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Is the SAT Optional? Your Guide to Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Is the SAT Optional? Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Most colleges require applicants to submit a personal statement, resume, transcript, supplemental essays, and recommendation letters. In the past, many have also required students to submit ACT or SAT scores. 

The global pandemic has profoundly impacted college admissions, however.

For the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, many colleges decided to go test-optional or test-blind. Others have temporarily or permanently modified their standardized testing policies.

Given the evolving role of the SAT in college admissions, is the SAT optional? Should you even take it? What do you need to know about test-optional schools in the wake of COVID?

Here’s what we cover in this post:

COVID, the SAT, and College Admissions

A large portion of U.S. colleges and universities have historically required students to submit test scores from either the SAT or the ACT. (Most colleges don’t prefer the SAT over the ACT or vice versa--they accept either equally.)

The big question, of course, has been the role SAT or ACT scores play in the college admission decision. How much weight have colleges actually been giving them? The answer: it depends.

Is the SAT Optional_ Quote 1 (1)

In a Common Data Set from 2019-2020, for example, the University of Notre Dame specifies the following:

  • Standardized test scores are “important” to the admissions decision (but not “very important”)
  • The university does make use of SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores in admission decisions 
  • The university uses the SAT essay or ACT essay for advising purposes only (but does not require it)

Such data sets are not available for all U.S. colleges and universities.  However, it is safe to assume that, if required, SAT or ACT scores can range from slightly to very important in informing the college admissions decision.

For more competitive, elite institutions--like the Ivy Leagues--these scores can be very important.

The chart below sums up the role of standardized test scores in college admissions pre-COVID. Most schools have placed considerable importance on test scores.

Test-Optional Schools_Is the SAT Optional?

Now, of course, the story is a little different. The pandemic has significantly impacted students' ability to actually sit for the SAT (or ACT). Many of our students have faced endless test center closures and test cancellations.

In an effort to bring equity into their admissions process, many colleges have modified their test score policies for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. In fact, for this year alone, two-thirds of colleges have gone test-optional, meaning that they'll accept test scores from students but won't require them.

For some colleges, this change is only temporary. For others, it's semi-permanent or permanent.

We take a deeper dive into how COVID has impacted college admissions in another post. For now, keep reading to learn more about test-optional colleges in 2021.

Test-Optional Colleges in 2021

Before the pandemic began, quite a few U.S. colleges and universities did not require SAT scores or standardized test scores for that matter. Now, more schools have either become test-optional or significantly modified their test score policies.

According to, more than half of 4-year U.S. colleges and universities will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. At the time of writing this post, 1,240 institutions are test-optional at least for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle.

You can find the full list of top-tier U.S. colleges and universities "deemphasizing" test scores in college admissions here, via

Historically Test-Optional Schools 

Here is a sample of U.S. institutions that were test-optional before COVID-19.

Sarah Lawrence College

Wake Forest University

Bard College

Furman University

Bowdoin College

Bryn Mawr

Smith College

Skidmore College

Bates College

St. Lawrence University

University of Puget Sound

Pitzer College

University of Chicago

Wheaton College

Mount Holyoke College

Wittenburg University

Wesleyan University

Hanover College

Trinity College

Hartwick College

Newly Test-Optional Schools

Here is a small sample of elite U.S. colleges and universities that have become test-optional (at least for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle) since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Brown University
  • CalTech University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • UPenn University
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Yale University
  • MIT

We want to point out that test-optional does not mean test-blind (meaning that the school won't even look at test scores if they are submitted). Here's what MIT says, for example, about test scores for this admissions cycle, which are not required for only this year:

Students who have already taken the SAT/ACT are encouraged to report their scores with the understanding that they help us more accurately evaluate their preparedness for MIT, and with the knowledge that tests are only one factor among many in that process. 

What's more, test-optional schools likely still require other standard components of the college application, including (but not limited to the following):

  • Essay(s)
  • Recommendation letters
  • Transcripts
  • Additional supplements (portfolios, essays, interview, etc.)

In some cases, these schools may place even greater emphasis on these components, especially those that can demonstrate a student's academic promise. Some students may also need standardized test scores to qualify for certain scholarships, especially when it comes to athletic recruiting, and for advising or placement purposes.

Harvard, for example, is not requiring students to submit test scores for this admissions cycle. But it is encouraging enrolling students who did not submit scores to do so in the summer prior to enrollment:

Because standardized test results are used for academic counseling, placement, and institutional research, enrolling students who applied without considerations of tests will be invited to submit test scores over the summer, prior to matriculating at Harvard.

Test-Flexible Schools

In the past, some colleges and universities have required students to submit something in lieu of ACT or SAT scores. Once again, in the wake of the pandemic, more schools are becoming test-flexible.

These schools may permit applicants to submit AP Exam scores in relevant subjects. Still others may waive the SAT or ACT score requirement for applicants with a certain GPA, or require students to submit a graded academic paper instead.

Test-flexible schools are likely to have a wide range of policies and score alternatives. For this reason, it’s essential to check out the school’s website to know exactly what you need to submit to be an eligible applicant.

Should You Take the SAT?

Given the SAT’s evolving role in college admissions, should students even take it?

It’s certainly a valid question.

At PrepMaven, we do encourage students to still take the SAT (or the ACT, depending on which test suits their skills).

Doing so will allow them to keep their options open as they navigate future college admissions cycles, and our philosophy as educators is to give our students as many tools as possible to maximize their future opportunities.

Higher test scores will still give applicants an advantage at most schools. Students who have top grades and extracurriculars but have never considered a selective school before because of less-than-competitive test scores should certainly do so for this reason.

What’s more, many currently test-optional schools, especially selective ones, might eventually revert to requiring test scores. Some still look at test scores (even if they are required), too.

Others, like Harvard, might require scores after a student has accepted an offer of admission.

Younger students--i.e., freshmen and sophomores--should thus continue to prepare for the SAT even if the colleges on their list are currently test-optional. Just in case such colleges do extend these test-optional policies, however, students should keep prioritizing grades and extracurriculars.

Regardless, students should make sure they are 100% clear on the standardized testing policies of every college on their list. As these are also evolving, it's wise to regularly check college websites throughout the admissions process.

Feel free to give us a shout if you have any questions!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

The Secondary Schools Admissions Test (SSAT) is a common requirement for students applying to select private schools.

There's a lot that goes into preparing for the SSAT, which we do our best here at PrepMaven to assist with.

But there's one part of SSAT prep that students may not be aware of: the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot. This additional, twenty-minute assessment gives schools yet another benchmark with which to assess applicants.

The Snapshot is a free add-on for students sitting for the SSAT. Those who aren't taking the SSAT must pay a fee to take the assessment.

What exactly is this Snapshot, and what do you need to know about it? We answer these questions and several more in this comprehensive post. Plus, we give you access to our free SSAT Guidebook. You can grab this now by clicking the button below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s SSAT strategies
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what we cover:

The SSAT Character Skills Snapshot: The Nutshell

There's more to the SSAT than just the test itself. Students have the option of taking the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot, an additional online assessment that is meant to give schools a "richer holistic view" of an applicant.

Here's what says about the Snapshot on its website:

It measures your student's view of his/her character skill development and is meant to complement more traditional cognitive assessments such as the SSAT. The Character Skills Snapshot gives admission teams additional information and illuminates areas where their schools can help your student grow, thrive, and shine. 

Also according to, the SSAT Character Skills Snapshot tests a wide range of character traits, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Teamwork
  • Social Awareness
  • Resilience
  • Self-Control
  • Openmindedness
  • Initiative
  • Intellectual engagement

You can check out the Character Skills Card for more details here.

This online assessment takes approximately twenty minutes to complete, and can be completed in one sitting at home. Students who are in grades 5 through 11 applying to grades 6-12 are eligible to take the Snapshot. admits that the Snapshot may not be representative of the full scope of a student's character:

The Snapshot is meant to provide a snapshot in time of your student's view of his/her character skills - it is not a fixed, absolute measure.

While we agree that it's pretty challenging to assess a person's full character in twenty minutes, the Snapshot can provide potentially valuable information not otherwise able to be gleaned from other parts of an application.

Want more information on preparing for the SSAT? We discuss the Snapshot and more in our detailed SSAT Guidebook, which you can download for free below.

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot Sample Questions

This may all sound well and good, but what do students have to do in those twenty minutes it takes to complete the assessment?

Luckily, the does provide some sample questions students can peruse in anticipation of taking the Snapshot. Students can expect to encounter two types of questions on this assessment:

  1. Forced-choice
  2. Situational judgments

Forced-choice questions ask students to choose responses to certain statements based off of what they feel describes them best. Here is an example:

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Students shouldn't overthink these questions--simply identify what you feel best reflects you!

Situational judgments present a general situation and ask students to assess the appropriateness of responses to this situation. Here is an example:

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Once again, don't try to overthink these questions--simply identify what you personally feel represents an appropriate / inappropriate / neutral response to the described situation.

Who Uses This?

The SSAT Character Skills Snapshot gives schools supplemental information about applicants that may or may not be present in other application materials.

It is essentially designed to complement existing materials, which include the following:

  • application essay(s)
  • SSAT scores
  • transcripts
  • and interviews

However, not all schools require that applicants take the Snapshot! In fact, it's best to consult your schools of choice prior to taking the Snapshot to see what role it plays in the admissions process. does provide a School List of private institutions, but still encourages applicants to contact admissions offices to see if the Snapshot is required.

If a school does require applicants to submit the Snapshot, admissions officers are likely to use Snapshot Reports very differently. Some may place a lot of emphasis on it, while others may not--similar to the way that officers analyze SSAT scores!

For example, the Lawrenceville School strongly recommends that applicants take the Character Skills Snapshot. Here's what it says on its website:

All applicants to Lawrenceville are strongly recommended to submit the Character Skills Snapshot. Lawrenceville is more than just a place where you will learn math, English and science. We believe the reason you are considering Lawrenceville is because you’re interested in an education that goes beyond the classroom and encourages personal growth. Similarly, we know that you are much more than grades and test scores. That’s why we’re asking you to take the Character Skills Snapshot, which looks at eight non-cognitive areas, and will hopefully be a fun, exploratory exercise for applicants. For the applicants who submit it, the CSS will provide us with richer information about you, and show us areas where our community can help you grow, thrive, and shine. 

Want more information on preparing for the SSAT? We discuss the Snapshot and more in our detailed SSAT Guidebook, which you can download for free below.

Registering for the Snapshot

It's relatively straightforward to register for the Character Skills Snapshot.

If you are registering for the SSAT exam, simply click the "Snapshot" link on the homepage of your parent/guardian account to register for this as well.

