Tip From The Manager: Master the SAT

My name is Matt, and I’m the Managing Director of HSA Tutoring. I’m a rising junior here at Harvard, and I’m studying Economics with a minor in Computer Science. I’ve collected many tips from past tutors, and combined them all into one giant list to help you master the SAT’s.


  • ID & Test ticket / information (depending on the test)
  • Test supplies (pencil, eraser) *note: do not bring a calculator
  • Water (clear bottle) & snack
  • Watch *note: it cannot be a phone, which you cannot use during the test

WARNING: Leave your phone at home, or silence it. Use of phone can constitute grounds for cancelling your test.

Before the Test

  • Study a bit each day. Make an effort to look through your materials at least once every day, even for just five minutes, putting special focus on the sections you have trouble with. It will also allow you to familiarize yourself more with the test—and remember, the more prepared you are for the test, the better your performance will be.
  • Practice under the time constraints (even less time than given on the actual test!). Time management will thus be less likely to give you an issue on test day!
  • Review what you know. Although an effective way to study for the test is to focus on a specific trouble section per week, remember to keep the whole test in perspective while you’re reviewing! Set aside some time in your study schedule to review the material you’ve already covered.
  • Build endurance. Take practice exams often to build your endurance. Simulate test day conditions as much as possible. After you have taken several practice exams, give yourself less time than the exam gives to improve your speed and give yourself buffer time during test day, when conditions are more stressful and you might work more slowly.
  • Eat. Sleep. Exercise. Pay attention in school. Leading a healthy lifestyle and school life will lead to better academic performance—and better test-taking skills.

During the Test

  • Do not take a practice exam the night leading up to the test. Instead, look briefly over what you have learnt, relax your mind, make sure you go to sleep early and wake up early.
  • Come to the test prepared. That means have breakfast, pencils, a snack, and anything else you’d need to do your best on this test.
  • Know when to guess. There is no penalty on the ISEE and HSPT, so always guess. While there is a penalty on the SAT (for now), if you can eliminate at least 1 answer, it is to your advantage to make an educated guess.
  • Don’t get stuck on one question. Remember, all questions are worth the same point. If you find yourself spending too much time on one question, skip it, and come back later if you have time. It’s better to answer many easy questions correctly than a couple of hard questions. Remember, questions generally go from easiest to hardest (depending on your own areas of strengths), and they’re all worth the same amount!
  • Know approximately how much time you should spend on a question per section. This way, you know when you’re spending too much time and it’s time to move on.
  • You can never finish early. It you finish early, check your answers, paying close attention to the questions you hesitated on. Then check again. The worse thing is to find that you bubbled in the wrong answer, or misread something – every point counts, so use all your time!
  • Pace yourself. Keep track of time. While most proctors will give half-time and five-minute warnings, be sure to keep a close watch on time yourself!


During the Test

  • You don’t have a calculator, so save yourself time whenever possible. Keeping that in mind, do not unnecessarily simplify numbers. If you find you have to multiply extremely hard numbers, you may not be on the right track.
  • Know your strengths! Although questions go from easiest to hardest, generally, everyone has different math skills. Don’t be afraid to skip and go back to the problem later if you know it’s something you’re less familiar with or will take you a long time.
  • Use what is given to you. This includes diagrams, figures, equations. Remember that since images are generally drawn to scale, they may be a powerful approximating tool when you are stuck on a problem.
  • The test book is yours! Use it for scratch paper to your heart’s content, be as messy as you need (no teacher will be reading your answer, the only thing that matters is that you get the right answer). Just remember: only answers in the answer book count.


Before the Test

  • Read. Read. Read. Everything from current events to fiction novels will be fair game. Nothing will be more beneficial to your performance on the Critical Reading and Verbal sections! Practice is critical for improving your reading speed, comprehension, and vocabulary. Additional tips include:
  • Set out specific time to read and make it part of your routine, be it while commuting, or right after homework, or before you go to bed.
  • Hone in on what you have most difficulty with in these sections and work on them while reading. Read too slow? Try going faster. Not doing well in vocabulary? Write down as you read words you don’t know and look them up. Can’t comprehend passages? Summarize the chapter or news story afterwards.

