Studying the SAT But Getting Bad Scores: Top 5 Reasons

Last Updated on April 20, 2023

So, you’ve been studying the SAT but getting bad scores on SAT practice tests. Guess what? You’re not alone! This story is actually a pretty familiar one. I’ve worked with many students who, despite studying for the SAT for a while, can’t get any closer to their desired SAT scores. It just doesn’t seem as though their studying is having much effect.

What could the issue be? In this article, I’ll discuss the top 5 reasons why students may continue to receive poor marks on practice tests even after studying for a while. I’ll also give you some very effective SAT strategies to raise your scores.

The good news is that the solutions to the common study issues we’ll discuss are pretty simple but can lead to significant improvements in your test scores!

Studying SAT But Getting Bad Scores

Here are the topics we’ll cover:

Reason #1: You’re Not Studying on a Regular Basis

You might be surprised to learn how many students don’t realize how sporadic their SAT studying is. Between school, extracurriculars, sports, friends, and so on, the day can easily fill up with activities other than test prep. And even if they try to get in SAT prep every day, many students don’t actually track how much time they spend studying for the SAT. So, they’re often surprised to discover how little time each day they spend studying or how many days each week they miss studying altogether.

The thing is, not studying on a consistent basis can be a real score-killer. Knowledge may not stick as well because you’re not regularly reinforcing it. You may lose momentum in your studies, or never really gain enough momentum to get up to speed. You could spend weeks, or even months, basically treading water without significantly improving your preparedness for the test.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t miss a study day here or there when other obligations take precedence. Nor am I saying that you have to spend hours every evening doing SAT prep. But, if you’re serious about gaining the skills necessary to perform well in the SAT math and reading sections, it’s a good idea to aim for around 9 hours of SAT study time each week.

Moreover, it’s helpful to actually create a study schedule for yourself. Let’s discuss.

Not studying on a consistent basis can be a real score-killer.

Schedule Times to Study for the SAT

It’s a smart idea to figure out when you’ll be able to study each day and schedule those times in, just like you would any other event on your calendar. You could try studying for an hour each weekday and two hours each weekend day, to get in your total of 9 study hours per week.

Remember, your study hours don’t have to be at the same time every day or even all at once in a day. For instance, maybe some days it’s easiest for you to get in an hour of studying right after school. On other days, maybe you have practice or an extracurricular activity after school, and it’s more convenient to study for an hour after dinner. Maybe some days you have a free period you can use for studying, or you prefer to do a half hour of studying in the morning before school and another half hour when you get home.

The point is to create a schedule that you’ll actually be able to stick to — a realistic one that works with what you already have going on in your life. Then, block off those times in your calendar app, so they become a real part of your day.


Shoot for a total of 9 hours of SAT studying each week, and schedule those hours in your calendar app.

Read our article on figuring out how long to study for the SAT for more advice related to this topic.

Reason #2: You’re Studying Topics in a Random Way

Even if you’re studying on a regular basis, if you don’t have a structured study plan, it’s hard to improve your SAT score. Yet, many students study for the SAT by jumping randomly from topic to topic and question type to question type. Their studying has no real logic or organization to it.

Here’s the thing. Between the math and reading sections, there are many concepts to learn in order to earn high SAT scores. So, your studying is unlikely to be very effective or efficient if you’re not learning in a linear, methodical way.

For instance, how beneficial do you think it is to jump around from quadratic questions to exponent questions to statistics questions before you’re solid on any one of those concepts? And what about studying more advanced concepts before you have the fundamentals down?

We can see how trandom studying probably might not be very effective and could get frustrating after a while. So, what should we do instead?

Learn SAT Topics One at a Time

To ensure that you’re learning everything you need to for the SAT, take a structured, linear approach to the material. Learn one topic at a time, and then practice questions on just that one topic until you’re performing well. Then, you can move on to the next topic.

Furthermore, start with the fundamentals and work your way up to more advanced concepts.

Using this approach, you’ll not only be sure that you’re covering all of the material you could see on test day, but also be able to identify and work on your weak areas and see progressive gains in your score as you master each new topic. Imagine how motivating that will be!

Now, maybe putting together this type of study plan sounds like a lot of work. The good news is that a great self-study course can do that work for you. For example, the Target Test Prep course provides personalized study plans that tell students exactly what to study when. Give it a shot for free and see for yourself!