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

Parents will have to review a consent form and candidate agreement form to complete Snapshot registration.

Registration is free if you are an SSAT test-taker. You can still take the Snapshot if you aren't signed up for an SSAT exam, but you'll have to pay a fee of $35 to do so.

Please note: You can only register for the SSAT Snapshot through a parent/guardian account. You can only take the Snapshot via a student account.

Taking the Snapshot Assessment

Once you've registered for the Character Skills Assessment, you can essentially take it whenever you wish. The assessment is on-demand, meaning it is designed to be taken at leisure.

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot

We recommend that students take the Snapshot as soon as possible, to ensure on-time reporting. Getting it out of the way will also free up time for your SSAT prep!

When you're ready to take the assessment, all you have to do is log in to your student SSAT account. On your homepage, you'll see a "Take the Snapshot" icon. Click this, submit the integrity statement, and begin the Snapshot. It's as easy as that!

Sending Snapshot Reports to Schools

Students receive a Snapshot Report after they've completed the Snapshot, but this doesn't necessarily happen right away. Reports are released according to a very specific schedule outlines on its website:

SSAT Character Skills Snapshot_Reports

So, as an example, if you take the Snapshot on February 7th, 2020, you'll be able to view your Report on February 13th, 2020.

To view reports, navigate to the homepage of a parent/guardian SSAT account. Click "View Results Details" under the section that states that Snapshot Results are ready to view.

We encourage parents to download a PDF of these reports, in case schools request (for any reason) a paper copy.

From here, you'll be able to search for schools that accept the Snapshot and submit the Report directly through this portal. For more information, view's guide to sending Snapshot Reports here.

Download PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

The SSAT Character Skills Snapshot gives schools a greater sense of applicants' perspectives of the world and others. It can also be a valuable addition to other required application materials, such as application materials and SSAT scores.

Remember that taking the Snapshot is free if you're registered for an SSAT exam. We recommend that families register for the Snapshot when signing up for the SSAT itself, just to be safe.

At Prep Maven, we are here to help students experience success on the SSAT and beyond. That's why we created our free SSAT Guidebook, an excellent resource for families navigating secondary school admissions.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven's SSAT Guidebook

  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s SSAT strategies
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here's what you'll get:

  • 90+ pages of valuable SSAT guidance
  • Details about SSAT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven's SSAT strategies for all 5 sections of the test
  • Information about SSAT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. private high schools
  • and much more!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

The SAT Essay_ What to Expect

The SAT Essay: What to Expect

The SAT Essay: What to Expect

Note: As of January 2021, the CollegeBoard has announced that it will be discontinuing the SAT Essay after the June 2021 SAT administration. 

The SAT Essay is the fifth and optional section of the SAT. 

Many top-tier colleges--including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Brown--do not require applicants to submit the SAT Essay with their applications. Plus, after June 2021, the SAT essay will no longer be a part of the test.

If you plan on taking the SAT essay between now and June 2021, however, we're here to provide some guidance. 

What is the SAT Essay all about? What can you expect on Test Day if you've opted to take it?

In this post, we address the following:

The SAT Essay: The Basics

The SAT Essay requires students to read a source text and then analyze how the author uses various techniques to build his/her argument.   

Students have 50 minutes to analyze the text and formulate their response. The SAT Essay includes 3 main parts: 

SAT Essay Parts

Part 1: The Reading Prompt 

Every single SAT Essay reading prompt has the same structure. 

The general format looks like this:

SAT Essay Reading Prompt



The only thing that changes on each reading prompt is the author name.  Below are two examples of reading prompts from Official SAT Practice Test Essays (author names bolded for emphasis).    

SAT Practice Test 1 Essay Prompt

SAT Practice Test 2 Essay Reading Prompt

Part 2: Reading Selection

The source text (650-750 words long) always contains a key argument. The writing prompt will actually specify this argument.

Source texts for the SAT Essay will be similar to passages on the Evidence-Based Reading test of the SAT, with the exception that Essay passages are often far more opinionated.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for speeches to appear in this section. The same goes for editorials, opinion pieces, and the like. These selections can be from any time period, so be prepared to navigate both contemporary and non-contemporary language.

Here is an excerpt from the source text for the essay portion of SAT Official Practice Test 1: 

SAT Essay Reading Task 1
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

[Here’s the full passage and prompt.

Part 3: Essay Instructions 

Every SAT Essay writing prompt has the same format. The general format looks like this:  

SAT Essay Instructions

The only thing in the prompt that changes from test to test is the author's name and the main argument.   

Here are the writing prompts from the first two official practice SATs from the College Board's Official SAT Study Guide.

Example: Official SAT Practice Test 1 Essay Writing Prompt

SAT Essay Instructions - Practice Test 1

Example: Official SAT Practice Test 2 Essay Writing Prompt 

SAT Essay Instructions - Practice Test 2

While Part 2, the reading selection, will change on every test, the prompt and writing instructions (Part 1 and Part 3) will remain the same.

Your Essay’s Objective 

Your objective is always to write an essay in which you analyze how an author builds his/her argument.  Students should not state their personal opinions about the argument.

Essays should strictly concern the argument itself and its specific building blocks.

As you can see in the sample writing prompts provided in this article, the SAT does provide some examples of these “argument building blocks:” word choice, style, and tone.

Yet these are not the only building blocks or rhetorical devices students should be on the lookout for. There are countless others, including imagery, figurative language, emotional appeals, statistics, and repetition. (The list goes on!)

Common Challenges 

Writing the SAT essay is an extremely specific task.  Many students struggle with the SAT essay because they have limited experience identifying and analyzing argumentative strategies. 

Some may not have studied rhetorical devices in high school. This is especially the case for students who have not yet taken an AP-level English course.

What’s more, the SAT essay is the final section of the exam. Students must first wade through three hours of intense SAT Verbal and SAT Math work before getting to the Essay itself. Fatigue alone can make this section challenging!

The good news is that a training program can help you dramatically improve your SAT Essay scores. With guided mentorship, students can hone their abilities to analyze arguments and write persuasively about rhetorical strategies.

But first, it’s essential to understand the components of SAT Essay scoring--namely, what those essay readers are looking for in high scoring essays.

Scoring Components

Essays are scored by two readers.  Each reader gives a score ranging from 1 to 4 in three major areas: 

  • Reading 
  • Analysis
  • Writing 

The final score sums both reader’s scores for each category. There is no composite (total) score for the SAT Essay. 

The best possible score you can receive is:  

  • Reading: 8 
  • Analysis: 8 
  • Writing: 8 

Scoring Standards 

In school, teachers use their own standards to grade student writing. 

While one teacher may factor grammar mistakes heavily into grading, another teacher may base grades mostly on logic and structure. Others may even give students large boosts based on effort. 

The SAT Essay is scored by readers who are trained to score your essay in a very specific (standardized!) way.

The College Board contracts an outside company (Pearson) to provide extensive training to SAT Essay readers to make sure all the readers are consistent in the scoring.  They even make the readers take a test to make sure they understand the scoring guideline!

The College Board even supports the usage of an “SAT Essay-bot” to help students prepare for the essay.  Through Khan Academy, which has partnered with the College Board, students can draft essay responses, which are then assessed by computer systems. 

SAT Essay Bot

Think about this. The College Board thinks a well-programmed computer can do a decent job of grading student essays.   

All of this is good news!

If we can understand how SAT readers are trained to score the test and if we can understand how the SAT Essay-bot is programmed to grade essays, we can write an essay that satisfies all their guidelines for a high scoring essay.  

So, how is the essay scored?  

It’s all about the rubric. 

SAT readers rely on the SAT Essay rubric as their main guide to score student essays. 

An artfully crafted, insightful essay that doesn’t satisfy the regimented scoring rubric guidelines will not score as well as a bland essay that checks off all the boxes for a high scoring essay on the essay reader’s scoring rubric.    

The SAT Essay Rubric

You can find the full SAT Essay rubric here

For now, we’ll focus on the rubric’s specifications for the highest score (4) of each section: Reading, Writing, and Analysis.


Here are the full guidelines for a score of 4 on the Reading section: 

SAT Essay: Reading Score of 4
Source: The College Board

The source text will always have a main argument and a series of supporting arguments. These arguments will have supporting examples or evidence. 

In order to achieve thorough comprehension of the source text, you’ll have to do the following:

  • Identify the main argument
  • Identify the supporting arguments
  • Identify the evidence for the arguments and understand how they work to advance the argument

Remember: the ultimate focus of your essay is about analyzing the author’s argumentative techniques, NOT analyzing the author’s argument itself.    

Focus solely on the facts and points explicitly stated in the text. Avoid making any assumptions related to the text or its argument.  

Students must also include short, direct quotes from the text to prove thorough comprehension of the source text. 

A good strategy is to use direct quotes from the text that demonstrate that author’s use of a specific argumentative technique. Then, explain the meaning and argumentative purpose of the quote.  


The analytical task for the SAT Essay is to 

  • Explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his audience of his/her argument.
  • Analyze how the author uses specific writing techniques to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his/her argument.  

To achieve a 4 in this category, students must accomplish the following:

SAT Essay: Analysis Score of 4
Source: The College Board

Make sure to explicitly identify analytical techniques (ideally the most impactful ones) and their purpose/effect on the reader’s audience.

We recommend that students study common argumentative techniques and their purposes before going into the essay.  

The “claims” and “points” that you make in your essay will be the argumentative techniques used by the authors. This means that the “strategically chosen support” will be evidence of those points being made. 

Ideally, the evidence will include key quotes and paraphrases demonstrating the argumentative technique. 

Note the overlap with the reading score rubric point:  Makes skillful use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating a complete understanding of the source text." If you can use relevant textual evidence to:

  • support your claim about the author’s effective use of a specific argumentative technique 
  • explain how this argument technique helps build the author’s overall point and purpose

you can achieve both a high reading and writing score.

Many students score a 3 instead of a 4 on this section because the SAT readers feel that their analysis of the persuasive technique is not sufficiently thorough. 

We recommend you use one sentence to identify the technique and provide evidence of the technique in action. To get a 4 on the essay, you should use 2 or 3 sentences to analyze the technique.

As you write your essay, you should mostly focus on the main argument of the passage, the argumentative techniques used by the authors, and evidence to show the techniques in action.  


An SAT essay with a Writing score of 4 accomplishes all of the following:

SAT Essay: Writing Score of 4
Source: The College Board

A ‘cohesive’ essay is organized in such a way that the individual parts of the essay all work together to support the big-picture purpose of the essay.

