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Is the SAT Hard?

The SAT instills fear in many students. To students, it’s four-hours-long, notoriously difficult, and largely determines where they will go to college. But is it really as hard as it seems? Not necessarily – acing the SAT is more about preparing and knowing what you’re getting into than anything else.

So, to find out what makes the SAT difficult, what makes it easier, and how you can prepare for it yourself, keep on reading!

Related: SAT test dates schedule

Is the new SAT difficult?

Is the new SAT really that bad? As it turns out, not really. While the new SAT may seem frightening if you’re not too familiar with it, understanding the format and developing good test-taking strategies will certainly make performing well on the test seem feasible.

However, this doesn’t mean that the SAT is necessarily “easy” – there are certainly difficult aspects of taking the exam. For one thing, doing so requires you to sit in one place for four hours on end, answering questions and reading passages from a wide range of subjects. 

So, how can you make the test easier for yourself? Well, perhaps the best way to study for the exam is to know and prepare for the types of questions asked. We’ll get more into this later.

For now, let’s find out what aspects of the SAT make it harder – and which make it easier!

Factors that make the SAT harder

It’s never fun to go into a test knowing that some aspects of it are difficult. However, knowing which parts are more challenging helps you best prepare for the actual test. So, without further ado, here are some factors that make the SAT harder:

1. Time pressure

If you’re familiar with the SAT, you’ve likely heard that it’s timed. This is true. Exactly how much time you get for each section? 

Reading section 

The first test section you encounter on the SAT is the Reading section, in which you receive 65 minutes to answer 52 questions. Just looking at this, it seems pretty doable, right? However, you have to account for the time it will take you to read each of the five passages. If you want to evenly split your time, aim to read each passage and finish its respective questions in about 13 minutes. 

Writing and language section

After the Reading section, students will come across the Writing and Language section. With 44 questions to be answered in only 35 minutes, students are given 48 seconds per question. While the questions in the Writing and Language section are passage-based, these passages are far, far shorter than those in the Reading section. Thus, students should have less trouble navigating them to help answer their respective questions.

Math section 

Next comes math! There are two math sections on the SAT, with the Math without Calculator section preceding the Math with Calculator section. While the Math without Calculator section gives you 25 minutes to answer 20 questions (75 seconds per question), Math with Calculator gives you 55 minutes to answer 38 questions (87 seconds per question).

So, how can you overcome the stress that comes with taking a timed test? Well, you can do so by taking timed, practice SAT exams. These will closely mimic the types of questions you’ll encounter on the exam, and should be taken in a serious manner to simulate the real pressure you may feel during the real SAT. This will help you get used to finishing the questions during the allotted time and may help you develop strategies to do your best.

Further, when taking timed tests, it’s best practice to skip difficult questions and come back to them later. This way, you’ll at least be able to get the easier questions out of the way, so you can dedicate the rest of your time to focusing on those that are more difficult.

2. Complicated reading passages

Besides the format, there are also some harder aspects of the test when it comes to the actual content. One such feature is the reading passages found in the Reading section of the exam, which are all taken from real, published texts. Of the five excerpts, at least one will definitely be historical. The others will fall into one of these three categories: literary/narrative, science, and history/social science. While some have been written and published in recent years, others will be from decades, or even centuries, ago.

Thus, students should expect to read high-level writing when going into the Reading section, with the passages often using challenging vocabulary and exploring complicated concepts.

So, to best prepare for the Reading section, we highly recommend you familiarize yourself with such writing styles by reading articles, short stories, or essays from different time periods. And, if you have time, it can definitely help to start brushing up on your vocabulary and learning some new words!

3. Difficult math problems

Students may also run into some difficulties on the math portions of the SAT. While these sections are designed to test the math content you’ve likely already covered in high school, high school is long! Thus, it’s entirely possible that students have forgotten some of the content they learned years prior.

Besides this, there may simply be some concepts that are a little harder or require you to remember particular mathematical rules or relationships – like geometry or trigonometry. So, without practice and in a time crunch, such questions may stress students out and cause them to panic during the exam.

To help you avoid this, we highly recommend going through and refreshing yourself on some of the major math concepts you learned in high school! And, if you find yourself struggling with some topics in particular – make sure to go over these again until you really have them nailed down.

4. Stress!

Last, but not least, is (unfortunately) stress! While it’s certainly understandable why students worry themselves over the SAT, doing so only hinders one’s performance and causes unnecessary stress.

If you find yourself getting too worked up over the exam, or constantly worrying about it the night before, just keep a few things in mind. First, the SAT can be taken as many times as you want! Further, it can even be superscored (meaning you can combine your highest scores from each section). And, perhaps most importantly, more and more colleges nowadays are not requiring students to submit their SAT. Therefore, if you don’t end up performing as well as you hoped, that’s fine – your prospective colleges may not even require you to send your score in. But, with that said, we still encourage you to try your best! A good SAT score can only boost, not dampen, your application.

