The maximum score on the SAT is a 1600. Out of the two million students who take the test every year, only about 500 get the highest possible SAT score. This elusive perfect score catapults you to the top of high school academic achievement and can be a big boost to your college applications.
I scored perfect scores on the SAT. I actually scored two perfect scores—a 1600 in 2004 when I was in high school, and a 2400 in March 2014 when I took it ten years later.
Most of the advice out there about how to get a perfect score come from people who didn’t get perfect scores. In this exclusive article, I’ll be breaking down exactly what it takes, and the ruthless techniques I used to get a perfect score.
Let me start with a few disclaimers.
I’m a humble person, and I don’t like talking about my accomplishments without good reason. I know a lot of you are looking to score the highest SAT score possible, so I’ve written this guide to help you get there. So whatever I say here, please take it as advice from a mentor eager to help, not as a braggart strutting his stuff.
Also, I co-founded the company PrepScholar—we create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses. I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a full prep program to get a great score. If you follow the principles below and are very driven, you’ll do just fine.
I do believe, however, that PrepScholar is the best digital SAT program available right now, especially if you find it hard to organize your prep and don’t know what to study. I’ll refer to decisions we made in creating the program to flesh out principles I discuss below.
My Perfect SAT Scores — How I Know This Works
For full transparency, let me show you my personal score report. This is a screenshot from my College Board SAT Organizer:
I took the two SATs 10 years apart. The 2004 test was in an old format of the SAT and was scored out of 1600. I took the new test in 2014 and scored a 2400.
(Yes, I took the SAT as an adult. Besides getting funny looks from high school students, I wanted to go through the experience anew so I knew what my students at PrepScholar were going through.)
While the format of the SAT has changed since I took it, many of the principles are still the same. In the current SAT, there are still Reading, Math, and Writing questions and you need to get most if not all of them right to get a perfect score. Doing so still requires lots of practice and a deep understanding of how the exam works.
What It Takes to Get a 1600 on the SAT
At the top end of the scoring range, the SAT is not forgiving. You need to aim for perfection.
In the past, we could calculate fairly precisely how many questions you needed to get right in order to get a perfect score. Unfortunately, the new adaptive format makes those calculations irrelevant. For now, we have to assume you cannot miss any questions if you want a perfect score on the digital SAT.
Essentially, you need to aim for perfection during your prep. If you’re consistently missing one or more questions on each section, you’re not performing consistently enough to be safe for a 1600. We’ll go into more detail about this below.
One last question to answer before my actual advice:
But Wait…Are You Just Smart? Will This Advice Work for Me?
You may have heard about top scoring students who just rolled out of bed, strolled to the SAT test center, and scored the highest possible SAT score without any prep.
This was not me. Some people like the above may in fact exist, but they’re rare. In high school, I was naturally stronger at math—I participated in math and science competitions—and I could reliably get 800’s on the math section. However, my reading and writing needed work; I consistently got in the 700 range. This is already pretty high, but it wasn’t enough for the top schools I was aiming for.
The big problem was that I wasn’t accustomed to the SAT reading passages and the types of questions they asked. It took a lot of hard work for me to learn how the SAT works, how it tries to trick students, and how to find a strategy that worked for myself so I could reliably get top scores. My co-founder at PrepScholar had a similar story.
Since I’m older, I also have the benefit of seeing whether my methods worked over time, or just on the SAT. Emphatically, the principles below have worked throughout my academic career.
Here’s another example. As an undergraduate in college, I planned to attend medical school, so I had to take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). In my view, this is a much harder test than the SAT. It covers many more topics: general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, biology, and verbal reasoning. Furthermore, you’re competing with pre-med’s across the nation, people who are naturally driven and competing to get into medical school, not just the average high school student.
When I started studying for the MCAT, I scored around the low 30’s. The test is scored out of 45, and it’s curved very aggressively. Again, this was already well above average, but it wasn’t enough for the top medical schools I was going for.
So I worked hard. I put in the time, covered all the subjects I needed to know, and was ruthless about my prep. In the very end, I scored a 44:
As the testing organization notes, this is in the 99.9 percentile rank, with 0.0% achieving this score (this figure is rounded). I had multiple medical advisers tell me that they had never seen a score this high before, and there might indeed be fewer than three people per year—or none at all—who get a 44. Scoring this high definitely helped me get into the MD-PhD program at Harvard Medical School and MIT.
I wish I were talented enough to get these test scores naturally without hundreds of hours of hard work. But it wasn’t true for me, and it probably won’t be true for you either.
What Do You Need to Do to Get a Perfect 1600 SAT Score?
In broad strokes, it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of smart work, and some amount of luck.
But you’ve heard this before so just this alone isn’t helpful. Let’s dig deeper.
You have to want it. Really, really want it.
You need the motivation to push yourself. You need to put SAT prep as one of your top priorities in life, over watching YouTube or hanging out at the mall.
In the darkest of days, when you take a practice test and drop 100 points inexplicably, and your parents are freaking out, and you’re worried you’re never getting into your top college, you need the inner fire to not get depressed. Instead, you need to pull yourself up and objectively rip apart your mistakes so you don’t repeat them.
People don’t often mention motivation, but in my view this is one of the most important pieces that differentiate successful people from not, in all aspects of life. It’s much more important than just being smart.
Make a list of all the reasons you want to get a perfect score. Write them down. Stare at them when you lose motivation.
Want to get into Harvard or an Ivy League school? Want to make up for a bad GPA? Want to prove to your parents that you can beat their expectations? Want to compete with your friends? Want to show up your 3rd-grade teacher who said you would never amount to anything?