If you use a well-constructed four or five paragraph structure, you can satisfy all of the above points.

  • An introductory paragraph to ‘hook’ the reader and state your main claim
  • 2-3 body paragraphs with topic sentences, supporting examples, and conclusion sentences 
  • A conclusion paragraph that restates your main claim

Students must use proper grammar when writing their essays. They should also prioritize using advanced vocabulary when possible. Incorporate a wide variety of sentence structures by varying shorter sentences and longer sentences.  

Next Steps

By now, you should have a strong understanding of what to expect on the SAT essay and know how to analyze the rubric in order to maximize subscores in reading, analysis, and writing. 

What happens next?

Practice, Practice, Practice.

The best way to inch closer to that high SAT essay score is to practice writing timed essays! Visit Khan Academy’s SAT Practice section. Try a practice essay there and use their “essay-bot” to see a score. 

Remember: the SAT Essay is the fifth section of the SAT. Test fatigue alone can be standing between you and a high score. Practice writing essays at the end of full-length practice tests to truly build stamina.

Read examples of essay responses.

In this post, we’ve thoroughly discussed the SAT essay rubric’s requirements for high-scoring essays.

To get a further glimpse at stellar (and not so stellar) essay responses, visit the College Board’s website.

Study argument techniques and rhetorical devices. 

The SAT Essay primarily tests students’ abilities to identify and analyze argumentative techniques and rhetorical devices.

If these are unfamiliar to you in any way, it’s vital to start building your knowledge now.

Keep in mind that the SAT Essay will soon be discontinued.

We do want to point out that the CollegeBoard will be discontinuing the SAT Essay following its June 2021 SAT administration.

So, should you even consider signing up for the SAT Essay? It's a great question.

In general, plan on taking the SAT Essay if:

  • You have already significantly prepared for the essay at this point in your SAT test prep
  • You've taken the SAT essay once and plan on taking the SAT at least one more time before or on June 2021 and/or
  • You plan on taking the SAT at least twice by June 2021  (this allows for superscoring with Essay)

Skip the essay if:

  • You are just starting your test prep journey now
  • You plan on taking the SAT after the June administration, at least one time and/or
  • The colleges on your list require an essay alternative (such as an academic paper)

We discuss these thoughts more in our Should I Take the SAT Essay? post. Good luck!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

The 5 SAT Sections_What You Need to Know (1)

The 4 Sections of the Paper SAT: What You Need to Know

The 4 SAT Sections: What You Need to Know

The SAT has historically been a standard component of the college admissions process.

Every year, the College Board administers seven SATs. Most students take the SAT for the first time during their junior year, sometimes earlier.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to study for the SAT. In fact, in order to get that high score, you should.

What's on the SAT? What content do you need to know to succeed on this college entrance exam?

Understanding the answers to these questions should be the first step of your test prep journey.

In this post, we’ll discuss the old (2023 and before) SAT. If you're prepping for an SAT test date in 2024 or beyond, then you should check out our updated posts on the new Digital SAT here

The 4 SAT Sections: The Basics

There are four sections on the SAT:

  • SAT Evidence-Based Reading
  • SAT Writing & Language
  • SAT Math: No-Calculator
  • SAT Math: Calculator

The SAT is a timed test, although testing accommodations are available for select students. 

Here’s the timing and question breakdown for each SAT section:

SAT Section Time / Questions
Evidence-Based Reading 65 minutes / 52 questions
Break 10 minutes
Writing & Language 35 minutes / 44 questions
Math: No Calculator 25 minutes / 20 questions
Break 5 minutes
Math: Calculator 55 minutes / 38 questions

Your total SAT score will consist of a Verbal score (Evidence-Based Reading + Writing & Language) and a Math score (Calculator + No-Calculator).

We discuss this at greater length in our SAT Scoring Guide.

Section 1: SAT Evidence-Based Reading

The Evidence-Based Reading section is the first section of the SAT.

On SAT Evidence-Based Reading, students have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.

Those 52 questions are associated with 5 passages of varying length. Each passage comes with 9-10 questions. 

In general, students can expect to see passages from the following genres:

  • Literary narrative (1)
  • Science (2)
  • History / Social Studies (2)

One of these five passages will be a dual passage. This means that students will actually have to read and compare two shorter passages.

SAT Evidence-Based Reading: Dual Passage
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

It’s important to note that the literary narrative passage will always come first.

The other passages, however, can take any order.

SAT Evidence-Based Reading: Literary Narrative
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Question Types

The Evidence-Based Reading section will ask students questions that zero in on the most important aspects of each passage.

Of course, “most important” is a relative phrase! What does “important” mean in the eyes of the College Board?

In general, the most important aspects of each SAT passage will include:

  • Main ideas
  • Author’s purpose
  • Inferences
  • Literal comprehension

Students can, accordingly, expect to see the following question types:

Question Type Number of Questions
Function / Purpose 8-12 questions
Vocabulary in Context 6-8 questions
Command of Evidence 8-10 questions
Detail 5-8 questions
Charts & Graphs 2-4 questions
Main Idea 4-6 questions
Character Analysis 2-4 questions

This means that students should really work to find evidence for every answer they select. Remember that the Reading section of the SAT is called the Evidence-Based Reading section for a reason!

The College Board has even incorporated a question type--Command of Evidence--that reinforces this process:

Command of Evidence Question (SAT)
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

This also means that there is no outside content knowledge required for this section (unlike Math and Writing & Language). It is purely strategy-based. 

We've got some great easy tips for getting a perfect score on SAT Reading. You can find those right here.

Section 2: SAT Writing & Language

The Writing & Language section is the second section of the SAT.

On this section, students have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions.

This section consists of four passages of various topics. Unlike the Reading section, however, questions occur throughout each passage, rather than at the end.

Here's what this looks like:

SAT Writing & Language: Format
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Question Types

The Writing & Language section does require content knowledge and understanding of effective writing principles. 

Students can thus expect half of those 44 questions to concern straight-up grammar and punctuation.

The other half will cover general writing strategies, such as writing effective introductions & conclusions, using appropriate transition words, and analyzing evidence.

Question Type Number of Questions
Punctuation 6-11 questions
Expression of Ideas 20-26 questions
Verbs 3-8 questions
Miscellaneous Grammar Topics 0-5 questions
Charts and Graphs 1-4 questions

Expression of Ideas questions include all of the following:

  • Ordering (sentences within a paragraph)
  • Words in Context
  • Introductions
  • Conclusions
  • Evidence/Examples
  • Transition Words
  • Concise Writing

Punctuation questions often test the effective use of:

  • Commas
  • Semicolons
  • Colons
  • Long Dashes
  • Apostrophes
  • Parentheses (rare)

Miscellaneous grammar topics include:

  • Prepositions
  • Idioms
  • Pronouns
  • Modifiers
  • Parallelism 

What’s the easiest way to tell the difference between an Expression of Ideas and Grammar question on SAT Writing and Language?

In general, most Expression of Ideas questions will have a question in front of them:

SAT Writing and Language: Example Question
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Most grammar questions do not have a question in front of them:

Example Grammar Question: SAT Writing & Language
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Section 3: SAT Math (No Calculator)

There are two math sections on the SAT:

  • Section 1: No Calculator Permitted
  • Section 2: Calculator Permitted

SAT Math - No-Calculator is shorter, with only 20 questions to be completed in 25 minutes

The first 15 questions are standard multiple-choice. The final 5 questions, however, are grid-in questions.

For these questions, students must supply their own answers in the provided grid:

Grid-In questions on SAT Math

Questions on SAT Math always go in order of increasing difficulty. The savvy SAT test taker can use this structure to her advantage, prioritizing those easier (i.e., earlier) questions first!

Yes, you can complete all questions on the No-Calculator section without a calculator--as daunting as that sounds.

What content can you expect to see in this section?

In general, students can expect to see questions from the following four content areas:

Content Area Number of Questions
Algebra 8-10 questions
Trigonometry 0-2 questions
Geometry 2-4 questions
Advanced Math 6-10 questions

Common algebra topics include:

  • Fractions
  • Single Equations
  • Simplification
  • Substitution
  • Percentages
  • Inequalities

Common geometry questions include:

  • Triangles
  • Circles
  • Volume / Area

“Advanced Math” on the SAT is not necessarily the same as “Advanced Math” in high school.

In fact, the College Board calls these questions “Passport to Advanced Math” questions. Many of these can be classified as advanced algebra questions.

SAT Advanced Math topics include:

  • Factoring
  • Polynomials
  • Systems of Equations
  • Translating Words into Math
  • Fractions 
  • Ratios 
  • Functions
  • Substitution
  • Imaginary Numbers
  • Square Roots

SAT Math: Calculator

The second math section of the SAT is longer. It permits students to use a calculator to complete its 38 questions in 55 minutes.

Just like the No-Calculator Math section, the questions here are arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

The first 30 questions are multiple-choice. Questions 31-38 are grid-in questions.

Content on the Calculator section will be largely similar to what students see on the No-Calculator section. The primary difference lies in how frequently certain content areas are tested.

Check out this chart as an example:

Content Area Number of Questions
Geometry 3-6 questions
Data Analysis & Problem Solving 16-18 questions
Algebra 10-13 questions
Advanced Math 5-8 questions

Notice how the Calculator section is particularly heavy with respect to data analysis, often in the form of Charts and Graphs questions. It also still contains quite a lot of algebra.

Students rarely encounter extensive geometry or trigonometry questions here. Indeed, many students realize that SAT Math can be pretty wordy, requiring some active translation and complex problem-solving. 

This is all part of the College Board’s attempt to give students “real-world math” on the SAT!

Next Steps: The 4 SAT Sections

The SAT is a critical component of the college admissions process. While the content of the 4 SAT Sections discussed in this post may seem familiar to students, it is often tested in unfamiliar ways. 

For this reason, preparing for the SAT is vital! It takes time to learn the language of the SAT, and it takes even more time to get closer to that high score.

What can you do to begin your test prep? We strongly recommend signing up for one of our state-of-the-art SAT programs. Working with professionals as you study for the SAT is the surest way to guarantee excellent results.

Learn more about our programs here!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary_PrepMaven

7 Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary

7 Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary

Bonus Material: The Top 100 SSAT Vocabulary Words You Need to Know

The SSAT Verbal section can be one of the most challenging sections for test-takers.

This is because the section’s Synonym and Analogy questions require students to have strong working knowledge of advanced vocabulary.

This can be tricky and overwhelming for test-takers. Vocabulary isn’t always a part of middle school curriculum. Plus, it can be difficult to build vocabulary in a short amount of time.

In this post, we offer our expert tips for mastering SSAT vocabulary. 

