This week on Dear Jonah, an anxious parent wants to know if the real SAT is harder than the practice test.

Dear Jonah,

I’m not a current client but I have a question anyway. Hope that’s ok!

I’m mother of a high school junior, [name], who’s preparing for his SAT. He’s doing well on practice tests, but we’ve heard rumors that the actual SAT might be harder. This has caused us some concern.

Is the real SAT harder than the practice tests? And if so, do you have any tips to better prepare [him] for the real thing?

Thank you for your advice.

Best, KT

Hi KT,

Thanks for reaching out to me! Yes, of course it’s totally fine to ask a question when you’re not a current client. I’m happy to help.

This is a common concern that many of my students and parents have when preparing for the SAT. I’ll do my best to clarify whether the real SAT is harder than the practice tests.

First, remember that the SAT practice tests are designed to be as similar as possible to the real SAT. They’re created by the same organization (The College Board) and follow the same format and structure. If [your son] is doing well on the practice tests, that’s a good indication that he’s on the right track.

So my short answer is that no, the real SAT is not harder than the practice tests. But it sure feels that way.

That perception comes down to a few factors:

  1. Test Conditions: The real SAT is a timed, proctored exam taken in a controlled environment. This makes the real test feel more challenging due to the pressure of the test-day environment. Practice tests taken at home don’t have the same constraints, which can make them seem easier.

  2. Test Variability: The SAT is supposed to follow a consistent format, but the specific questions can vary in difficulty from test to test. This means that some students may find the actual SAT harder or easier than their practice tests based on the specific questions they receive. Imagine your weak spot is factoring and you just happen to get a real SAT with more factoring questions than usual. Feels harder, right?

  3. Psychological Factors: Test anxiety can play a big role in a student’s performance. The knowledge that the results of the real SAT count towards college admissions can make the test seem harder than the practice tests.

To better prepare [your son] for the real SAT, try to simulate test conditions during his practice tests. Have him take the practice test in a quiet, distraction-free environment, strictly timed, and with only the allowed breaks. No phone, either! Use a stopwatch or kitchen timer. The phone is too much of a distraction.

This can help him get used to the conditions he’ll experience on test day and minimize any surprises.

The key to doing well on the SAT, as with any standardized test, is consistent practice. If [your son] continues to work diligently on his practice tests and does error analysis to understand why his incorrect answers went wrong, he’ll likely find the real SAT no harder than the practice tests he’s been taking.

I hope this helps ease any concerns you and [your son] might have. Please feel free to reach out if you have any more questions or you’d like to discuss further.

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I’ll ask some questions to get to know you, learn about your goals and your obstacles, and start coming up with a study plan.

We’ll decide when the best time for you to test is, have you register for the test, and plan backward from there. We’ll also decide how many tests you should schedule.

I like to hit the ground running by learning and practicing the best strategies for each student, so I gather information ahead of time in the form of an hour-long cognitive assessment. This tool helps me understand each student’s strengths and weaknesses so I can craft the best study plan for them. I use MindPrint Learning to assess my students’ strengths and needs.

Based on the information you provided me and what I learned from the assessment, I’ll craft a study plan. This is my recommendation for the practice I think you should do before your first test date. If you like, you take this study plan and work through it on your own. If you’d like additional guidance or one-on-one instruction, we’ll talk about signing up for private sessions.