by Brian Burnsed

Find out if the SAT is the right test for you and, if so, how to improve your score

They're the three letters that strike fear into the hearts of nearly every high school student: SAT.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test generally takes high school students about four hours to complete on sleepy Saturday mornings, and it plays a significant role in the college application process. To lessen the stress, it's important to get a handle on how this 170-question behemoth is structured.

The test is comprised of three primary components -- writing, critical reading, and math. Each component is graded on a 200-to-800-point scale. The writing section consists of a 25-minute essay and 49 multiple-choice questions that are split between one 25-minute section and one 10-minute section. The critical reading component, which measures a student's ability to assimilate and analyze what they read, consists of three separate sections. Sixty-seven total questions are asked over two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. Like the critical reading component, the math on the test is broken down into two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. There are 44 total multiple-choice questions and 10 questions in which the student must solve the problem without the aid of multiple choice.

Use these nine tips to help decide if the SAT is the right test for you and to earn the best score you can:

1. There is an alternative.

Before you embark on the arduous journey to earning a good SAT score, ask yourself an important question that many students often neglect: Is this even the right test for me? The ACT is an alternative to the SAT and, contrary to popular belief, is accepted at all four-year schools that accept the SAT.

The ACT is different from the SAT in both structure and the type of questions that are asked. The best way to determine which is best for you is to take a timed practice version of each test. Yes, it's time consuming, but those hours you sacrifice are a wise investment, experts say.

"Ultimately, the best way to know for sure is to take practice tests," says Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. "At the end of the day, until you're actually experiencing what it's like to go through the tests, it's hard to get a feel for which way you should go."

2. Love books? You'll love the SAT.

The SAT directly tests vocabulary in its sentence-completion section. In order to excel, experts say students need to be well read and eager to look up words when they come across one they can't define in the years prior to the test. Experts say the test favors verbally inclined students and that the math is easier than that found on the ACT. While the SAT directly tests vocabulary, the ACT does not, so it may not be the right test for you if you've found yourself favoring your iPod over a novel during recent summers spent poolside. Joya Ahmad, a junior at William Penn Charter School near Philadelphia, received a perfect 2400 on the SAT she took this March. She credits her love of books over the years with her success on the verbal side. "I'm a hugely avid reader," she says. "I'll read through parts of the dictionary for fun."

[Find out if the ACT is the right test for you.]

3. Pressure cooker.

If taking tests has not been your forte through your academic life, the SAT might not be your best option. Testing experts say the test is best suited for students who don't mind being under the gun repeatedly and thrive under pressure. The test has nine sections, which means students must be prepared to answer questions in short bursts, something that could pose a problem for students who need to take time or skip around broader sections like those found on the ACT. "[Nine] times you have this pressure, of 'Five minutes left...put your pencils down!'" says Ed Carroll, executive director of high school program development at thePrinceton Review.

4. Don't get fooled.

While the math on the SAT is a bit easier than it is on the ACT, it's certainly not simple. Rather than relying on complicated concepts or delving into trigonometry, the SAT math section will oftentimes try to trick students who rush and don't read each question carefully, according to Carroll. He notes that the tricks aren't intricate, but they can be easily overlooked by students who aren't paying attention to detail. "The classic example is that [the test] often asks, 'What is X+1?' instead of 'What is X?'" he says. "And of course, the bad answer will be there. Your math and your calculations are perfect. X equals five and you circle five, but the answer is six."

5. When in doubt, leave it blank ... sometimes.

One of the best-known strategies for tackling the SAT is to simply leave an answer blank if you don't know the answer. The test has a "guessing penalty" that punishes students who take a wild swing at a question that is beyond their intellectual reach by deducting points for incorrect answers. While leaving the answer blank on questions you don't know is a wise strategy, in some cases, it's actually better to guess. If you're able to narrow the answer down to two or three choices, guessing is the wiser option, as the odds of you getting the question right outweigh the penalty for a wrong answer. "I tell students, 'If you have no idea, skip it,'" says Carroll. "If you can narrow it down to two or three, you should be aggressive. Statistically, it will benefit you across the whole test."

6. Your mind may be ready, but prepare your body, too.

Nervous students oftentimes spend the weeks leading up to the test cooped up in their rooms, studying feverishly. Sometimes it's best to put the books down, get some fresh air, and clear your mind. Ahmad, who got a perfect score, runs cross country and claims that she garnered tremendous benefit by taking some time away from cramming and lacing up her running shoes. "One of the best things is to center the mind, get rid of that nervous energy, and clear everything out so that I had room to absorb all of that information was to run," she says. "Staying active allowed my brain not to get overloaded because I had time to decompress."

Plus, at roughly four to five hours, these tests require physical stamina. It's important to be rested on test day and let your body acclimate to the testing experience by taking timed practice tests. Just like training for a sporting event, your mind and body will be better prepared for the testing situation if you've been through it before. Ahmad took five practice tests in the months leading up to her SAT. "[Five hours] is a long time to be in a highly focused state of mind -- likely longer than most students' testing experiences," says Campbell of Kaplan. "So, you want to get a couple of those sessions under your belt before you go into the real thing."

7. Know the classes that matter.

On the math section, what you learned in algebra I and geometry comprise nearly everything on the test. It's most important to review those materials. There are some elements from algebra II, but they aren't tested heavily. The multiple-choice questions in the writing section test some of the basic elements of grammar, which regularly go uncovered in high school English classes. "If you've ever had a grammar class, that would help," says Carroll. "A lot of kids don't even know what a preposition is."

8. Don't fret about comma splices on the essay.

Twenty-five minutes is not nearly enough time to craft an intricate, polished piece of writing, making the essay the most intimidating portion of the test for many students. But don't stress. There's no need to strive for perfection, experts say. Yes, grammar does play a small part in the grading of the essay, but essay readers are primarily looking for you to demonstrate that you can answer the question posed to you using a well-structured, coherent argument. If a few semicolons are misplaced and a few words misspelled, do not despair. "The essay is not as scary as it seems," says Carroll. "The best thing you can do is answer their questions clearly with support. Details like facts, spelling, and punctuation are not emphasized as highly in terms of grading. They certainly matter, but in reality, the essays are largely graded on how accurately you answer the question and the logic and support of your argument."

9. Use every second.

If you get bogged down trying to answer a question that has you stumped, skip it and revisit it using whatever extra time you have after you've worked through the full section. "You will do better on the test overall if you give each question its fair share of time, versus spending all your time on question number seven," says Alexis Avila, founder and president of Prepped & Polished, a Boston area-based college counseling and tutoring firm. "If you get stumped on any question, circle the question and go back to it at the end if time permits."

Also, even if you've answered every question in the section, rework the problems that gave you the most trouble if you have spare time. Ahmad found she had ample time at the end of each section to go back and rework some of the tougher problems. She says double-checking her answers helped contribute to her perfect score.

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9 Tips for SAT Test Success