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SAT Prep: Which section should I start with?

In this week’s lesson, we’re going to examine the pros and cons of beginning SAT prep with each of the three test subjects: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. “Which section should I start with?” is one of the most common questions I hear from students.  The short answer is that it varies based on the student. The longer answer is that there are distinct benefits and drawbacks to beginning with any of the three subjects. Therefore, the following information is intended to help you make an informed decision about where best to begin your SAT prep journey.





Pros: The Reading section draws on many of the same skills you will need for both the Writing and Language and Math sections. Not only is the ability to read carefully and precisely important for Writing, but is also crucial for success on SAT Math word problems. Furthermore, the ways that Reading questions try to trick students and the kinds of misleading “trap answers” the questions contain are broadly similar to those found in both Writing and Math.


Cons: The Reading section can be somewhat overwhelming for students starting SAT prep, especially if they have not taken either the ACT or SAT before. Reading questions and answer choices can be quite long, requiring students to spend time decoding what a question/answer is really saying.


Reading also requires significantly more multi-tasking than the other SAT sections because you have to move back and forth seamlessly between the passage and the questions to do well on this section. In short, figuring out how Reading tries to trick students requires a significant amount of patience, focus, and self-discipline, especially if you have not yet worked on the other sections.



Writing and Language


Pros: Structurally, Writing and Language is a good middle ground between Reading and Math. Questions are presented “in context” as they are in the Reading section, but they are also presented side-by-side with the passages. Writing questions often contain at least two answer choices that are automatically wrong because they fulfill the same grammatical function or commit the same error in the same way. This pattern of two choices really being the “same” choice appears in Reading and Math in different ways. Questions with stated prompts help students develop the precision reading skills needed for deciphering Reading questions and SAT Math problems.


Cons: Because Writing and Language is effectively halfway between Reading and Math in both test content and test format, some of the most important skills for these sections are not tested in the Writing section. SAT Reading “main ideas” and “best evidence” questions have no equivalent in Writing. Similarly, Writing can help you identify what information you need to solve Math word problems but not how to actually go about solving them.





Pros: If mathematics is far and away your strongest school subject, SAT Math can give you a more thorough understanding of how the other sections operate “under the hood.” The two halves of SAT Math (“no calculator” and “calculator”) contain just enough wrong answer choice patterns and require just enough close reading to serve as a gateway to both Reading and Writing.


Cons: Starting with SAT Math is effective only if you are naturally “wired” for mathematics AND have been able to translate what you’ve learned in math classes to other subjects in the past. In other words, effectively using Math as an entry point to the other sections of the SAT requires that your learning style fits a specific set of criteria. If you are not adept at “mapping” math concepts on to other areas of academics, you should start preparing for the SAT by “decoding” the Reading or Writing section first.


What about the Essay?


You’ll notice that we haven’t included the Essay section in our list of possible starting points for SAT prep. That is because, relative to the other sections, the Essay is a far less crucial factor in the admissions process. While a good Essay score is still important for schools that recommend or require this section, most schools will give far more weight to your multiple choice scores because they are considered more “objective” measurements of your college readiness.


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