Take Stress Out of the SAT (P.S. Points Don’t Matter!)

Years ago, the SAT stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”. Then it subtly changed to “Scholastic Assessment Test”. Nowadays it stands for … nothing. Just a valuable trademark for the College Board, and maybe an interesting reminder that it never fully measured “aptitude” in the first place.

Still, “SAT” can stand for one thing – the Stress and Anxiety test.

“I need at least a 1450 to get into my dream school.” “I have to go up at least 200 points from my last practice test.” “I didn’t even break 1000 on my PSAT – I’ll never get into college!”

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re in very good company. Three very different scenarios, but they all have one thing in common: the focus is on a points target, but what are “points,” really? Numbers on a scale, and nothing more. Although it may sound simplistic, what you should really focus on are questions. How many questions can you afford to get wrong and still reach your goal? How many more questions do you need to get right to find those extra points? How many questions equate to a “good” score if your PSAT performance wasn’t what you wanted?

For high-achieving students, they’re used to getting A’s on their tests in school – usually 90% and above. For more average students, maybe the range of 80-90% on tests is more realistic. But those are school tests, not standardized tests. When you take a test in school, you try to memorize as many facts as you can, and then aim for perfection on the test itself. Get that 100, get the gold star. But on the SAT (or ACT, for that matter), that is never the goal.

There’s a margin for error on the SAT, and it’s bigger than you’d think

In school, a 65 or 70 isn’t something to aim for. But if your target scores are around 1200-1250, for example, answering only 70% of the questions correctly can get you there! Even for students with higher targets – say, 1400 – there’s a margin for error of around 15%. You really can miss a good portion of the questions and still get a great score! The SAT has 154 questions. Do the math – that’s a pretty generous number of questions you can miss and still reach your goal.

There’s two main ways that approaching the test thinking about questions and not points can help: first, from the beginning it can help with anxiety knowing that you have a budget for how many questions you don’t have to answer correctly. The reading passage in Section 1 that has you completely baffled doesn’t have to have a ripple effect through the next 120 questions or so, because you can simply “bank” those wrong answers and move on.

The second way is just as important: it takes the stress out of guessing. You’re never penalized for wrong answers on the SAT, so answer every question – even if it’s a guess. Close your eyes and pick and answer, and you’ve got a 25% chance you’ll choose correctly. But if you can first find 2 answers that are less likely to be correct, cross those out and now choose between the remaining 2. Your odds are now 50% – you’ve just doubled your chances of getting it right! And you did it without fully solving or even understanding the question. If you do that 20 times on the SAT, you’re bound to get at least 10 of those right. And the other 10? Well, you could afford to get those wrong – it’s within your margin for error.

Raising your score on the SAT can start with lowering stress and anxiety levels during the test itself. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and don’t stay focused on points – it’s a one-question-at-a-time buildup. So if you start hearing yourself think, “I need a 1300,” remind yourself. “I need to get 40 reading questions right.” Better yet, “I can afford to get 12 reading questions wrong.” Do this on every practice test, and in time you’ll find your attention stays on the question in front of you, and not the end result.

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