4 hours staying focused on one thing… for example, if your friends went to see a 2 hour movie and then spent the next 2 hours talking about it, that’s as long as an SAT would last.
Students don’t know where to start prepping: As with any enormous-seeming problem, it’s hard to know even where to being. Obviously you want your preparation to be thorough, but of course you want to avoid wasting time and energy and keep moving forward.
All I can say is, check out my SAT prep books collection right now. It will give you my personal guidelines for where to being and how to efficiently study and is filled with hundreds of pages of specific advice, practice questions, and explanations, along with special diagnostic tests that will help you make an intelligent decision about where to being studying.
The vocabulary in the Reading seems impossible: Guess what. This is a real problem that many real students have faced and overcome. Guess what else. It takes real work to build your vocabulary. Why should it “just happen” if you don’t put forth a focused effort specifically towards improving your vocabulary?
Luckily, increasing your vocab abilities doesn’t have to be hard if you start early and invest a little bit of time each day. SAT vocab just takes time and daily practice… a lot like weightlifting. A small daily effort leads to huge compounded gains over time.
The personal pressure feels really high: It seems like everyone in the family is paying attention to how you do… grandparents, aunts, uncles, everyone wants to know what your scores were. It’s enough to make anyone feel “on the spot” and stressed-out.
Forget what other people say or think by making the conscious decision to stop thinking about your negative pressure-thoughts each and every time they come up. Eventually they will disappear. (I think that this is another huge life secret that I’m sharing with you, by the way!)
Details matter. A lot. Just one wrong choice of word can make a reading answer completely wrong. The direction your inequality is pointing in a math problem will completely change your answer (“<” vs “>”… visually, a minor difference, but mathematically, they are a world apart). For students not used to being so picky and methodical about specific details, the test can seem unfamiliar and frustratingly specific or picky, even arbitrary at times.
However, when you yourself learn how the SAT works (through personal study and hours of practice), these specific details will actually become helpers to your score as they help you eliminate wrong answers.
Stressin’ the essay section: As I mentioned earlier, almost every student I’ve ever had, has come to my office with too much stress about the SAT essay. It’s only about 10% of your score… sometimes even less, depending on how you do in the grammar questions. Plus, I have a ton of essay strategies and evidence examples that you can use on the SAT essay.
The SAT is NOT that hard!
Oh, and by the way, here are some calming facts about the SAT:
You cannot “pass” or “fail” the SAT. It is pretty predictable. You can skip questions you don’t like. Your personal goals will determine how well you need to do. You can and should prepare ahead of time.
However, reaching your goals can be hard.
The true difficulty of the SAT comes not from the test itself but from the reasons that you are taking it, which will be different from student to student.
What kind of reasons might you be taking the SAT?
How much do you want to rely on your SAT score?
Are you hoping your score will “carry” your entire college application? (By the way, it probably won’t, because colleges want well-rounded students, not SAT scores, on their campuses)
Or maybe you’ve got an incredibly rich and interesting life – you’re a pianist, a star soccer forward, a brilliant essay-writer, and you’ve got 2000 hours of voluntary community service. In this case, you might (realistically) agree that your SAT score just needs to not dissappoint the colleges you apply to.
Ok, another question worth considering is, “What are the average SAT scores of the colleges that I want to get accepted into?” It’s just common sense to remind you that the SAT might seem “harder” to someone trying to get into Harvard than to someone trying to get into community college.
Again, my point is that the SAT itself is not where the difficulty lies. Sure, there are harder questions and easier questions on the test, but depending on your goals, you might not even actually need to answer those harder questions.
Since that’s the case, maybe you can join me in rearranging your view on whether or not the SAT is hard or easy, to be more about assessing the difficulty and realism of your personal goals. I mean, seriously, if your required goal scores allow you to skip all the hardest questions, can the SAT really be all that hard?
Does the fact that there are hard vocab questions make the SAT hard if you skip those hard questions?
Personally, I don’t think the difficulty of the SAT is the problem. If you’re feeling like the SAT is an insurmountable mountain, you should try re-examining your college goals.
That’s probably where your concerns really lie, even though you don’t know it yet.
Not to be harsh, nor to try to wear the hat of a professional college advisor, but I can’t help thinking that some SAT prep students I see are trying to out-reach where they are at at this point in their life.
For them, the SAT will seem very hard, because the goal scores, colleges and scholarships they have in mind are fantasies that do not accurately reflect that student’s current level of academic achievement…
…I would never limit a person’s potential, but some kids don’t seem ready to really buckle down and study the SAT, or indeed, anything that doesn’t personally interest them. I’m not judging, merely observing.
But if you’ve read this far, I bet you’re someone who isn’t afraid of a little studying!
In my humble, yet definitely qualified opinion, the SAT itself is not a hard test, because you can prep for it. It is predictable. You can hire a tutor that knows everything about the test and can teach it to you. You can get prep books, such as my own, that will teach you exactly what to study to improve your score.
That’s not to say hard work is not required or that there are not difficulties involved. It’s just that the “hard part” of the SAT is all in the college and scholarship goal-setting and prep and advance study that you do.
The SAT will be as hard or as easy as you make it on yourself. For me, it was a very easy, even enjoyable experience. Can you believe that? It’s true!
What did I do? I studied, I practiced, and above all, I took my goals seriously!
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