For some students, the SAT may seem like it lasts forever, but the exam actually lasts three hours.
That time doesn’t include one 10-minute break and one five-minute break. Experts say that how time is managed on each section is key to earning a high score.
“Don’t think the clock is your enemy; you need to know how to work it,” says Jed Applerouth, founder and president of Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring Services LLC, which offers SAT prep as one of its services.
The test consists of three sections: reading, writing and language, and math. The 65-minute reading section is comprised of 52 multiple-choice questions; the writing and language section that lasts 35 minutes has 44 multiple-choice questions; and the 80-minute math test features 58 questions, 45 of which are multiple-choice and 13 that require a student-produced response.
Until recently, the SAT included an optional essay that added another 50 minutes. The essay, which experts note wasn’t widely required by colleges, will no longer be available after June. Optional subject tests that each take an hour to complete have also been cut, though international students will still be able to take them in May and June.
While the majority of colleges were no longer requiring the SAT essay, many students still opted in. According to data from the College Board, which administers the SAT, 57% of nearly 2.2 million test-takers from the class of 2020 completed the essay. That number was higher in the prior year, which unlike 2020 wasn’t marked by mass test date cancellations prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. For the class of 2019, 64% of the more than 2.2 million students who took the SAT that year completed the essay.
Dropping the optional essay will likely benefit students, some test prep experts say.
“Eliminating the SAT essay will save students time: preparation time, practice time, and time on official administrations. That will benefit students,” Applerouth says. “Students will no longer need to save as much time on a Saturday to give to testing. They’ll be getting an hour of their day back each time they have a practice or official test. That is meaningful. And shorter tests require less mental stamina.”
Additionally, Applerouth says, “eliminating SAT subject tests will simply save students time and energy they would have invested in preparation and practice. This simplifies preparation and the testing calendar.”
Time Management on the SAT
Part of a successful test strategy, experts say, includes knowing how much time should be spent on each question. Students have an average of about 1 minute and 10 seconds per question, but some problems on the SAT exam are more difficult and may take longer.
“You should allocate your time toward answering those easy questions that you can knock out first, and then go back to the hard questions, which you can answer later, which involves more time allocation,” says Mai Jumamil, former director of college prep programs at New York-based Kaplan Test Prep. “You have to sort out these types of questions that you’re answering, understand the difficulty level and be able to answer accordingly with that time constraint.”
Experts caution students against spending too much time at the beginning of each section and not leaving enough for later questions.
“I think they are spending too much time early on second-guessing themselves, going back and forth, and before they know it, they’ve lost that time,” says Joe Korfmacher, director of college counseling at Collegewise, an admissions consulting company headquartered in California.
For time-strapped students, one option is to simply guess in order to answer as many questions as possible. While not an ideal scenario, Korfmacher notes that the SAT no longer has a guessing penalty, which may allow students to raise their scores slightly when they are running out of time.
Applerouth also advises test-takers to learn their natural pacing. With practice, he says, students can learn how long it takes them to answer questions and be able to gauge when a minute or so has passed.
“Your watch is definitely one of your key tools to help with time management,” Applerouth says.
Keep in mind, however, test-day restrictions such as a ban on devices that can be used to record, transmit, receive or play back content. The College Board lists restrictions on smartwatches and other prohibited materials on its Test Day Checklist webpage.
Other advice offered by the College Board includes what to bring, what to expect and when to arrive. According to the College Board website, test center doors open at 7:45 a.m. and testing begins between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Dismissal is typically around noon.
How to Get Ready for Test Day
Outside of test-taking and time-management strategies, experts say other factors can influence a student’s SAT score.
A common performance handicap for busy high school students? Lack of sleep, test-prep pros say.
“It’s essential that students get enough sleep because that is going to affect their ability to sustain that focus for that period of time,” Applerouth says.
He adds that high school students aren’t typically asked to lock into one task for three hours. Success, he says, often requires several rounds of practice tests to develop the endurance to focus for that long.
“A lot of the practice is building that cognitive muscle to stay focused,” Applerouth says.
Another overlooked factor that can lower an SAT score? Hunger. Applerouth encourages students to bring a snack to enjoy during each break to keep their energy and glucose levels up, which will help them power through the long exam.
Keeping stress levels down is also important, says Korfmacher, who has heard of students using meditation and other calming techniques. Students should remain relaxed and confident, he says, knowing that they have prepared well for the exam.
“I tell my kids that half the battle is to just believe in yourself,” Korfmacher says.
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Update 02/03/21: This article has been updated to reflect changes to the administration of the SAT essay and subject tests.