Plus, we give you access to the top 100 SSAT Vocabulary Words you need to know (with definitions). Grab this valuable resource below before we get started.

Here’s what we cover in this post: 

The SSAT Verbal Section: A Recap

We outline the specifics of the SSAT Verbal section in a separate post

In the meantime, here’s a recap of the essentials:

  • 30 minutes /  60 multiple choice questions
  • 2 sections: Synonyms and Analogies

The Upper-Level SSAT will test higher-level vocabulary than the Middle-Level SSAT. While both Verbal sections test students’ vocabulary range, the Analogy section has an extra element of identifying relationships between words.

Synonym Questions

In the Synonyms section, students are given a word in capital letters and asked to find a word or phrase with the closest meaning.

Here’s a sample Synonyms question:


A) angry

B) nervous

C) elated

D) shy

E) thoughtful

Correct Answer: A

Analogy Questions

In the Analogy section, students are given two words that demonstrate a certain relationship.

They are then asked to select the choice that best completes the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s a sample Analogies question:

Gargantuan is to big as:

A) hot is to steamy

B) thirsty is to dry

C) pleasant is to melody

D) clumsy is to coordinated

E) ecstatic is to happy

Correct Answer: E

Explanation: Just as gargantuan means very big, ecstatic means very happy. Their relationship is one of degree. 

Because it involves identifying relationships, the Analogy section is more skill-based than the Synonym section.

7 Tips for Mastering SSAT Vocabulary

Success on the SSAT Verbal section does have a lot to do with strategy. So, if you haven’t done so already, check out our SSAT Verbal Section Strategies post.

But one skill will definitely prove valuable on this section: a strong working vocabulary. At the end of the day, the more words you know, the greater your odds are of succeeding on this challenging section.

How do you master SSAT vocabulary? Follow these tips.

1. Give yourself a generous timeline

Students may be tempted to try to learn 500 new vocabulary words a week as they prepare for the SSAT. This is ambitious and understandable, but we strongly encourage test-takers to allocate as much time as possible to build their SSAT vocabulary bank.

This is because it takes time to acquire new words and recognize them accurately in a variety of contexts.

Set aside a generous timeline for SSAT vocabulary prep--at least three months (during which students should also be preparing for the test’s other sections, too). If you don’t have three months, check out these hacks for building SSAT Vocabulary quickly.

2. Sign up for a word of the day service

Exposure to new terminology is essential when it comes to building SSAT vocabulary. Sign up for a free word-of-the-day service to ensure you’re digesting new words on a daily basis. 

Just make sure to add these to your vocabulary bank (instead of just reading through the email and then forgetting about it)!

Try out Merriam Webster's word of the day email service or the Word of the Day app.

3. Use the words you learn

We can’t emphasize this tip enough! Simply memorizing a word is unlikely to prove useful come test time. 

As you build your vocabulary, integrate the terms you use in daily conversation and writing. Practice crafting sentences of your own that utilize new terms accurately, for example, or consciously using a new word during a dinner table discussion.

Be consistent in this practice, and don’t be shy when it comes to creativity. We’ve had our SSAT students, for example, integrate new terms in songs, poetry, art, screenplays, and more. You can also try integrating SSAT vocabulary terms into your SSAT Writing Sample practice responses. 

In our Top 100 SSAT Vocab Words You Should Know download, you’ll have an opportunity to create your own unique sentences utilizing each word.

4. Read regularly

Reading offers students another channel for vocabulary exposure. It also enables test-takers to boost recognition of terms that they’ve already learned in various contexts.

In fact, that’s the great value of reading when it comes to vocabulary building--it trains your brain to infer meaning based off of context. And putting words in context is essential to success on the SSAT verbal section.

What should you be reading? We encourage students to consider advanced materials, such as journals, newspapers, editorials, nonfiction, and literature. 

The New York Times has an excellent learning section that also includes weekly reading challenges, an excellent opportunity to improve your fluency in current events and vocabulary.

5. Learn and recognize word parts

This is one of the hacks we discuss in our guide to learning SSAT vocabulary with a limited test prep timeline

Learning and recognizing common word parts--suffixes, prefixes, and roots--can give you the capacity to infer general meaning of a new term (even if you’ve never seen it before).

For example, the prefix “ambi-” means “both.” Thus, “ambidextrous” means having the capacity to utilize both your right and left hands equally to complete a task. “Ambivalent” means having mixed feelings about a subject, i.e., being on “both sides of the fence.”

An excellent resource for learning word parts is Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder. This is a resource we always recommend our SSAT students work with when beginning their prep.

6. Categorize learned words into synonym groups

Sometimes it’s easier to memorize categories of words (as opposed to individual definitions of select terms). After you’ve acquired some new SSAT vocabulary, categorize your new words into synonym groups.

Example categories based off of common SSAT Vocab words include:

  • Positive feelings or qualities (i.e., “elated” and “benevolent”)
  • Negative feelings or qualities  (i.e., “malignant” and “virulent”)
  • Difficulty (i.e., “arduous” or “onerous”)
  • Light (i.e., “translucent” or “lucid”)
  • Dark (i.e., “obscure” or “furtive”)
  • Wordy (“verbose” or “loquacious”)

7. Use flashcards wisely 

Just knowing the definition of a word isn’t apt to get you too far on the SSAT Verbal section. You still need to understand a term's nuance, especially within different contexts.

For this reason, use flashcards (digital or paper) wisely.

When testing your knowledge of a new term, challenge yourself to come up with a unique sentence utilizing that term before flipping that flashcard over and reading the definition.

You might also want to try adding a visual element to your flashcard game, including sketches, images, and colors. Such visual components can aid in memorization techniques.

Download the Top 100 SSAT Vocabulary Words You Need to Know

You can get started on your SSAT Vocabulary practice right now by downloading these 100 SSAT Vocab Words you should probably know.

We’ve analyzed official SSAT practice tests and materials to create this list of the most likely to be tested vocabulary terms. 

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • The top 100 SSAT vocabulary words (based on our research)
  • Precise definitions for every word
  • Opportunities to craft your own custom sentences to solidify knowledge


Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

How to Get That High SAT Essay Score (1)

Get That High SAT Essay Score With These Tips

Get That High SAT Essay Score With These Tips

Note: As of January 2021, the CollegeBoard has announced that it will be discontinuing the SAT Essay after the June 2021 SAT administration. 

You’ve decided to take the optional SAT Essay. You’re familiar with the essay’s format and instructions.

Now what does it take to get that high SAT Essay score?

The SAT Essay presents test-takers with a challenging task. Students must analyze an author’s argument and write a response that discusses the components of that argument.

AP English and SAT test prep students are at an advantage here. But keep in mind that the SAT Essay comes last, when students’ brains are already pretty tired! 

The good news? It is possible to achieve that amazing SAT essay score.

In this post, we’ll teach you how to use those 50 minutes to get closer to that perfect score.

Here’s what we cover:

The Anatomy of a Perfect SAT Essay

As a reminder, the SAT Essay requires students to read an argumentative essay and then analyze how the author uses various techniques to build his/her argument.  

It includes three parts:  SAT Essay Parts In our post The SAT Essay: What to Expect, we emphasize what SAT essay readers look for when grading student essays. You can find a detailed SAT essay rubric here.

What does a perfect SAT essay look like? 

Here’s a simple and effective skeleton structure that addresses all the key areas of the rubric.   SAT Essay Response Skeleton Structure

Notice how this skeleton structure looks a lot like a standard five-paragraph essay structure, commonly taught in high school.

Keep in mind, however, that on the SAT Essay, most students will likely only have time to compose two body paragraphs.  Plus, the introduction and conclusion paragraphs can consist of as few as two sentences.

Breakdown of a Perfect SAT Essay Response

Now, take a look at this SAT essay response that scored a 4 in each of the three categories: Analysis, Reading, and Writing. 

Notice how this response follows the skeleton structure we have just outlined.

The Prompt

Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

[Find the full reading selection for this task here.]


  • Sentence 1: Restates the argument
  • Sentence 2: Thesis statement with three argument techniques

In response to our world’s growing reliance on artificial light, writer Paul Bogard argues that natural darkness should be preserved in his article “Let There be dark”. He effectively builds his argument by using a personal anecdote, allusions to art and history, and rhetorical questions.

Body Paragraph 1

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement including argument technique and quote evidence of the technique
  • Sentence 2: Paraphrases quote and explain the effect on the audience
  • Sentence 3, 4: Continues to explain the effect of argument technique on the audience, the persuasive value of technique, and includes an additional quote reference
  • Sentence 5: Conclusion sentence

[1] Bogard starts his article off by recounting a personal story – a summer spent on a Minnesota lake where there was “woods so dark that [his] hands disappeared before [his] eyes.” [2] In telling this brief anecdote, Bogard challenges the audience to remember a time where they could fully amass themselves in natural darkness void of artificial light. [3] By drawing in his readers with a personal encounter about night darkness, the author means to establish the potential for beauty, glamour, and awe-inspiring mystery that genuine darkness can possess. [4] He builds his argument for the preservation of natural darkness by reminiscing for his readers a first-hand encounter that proves the “irreplaceable value of darkness.” [5] This anecdote provides a baseline of sorts for readers to find credence with the author’s claims.

Body Paragraph 2

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement includes argument type and includes two examples of the argument
  • Sentence 2,3,4: Explains the persuasive value of example 1 and effect on the audience
  • Sentence 5: Discusses example 2 and restates quote evidence
  • Sentence 6, 7, 8, 9: Paraphrases content relevant to example, explains the persuasive value of example 2, explains how the technique and example build the argument

[1] Bogard’s argument is also furthered by his use of allusion to art – Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – and modern history – Paris’ reputation as “The City of Light”. [2] By first referencing “Starry Night”, a painting generally considered to be undoubtedly beautiful, Bogard establishes that the natural magnificence of stars in a dark sky is definite. [3] A world absent of excess artificial light could potentially hold the key to a grand, glorious night sky like Van Gogh’s according to the writer. [4] This urges the readers to weigh the disadvantages of our world consumed by unnatural, vapid lighting. [5] Furthermore, Bogard’s alludes to Paris as “the famed ‘city of light’”. [6] He then goes on to state how Paris has taken steps to exercise more sustainable lighting practices. [7] By doing this, Bogard creates a dichotomy between Paris’ traditionally alluded-to name and the reality of what Paris is becoming – no longer “the city of light”, but more so “the city of light…before 2 AM”. [8] This furthers his line of argumentation because it shows how steps can be and are being taken to preserve natural darkness. [9] It shows that even a city that is literally famous for being constantly lit can practically address light pollution in a manner that preserves the beauty of both the city itself and the universe as a whole.

