How to Improve Your SAT Scores

Students taking test
Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Standardized test scores matter, but the good news is that you can take concrete steps to improve your SAT scores.

The reality of the college admissions process is that SAT scores are often an important piece of your application. At highly selective colleges and universities, every part of your application needs to shine. Even at less selective schools, your chances of receiving an acceptance letter are diminished if your scores are below the norm for admitted students. Quite a few public universities have minimum SAT and ACT requirements, so a score below a certain number will automatically make you ineligible for admission.

If you've received your SAT scores and they aren't what you think you're going to need to be admitted to the school of your choice, you'll want to take steps to strengthen your test skills and then retake the exam.

Improvement Requires Work

Many students take the SAT multiple times thinking that they will luck into a higher score. It is true that your scores will frequently vary slightly from one test administration to the next, but without work, those changes in your score will be tiny, and you may even find that your scores go down. Also, colleges won't be impressed if they see you've taken the SAT three or four times without any meaningful improvement in your scores.

If you're taking the SAT a second or third time, you're going to need to put in significant effort to see a significant increase in your scores. You'll want to take lots of practice tests, identify your weaknesses, and fill gaps in your knowledge. 

Improvement Requires Time

If you plan your SAT test dates carefully, you'll have plenty of time between exams to work on strengthening your test skills. Once you have concluded that your SAT scores need improvement, it's time to get to work. Ideally, you took your first SAT in your junior year, which gives you the summer to put in the effort needed for meaningful improvement. 

Don't expect your scores to improve significantly between the May and June exams in the spring or the October and November exams in the fall. You'll want to allow several months for self-study or a test prep course.

Take Advantage of Khan Academy

You don't need to pay anything to get personalized online help preparing for the SAT. When you get your PSAT scores, you'll get a detailed report of what subject areas need the most improvement. 

Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to come up with a study plan tailored to the results of your PSAT. You'll get video tutorials and practice questions focused on the areas where you need the most work. 

Khan Academy's SAT resources include eight full-length exams, test-taking tips, video lessons, thousands of practice questions, and tools for measuring your progress. Unlike other test prep services, it's also free.

Consider a Test Prep Course

Many students take a test prep course in an effort to improve their SAT scores. This strategy can work if you're someone who is more likely to put in a strong effort with the structure of a formal class than if you were to study on your own. Several of the better-known services even offer guarantees that your scores will increase. Just be careful to read the fine print so that you know the restrictions on those guarantees.

Two of the big names in test prep courses offer both online and in-person options. Online classes are clearly more convenient, but know yourself: are you more likely to do the work when you are home alone or if you're reporting to an instructor in a brick-and-mortar classroom?

If you take a test prep course, follow the schedule, and put in the required work, you're very likely to see improvement in your SAT scores. Obviously the more work you put in, the more your scores are likely to improve. Realize, however, that for the typical student, the score increase is often modest.

You'll also want to consider the cost of SAT prep courses. They can be expensive: $899 for Kaplan, $899 for PrepScholar, and $999 for Princeton Review. If the cost will create hardship for you or your family, don't worry. Many free and inexpensive self-study options can produce similar results.

Invest in an SAT Test Prep Book

For roughly $20 to $30, you can get one of the many SAT test prep books. Books typically include hundreds of practice questions and several full-length exams. Using a book effectively requires the two essential elements for improving your SAT scores but for a minimal monetary investment, you'll have a useful tool for boosting your scores.

The reality is that the more practice questions you take, the better prepared you will be for the actual SAT. Just be sure to use your book effectively: when you get questions wrong, make sure you take the time to understand why you got them wrong.

Don't Go It Alone

The greatest impediment to improving your SAT scores is likely to be your motivation. After all, who wants to give up time in the evening and on weekends to study for a standardized test? It is solitary and often tedious work.

Realize, however, that your study plan doesn't have to be solitary, and there are numerous benefits to having study partners. Find friends who are also working to improve their SAT scores and create a group study plan. Get together to take practice tests, and go over your wrong answers as a group. Draw on each other's strengths to learn how to answer questions that are giving you trouble.

When you and your friends encourage, challenge, and teach each other, the process of preparing for the SAT can be more effective and enjoyable.

Optimize Your Test Time

During the actual exam, make the best use of your time. Don't waste valuable minutes working on a math problem you don't know how to answer. See if you can rule out an answer or two, take your best guess, and move on; there is no longer a penalty for guessing incorrectly on the SAT. 

In the reading section, don't feel that you need to read the entire passage slowly and carefully word by word. If you read the opening, closing, and first sentences of the body paragraphs, you'll get the general picture of the passage 

Before the test, familiarize yourself with the types of questions you'll encounter and the instructions for each type. You don't want to be wasting time during the exam reading those instructions and figuring out how to fill in the answer sheet.

In short, you'll want to make sure you're losing points only for questions you don't know, not for running out of time and failing to complete the exam.

Don't Panic If Your SAT Scores Are Low

Even if you are unsuccessful in bringing up your SAT scores significantly, you don't have to give up on your college dreams. There are hundreds of test-optional colleges, including top-tier institutions such as Wake Forest University, Bowdoin College, and the University of the South.

Also, if your scores are just a little below the ideal, you can compensate with an impressive application essay, meaningful extracurricular activities, glowing letters of recommendation, and most important of all, a stellar academic record.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "How to Improve Your SAT Scores." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Grove, Allen. (2020, August 27). How to Improve Your SAT Scores. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "How to Improve Your SAT Scores." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).

Watch Now: How to Convert ACT Scores to SAT