Is the SAT Hard? An In-Depth Analysis

The SAT is hard, but there are many things you can do to prepare. Learn what you can do to make the test easier.

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by Kim-Ling Sun

Updated September 12, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is the SAT Hard? An In-Depth Analysis
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Many students find the SAT challenging. It can seem almost impossible to sit for a four-hour test with constrained time limits that are chock full of reading passages and tricky math problems.

It all comes down to what type of test-taker you are. With nearly 2.2 million students taking the SAT each year, according to the College Board, there are bound to be some students who struggle with its testing style. So is the SAT hard — or not?

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How Hard Is the SAT?

Unlike what some will say, the SAT is no easier or harder than the ACT. It just depends on your subject skills and your learning style.

Most of the content covered on the exam is from 9th and 10th grade, with some added advanced concepts from junior year. What makes the SAT seem more challenging is the way in which the questions are asked. It differs from what many students are used to in high school.

The good news is that you can overcome this challenge with proper test preparation. By familiarizing yourself with the test format and taking SAT practice tests, you can feel more prepared on test day.

Is the SAT Harder Than the PSAT?

Many students take the PSAT during their sophomore or junior year of high school. The PSAT is slightly easier than the SAT. There are important differences between the SAT and PSAT, including the difficulty level of the material, the length and timing of each exam, and the manner in which each exam is scored.

Content Difficulty

The PSAT tests the same content areas as the SAT with the questions formatted in the same way. The SAT is more challenging than the PSAT, however, because the PSAT is designed to be a practice exam. PSAT questions are largely based on the content covered in high school so far.

Length and Timing

There is a notable difference between the SAT and PSAT in both length and time. The SAT requires more stamina because you have to answer more questions in a shorter time. The SAT is a three-hour exam with 154 questions.

The PSAT, on the other hand, is 15 minutes shorter and comprises only 139 questions. On the SAT, you will need to work at a faster pace while still maintaining accuracy.

Scoring

The PSAT uses a different scoring range than the SAT. The PSAT is scored between 320 and 1520, whereas the SAT is scored from 400 to 1600. While PSAT scores do correlate to SAT scores, your PSAT percentile ranking and your SAT percentile ranking will not align.

For example, if you score a 1300 on the PSAT, it is equivalent to a 1300 on the SAT. That said, it will not necessarily put you in the same percentile. On the SAT, you would need to score between 50-70 points higher than your PSAT to rank in the same percentile.

Why Is the SAT Hard? 4 Key Factors

There are four key factors that make the SAT hard for those taking the college entrance examination.

In addition to time constraints and anxiety, students must analyze complex reading passages and work on a variety of math concepts, some of which they may be unfamiliar with.

1. Time Constraints

Each section on the SAT is timed and requires you to answer questions quickly. This can be challenging for students who struggle with time management on standardized exams that contain multiple-choice and grid-in questions.

Many students who have trouble with these types of exams experience difficulty distinguishing the correct answer from the distractor. You may find it helpful to monitor your pacing with a watch or other timer.

2. Wide Array of Math Concepts

The SAT Math section requires you to recall an array of high school math concepts. Major areas tested include core concepts in algebra, data analysis, functions, and systems of equations.

Additionally, there are advanced math concepts that will require you to manipulate complex equations, which the College Board details further on its website.

Students must be able to solve problems from these areas quickly with and without a calculator in under two minutes per question. Reviewing the concepts before the SAT can help reduce the thinking time needed for math problems.

3. Complex Reading Passages and Challenging Questions

The Reading section of the exam requires you to read long, complex passages, oftentimes with unfamiliar vocabulary. You must be able to answer questions about the passages quickly without getting swayed by the second-best answer.

For students who are not great test-takers or who are not avid readers, their lack of proficiency may slow them down in this section. Familiarizing yourself with official SAT practice tests can help you know what to expect.

4. Test Anxiety

Many students find the SAT difficult because it can create test anxiety. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety that causes "butterflies" or even a rapid heartbeat.

The anxiety can result from just the sheer importance of the test and the weight colleges place on scores. One of the best ways to combat test anxiety is by taking timed practice tests and familiarizing yourself with the test structure beforehand.

During the test, you can de-stress by concentrating on your breath and doing deep breathing exercises.

4 Tips to Make the SAT Test Easier for You

The SAT doesn't need to be a stressful and overwhelming experience. Here are some things you can do to prepare for test day and make it less intimidating.

Focus On What You Can Control

There will be quite a few factors out of your control when you prepare for the SAT. But you can take charge of some factors, like managing your anxiety. For example, you can teach yourself ways to monitor your breathing during the test to lessen anxiety.

You can also take the time to understand what the question is asking you to do. By familiarizing yourself with the question structure, you can avoid common errors and multiple-choice distractors.

Create a Study Schedule

One of the best ways to prepare for the SAT is to create a study schedule. This means you need to allocate time each week to studying and preparing.

Taking one or two practice tests may only have minimal benefit. Preparing for the test on a set schedule can help you routinely address areas where you may need more practice.

To make a schedule, you need to first select your SAT test date and work backward, giving yourself at least 1-3 months to prepare. You should dedicate 2-3 hours to studying weekly to gain the most benefit.

Take Official Timed Practice Tests

Another important way to prepare is to take plenty of SAT practice tests. There are many benefits to this. First, taking practice exams will familiarize you with the question format and help you work on pacing so you can complete as many questions as accurately as possible.

Secondly, it can help keep test anxiety at bay because you will know what to expect on test day. In addition, taking multiple practice tests will help you determine where your baseline score is and how many more points you need to achieve your target score.

Finally, taking official timed practice tests will help you determine the subject you're the weakest in. That way, you can direct your study time in the right areas.

Work On Increasing Your Reading Speed

Your reading rate can substantially impact your SAT score. Since your goal is to complete the exam as quickly and as accurately as possible, you need to be able to get through a passage quickly while still understanding it.

One way to help with your pace is to effectively skim passages by reading the introductory paragraph, reading the first and last sentence of the body paragraphs, and reading the entire concluding paragraph.

You can then go back and revisit a particular paragraph should a question require more time to read. When you can decrease your time reading the passage, it will give you more time for the critical thinking questions.

Frequently Asked Questions About the SAT

How do you study for the SAT?

To prepare for the SAT, you can enroll in free or paid SAT prep courses, take official practice tests, use highly rated SAT prep books, and/or hire a personal SAT tutor.

By far the best way to prepare for the SAT is to study frequently. This means establishing a study schedule at a minimum of 1-3 months out from your test date and dedicating several hours each week to reviewing concepts and taking high-quality practice tests.

Is the ACT or SAT harder?

The SAT and the ACT are both similar in their level of difficulty. In other words, one test is not necessarily more difficult than the other. However, different types of students may fare better on one than the other.

The ACT is more time intensive and fast-paced, so it's generally best suited for learners with strong time management skills. By contrast, the SAT gives you more time per question and features less reading material than the ACT.

The ACT also has a separate Science section that lasts 35 minutes and has 40 questions. The SAT does not have its own Science section but does incorporate scientific concepts throughout the exam.

Is the SAT Reading or Math section harder?

It generally depends on a person and their subject skills, but most people find the SAT Math — No Calculator section more challenging. This is partially due to our dependent use of calculators in upper mathematics courses.

Some may argue the Reading section is harder because the excerpts originate from known published works that are written at a fairly high level. Some test-takers may find the language within the SAT Reading section difficult to understand.

The content of the passage may also include topics or vocabulary you may be unfamiliar with if you're not an avid reader. This means you may come to a passage at a disadvantage if you don't have the requisite background knowledge on the topic.

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