Body Paragraph 3

  • Sentence 1: Topic statement includes an argument technique
  • Sentence 2: Includes quote that includes evidence of the technique in action
  • Sentence 3,4: Explains the persuasive value of example 1 and effect on the audience
  • Sentence 5: Emphasizes how technique builds the argument

[1] Finally, Bogard makes subtle yet efficient use of rhetorical questioning to persuade his audience that natural darkness preservation is essential. [2] He asks the readers to consider “what the vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?” in a way that brutally plays to each of our emotions. [3] By asking this question, Bogard draws out heartfelt ponderance from his readers about the affecting power of an untainted night sky. This rhetorical question tugs at the readers’ heartstrings; while the reader may have seen an unobscured night skyline before, the possibility that their child or grandchild will never get the chance sways them to see as Bogard sees. [4] This strategy is definitively an appeal to pathos, forcing the audience to directly face an emotionally-charged inquiry that will surely spur some kind of response. [5] By doing this, Bogard develops his argument, adding guttural power to the idea that the issue of maintaining natural darkness is relevant and multifaceted.


  • Sentence 1: Restates the argument
  • Sentence 2: Restates thesis statement with three argument techniques

Writing as a reaction to his disappointment that artificial light has largely permeated the presence of natural darkness, Paul Bogard argues that we must preserve true, unaffected darkness. He builds this claim by making use of a personal anecdote, allusions, and rhetorical questioning.

The College Board also has other sample responses to this prompt. We recommend viewing these as well.

Your Game Plan for Writing a Stellar SAT Essay

What steps can you take to get that perfect SAT essay score? Here’s your game plan!

Step 1: Read and Annotate (~ 3-5 minutes)

Read carefully and mark up your text before diving into your response. Underline the author’s central claim.  

Pay particular attention to the author’s argument techniques and make sure to underline evidence of these in action.

Step 2:  Make an Outline and Thesis Statement (~ 3-5 minutes)

Consider 2 or more key argument techniques, and connect these techniques to 

  • Specific examples from the text (IMPORTANT!)
  • The purpose and effect of these techniques on the audience (IMPORTANT!)

If you have done this step properly, your essay will almost write itself. You must also study and prepare argument strategies and purposes of these strategies before the test.  

In the next section, we will show you common argument strategies and their purposes.

Backup Thesis: If you are completely lost, you can almost always use this emergency thesis statement format:

In [essay], [author] uses a combination of evidence and emotional appeals to build his/her argument.

Step 3:  Write! (~ 35 minutes)

Follow a standard Intro + Body Paragraph + Conclusion model, using tips from our skeleton structure. 

We also recommend integrating advanced vocabulary and transition words (discussed later on in this post).

Step 4:  Revise! (~2-3 minutes)

Make sure to take a couple of minutes at the end to revise your essay for spelling, grammar, and, if possible, content.

You won't be marked off for individual grammatical errors. However, if these errors impede the reader's understanding of your response, you will lose points!

10 Argument Techniques to Use in Your Essay

The SAT Essay prompt ultimately tests students’ knowledge of argument techniques. These are the "building blocks" that make an argument compelling and persuasive.

We highly recommend you study commonly used argumentative /persuasive techniques and their purposes before you take the SAT Essay. 

Remember: a successful essay states the techniques used in the text and analyzes these techniques. It also thoroughly explains their impact on the reader.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a great start! Whenever you’re reading an article/essay with a main claim of any kind, see if you can detect these techniques in action.   

Strategy Purpose/Effect
Data / Evidence


  • Facts
  • Statistics
  • Quotations
  • experimental data
  • Examples
  • Lends credibility to an argument
  • Adds evidence to support a claim
  • Allows the audience to make conclusions on their own

Vivid language / Compelling Word Choice

  • Precisely chosen, powerful words
  • Evocative adjectives
  • Strong verbs
  • Emphasizes claim 
  • Appeals to the audience's emotion(s)
  • Heightens the impact of words on the audience
  • Puts the reader in the author’s shoes and draws them into the passage
  • Makes the topic more interesting and engaging for the reader

Figurative language 

  • Metaphors
  • Similes
  • Personification
  • Anaphora
  • Hyperbole
  • Allusion
  • Engages the reader’s attention
  • Establishes connections between words and images in new and distinct ways
  • Engages the reader by making the topic more interesting
Appeal to emotion  (fear/pride/etc…)
  • Serves as an emotional call to action
  • Raises stakes of the argument
  • Effective persuasion often involves tapping into the emotions of those reading/listening!
Allusion (referring to a well-known story, event, person, object)
  • Makes a comparison in readers' minds 
  • Can very efficiently and effectively connect the author’s idea to other familiar powerful ideas
Juxtaposition (contrast)
  • Uses contrast to heighten a claim's emphasis
  • Appeals to emotion 
  • Engages the audience’s imagination and senses
  • Makes claim more relatable and interesting to the audience
  • Engages the audience’s empathy and understanding
  • Lends further credibility to the author
  • Addresses audience doubts using the author’s own reasoning
  • Makes the author seem more objective and trustworthy
Direct Address
  • Appeals to the reader
  • Perhaps offers a call to action
  • Heightens the impact of content through direct engagement
Explanation of Evidence
  • Walks readers through the reasoning process to help arrive at the author’s conclusion

Quick Tips to Improve Writing Quality

What are some other ways you can improve your SAT essay score?

We recommend using advanced vocabulary and transition words.

Transition Words 

Transition words show the relationship between ideas. They can improve the flow and organization of your essay. 

This chart shows transition words that connect similar, contrasting, and cause-and-effect ideas.  

Similar Contrast Cause and Effect




In addition


For example/instance


In other words







Even so 














By/In Contrast

On the contrary

On the other hand


As a result





Doing so will impress your SAT essay reader and influence your writing score.

Advanced Word Choice

Another way to quickly improve your writing score is to arm yourself with a very specific set of strong vocabulary words and phrases before the essay.  

You should certainly keep working on building your overall vocabulary. A shortcut for the SAT Essay, however, is to build a strong vocabulary that is related to the specific writing task (analyzing an argument and its effectiveness) and prepare to use strong words and phrases on the essay.  

Here’s a sample set of effective essay words.

Vivid Cogent Synthesis Narrative
Evidence Meticulous Juxtapose Contrast
Credibility Precision Deliberate Pathos
Central Claim Subsequent Claim Cite Appeal
Call to Action Build Argument / Further Argument Refer Convey
Evince Manifest Communicate Exhibit
Rhetorical Efficacy Analytic Power Argumentative Technique Emotional Resonance
Motivates Inspires Emphasizes Support

Other writing tips that can improve your score:

  • Write legibly.
  • Write more than one page! Quality is always better than quantity, but your analysis should be substantial. 

Next Steps

The SAT Essay task may feel daunting, but now you have a range of strategies for improving your score. 

In addition to these strategies, we strongly recommend that students regularly practice SAT essay responses. Doing so with the help of a professional instructor can be particularly beneficial.

Please note that the CollegeBoard has decided to discontinue the SAT Essay after the June 2021 administration of the SAT. 

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

No Time to Prep for SSAT Vocab_ Try These Hacks_PrepMaven

No Time to Prep for SSAT Vocabulary? Try These 6 Hacks

No Time to Prep for SSAT Vocabulary? Try These 6 Hacks

Bonus Material: Top 50 Word Parts for Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly

When it comes to the SSAT Verbal Section, we encourage our SSAT students to work on the following:

  • Strategies
  • Vocabulary building

We’ve outlined our favorite strategies for succeeding on SSAT Verbal in another post

But when it comes to vocabulary building, the test prep path might not feel so straightforward. The key to building a robust vocabulary? Time. 

And time is exactly what many SSAT students don’t have enough of

We’ve already discussed some general tips for mastering SSAT vocab. Now we’re here to offer our expertise in building your SSAT vocabulary quickly and effectively within a limited timeline.

You’ll also get access to our Top 50 Word Parts for Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly, which you can grab below.

Here’s what we cover:

6 Hacks for Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly

1. Learn by word parts

This is the most essential hack for quickly and effectively building your vocabulary, whether you’re prepping for the SSAT or English exams.

Every word in the English language consists of specific parts:

  • Prefixes
  • Roots
  • Suffixes

By learning the general meaning of these word parts, you can infer the general meaning of a vocabulary term, as in the following examples.

Vocabulary Word Word Part and Meaning General Meaning of Word Actual Meaning of Word
ambivalent ambi: both sides Both sides of something Having or showing simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward something or someone
vociferous voc: voice, speak Something to do with speaking or voice Marked by insistent outcry
lucid luc: light, clear Having the quality of clarity or lightness Clear; intelligible; coherent

Notice how knowing the word part and its meaning for each of these three terms does not necessarily create a precise definition. But it allows one to get fairly close, which can be helpful when eliminating answer choices on SSAT Verbal (both synonyms and analogies). 

We’ve compiled the top 50 word parts you should know for the SSAT here:

We also recommend that students check out Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder for a full range of word parts, associated vocabulary terms, and definitions.

2. Learn by category

As you build your SSAT vocabulary, try grouping new words into categories.

This has 2 benefits:

  1. It trains your brain to think in terms of synonyms (valuable for the Synonym questions on the SSAT Verbal section)
  2. Learning by category can help you work through large numbers of words relatively quickly

Here are some examples of word categories based off of common SSAT vocabulary:

  • Positive feelings or qualities (i.e., “elated” and “benevolent”)
  • Negative feelings or qualities  (i.e., “malignant” and “virulent”)
  • Difficulty (i.e., “arduous” or “onerous”)
  • Light (i.e., “translucent” or “lucid”)
  • Dark (i.e., “obscure” or “furtive”)
  • Wordy (“verbose” or “loquacious”)

3. Learn by visual or auditory memorization

For some students, new vocab terms are more likely to stick if they have visual or auditory elements. 

If you are a visual learner, try associating new words with specific colors or images. Your flashcard for “serene” might be blue, for example, or you might draw a picture of a clear window next to the word “translucent.” Some students might also wish to create a memory palace, a memorization technique utilized by ancient Greeks.

This can be an especially valuable trick when paired with category learning, discussed in the previous tip. 

Auditory learners might want to record themselves reading full sentences incorporating new vocab terms or work through flashcards by reading words and definitions out loud.  

4. Learn by speed rounds

Students only have thirty minutes to work through 60 questions on SSAT Verbal. To prepare for this time crunch and build a robust SSAT vocabulary in a short amount of time, practice learning through speed rounds.

