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Preparing to Take the SAT – Part 3

With so many SAT resources online, it’s easy to spend far too much time perusing them all. Helen Donohoe has spent years helping top athletes secure admissions to top universities. Her expertise will not one save you time, but help you do your best on your upcoming SAT. Read more to learn her proven method for success.

Helen Donohoe is a tennis hacker, aficionado of the sport and a member of Cedar Springs Health Racquet & Sportsclub in Burlington, where she holds a weekly volunteer tutoring class for the SAT at Cedar Springs Club for student athletes (tennis and other disciplines) associated with the club.


Written by: Helen Donohoe
Part 3

With so many SAT resources online, it’s easy to spend far too much time perusing them all. Divide the online task into two parts:

1. Familiarize yourself with the details of taking the test itself- dates, location, costs etc. Get your family on board to help you with this – ask (insist!) them to read the collegeboard website. You can’t know enough; read everything. You can do this over a period of time as there is so much to digest. You can also check other websites you can think of, such as what is a “good” SAT score or the score usually needed to get into college X.
2. Focus on using the online practice tests – there are about eight of them – and follow my suggestions in part 2 of this series of articles.

In addition to the two English sections, there is an essay section. Not all colleges require the essay section but as it’s a part of every SAT, just do it anyway. Again, at this time, when COVID has snatched so much away from us, adding depth and substance to your own personal portfolio, could reap many benefits for you. The essay section is usually a debate/discourse type question where you have to read an opinion piece and give your response/perspective. If you are a native English speaker or consider yourself fluent, even though older members of your family speak another language, you will likely be fine with the essay. Its main purpose is very likely to identify students who may need support with writing when they actually get to college. Some of these will be students for whom English is a second or subsequent language.

Understanding and interpreting the numbers in SAT is essential but do not agonize over it. In Ontario, and most provinces in Canada, students receive a score for school work, as a percentage and using that as a guideline will keep you right. Refer to my second article for information. The other key word is percentile. Obviously the two words have the same root. Your total score (raw score) out of 1600 (as well as your two section scores out of 800) corresponds to a percentile ranking. Your SAT percentile tells you what percentage of students you scored the same as or better than. So for example, if you got a 60th percentile score, you’ve scored better than 60% of all test takers. You cannot convert your own score to a percentile because you have no access to other student scores. So just concentrate on what you can do and don’t worry about others.

To improve your overall mark on the two English sections (EBRW – evidence-based reading and writing), keep reading whatever you can, in print or online. Journalists are good writers so concentrate on reading newspapers. You don’t need a subscription to read a few articles. Beware of blogs though. Not all bloggers are good writers – they just think they are.

Strategies for EBR – evidence-based reading, the first of the two English sections:

1. Read the synopsis/summary at the beginning of the reading passage. It’s often in italics or a different font, so it’s easy to spot. You can gain crucial clues from the synopsis, e.g., is this a contemporary or older text? If contemporary, you can expect that the language and sentence structure will be a little less complex, than the “dense” sentences from, for example, the Victorian period in literature.
2. Skim the passage for length and skim the questions. There are usually 10 or 11 questions.
3. Try to decide which are “big picture” questions. e.g., “What is the primary purpose of the passage?” and which are “little picture” questions, e.g., the meaning of individual words. These questions can often be answered out of sequence, by checking the line reference. Do them first if you can, as they can save you a lot of time. Tackle the big picture questions after that.
4. Do not fret if you see new “difficult” words. The context will give you enough clues to gauge the general meaning and that will be enough.
5. If unsure of an answer, leave it and go back to it – but don’t forget about it!

Strategies for EBW (evidence-based writing), sometimes called the grammar/writing section. In this section you have to identify errors in phrases/sentences; if you think there is no error, you have that option:

1. Skim the entire passage. Make mental notes. Skim the 11 questions to see if there are any you can answer very quickly. Some of the questions are very easy – spelling, grammar. For instance do you know the difference between its and it’s and when to use there, their or they’re? Some students confuse the spelling and use of simple words like then and than.
2. Out of 11 questions there will be at least one, where the right answer is “no change”, so check when you complete the section. There could be up to three “no change” answers but more than that is unlikely.
3. Look out for words (parts of verbs) in the answer options that end in “ing.” Eight times out of ten, this will NOT be the answer, so play the odds.
4. Look out for any big, old-fashioned words in the answer options – furthermore, notwithstanding; they are not likely to be the answers.
5. Make sure that the verb (singular or plural) matches the noun/pronoun.
6. Some of the questions are about English usage – e.g., immune to not immune from and enamoured of not enamoured with
7. If stumped after applying all your strategies, choose the shortest option.

NOTE – In the English sections there is no time to write anything down. That is not how you will get the answer right.

Strategies for the math sections:

1. With very few exceptions each math question is independent of other questions, so you can do them in any order.
2. Tackle the questions you know you can do and make sure to get the right answer. If you know how to do 12 or 13 of the 20 questions that’s okay if you are in grade 10. If you’re in semester 2 in grade 12, or have completed all the required math courses and can’t do all the questions, find someone to help you or search the internet for instruction.
3. Check carefully to see if calculators are allowed. Whenever possible, try to do without a calculator.
4. It is okay to make some calculations as you go along, but only briefly. If you find yourself with a page of calculations for one question, (you can write on the test booklet) you’re on the wrong track. Most of the answers are relatively small numbers.

These strategies should be able to get you to the point where you are scoring 8/10 for every group of 10 questions (again, refer to part 2 of this series of articles) and that should be enough for success on the SAT.

I will be happy to answer any questions you have about the SAT. If you have a piece of your own writing on a debate/discourse type topic, I will be happy to assess it briefly for you.

You can contact me at

Missed the previous entries of this article? Don’t worry we have you covered!


Part 1 available here

Part 2 available here

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