SAT Practice Tests vs. the Real Test: Key Differences

Woman in a white sweater taking the SAT Test
November 24, 2022
Are SAT Practice Tests Harder or Easier Than the Real SAT?SAT Practice Test Scores vs. Real ScoresWhy Practice Tests and the Real SAT Aren’t the SameHow to Make Your Practice Tests More Like the Real ThingFAQs: SAT Practice Tests vs. the Real Test - Key Differences


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/11/22

Practicing for the SAT and wondering how similar it is to the real test? This guide will help discern the key differences between the practice tests and the real thing and properly prepare for the official SAT.

When studying for the SAT, practice tests are like a godsend; it allows you to time yourself appropriately, know the type of questions that the test will ask, and try out different methods on how to answer each section.

While the practice tests are incredibly helpful, they may not 100% guarantee a perfect score on the real test. SAT practice tests have vast differences from the actual test. When doing a practice test, you are challenged to sharpen your test-taking skills and approach each section methodically to receive a good grade. Practice tests are not carbon copies of the SAT; they are made differently.

Here you will learn about the differences between the practice SAT and the official SAT and how to use the practice tests to your benefit.

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Are SAT Practice Tests Harder or Easier Than the Real SAT?

The official SAT is neither harder nor easier than official practice tests since every SAT is scored differently. Their levels rank SAT practice tests’ difficulty; the higher the level, the more difficult it is. It all depends on how you study with the practice tests; they grade the results the same as the actual SAT, so your score can remain the same when you take the official SAT. Some students claim that the questions were harder on the official SAT or at the same level as their practice ones.

So to put it simply, it is neither harder nor easier. It all depends on how prepared you are for the official test and how well you do while taking a test.

SAT Practice Test Scores vs. Real Scores

Your practice SAT scores can predict what type of score you will get on the official test. However, if you scored lower on the SAT than you did on the practice test, that is not uncommon. There can be many reasons, such as test anxiety, less time to read and understand each question, or just not being as confident as you were with the practice tests. 

Again, this is purely subjective; each test-taker is different, along with their studying methods and ways of learning. The point of doing practice SATs is to find out your strengths and weaknesses and work on them to get an optimal score on the real SAT. It is always helpful to refer to the SAT scoring chart and track your practice tests scores to see how you can improve your raw score. There are many tips and tricks on how to do better on your SAT practice tests so you can improve your chances of passing the official test with flying colors.

Why Practice Tests and the Real SAT Aren’t the Same

Even though they offer a preview of what you will face on the official test, practice tests are not 100% accurate compared to the real thing. The content and how you take the test can be vastly different, which is why some students are shocked to learn that their scores are vastly different from what they scored on the practice test. 

There are two major reasons why the practice SAT isn’t the same as the official one.

SAT Practice Tests aren’t taken in realistic settings. When doing the practice SAT, you are usually in the comfort of your own home, on your laptop or desktop, accessing the practice portals whenever you like. The guide to the answers is put in front of you, and you can take breaks whenever you like before getting to the difficult sections of the test.

When the real test day comes, you wake up early to go to an unfamiliar test center where you can be subjected to uneasiness and limited breaks. You are then given a time limit on each section and may find yourself rushing to complete each section before time runs out. This is vastly different from the homemade open-book test you have been referencing all this time.

The second reason is that students tend to revert to their old habits under massive stress. The current SAT may have new content in their sections, and if you have taken prep courses and tutoring alongside your practice tests, you may have been taught new methods for approaching each question. 

For example, you may have been taught a certain way to answer a math problem when it comes to math. When it comes to SAT math, however, you were taught a new quicker method to approach the math questions for the sake of time conservation. When put in a new test set, you can forget the new methods and stick with what you are more familiar with. This can greatly hinder your SAT score, and your results can be lower than you anticipated. 

According to College Panda, the sections may have different question types as content unfamiliar with when you used the practice SATs. These patterns can throw you off guard when taking the official test.

This chart categorizes the differences of the official SAT by section:


Table outlining the differences between the SAT Math practice test and the real SAT Math Test
Table outlining the differences between the SAT Math practice test and the real SAT Math Test
Table outlining the differences between the SAT Math practice test and the real SAT Math Test
Source: College Panda


The reading sections are difficult to compare because there is no sure-fire way to quantify each passage’s difficulty level appropriately, and the questions can not be specifically categorized. 