Have a friend or family member test you with flashcards, for example, in 1-minute, 3-minute, and/or 5-minute speed rounds. See how many words you can get right in these shorter increments, and try to beat your record on subsequent rounds!

To take things up a notch and practice for the Synonyms section, try Synonym speed rounds. When a flashcard with a given word appears, instead of providing the definition, offer a word with a similar meaning.

5. Learn by repetition

Yes, repetition is vital when it comes to developing vocabulary! It is particularly essential if you are working with a shorter test prep timeline.

When learning new SSAT vocabulary terms, return to these words several times throughout a given day. 

And once you feel that you truly know a word, don’t relegate it to the back of the flashcard stack! Keep cycling through familiar words on a daily basis so that they don’t lose their grip in your memory.

These repetition rounds do not have to be intensive. Spend three minutes flipping through flashcards on the bus, for example, over breakfast, or right before falling asleep.

6. Learn by cross-definitions

When looking up definitions for new words and adding these to flashcards or vocabulary banks, consider using vocabulary terms you’ve already learned in these definitions! This improves your capacities to:

  1. Recognize new words in different contexts
  2. Learn by synonyms
  3. Solidify new vocabulary terms

Here are a few examples of cross-definitions:

torpor Dullness; apathy; a state of mental and physical inactivity
lucid Clear; intelligible; coherent; filled with light
virulent Full of malice; harsh or strong; malignant

Notice how apathy, coherent, and malignant are all SSAT vocabulary words in themselves that surface in the definitions for torpor, lucid, and virulent.

Download our Top 50 Word Parts For Learning SSAT Vocab Quickly

We recommend incorporating all of these strategies into your vocabulary practice.

Yet of the hacks in this post, the most effective is the first one: learning by word parts. We’ve compiled the top 50 word parts you should know for learning SSAT vocabulary on a limited timeline.

Here’s what you get in this free download:

  • The top 50 word parts that surface in SSAT vocabulary
  • Their definitions
  • Three example words per word part

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

SAT Superscore_Your Ultimate Guide (1)

What is SAT Superscore? Your 2021 Guide

What Does It Mean to SAT Superscore?

Every fall and winter, thousands of high school students will submit their SAT scores to the colleges of their choice.

Some of these students will superscore their SAT score reports when submitting to the schools on their list. Other students will make use of Score Choice. 

What does it mean to superscore the SAT? What is Score Choice? Most importantly, which SAT score submission option is best for you?

In this post, we discuss the following:

What is Superscoring?

Some U.S. universities and colleges superscore the SAT. In a nutshell, this means that these schools only officially consider a student’s highest SAT section scores.

Given that most SAT test-takers sit for the exam at least twice, this can be a valuable tool for college applicants.

Here’s an example of SAT superscoring in action.

Ery takes the SAT in November 2018 and scores a 580 (Verbal) and 610 (Math). She takes the SAT in May 2019 and scores a 620 (Verbal) and 590 (Math). 

Ery decides to superscore her results for eligible colleges on her list. These colleges will see all of her SAT scores, but they will only officially review the 620 (Verbal) and 610 (Math) section scores, her highest across the two exams.

Keep in mind that most colleges that superscore the SAT will still require students to submit all of their SAT score reports. They will, however, only officially review the highest SAT section scores.

Note: Superscoring is not a CollegeBoard tool, while SAT Score Choice is. We'll discuss this more later.

Some students worry that taking the SAT two or three times may reflect badly on their college applications. 

This couldn’t be farther from the truth! Most students take the SAT at least twice, and many experience a score increase the second or third time around. We discuss the best ways to achieve realistic score increases in our SAT Goal Setting Guide.

There is no evidence to suggest that taking the SAT more than once impacts the college admissions decision. 

Which Colleges Superscore the SAT?

Not all college superscore the SAT. Plus, those that do may have additional requirements for score submission.

The most common requirement is that students still submit all of their SAT scores in order to be eligible for superscoring--no matter how many times they have taken the test.

Thus, it’s vital to check a college’s application requirements before submitting scores. These are almost always specified in detail on the school’s website.

It’s also possible to review a university’s SAT score policies by using BigFuture, a CollegeBoard tool.

Simply enter a school of choice into the BigFuture search bar, select “Applying” on the left-hand side of the school profile, and click “Application Requirements.”

Here’s the profile that appears for Pomona College.

If you scroll down and select "Application Requirements," you'll see how Pomona reviews SAT scores.

Notice how Pomona College accepts a student’s “highest section scores across test dates.” This means that Pomona superscores!

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are a handful of competitive colleges that do superscore the SAT:

  • Pomona College
  • Duke University
  • Swarthmore College
  • Amherst College
  • Boston University
  • Brown University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Stanford University
  • Wesleyan University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Vassar College
  • Harvard College
  • Claremont McKenna College
  • Georgetown College
  • US Naval Academy
  • University of Chicago
  • Boston College
  • Pepperdine University
  • Reed College

Note: The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted how colleges are reviewing standardized test scores for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. We discuss this more in our posts on COVID and College Admissions and Test-Optional Schools for 2021.

What is Score Choice?

What is Score Choice? How does it differ from superscoring?

With Score Choice, an entirely free service, students get to choose which SAT scores they send to colleges on their list. That’s right: you can select your best score report and send that one (and that one alone) to colleges.

This doesn’t mean you can individually submit the best SAT section scores achieved on separate SATs. 

You will have to submit a single, full score report from one test date with Score Choice.

Score Choice is Optional_The College Board
Source: The College Board: An Easy Guide to Score Choice

If you don’t opt for Score Choice, all of your SAT scores will be sent to the universities you have applied to. You do not have to use Score Choice.

Just like superscoring, keep in mind that some schools may still require applicants to submit all SAT scores. For example, here’s what Princeton University says under its “Standardized Testing” portion of its admissions portal:

We allow applicants to use the score choice feature of the SAT and accept only the highest composite score of the ACT, but we encourage the submission of all test scores.

Review school score use policies ahead of time to make sure. The CollegeBoard is not responsible for knowing these policies, as it states on its website. Most colleges will have this information on their websites.

Score Choice vs. Superscoring

What’s the biggest difference between superscoring and Score Choice? The key difference lies in what scores colleges officially review. 

With Score Choice, a college only reviews the single SAT score report a student submits from a single test date.

SAT Superscoring_Use Policies (1)

With superscoring, a college may view all of a student’s SAT scores. However, it will only officially review the highest section scores across test dates.

Not all students will have both options for every college. In fact, many colleges will simply require students to submit all official test scores, even if they only officially review the highest section scores. Regardless, it’s essential to inspect a school’s score use policy before applying.

Next Steps

The best way to feel confident in the SAT score submission process is to maximize your score in the first place. 

This ensures that even if a college doesn’t superscore the SAT, you’ll be prepared to submit your most competitive SAT scores!

What can you do to achieve that high SAT score? We recommend working with a private tutor or enrolling in an SAT test prep program. Like any test, the SAT requires time, dedication, and practice.

We also recommend that students sit for the SAT at least twice. This can maximize any test prep program and guarantee the best possible score, regardless of a college’s SAT score use policy.

At Princeton Tutoring, we’re proud to offer over 20 years of experience in helping students succeed on the SAT. Learn more about our SAT offerings here!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

SSAT Verbal Strategies

SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

SSAT Verbal Strategies From the Experts

Bonus Material: FREE SSAT Verbal Practice Questions

The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) tests reading, writing, quantitative, and verbal skills.

One of the most challenging sections for SSAT test-takers is the Verbal section, and for good reason! With 30 Synonym and 30 Analogy questions, the Verbal section requires a strong vocabulary and solid reasoning skills.

It also rewards the efficient test-taker. The SSAT Verbal section gives students only 30 minutes to answer all 60 questions.

However, like all standardized tests, the SSAT can (and should) be approached strategically. In this post, we discuss the SSAT verbal strategies you need to succeed on this section. You can apply these strategies right away to our free SSAT Verbal practice questions, which you can grab below:

Here's what we cover:

Note: for the purposes of this post, we will be referring to the Upper-Level SSAT Verbal section.

The SSAT Verbal Section in a Nutshell

On the Upper-Level SSAT, the Verbal section is the 4th section of the test. Here's a quick visual of the entire SSAT format:

SSAT Test Format

Remember that the SSAT is a virtual marathon of a test. Students are likely to be fairly fatigued by the time they get to the Verbal section! That's why it's doubly important to have some solid strategies in place before getting there.

The SSAT Verbal Section

  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Format: 60 multiple choice questions, divided into Synonyms and Analogies sections of 30 questions each


Students will encounter Synonyms questions first on the SSAT Verbal section. In general, these questions will be arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

What does this mean? The first 10 questions will be generally easier than questions 11-20. Questions 21-30 will likely be the most difficult of the entire set.

For each question, students must choose the answer that has the closest meaning to the word provided. Here is an example SSAT Synonyms question:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms
Source: Upper-Level Sample Questions


The 30 Analogy questions will come after the 30 Synonym questions on the SSAT Verbal section. Just like the Synonym questions, Analogy questions are generally arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

An analogy is a comparison of two things.

On an SSAT Analogy question, these two things will have a very specific relationship. Students must determine what this relationship is and select the answer choice that most closely features that same relationship.

Vocabulary is still essential for Analogy questions: students will not necessarily know all of the words in the analogy described and/or the answer choices, especially on higher-difficulty questions.

Here is a sample SSAT Analogy question:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies
Source: Upper-Level Sample Questions

General SSAT Verbal Strategies

Before we dive into specific tips for Synonym and Analogy questions, we'll cover some general SSAT Verbal strategies that apply to the section as a whole.

1. Prioritize low-difficulty questions first.

This may sound obvious, but it's a great strategy to use on SSAT Verbal because of the way the section is structured.

Remember that those 30 Synonym questions and 30 Analogy questions are arranged generally in order of increasing difficulty. What's more, students do not get more points for correct high-difficulty questions. Every SSAT Verbal question is essentially worth the same number of points.

What does this mean? SSAT students should spend more time on those easier questions to ensure they are getting those easy points before they navigate harder ones. This can also give them a chance to get their vocabulary brains warmed up for those medium- and high-difficulty questions.

This can be especially important for higher-achieving students who might be more prone to moving too quickly on those initial, easy questions and making careless errors.

We understand that "easy" is a relative term, so be sure to cater to your own personal order of difficulty, tackling those questions that are easiest for you first.

2. Know your guessing strategy.

On the SSAT, students lose 1/4 point for every question they answer incorrectly. They do not lose points for leaving questions blank. That's why we don't necessarily encourage all SSAT test-takers to answer every question on the test, as doing so could hurt rather than help their score!

