The Ten SAT Commandments
Our ten SAT commandments may seem obvious, but breaking
any of them can undermine an otherwise perfect preparation and testing
strategy. The Commandments are about the basics, the simple fundamental
SAT laws that you need to get right before you learn all the test-preparation
and strategy stuff that fills up the rest of this book. Here they
Thou shalt go to the correct test center.
shalt bring lots of no. 2 pencils.
shalt check your calculator batteries.
shalt be careful filling in your answers.
shalt know the instructions for each section.
shalt use your test booklet as scratch paper.
shalt answer easy questions first.
shalt avoid carelessness.
shalt bring bread and water.
Thou shalt go to the correct test center.
When you register for the SAT, you’ll register to take
the test at a particular test center. Make sure you go to the correct
center on test day. If you go to the wrong one, you’ll be put on
a standby list, just like at the airport. If any free seats remain,
you’ll be able to take the test. But if not, you won’t. (Yes, people
really do make this kind of error: Ben, co-author of this fine book,
actually managed to go to the wrong test center for his SAT. There
were two test centers in his hometown, and he went to the wrong
one. He got lucky and got a standby seat.)
Thou shalt bring lots of no. 2 pencils.
Zero pencils is not enough. One pencil is not enough.
Two pencils is not enough because pencils break easily, and you
don’t want to waste time sharpening. Three pencils, minimum, is
enough. But why stop there? Bring five. Bring ten! You could always
share them with your desperate, broken-penciled friends.
Thou shalt check your calculator batteries.
True, the chances are low that your calculator will give
out on you during the test. But do you really want to take that
chance? Think of the embarrassment. Think of your brutally lower
math scores. Think of Justin’s cousin Jeff, whose calculator died mid-SAT,
forcing him to abandon his score sheet and to retake the test on
the day of his sister’s college graduation. This particular type
of SAT tragedy can be avoided. Get a new calculator, or get new
Thou shalt be careful filling in your answers.
The SAT scoring computer is an unintelligent, merciless
machine. It has no soul. If you answered a question correctly, but
somehow made a mistake in marking your answer grid, the computer
will mark that question wrong. If you manage to skip question 5,
but put the answer to question 6 in row 5, and the answer to question
7 in row 6, and so on, thereby throwing off your answers for an
entire section . . . well, that’s why humans invented the word catastrophe.
It’s amazing how often this happens under the time pressures
of the SAT. But there’s a foolproof method to ensure it doesn’t
happen to you: Talk to yourself. As you fill in the answer sheet,
say to yourself: “number 23, B; number 24, E; number 25, A.” But
do it quietly. You don’t want to give your answers to the entire
Thou shalt know the instructions for each section.
The SAT is a timed test, and every second counts. Why
waste time reading the instructions when you can know them inside
out before the test? Just know what they say and what you have to
do for each type of question on the test. Then you can skip right
over them on the real test.
Thou shalt use your test booklet as scratch paper.
For some reason, certain students seem to think they have
to keep their test booklets clean and pretty. You don’t. When you
finish taking the SAT, your test booklet is thrown away, recycled,
and used to make egg cartons. So write all over that thing. Cross
out answer choices. Mark questions you want to skip and come back
to. Underline important statements. Draw sketches. Write equations.
Thinking through problems, especially math problems, is easier when
you have something to look at.
But, because the SAT is a timed test, and since your work
doesn’t matter, there’s no reason to do more work
than necessary to solve a problem. Speed matters on the SAT, so
don’t try to impress the test with excellent work. Do only what
you have to do to ensure that you get the right answer.
Thou shalt answer easy questions first.
You’re allowed to skip around within any timed section
on the test. So if you’re in the first Critical Reading section
of the test, you could skip between Sentence Completions, short
Reading Comps, and long Reading Comps. And since all questions,
easy or hard, are worth the same number of points regardless of
difficulty, it makes sense to answer the questions you find easier
first and save the more time-consuming, difficult questions for
later. This way you’ll be sure to accumulate as many points as possible.
You’ll also make sure that you’ve at least glanced at every question
on the test and aren’t giving away points.
While taking seven minutes to solve a particularly nasty
Sentence Completion may feel like a moral victory, it’s quite possible
that you could have used that same time to answer three other short
Reading Comp questions. Do not be scared to skip a question that’s
giving you a lot of trouble—just remember to mark it so you can come
back to it if you have time at the end.
shalt avoid carelessness.
There are actually two kinds of carelessness: The Fast
and the Faithless. Both can cost you precious points on the SAT.
Here’s a bit more detail about each.
The first type of carelessness comes from moving too fast.
In speeding through the test, you make yourself vulnerable to misinterpreting
the question, overlooking one of the answer choices, or simply making
a mathematical or logical mistake. The SAT is filled with traps
that prey on the speedy.
The second type of carelessness results from lack of confidence.
Lots of students are so nervous about the SAT that they lose faith
in themselves as soon as they encounter a tough question. They just
assume they won’t be able to get the correct answer. Never assume
you won’t be able to answer a question without looking at it and
giving it a moment’s thought.
Thou shalt bring bread and water.
The old SAT was a long, exhausting test, and the new SAT
is even longer and probably more exhausting. You’ll feel like a
prisoner, stripped of your freedom for almost half a day, but that
doesn’t mean you can’t bring something along to eat and drink. You
definitely can’t be swigging back Gatorade during the test itself,
but you will have a few breaks in between sections so you can do
stuff like go to the bathroom, eat an apple, and chug down some
high-octane SAT protein powder or whatever concoction you create
to give yourself energy. Just be sure to bring some fuel to power
you throughout the test.
10. Thou shalt
The SAT is almost always portrayed as a harrowing, life-ruining
stressfest. Countless magazine articles depict helpless teenagers
holding their heads in panic, sweat pouring down their foreheads
as they take the test. That does not have to be you. That shouldn’t
One of the best things you can do to chill out before
the test is take the night before it off completely. That might
sound crazy, but if you’ve spent weeks or even months in advance
preparing for the test, you don’t have to cram or panic. You’ve done
all that you can do to ready yourself for the SAT and nothing you
do the night before will likely make any difference. So take it
easy. Go see a movie or get together with friends. Clearing your
head before the test will put you in a strong position to take it
on with confidence early the next morning.