How Hard Is the SAT?

Note: This post has been revised to reflect changes to the SAT beginning in March 2016.

Hundreds of thousands of high school students set their sights on college each year, which means hundreds of thousands of students are taking the SAT. Understandably, they want to know what they are up against.

Particularly those who are are going to be among the first victims, I mean lucky ducks, to take the Redesigned SAT in the spring of 2016. Many of them ask us before they start studying, “How hard is the SAT?” But, particularly as we begin our journey with the new SAT, which is drastically different from the old one, this is a difficult question to answer. However, we’ve carefully studied the new test, and here’s what we think.

First of all, let’s talk about the big question of the moment:


Is the new SAT harder than the old SAT?

The short answer is no. And here’s why. Your performance on standardized tests is always compared to the performance of the other students who take the test, and your score reflects this comparison. It’s adjusted and scaled. And concordance tables will be developed so that both you and the schools you are applying to can accurately compare your score on the new SAT to a corresponding score on the old SAT. So, if you ignore all the nuances, technically, you should receive the same relative score on both the old and the new SAT….so it’s not harder.

Improve your SAT score; start your Magoosh SAT prep today

But, now for the nuances. Just as some students are better suited for, and thus score higher on, the ACT rather than the SAT, some students who were better suited for the old SAT will not be a good fit for the new SAT and vice versa. The tests are very different and they reward different skill sets. For example, the new test is more reading-focused and passage-heavy across the board. There is a greater focus on higher-level math skills and more questions on algebra and fewer questions on geometry. And there’s a no-calculator section, which can be a frightening prospect to button-happy math students. On the flip side, the SAT has done away with difficult vocabulary, brain-teaser-like math questions, and the penalty for wrong answers, so if these were your downfalls before, insert gloating happy dance here–the new SAT is sooooo much easier!

How hard is the SAT compared to tests in high school?

The new SAT is supposed to do a better job of testing the same type of knowledge and skills you are learning in school. The old SAT was criticized for its traps, its logic games, its teachable tricks. Now, things are a lot more straightforward. So the new SAT is far more school-like.

This being said, you’ll likely find that even the new SAT is harder than most of the tests you take in school for a few reasons:

    ● The SAT is likely one of the longest tests you’ll take in high school. It’s 3 hours long without the essay and 3 hours 50 minutes with the essay, and this doesn’t include the time you will spend filling out forms, listening to instructions, and taking short breaks. The sheer length of time that students must be focused and engaged will make the SAT more challenging than tests in high school. Endurance and concentration can be major factors.
    ● The SAT has its own unique question types. Although you likely face all kinds of tests in school, chances are you often have to provide your own responses on many of them. Since the SAT is all multiple choice (with the exception of a handful of grid-in math problems), this means that the correct answer is always right in front of you! You don’t have to come up with it out of thin air. If you are good at using answer choices, this means you might find the SAT to be easier than many of your school tests. But keep in mind the SAT is also really good at creating tempting wrong answers (and from what I’ve seen, I might argue that the new SAT is even better at it than the old SAT), so you have to be on your guard. In addition, the question types might be different from what you face in school. For example, you may be used to peer editing essays in English class, but you likely rarely face a multiple choice test that quizzes you on every grammar and rhetorical error that occurs throughout an essay, like the SAT Writing test.
    ● The SAT has a challenging time limit. Most teachers tend to let you take a test in your own time, provided you can finish within the class period, and maybe they even let you go over time. Of course, there are many students that have trouble finishing tests, but even students who never run out of time in school will run out of time on the SAT. This means that in order to finish in time, you need to solve problems quickly, and you likely won’t have time to check all of your answers.


How hard is the SAT compared to other standardized tests in high school?

The difficulty of the SAT is a small step up from the difficulty of many standardized state tests (although since many states now use the SAT or ACT as their state test, it may be identical!). And I am not talking about the standardized tests you took in middle school. A standardized test for an 11th grader will be closer in level and difficulty to the SAT. Many CAASPP (the standardized test given to students in California) questions look similar to SAT questions.


How hard is the SAT compared to building a website?

The SAT is not as hard as building a website. The knowledge, time, and energy to design, build, test, and release a website to the world is more of a challenge than the SAT. The SAT is predictable in a lot of ways since it is a standardized test. We know how many questions are on the test and how much time we have. We know the format of the test, and we can learn the different questions types in each section and how to answer them correctly. And we know what we should not do on the SAT.

But building a website is fraught with unknowns. Problems lurk in places you don’t even expect. You have to understand pathing, multiple computer languages, file structures, color design, layout, readability, fonts, browser versions, mobile and tablet compatibility, technological turnover, deprecation…. And that is just on the tech side of building a website. If you are building one for someone else, your task is even harder. Now you have to be concerned about the opinions, expectations, and desires of another person. But the SAT requires none of this specialized knowledge, and it is definitely not based on the whim and fancy of a single person.


But how hard is the SAT compared to…?

Depending on what you are doing, the SAT might be hard and it might be easy. I guarantee this guy thinks that SAT is pretty easy since he helped build the Mars Rover. But his difficulties are not our difficulties.

Maybe you actually think the SAT is hard. Maybe you think it is easy. You tell me what you think is harder or easier than the SAT. Because all I know is that building a web site is really, really hard.

Some plans to point you in the right direction

Even if it seems hard right now, we have some great study plans that can help make this whole SAT thing a whole lot easier. Check them out here.

You can also check out our Top Ten Ways to Prepare for the New SAT and don’t forget the value of taking some full-length practice SATs before test day. They’ll help you with your test-taking endurance and time-management skills, all while making you more comfortable with the test.



  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

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

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