SAT Test-Taking Strategies For During the Test

SAT testing day has arrived. You may have done as many practice tests as humanly possible, but there are still a few more tactics that can help you get your highest score. 

Dr. Gary Gruber, standardized test expert and author of Gruber’s Complete SAT, helps us break down the best approaches for knocking the test out of the park. Here are his favorite SAT-tackling moves for during the exam.

During the exam, remain alert
It may seem as if the best idea is remaining as relaxed as possible during the test. Actually, Gruber says, this is not the case.

“Be active, not passive,” Gruber says. “Take the exam aggressively.”

An active exam-taker gets involved in the questions, Gruber adds. This means looking at a question, thinking about what is in the question that you can use to lead you to next step, and, ultimately, to the solution.

Gruber gives us an example of what this might look like: “If the question asks what fraction is greater than a half, think about the two parts: fractions, and greater than a half. Then think about a strategy to solving the question, and look at the answer choices.”

“Your adrenaline will kick in during the test,” he says. “This will also help you concentrate on each question.”

Don’t skip it, take a guess on that question

On the SAT, you are penalized a quarter of a point for every wrong answer. Gruber says that it doesn't matter whether you answer the question or leave it blank, "because probabilistically you'll overcome the penalty". However, he adds, if you can eliminate even one of the possible choices, take a guess on the answer. Here's why:

“Say you have five questions and there are five choices to each question. The chances of getting at least one question right (which would be plus one point) are pretty much 100 percent,” Gruber says. “If you get the other four questions wrong, you get minus one point, so you break even.”

The number one mistake of test-takers who skip a question, Gruber says, is mis-marking their answer sheet. You’re likely to forget you skipped a question and fill in that bubble for the next question, rather than leaving one blank. This can severely mess up the rest of your test.

If you do decide to skip a question, make a note on your test (not the answer sheet) that you skipped it. This way, if you finish with extra time, you can also go back and try to think through the question a second time.

But know when a question is taking too long to answer
You’ve planned out your time, and (hopefully!) taken a few practice tests, so you should have some idea of the format of the exam. Rather than flipping through the entire exam first, “answer the questions in the order that they appear,” Gruber says.

“You should be able to tell if you can start a question and be able get somewhere toward the solution,” Gruber says. “If you see a question that you have no idea how to start, or realize that it is taking you more than twenty seconds and you’re getting nowhere, skip it and go to the next question.”

As mentioned earlier, make a note on the test question (not your answer sheet) that you skipped that question. Go back to it if you have time at the end.

A few more tips from Gruber:

  • Make sure you know the directions to each item type, like how to fill in the grid for the math questions. You don’t want to have to spend time reading through the directions and the sample questions on the actual test.
  • If you’ve done practice tests, you know the directions. You shouldn’t have to look at the directions – they won’t change from your study book to the exam.
  • If you have to guess, read the answer choices from E backwards. Sometimes choice A is a trap – the answer that is “too easy.” Start at the bottom to not get lured by the trick options.
  • Questions near the end of the section are usually the hardest. You can often eliminate the answer that seems “too easy.”


Dr. Gary Gruber [], standardized test expert