10 Things That Are Ruining Your SAT Practice

Are you getting the most out of your SAT prep time? Or are you going to spend hours and hours preparing for your test and see no improvement in your score because you’re making one of these simple mistakes?

These are the top ten most common problems I’ve seen in my SAT students in the past. Learn from their mistakes!

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1. Relying on a Calculator

Don’t freak out: yes, you’ll have a calculator during the test. So why am I telling to you push it to the side? If you don’t know what you’re trying to arrive at, the calculator is just a really expensive brick. Don’t start punching in numbers until you know exactly what you want, and keep in mind that the SAT doesn’t require a calculator. Sure, you’ll want to use it a couple of times—and it’s a really bad idea not to bring one—but all of the math on the test is doable by pen and paper within a few minutes. If you know what you’re looking for, that is. Don’t get stuck staring at your calculator before you understand what to do with it. Use your pencil first, then the calculator if you need it and not before that.


2. Looking Up Every New Word

You need to learn that new vocabulary, right? So you might feel that when you’re doing a sentence completion question, you should look up all the words.

Well, you’d be right to do that, but not until you finish practicing. If you’re doing a practice verbal section, answer all of the questions, then come back to the tough words (it’s a good idea to underline them) and look them up. You won’t have a dictionary with you on test day, so you need to learn more than just definitions; you need to learn how to deal with those words you don’t know. The best way to get better at that is to try answering questions without looking words up.


3. Your Formula Cheat Sheet

This is pretty similar to looking up words as you work. Yes, you want to know formulas on test day, but you should be learning them outside your SAT practice, rather than stopping and looking up a formula when you’re stuck on a question. You won’t have a cheat sheet on test day, so you need to learn how to get on without it.


4. Ignoring Your Wrong Answers

This is by far one of the most common and most disastrous mistakes you can make. When you’re trying to learn how not to make a mistake, ignoring the ones you do make is like baking a cake and then never tasting it. How will you know what to do next time if you don’t find out what was good or bad the first time?


5. Skipping the Essay

Not many students really enjoy writing the essay. It’s really, really hard to write a good essay in 25 minutes time, and not once in the process do you get the payoff of “I know I got that one right” that you do in the other sections. But not liking it doesn’t mean you can skip it! The more practice essays you write, the better you’ll be able to pace yourself and come up with good examples on test day. You’ll also get a better idea of the endurance you need for a full-length test if you do practice tests with the essays.


6. Music with Lyrics

Alright, so I love studying with music, myself, and I definitely do recommend listening to something while you study. It can help you shut out the outside world, for one, and can just make the whole experience a bit more fun and relaxing. And if you’re enjoying your practice at all, you’re more likely to sit down and do it, which is key.

That said, don’t listen to music with words. The SAT demands the full attention of your brain’s language centers. Any lyrics you hear and understand are going to mess you up. It’s already hard enough to stay focused on many of the SAT’s reading comprehension passages. You don’t need Pharrell telling you how happy he is in the background.


7. TV

Music with words may be a bad idea, but TV is much worse. The entire point of most TV shows is to get you to pay attention to what they’re saying. And clearly, I don’t just mean the stuff you watch on an actual TV. Netflix, Hulu, it’s all the same deal: don’t turn it on. You can’t focus on SAT practice the same way you’ll have to on test-day if there’s a zombie apocalypse in the background.


8. Pretty Much Anything on Your Phone

I know, I know—there goes everything fun. Texting, instagram, snapchat, or whatever else is going to break your concentration, and if the SAT is a test of anything it’s how well you can stay focused and engaged. Marathon-length stretches of focus take practice!


9. Your Bedroom

It’s 10:30 p.m. and you’re about to sit down and do a bit of SAT prep before bed. So you huddle up in bed with the Blue Book and…fall asleep.

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you stay awake. But I’d bet you that about ten minutes after you start, you’ll get distracted. For many of us, our bedrooms are where we spend a lot of time: watching TV, reading, playing games, playing music, drawing or anything else relaxing. If you’ve got nothing else in your bedroom other than your desk to do work at, then alright, study there. But if you might get distracted, it’s not the best place to prepare. Go somewhere new, somewhere that will keep you focused and engaged.


10. Forgetting the Clock

Granted, you should absolutely be doing some SAT practice without a clock—if you don’t feel comfortable with the topics that the SAT tests, there’s no point in stressing about a clock, too. You need to first be sure that you have the basics down, then start using the clock. But that’s if you’ve got months and months to study and really need to brush up a lot on fundamentals.

For the most of us, SAT prep will be shorter-term, and the material on the test is relatively familiar. After all, it is supposed to align with what you learn in school. That means starting the clock now. By test day, you should know exactly how far into a section you want to be at five, ten, fifteen, and twenty minutes.


Studying Right

Making your SAT prep time as effective as possible is the only way you’ll be able to balance it with schoolwork, extracurriculars, and a social life. Every time you sit down to study, make sure you’re doing it right so you don’t have to spend more time on it then necessary to get the best score you can.



  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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One Response to 10 Things That Are Ruining Your SAT Practice

  1. Sampurna October 12, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Great article! I think I’ve got 6-8 down pat but the rest I’ll have to remind myself about…

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