Learn and practice one SAT topic at a time instead of jumping randomly between topics.

Reason #3: Your “Studying” Is Actually Just Practice

There is a big difference between studying SAT topics and practicing answering SAT questions. However, sometimes students don’t make a distinction between the two. In other words, some students think that practicing with dozens and dozens of SAT questions, and then reading the solutions, will properly prepare them for test day.

The reality is that you can’t really learn a topic just by answering questions and reading solutions. Sure, you may pick up a few things here or there or figure some things out through trial and error. But does trial and error sound like a very efficient way to study for a big test like the SAT?

It may seem like a time-saver to jump straight to practicing with questions. However, students waste a lot of time by attempting to learn mainly — or only — by answering practice questions.

So, what do we do instead?

Learn Before You Practice

Before you attempt to answer questions on a particular topic, learn the concepts on which those questions are based. Furthermore, learn the strategies that will help you quickly and smartly apply the concepts you’ve studied. Gain this knowledge and these skills first, and then reinforce your knowledge and practice applying your skills by answering SAT questions.

You wouldn’t want to take a pop quiz on a chapter of a book you haven’t read, right? So, why put yourself through the frustrating and unproductive process of answering practice questions on topics you haven’t studied? Trust me, you don’t “cut out the middleman” by skipping the studying and just reading solutions to questions. You set yourself up for failure.

On the other hand, if you fully understand each topic before you tackle a bunch of practice questions on that topic, your SAT practice becomes a tool for validating that you have a solid grasp on the material you’ve studied. And if you find that there are still certain questions that are tripping you up, you’ll know exactly what topics to go back to and study further.

In other words, you’ll understand what you know and what you still need to learn more about, instead of just running through a ton of practice questions and (surprise, surprise) finding that you don’t really know any of the material!

So, don’t try to learn the SAT just by completing practice questions. Study the concepts and strategies you need first, and then practice applying them by answering questions.


Don’t try to learn the SAT just by completing practice questions. Study SAT concepts and strategies first, and then practice applying them by answering questions.

Reason #4: You Never Practice Untimed

Since the SAT is a timed test, many students jump right into practicing SAT questions with a timer going. What they don’t realize is that it takes some time and practice to build up the skill necessary to be able to answer questions at test pace.

In fact, speed is not something you should worry about at all when you first start doing practice questions. You will actually do a lot more to improve your skills (and your SAT scores) by shutting off the timer and taking as much time as needed to fully understand each question and work your way to the correct answer.

Why is this the case? Let’s discuss.

Speed is not something you should worry about at all when you first start doing practice questions.

Speed Comes From Skill

When you take all the time you need to fully understand a question, analyze the answer choices, and carefully apply knowledge and logic to determine the correct answer, you train yourself to go through the motions that lead to success on the SAT.

Moreover, as you become more skilled at answering questions correctly, it becomes easier for you to answer them quickly. In other words, your pace naturally accelerates the better you know the material.

Think of how fast you can do a simple addition or multiplication problem. When you were first learning addition or multiplication, you probably needed a bit more time to solve those problems. But now that you’ve done so many of them (you’ve built up your skills), you can do them quickly, right? Speed comes from skill!

When you try to do things quickly right off the bat, you skip over building the necessary skills. As a result, your performance on questions doesn’t show significant improvement even after you’ve done many practice questions. Thus, your scores on practice tests don’t increase.

So, if you’ve been doing timed practice from the very beginning of your SAT prep, it’s time for a change! Start doing practice untimed. Once your accuracy is high on questions of a particular type, you’ll be ready to start practicing with that question type under time constraints.

Remember also that you don’t need to jump directly from untimed practice to doing questions at test pace. Instead, once you’re ready to start doing practice questions timed, you can incrementally decrease the amount of time you give yourself for each question until you reach test pace.


Do your SAT practice untimed at first, waiting until your accuracy on questions is high to start timed practice.

Reason #5: You Need Better Study Materials

So far we’ve discussed how you may be studying for the SAT. But when it comes to increasing your scores, what you use to study also really matters.