Because of this, we encourage students to have a solid guessing strategy in place for each SSAT section. You can read more about guessing on the SSAT in our guide to SSAT scores.

3. Use context and connotation.

If you don’t know a word in an answer choice or question, use context (where you may have heard the word before) or connotation (a word's positive or negative charge).

If you see the word jubilation, for example, you might remember that you have seen it in the context of the name of a celebratory Fortnite dance. You may also reason that it has something to do with feeling happy and triumphant, a positive connotation.

Or if you see the word miserly, it might remind you of something miserable, leading you to pick an answer choice with a negative connotation or charge (miserly means a person who is ungenerous with his/her money).

4. Watch out for homonyms.

Homonyms are words with the same spelling but different meanings. If you see foil in an SSAT Verbal question, for example, it could mean a “thin sheet of metal” or “to prevent." Be on the lookout for homonyms in both questions and answer choices.

If you do identify a homonym situation, ask yourself which meaning makes the most sense based on the answer choices. You can and should use SSAT Verbal answer choices to your advantage, which we discuss at greater length in the next 2 sections of this post.

5. Sometimes, you have to pick the best of the “bad” options. 

The correct answer choice might not reflect the direct way you would define the word, which can confuse some students. In these situations, imagine your task is to pick the best of the “bad” options.

Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

A) approve
B) facilitate
C) confuse
D) conceal
E) forgive

Correct Answer: C

You may feel pretty confident that “thwart” means preventing something from happening, but that choice doesn’t seem to be listed here.

However, if you go with the word that most closely expresses this idea – “confuse” – you would choose the correct answer.

6. Think like the test-maker, not a test-taker.

This is a tenet we encourage all of our standardized test-takers to embrace. Test-makers write standardized tests with predictable test-makers in mind. In other words, each question will contain traps designed to trick the average test-taker.

Once you can start learning about these specific traps and tricks, you'll start to think like the test-makers themselves. Doing so gives you the upper hand (and often a lot of points!). We'll be discussing ways to think like the SSAT test-makers in the next 2 sections as we cover strategies for Synonym and Analogy questions.

Ready to apply these strategies to some sample SSAT practice questions? Grab our free SSAT Verbal worksheet below.

Approaching SSAT Synonym Questions

Synonym questions appear first on SSAT Verbal (questions 1-30). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Analogies are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 31 (the first of the Analogy questions set) and completing the Synonyms set second. Remember: play to your strengths on SSAT Verbal, and prioritize the questions that are easiest for you first.

The key to approaching SSAT Synonym questions successfully lies in remembering that they are just that: Synonym questions.

What do we mean by this?

With Synonym questions, your task is to find the answer choice that is most similar in meaning to the question word.

It's important to remind yourself of this simple fact on each question, as the test-makers love trapping students with answer choices that may be associated with the question word but, in fact, do not share a similar meaning. What's more, a "synonym" is not the same as a straight-up "definition" of a word!

We'll apply these thoughts to the sample Synonym question we mentioned above:

SSAT Upper Level Verbal Section_Synonyms

With this question, students must choose the answer that is most similar in meaning to the word "incognito." This doesn't mean that we're looking for the definition of "incognito," merely a term that most closely matches that definition.

The word "incognito" might suggest someone going undercover, like a ninja in a crowd. Be careful, though: answer choice (D) at first glance looks a lot like "undercover," when, in fact, it means the opposite (uncovered). But the idea of being undercover has a connotation of being hidden from sight, which leads us to answer (C): concealed.

Be careful with answer choice (A), which might be tempting for some students. "Lost" is a good example of an answer that is an association but not necessarily a synonym of a question word. Something that is incognito may not be very visible, but this doesn't mean it is lost.

Here are some other tips for approaching SSAT Synonym questions.

1. Put the question word into a sentence of your own.

This is an excellent, tried-and-true way to situate a question word in its context, especially if you don't know the full meaning of a term. Put that word into a sentence, even if it's the most basic sentence you've ever written.

Using the sample question above, that sentence might look like this:

The ninja chose to go incognito, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

In this sentence, we can gather that "incognito" is a behavior or attitude of some kind that the ninja adopts in this crowd. Would it make sense for someone to choose to be "lost"? No! "Lost" is not a behavior or attitude, and the same goes for "replaced" or "distinguished."

Context tells us that the ninja is choosing to be somewhat invisible, so (C) is the best answer yet again.

2. Apply your knowledge of word parts.

Remember all those word parts and roots your teacher taught last year? Those will definitely prove valuable on SSAT Verbal, particularly with those Synonym questions.

Identifying word parts in answer choices and question words can be vital. It can be a straight-up life-saver on those questions full of vocabulary students may not know.

Be on the hunt for specific prefixes, roots, and suffixes that can give at least partial meaning for a term.

For example, if you see the word "benevolent" in a Synonyms question, you might recognize the prefix ben / bene, which means well or good. This has a positive connotation or charge, which can be useful for elimination purposes.

3. "Plug in" your final choice.

Much like plugging the answer to a math question into the original problem to check your work, "plug in" your final choice on a Synonyms question to the sentence you've created.

This serves as a double-check mechanism and a means of catching careless errors. Using the example sentence and question above, this would look like the following:

The ninja chose to go concealed, moving casually through the crowd without attracting attention.

Yes, "chose to go concealed" sounds a bit awkward, but it still fits in meaning and context.

4. On higher-difficulty questions, the weirder the better.

Remember: the SSAT test-makers will create specific traps on each Verbal question designed to trick the predictable test-taker.

What are predictable test-takers likely to do on harder Synonym questions? They are probably not likely to choose an answer they don't know. They will likely avoid those really weird, foreign-looking terms. However, on really tough Synonym questions, these answers can be correct.

Here's an example of this in action, modeled after a sample practice question:

A) heartfelt
B) fervent
C) irritating
D) praiseworthy
E) interested

The "weirdest" answer choice here, the one many students are not likely to know, is fervent. This happens to be the correct answer choice.

We do want to offer this tip with a caveat, however: students should still adhere to their established guessing strategy, regardless of the difficulty level of the question. It may still be worth your while to leave a question blank if you generally have no clue about the question word and the answer choices.

Ready to apply these strategies to some sample SSAT Synonym questions? Grab our free SSAT Verbal worksheet below.

Approaching SSAT Analogy Questions

Analogy questions appear second on SSAT Verbal (questions 31-60). If you feel more confident with these questions, we recommend beginning with these.

If, however, Synonyms are more your jam, we recommend starting with question 1 (the first of the Synonym questions set) and completing the Analogy set second.

The key to succeeding on Analogy questions lies in your capacity to identify specific relationships. Each question will provide students with two words that demonstrate a certain relationship. Students must then select the choice that best reflects that relationship, thus completing the meaning of the sentence.

Here's our strategy for approaching an Analogy question on SSAT Verbal:

  1. Identify the specific relationship between the two question words
  2. Search for the answer that shows the same relationship
  3. Eliminate accordingly

Sounds easy, right? Well, not necessarily. It can be really tough to identify a specific relationship, particularly between words you don't know (or only have partial meanings for). Those answer choices will also be chock-full of associative words, terms or pairs that might have a similar connotation but not necessarily similar relationship.

That's where the following tips come into play.

1. Start noticing Analogy categories.

Every SSAT Analogy question presents a specific relationship between the two ideas presented. As you continue to work with these questions, start noticing the various "categories" of these relationships, such as size (one word is smaller than another), time (one thing happens before another), or cause and effect (one thing causes another).

Take a look at this sample Analogy question and see if you can identify the "category" of the relationship presented:

Gargantuan is to big as:
A) hot is to steamy
B) thirsty is to dry
C) pleasant is to melody
D) clumsy is to coordinated
E) ecstatic is to happy

If you guessed a relationship of degree or size, you're correct! Gargantuan is a larger or more extreme version of big. Their relationship is one of degree, making the correct answer (ecstatic is a more extreme version of happy).

"Degree" is an example of just one “category” of relationships you will start to see in the Analogy section. Just as there isn’t a finite list of words on the Synonyms section, there is no complete list of categories for the Analogy section. However, the list below gives some common relationship categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Size
  • Material
  • Part and Whole
  • Example and General Category
  • Cause and Effect
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Degrees
  • Actor and Action
  • Product and Producer
  • Tool and User
  • Tool and Use

This can be essential as an elimination strategy, too. Once you've identified the category of the relationship, you can eliminate any answer choices that fit other relationship categories.

2. Create a specific relationship sentence for the question words.

Much as we encourage students to put Synonym words into their own sentences, we also recommend crafting a "relationship sentence" for SSAT Analogy question words. You can then eliminate answer choices that don't "fit" the sentence.

When creating this sentence, try to be as specific as possible.

Using the above sample question, for example, a relationship sentence like “If you’re gargantuan, you’re big” is too broad – if you plug in the answer choices, they might all sound right! “Gargantuan is a stronger version of big” is more specific and will lead you to the correct answer.

3. Eliminate answer choices that have no relationship or are "conditional."

The right answer to an Analogy question will demonstrate the specific relationship of the question words. If you can’t establish a relationship between two words, that answer choice is automatically wrong! The same goes for any answer choices that may show a conditional relationship, one that is only true some of the time.

Here’s a sample question that proves this point:

Insult is to offense as:
A) laugh is to joy
B) fabricate is to falsehood
C) injure is to prepare
D) innocent is to child
E) forge is to creation

In choice C, “injure” and “prepare” have no relationship, so you can eliminate C immediately. Similarly, a "child" may be "innocent," but not necessarily 100% of the time (it depends on the child, the definition of innocent, etc.). You can eliminate D as well.

4. Focus on relationships, not synonyms.

It can be really easy, especially if you tackle SSAT Synonym questions first, to start identifying synonyms for the Analogy words rather than relationships. As best you can, remind yourself that your task on this set is to classify the relationship between the words presented and select an answer choice that reflects a similar relationship.

On the plus side, those answer choices that contain synonyms to words in the question are most likely incorrect. So if you do spot some synonyms in the answers, be very skeptical.

5. Think of all possible relationships.

You may find that some questions have multiple reasonable answers. If this is the case, try to think of additional possible relationships between the question words. Here is a sample question that demonstrates this:

Carousel is to horse as:
A) hospital is to waiting room
B) anthology is to story
C) sun is to planet
D) bike is to wheel
E) fleet is to ship

Correct Answer: C

At first glance, you might feel stuck with this question. A “horse” is a “part” of a “carousel.” With this relationship in mind, don’t multiple answer choices here fit the “whole and part” category?