Factors that make the SAT easier

And now for something a little happier – the factors that make the SAT easier! Let’s take a look.

1. Standard structure and question type

While the time constraints of the SAT are a feature that make it harder, there are also positive aspects of the SAT’s format! Such include the standard test structure and question types that are consistent throughout each exam. For example, no matter when or where you take the SAT exam, the order of the sections will always go as follows: Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, and Math with Calculator.

In addition, each section will always have the same number of questions – and give you the same amount of time to complete them. The test questions are also always quite consistent, testing students on the same topics and skills (and often being worded in similar ways).

2. Primarily multiple choice

Perhaps a student favorite is the multiple-choice nature of the SAT. Besides the grid-in questions on the math sections, every question on the main portions (Reading, Writing and Language, Math No Calculator, Math with Calculator) of the exam are multiple choice. And, on the bright side, there’s only 13 grid-in questions! Not too bad, right?

Remember, if you’re totally unsure of how to go about a question, you can use the process of elimination! This means removing any answers that you’re 100% sure aren’t correct, and thus, having a greater chance of choosing (or guessing) the right answer.

3. No guessing penalty

On that note, what if you guess incorrectly? Well, there’s no need to worry – the SAT has no guessing penalty. This means that you don’t lose points for answering questions incorrectly. Rather, you can only gain points for guessing questions correctly.

So, if you’re completely unsure of how to answer a question and the process of elimination can’t even help – feel free to fill in a random bubble. If you guess right, you’ll earn some extra points! And if you’re wrong, no harm, no foul (i.e. you won’t lose any points).

4. No memorization required

Unlike the tests you take in school, the SAT does not require you to memorize information. While the Reading and Writing sections simply test your reading comprehension and understanding of English grammar, the Math sections provide you with most of the formulas you’ll need to succeed.

Thus, while you certainly should practice and study for the SAT, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to do the excessive memorizing often required for in-class exams.

Related: SAT vs ACT: How to decide which to take

Making the SAT easier for you: A few simple tips

We’ve now gone over what parts of the SAT will make your test-taking experience harder, and which will make it easier. But what exactly should you do with that information? Well, first, take it into account! It’ll help to know what you’re getting yourself into when you step into that exam room. Then, use it and practice for the exam – know what parts of the exam you should spend more time practicing and which you shouldn’t stress over.

With that said, here are just a few tips we have to make the SAT easier for you:

1. Prepare!

We know that we keep repeating this, but it’s really true – practice makes perfect! Taking plenty of practice SAT’s is great practice for the real thing. It’ll help you get to know the type of content and topics that are tested on the exam, and let you know what types of information you should devote more time to studying. To help you stay on course, you can even try finding a test prep tutor.

Furthermore, getting used to the exam, its format, and its time constraints should help lessen students’ anxieties surrounding it. Once they’ve completed the test time and time again, it’ll seem far more familiar and less intimidating than it was before.

P.S.: If you’re looking for some great SAT practice resources, check out these:

2. Learn test-taking strategies

Finally, learning the best test-taking strategies is a great way to prepare yourself for the exam! We’ve already gone over some of these, but here are some more to keep in mind when preparing for (and taking) the SAT:

  • Be familiar with each section’s instructions before taking the exam
    • You don’t want to have to waste time reading directions when you could be answering questions!
  • Answer the questions you know first. Then, go back to the harder ones later
  • Use the process of elimination (strike out answers you’re sure are incorrect)
  • Use your test booklet (NOT the answer grid) as scratch paper
  • Answer every question – there is no penalty for guessing wrong
  • Make sure you’re marking your answers in the grid correctly (e.g. if the answer to question #37 is A, make sure you’re marking #37, and not #38, with an A)
  • Budget your time! 
    • Bring a watch or timer if you need to (but not an Apple watch – those aren’t allowed)
  • Fully understand each question before answering it
  • Fill in your answer grid neatly so your test is processed correctly

And that’s it! We hope that you’re now feeling reassured about the SAT and see that it’s really not too difficult as long as you prepare accordingly. Good luck, and we wish you the best!

Before you go, here are a few more SAT resources to answer any questions you may have about the exam: 

Frequently asked questions 

What happens if you fail the SAT?

We have some good news for you – you can’t fail the SAT! Although the SAT is a standardized test, it is unrelated to school and thus is not “graded” in the way that school tests typically are. It is instead taken to test students’ college readiness, and to provide colleges with a “common data point” to compare all students. However, while there is no “failing grade” for the exam, receiving a particularly low score may prevent you from receiving an acceptance to certain universities. In general, students should try to aim for SAT scores within the 25th and 75th percentile of colleges they’re applying to.

Also see: How to improve your SAT score