Rest assured, though, the reading section may be tweaked as well to fit the current year’s SAT protocol.


Table outlining the differences between the SAT Writing practice test and the real SAT Writing Test
Table outlining the differences between the SAT Writing practice test and the real SAT Writing Test
Table outlining the differences between the SAT Writing practice test and the real SAT Writing Test
Source: College Panda

How to Make Your Practice Tests More Like the Real Thing

Even if the practice tests are not a carbon copy of the real thing, they are not useless. You need to understand how to use them to get the best possible score on the official test. Here are some tips on using the practice tests to your benefit.

Practice as a Real Simulation

To avoid a culture shock when you first enter the testing center on your test day:

  1. Do a practice run in your own house.
  2. Turn off your phone, get rid of snacks or drinks, and do other things that would provide a distraction to get an accurate exam room.
  3. Have short breaks, and use scrap paper for your test booklet. This will allow you to get used to the environment and note any discomfort you have had during this run.

That way, you can make adjustments and prepare for an actual day.

Practice Your Test-Taking Strategies

When you are studying, you develop certain exam-taking strategies. Perhaps you prefer dealing with easier questions first, then go back to the harder questions. Whatever method you have, gives you autonomy over the exam, but you have to know exactly which methods work in your favor. That way, you will be prepared for the official SAT and won’t be thrown off guard by the questions. Practice tests are a great way to keep track of your strategies as they will be a very important part of your preparation process.

Practice with a Bubble Sheet

Bubble sheets are part of the SAT and are usually the most trivial instrument for students during the exam. You may get the answer right on the booklet, but get it wrong on your bubble sheet. By practicing with a bubble sheet, you are giving yourself the advantage to keep track of your answers when you take the real test. It can also prevent you from circling the wrong answer on a different line on the test (this is especially for the Reading section).

Find Your Area of Focus

Out of all the sections of the SAT, which one do you struggle with the most? Math? Reading? 

Are you more concerned with the time limits you have for each section? Are you susceptible to losing your energy halfway through an exam? When using practice SATs, you can pinpoint where you need to focus and how you can resolve those issues so you are relaxed and ready for test day. You cannot fix something you are not aware of. 

Review Practice Test Answers and Explanations

When you have taken a five-hour practice SAT, it would probably be exhausting to review the answers and the explanations. You must take a well-deserved break so you can check out the explanations with a refreshed and active mind. You should then identify which questions you answered incorrectly and why. Take note of the explanations and refer to any relevant material to be prepared for any similar questions in the future.

Take a look at our free SAT practice question generator to attempt some exam-style questions!

FAQs: SAT Practice Tests vs. The Real Test: Key Differences

Still, have questions regarding the practice SAT and the official one? Here are some FAQs that give a better insight into the matter. 

1. How Can I Score as High on the Real SAT as I Did on the Practice SAT?

The best advice would be to practice! Do the practice tests, review your incorrect answers, find your strengths and weaknesses, and work on any weaknesses you noticed in practice SAT. These are your best options when it comes to wanting a great score. 

2. How Many Practice SATs Should I Take?

It is advised to take 3 to 4 mock tests about four to six weeks before the official test date. That way, you can practice in mock test environments and get used to them. Then, it would not hurt to take 2-3 more mock tests a month before the test day. It is important to time these tests too to score in your desired range. 

3. If the Practice Tests Aren’t Accurate, Why Should I Do Them?

Just because they are not 100% accurate does not mean they are useless to you. Practice SATs are more so a guide to give you a preview of what the SAT is like and allow you to analyze your strengths and test-taking skills. It can also help you work on any issues regarding the SAT, so you are prepared once the official test date comes. Take our SAT readiness quiz below to double-check if you need to do more prep for the exam.

4. What Are the Hardest SAT Practice Tests?

It depends on the student, but a consensus claims that Practice Test #3 could be the most difficult for a first-time SAT taker. It would help if you went over each practice test and ranked which one is hardest, so you can spend more time dealing with those before heading to the easier ones. 

5. What Are Some of the Best Free Sat Practice Tests?

You are always free to search online for practice tests to help you study. You can also ask your school about resources and information on affordable practice tests and prep courses. There is usually a list of the top best programs that offer Practice SATs.

6. How Long Should I Study for the SAT?

It depends on you and your daily schedule. A solid schedule would advise you to study 10 to 20 hours a week, approximately two to three months before the test date. If you feel like you need more than that, you can adjust the hours of your own will.

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