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Is the SAT Hard?

By Lisa Freedland

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: March 19th, 2024
Is the SAT Hard?

The SAT instills fear in many students. To students, it’s many 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 digital SAT difficult?

Is the new digital SAT really that bad? As it turns out, not really. While the digital 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 almost three 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 and WritingMath
Time allotted64 minutes (two 32 minute parts)70 minutes (two 35 minute parts)
Number of questions54 questions44 questions
Time per question1 minute 12 seconds1 minute 36 seconds

To help with time management take timed practice tests. This will help you simulate the test as best you can. Practice a range of questions with these time constraints as well, so you can get used to having to pass on questions and go back to them, something you’ll likely do on the actual test. 

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 and Writing section of the exam. The reading categories include: 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. These passages will be between 25 and 150 words. 

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:

Therefore, if you don’t end up performing as well as you hoped, that’s fine. With that said, we still encourage you to try your best! A good SAT score can only boost, not dampen, your application!

See also: Top 10 tips to reduce test anxiety

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 and Writing, then Math.

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. 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 section simply tests 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 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 free 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)
  • Answer every question – there is no penalty for guessing wrong
  • 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

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: 

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • The SAT is not designed to be difficult for students, which means with some preparation, you have nothing to fear
  • Things such as time per question, how questions are structured, and the general stress you face while taking exams can be hurdles that you should prepare for
  • There are some things that may make the SAT feel more test friendly, like the multiple choice format and the new switch to a digital test
  • The best thing you can do to mitigate the difficulty of the SAT is prepare, prepare, and keep preparing!
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions about how hard the SAT is

Is getting a 1500 on the SAT hard?

Getting a 1500 on the SAT is a very impressive score. While it’s not easy to attain, it certainly is possible with enough studying and preparation. If you are hoping to try and really impress schools with your SAT score, you should start planning ahead of time. However, if your SAT prep begins to dig into your time too much. That may impact other extracurriculars negatively, which are sometimes an important component when applying to college.

What is the hardest thing on the SAT?

The hardest thing on the SAT is different for each individual student. Students who are stronger in math may find that the writing and reading section is more difficult, while others may feel the opposite way. The most important thing you can do is practice the areas you feel weakest in. It’s good to complete practice questions in all areas, but don’t forget to focus on the weak points a little extra!

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 meant to test students’ college readiness. The SAT provides 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.

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