During the Test

  • Know your strengths and prioritize the type of questions you’re best at. For example, if you’re good at passages, do those first. If you are better at vocabulary, do those first. While the test is generally ordered from easiest to hardest, the variety of question types on the Critical Reading means you ought to play to your strength.
  • Skim the questions before you read a long passage. This helps you keep in mind what’s important.
  • If the question refers to a specific line in the passage (ie: why does Frannie compare a home to a present? (line 36)), star that line in the passage. When you’re reading, play particular attention to that line. You may want to after reading answer that question first, so the passage is fresh in your mind and you do not need to go back to the line again and lose more time

Caveat: But if you’re unsure of the answer, absolutely go back to the line, and look at the sentence before and after for context. This will often help you.

  • Stay ENGAGED with the reading. I know it’s boring but you cannot blank out, otherwise you will waste time re-reading (and time management is a key issue lots of students struggle with in this section). Some strategies (use what works for you. Not all are applicable):

1) Annotate

2) “Picture it in your mind” – pretend you’re a director and envision the passage.

3) Pause & summarize each paragraph or the passage at the end to help you

  • Read the beginning blurb on the passage. It will help orient you, and there may even be a question about it.
  • Don’t overthink. You’re picking the “best” answer, not the absolutely correct one. The one you should pick is the one you can point to some part of the passage that backs up your answer!
  • Be care with definition questions. Words can have different definitions, make sure to choose the one used in the context from the passage (so go back to the line to be sure)


Before the test

  • Read. Read. Read. I mention this every time, it’s that important. Your first line of defense for vocab is to just know what the word means, particular in context.
  • Learn vocab. This is your second line of defense. The prep book’s list of common words are on p. 113-116. Being able to give the definition of the word when you see it is more useful than vice versa. Because you do not learn the word in context, it is the second option.

You may find note cards here helpful.

  • Learn roots. Roots are located in the prep book p. 108-113. Of particular use is opposites, negatives, and positive roots, which are most useful for figuring out word connotation. Prefixes and suffixes also give hints on word meaning.
  • Study the terms you need to know. What is an antonym? What is a synonym?
  • Review grammar rules and paragraph structure (HSPT only: language arts section)

During the test

  • Connotation is key.This narrows down the answer choices. For vocab, ask the word sounds positive or negative? For sentence completion, ask words with what connotation is the one you’re looking for (you may use plus or minus signs in blanks if that is helpful).
  • Plug it back in. Once you’ve picked for sentence completions and analogies, re-read the question and your answer, and make sure it makes sense.
  • Diagram / write out relationships (HSPT only).
  • Go with your gut. Because you guys speak English, often times if something “sounds” wrong to you, it likely is. This is especially applicable with HSPT Language Arts, which tests grammar among other things.



Before the test

  • Write lots of prompts. Have your parent or teacher read them as necessary. The prompts are very repetitive. The more you write, the easier they will become. 

During the test

  • Stay on topic and answer the question (in your intro). If you do not answer the question, or if your essay is not on topic, it is unlikely to win any points for you even if it is a great essay.
  • Always do an outline. It helps enormously to budget your time and hone your essay in a short time. It can be as detailed or as vague as you’d like – but spend 2-3 mins doing so!
  • Budget your time. GMake sure to save time at the end to re-read, edit for grammar, spelling, so forth.
  • Put your best foot forward. Use proper grammar, spelling, and your neatest handwriting. Write a decently long essay. While essay readers are not supposed
  • Choose a topic that appeals to you.
  • Follow a standard essay structure: intro (with thesis), body paragraphs, conclusion. It is more important that the beginning of your essay is good than that the end of it is.

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