However, if you think of additional ways to specify the relationship, you could reach the correct answer by reasoning that the horses revolve around a carousel just as a planet orbits the sun.

With these tips in mind, let's work through the sample Analogy question mentioned in the first section of this post:

SSAT Verbal Section: Analogies

It will be easiest to craft a relationship sentence with these words. We might say that "an epidemic is the spread of disease." Plugging in the answer choices, we can see that only (A) fits this sentence: "a famine is the spread of hunger." Our answer is (A).

You can apply these strategies to some sample SSAT Analogy questions by downloading our free SSAT Verbal worksheet below.

SSAT Verbal Strategies: Study Tips

Now that you have some great SSAT Verbal strategies in place, it's time to talk study tips. What's the best way to prepare for success on the SSAT Verbal section? Here are our top recommendations.

1. Prioritize learning word roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

We've already highlighted the value of applying your knowledge of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes to words you don't know on Synonym and Analogy questions.

Knowing word parts can also make your SSAT study plan so much more efficient and robust: in many cases, learning just one word part can help you identify 10+ new vocabulary terms!

You can find many lists (some SSAT-focused) of these word roots, prefixes, and suffixes online or in books that focus on vocabulary building. Searching Quizlet for online SSAT vocabulary lists or investing in a Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Builder book are good places to start.

2. Make flashcards.

Flashcards can be an excellent tool for solidifying new vocabulary and word parts. Quizlet is a favorite online flashcard site for many students. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned notecards.

Review these flashcards regularly. If you are a visual learner, try integrating colors or images into your flashcards for improved memorization. For an extra challenge, come up with a unique sentence for every word you review or identify synonyms (using other vocabulary terms!) for the word in question.

3. Don’t try and memorize 500 words at once

You won’t remember them! It is better to focus on 5-10 words at a time (ideally, per week), and keep coming back to vocab sets for review.

More importantly, be sure you are also using those words that you’re learning. Integrate new words into school assignments and personal practice to make them a concrete part of your vocabulary. (Hint: you can also use these words when practicing your SSAT Writing Sample response.)

4. Read widely

Reading can introduce you to a wide variety of new words to supplement your vocabulary building. Aim to digest advanced reading materials, such as higher-level nonfiction texts, editorials and articles, and journal pieces.

More than any other section, the SSAT Verbal section depends on you slowly but surely improving your vocabulary in a consistent fashion.

In this way, studying for the SSAT Verbal section is like putting money in a piggy bank: it might feel like you’re getting nowhere with the little contributions you make each day, but as long as you keep putting in time, you’ll see a big reward in your score going up after a few months.

Download PrepMaven's SSAT Verbal Practice Questions

There you have it -- the SSAT Verbal strategies designed to give you the greatest success on this challenging section. However, the power of these strategies lies in practice, so be sure to apply them regularly to actual SSAT practice questions.

You can do this right now by downloading our free SSAT Verbal Practice Questions worksheet.

SSAT Verbal Practice

With this worksheet, you'll get:

  • 10 Synonyms practice questions
  • 10 Analogies practice questions
  • Answers & explanations

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.

SAT Reading Passage Walk-Through_PrepMaven

SAT Reading: Passage Walk-Through

SAT Reading: Passage Walk-Through

Bonus Material: Our Top SAT Reading Hacks

Several of the tips we discuss in our 16 SAT Reading Tips for Getting a Perfect Score have to do with the passage.

To do well on SAT Reading, students should get in the habit of actively reading passages. 

This means annotating for main ideas, opinions, and keywords from the questions. Students should also be sure to back up every answer with evidence from the passage.

It’s called the Evidence-Based Reading Section for a reason!

We want to show students what it looks like to approach SAT Reading passages in this way. That’s why we’ve created this SAT Reading passage walk-through.

In this post, you’ll see what successful annotation looks like. You’ll see how every SAT Reading question can and should be based off of what’s in the passage, and you'll get access to our top SAT Reading Hacks, which you can download now.

Here’s what we cover:

Approaching an SAT Reading Passage

The SAT Reading section rewards the strategic test-taker. No outside content knowledge is necessary to succeed in this section!

For that reason, students should do the following:

  • Take passages out of order, starting with the easier ones for them
  • Take questions out of order, starting with the easier ones for them
  • Actively read the passages, annotating for main ideas
  • Back up every answer with hard evidence from the passage

We discuss these tips at length in 16 SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score.

Active Reading & Annotation

SAT Reading passages are complex, dense, and boring. Maintain focus by annotating when you engage with any passage.

What does it mean to annotate?

Pay attention to main ideas as you work a passage. Jot down the main idea for every paragraph in the margins, circle words you recognize from the questions, and underline anything that feels relevant.

Students should focus less on details. They should prioritize big picture ideas and arguments as they annotate, as SAT Reading questions are most interested in these.

These notes can be extremely valuable later on as students answer questions, providing a specific road map for passage ideas.

We also want to emphasize that you don’t have to read every single word of an SAT Reading passage to understand it! Students should prioritize reading for main ideas and moving more quickly through details or elaborations.

We’ve actively read and annotated a social science SAT Reading passage from the College Board’s Official SAT Practice Test #2 below so you can see what this looks like.

You’ll see that our notes prioritize the following:

  • Main ideas of each paragraph
  • Main idea of the passage as a whole
  • Keywords from the questions
  • Topic sentences
  • Conclusions
  • Structure
  • Graph: main idea and trend(s)

(Hint: these are all the things that most SAT Reading questions concern!)

Tackling the Questions

When approaching SAT Reading questions, test-takers should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Know the question types
  • Think in terms of main ideas
  • Don’t get lost in the answer choices
  • Find evidence for your right answer
  • Start with easier questions, end with harder ones
  • Get familiar with typical wrong answer choices

We discuss these tips at length in 16 SAT Reading Tips to Get a Perfect Score.

Here are the types of questions you can expect to find on SAT Reading:

  • Words in Context
  • Command of Evidence
  • Function / Purpose
  • Main Ideas
  • Detail or Line Reference
  • Inference
  • Character analysis
  • Charts & graphs

Students should get in the habit of finding answers to each of these questions in the passage itself

They should also think in terms of main ideas when they answer these questions. In many cases, it’s possible to employ process of elimination based on which answers are in line with the passage’s central claim, and which aren’t.

Understand that the questions on SAT Reading are not your friends! Students are apt to encounter very tempting trap answers. That’s why we recommend answering questions on your own before wading through those answers, and getting familiar with what makes an answer wrong on SAT Reading.

We work through all questions associated with the annotated passage above to show you what these strategies look like in action!

Save the harder passages and questions for the end--or for guessing. Beginning with your strengths on SAT Reading is the surest way to guide you closer to a high score.

We also recommend taking a look at these top SAT Reading Hacks. We're using many of these right now, in this post!

Question #11

We’d label this question as a high-difficulty one, given that it requires students to have a working understanding of the passage as a whole. We encourage students to save these higher difficulty questions for the end!

With big picture questions like these, it’s vital to think about the passage’s main idea as a whole, which we’ve labeled as “exploring three interpretations of “ethics” in an economic context and offering a promising fourth view.”

This is very much in line with answer choice (D), which is, in fact, the correct answer. Notice how all the other answer choices only describe one thing (a “study” or one “ethical dilemma”) and/or take extreme positions (the “free market prohibits ethical economics”).

Questions #12 and #13

This is a Command of Evidence pair, a medium-difficulty question type.

It’s best to approach question #12 in tandem with question #13. We’ll read question #12 and then select the line reference from question #13 that best answers this question.

Our goal is to identify the lines that reference an objection to “criticizing the ethics of free markets.” 

The only line reference of the four choices offered that discusses an argument in relation to the ethics of free markets is A, lines 3-4, which is our correct answer.

The paraphrase of these lines is answer choice (D) in question #12, which is the correct answer.

Question #14

This is a Words in Context question, which requires very little reading of the passage! For these questions, we encourage students to read the surrounding context of the line in reference and predict their own synonym for the word referenced.

Here’s the full sentence:

A good prediction for “embraced” might be “favored” or “taken on.” Keep in mind that we are discussing a type of responsibility, too. The best match for such a prediction is answer choice (B), “readily adopted.”

Question #15

This is a function question (medium difficulty) that requires precise understanding of this paragraph’s main idea. 

In our annotations, we’ve identified the main idea of the fifth paragraph as the third view towards ethics in economics, as presented by the author. This third view has to do with “actions.”

The exact match for this is answer choice C!

Question #16

Here is another Words in Context question! Once again, these are low-difficulty questions students should attempt first.

The relevant context of the word in question is:

A good prediction for a similar meaning to “clashes” based on context might be “conflicts.” And guess what? That is an exact match for answer (A).

Question #17

This is a medium-difficulty line reference question. Here, pinpoint the reference that discusses common ground in the perspectives the author has analyzed.

We use the term “common ground” in our annotations for lines 57-66. Is there an answer choice that falls within this window?

Yes! Answer choice C. When we read these lines, we see that they do in fact discuss common ground in the form of an example (fair trade coffee). C is the correct answer.

(Hint: this is why annotating is so important!)

Find this helpful? We encourage you to download these top SAT Reading Hacks. We use many of these hacks in this walk-through.

Question #18

This is a straightforward Main Ideas question. Let’s look and see what our annotations say for the final paragraph.

We have two notes: “the rise of behavioral economics” and “author finds promise” in this subject.

The only answer choice that has to do with this idea of behavioral science and the author’s idea that this is promising is C, which is our correct answer.

Question #19

Questions 19-21 have to do with the graph. These questions can be intimidating, but it’s important to approach them from the perspective of main ideas (just like all the other questions).

The graph itself, according to our annotations, compares profits of fair trade versus regular coffee.

Question 19 is only about the data in the graph. Carefully check each answer choice against the trends visible in the graph, and you’ll see that only A is correct--fair trade coffee had consistently higher profits than regular coffee. 

We also wrote this trend down in our annotations.

Question #20

This question is exactly like question 19 in that it solely requires data analysis and careful reading of the question. We’re looking for the greatest difference in profits between the two coffee types, and when this occurred.

The biggest gap between the two lines we see on this graph occurs between 2002 and 2004, when regular trade coffee profits were just above 20 and fair trade profits were at approximately 130.

This matches answer (B).

Question #21

This graph question requires a synthesis of main ideas -- the main idea of the graph and the main idea of the passage.

Remember that fair trade coffee is discussed in the paragraph about finding “common ground” in the three perspectives on ethical economics examined. In general, the author also feels that ethical economics has promise.

This best matches answer C, which is also the broadest of the options. 

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Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.