Unfortunately, students sometimes use resources that don’t provide everything they need to achieve high scores on the SAT. So, even after studying for some time, they don’t see their scores improving on practice tests, and they don’t feel particularly prepared for test day.

Here are some ways that an SAT study resource may lack what students need to make score improvements:

  • It’s not comprehensive enough to teach students all they need to know to tackle any possible SAT question.
  • It doesn’t allow students to study in a linear, progressive, and organized fashion.
  • It doesn’t give students clear guidance on what to study when.
  • It doesn’t provide strategic practice to solidify each concept students learn.
  • It doesn’t teach material in a way that keeps students actively engaged in their learning.

If you think your current study resource isn’t giving you all the tools you need to advance your score, you can find something better! Look around online for reviews of SAT courses. See what students who did well on the SAT used. Test out some courses that offer free trials.

Don’t feel stuck with study materials that haven’t been working for you or tell yourself the only way to study for the SAT is by mindlessly reading through a 5 lb. book. If you’ve been putting in the effort and studying consistently, and you still can’t seem to make score gains, it could be that you need study materials that are more comprehensive, more structured, or more suited to your learning style.


Look for SAT study materials that are comprehensive, structured, and suited to your learning style.

Key Takeaways

Below are the top 5 reasons why you may be studying the SAT but getting bad scores on practice tests or the real SAT, or performing poorly on practice questions in general.

  1. You’re not studying on a regular basis.
  2. You’re studying topics in a random way.
  3. Your “studying” is actually just practice.
  4. You never practice untimed.
  5. You need better study materials.

Remember, when studying for a standardized test such as the SAT, which covers a lot of material, it’s important to have a plan and structure to your studying and to use proven, effective study strategies. Those are exactly the types of strategies I’ve provided in this article. Many, many other students have used these strategies to earn higher SAT scores.

The SAT is an important part of your college applications. So, this time you spend working to better your scores will be well worth it!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is a good SAT score?

What is considered a good SAT score is different for every student. A good SAT score for you depends on the average SAT scores at the schools you’re interested in applying to and the other aspects of your college applications.

For more information, you may want to check out our articles on how to determine what a good SAT score is for you and on what Ivy League schools consider a good SAT score.

How can I improve my SAT scores?

We’ve covered several tips in this article that will help you improve your SAT scores. This guide to increasing your SAT score has some other helpful strategies, for both students gearing up for their first SAT and those who have taken the test before.

If you’re looking specifically for tips for the math section, check out these strategies to increase your math score.

Do colleges superscore SAT scores?

Many, but not all, colleges superscore SAT scores. To find out the superscoring policies of the schools you’re interested in, research application requirements on the individual website of each school.

You can also check out our article about which colleges in the top 25 superscore the SAT.

Can I send my best SAT scores to colleges?

College Board offers a service called Score Choice that allows you to decide which test dates to submit scores from. However, not all schools allow the use of Score Choice (though many do).

So, research the test score policies of each school you’re interested in to make sure you will not need to submit all of your SAT scores. Some schools may even allow you to self-report just your highest section scores from any SATs you’ve taken.

Note that the Score Choice service does not allow you to pick and choose section scores from different test dates. When you elect to submit scores from a particular date using Score Choice, all of the section scores from that test date are sent to the schools you select. Of course, those schools may or may not superscore your SAT.

Can I cancel my SAT scores?

You can cancel SAT scores either at the test center or within a few days after taking your test. If you cancel scores, they will not be sent to any schools — even schools that require the submission of all your SAT scores. But, you also won’t be able to reinstate canceled scores if you decide later you’d like to use them.

You can learn more about College Board’s SAT score cancellation policies here.

How many times can I take the SAT?

Technically, you are allowed to take the SAT as many times as you want. However, given the amount of time that students need to study for the SAT and work on other aspects of their college applications, for most students, taking the SAT more than a few times doesn’t make much sense.

In fact, for most students, it makes sense to plan to take the SAT a maximum of four times. And with proper test prep materials and a smart study plan, that many tries at the SAT (or ACT) are often not necessary.

Of course, every student is different. So, check out this article if you need help figuring out how many times to take the SAT.

What’s Next?

Looking for more tips to improve your SAT score? Check out our article on how to earn a perfect SAT score in the math section.

You also may be interested in this article on how many SAT practice tests students should take.

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