That’s all good. Anything that drives you from within is a valid reason to work hard.
You’ll need this to combat procrastination and laziness. You’ll need this to push yourself to execute every strategy I tell you below. If you’re not motivated, it’s just too easy to brush aside failure and be sloppy about your weaknesses.
In my personal case, beyond the academic benefits, I thought the SAT was a dumb test that was impeding my life. I was angry at test writers who devised tricks to fool students. I approached it like a video game—the SAT and the College Board were bosses that I needed to dominate. Plus, my brother had a near-perfect score, and I wanted to one-up him.
Write down all the reasons you want a perfect score and use it to fuel yourself every study session.
Exclusive Blog Bonus: We’ve written a popular free guide on 5 tips to improving your SAT score by 160+ points. Get a free download here.
Step 1: Do High-Quality Practice and Avoid Low-Quality Materials
The SAT is a weird test. It’s unlike tests that you’ve taken throughout school. It presents simple concepts in bizarre ways. This is essentially how the College Board makes the test hard— it takes concepts most students have seen before, twists them to be unfamiliar, and counts on students to screw up.
To excel at this test, you need the highest quality practice materials. Because the SAT has questions that are twisted in a particular way, you need to train in exactly the way they’re twisted so you learn the patterns.
As we’ve said before, by far the best practice material comes directly from the College Board in the form of official SAT practice tests. When I was studying, I devoured every SAT practice test I could find. I took over 15 full-length practice tests and was ruthless about finding my mistakes, as I’ll talk about soon.
Using bad materials is like training for baseball by playing tee-ball. Yes, if you spend 1000 hours practicing tee-ball, you’ll be a tee-ball pro. But when someone pitches a real baseball at you, you’re going to freak out—”why is the ball traveling so fast? Why’s it so close to my face? Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod.”
And then you strike out.
To be frank, most of the SAT guides available on the market are trash. They boast about having a lot of questions, but they’re written by people who aren’t truly experts on the test. This means the questions don’t test concepts in the same way; the answers are sometimes ambiguous; the questions don’t trick you in the same way the SAT does.
In my company PrepScholar, we hire only SAT full-scorers and 99 percentile scorers to craft our thousands of test questions. You need to have mastered the test to really understand the intricacies of how the SAT works. We’ve turned away dozens of applicants who scored below a 1520 since they really don’t understand the test well enough.
Since the test is now fully computerized, I recommend sticking to digital practice that matches the format of the test, but if you like studying with books, here’s my list of the top SAT prep books available. There are some pretty high-quality books written by true experts, though they can get pricey—buying the top five books will cost you at least a hundred dollars.
Collect good prep materials and study using only these.
Step 2: Focus on Quality First, Quantity Second
Some students focus hard on getting through every single page of every book they have. They might not know why they’re studying what they’re studying, but at least they sure put in a lot of time and effort!
This is the wrong idea. You don’t want to pound your head against the wall and use a brute force approach.
Improving your SAT score is about quality first, and quantity second.
It’s so tempting to just focus on getting work done, because that’s the easy part. Understanding your weaknesses, as we discuss below, is what takes real energy and insight.
Step 3: Be Ruthless About Understanding Your Mistakes
During your prep, understanding your mistakes is by far the most important key to success. EVERY mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don’t understand EXACTLY why you missed a question, you will make that mistake over and over again.
If you’re performing at the 700 level, you’re missing around 10% to 15% of all questions. This means you have some consistent errors that are holding back your score.
This is what you need to do:
- On every practice test or question set that you take, mark EVERY question that you’re even 20% unsure about.
- When you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you’ll make sure to review it.
- Keep a log of these mistakes, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you’ll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Have separate sections by section and sub-topic.
It’s NOT enough to just think about it and move on. It’s NOT enough to just read the answer explanation. You have to think HARD about why you specifically failed on this question.
By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you’ll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.
No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.
Go Deeper—WHY Did You Miss It?
Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don’t just say, “I didn’t know this material.” Always take it one step further—what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?
Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a question, and how you take the analysis one step further:
Content: I didn’t learn the skill or knowledge needed to answer this question.
One step further: What specific skill do I need to learn, and how will I learn this skill?
Incorrect Approach: I knew the content, but I didn’t know how to approach this question.
One step further: How do I solve the question, and is there a general rule that I need to know for the future?
Wrong Guess: I was stuck between two answer choices, and I guessed wrong.
One step further: Why could I not eliminate one of the last answer choices? Knowing the correct answer now, how I can eliminate it? Does this suggest a strategy I can use for the future?
Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or solved for the wrong thing
One step further: Why did I misread the question? What should I do in the future to avoid this?
Does this seem hard? It is—you have to think hard about why you’re falling short and understand yourself in a way that no one else can. By the end of my studying, I had notebooks filled with practice questions that I’d missed, and when eating breakfast I could thumb through them to review them, like flashcards.
Adopt a no-mistake-left-behind policy toward your mistakes. Letting one slip through can mean you make the same mistake on your real SAT.
Here’s another useful trick when reviewing mistakes: ask yourself “Why?” five times?
This is a revolutionary technique developed by Toyota to figure out the root cause of manufacturing problems.
The point is that when you ask yourself “Why?” five times, you’ll dig deeper and deeper to understand what the underlying cause is, and how to fix it. Here’s an example.
Starting point: I missed a Reading question about the big picture summary of the passage.
- Why? I picked the wrong answer choice, out of the two I had left.
- Why? The wrong answer choice had a phrase that was in the passage, but otherwise the meaning was wrong. I got tricked.
- Why? I didn’t fully understand the passage when I was reading it.
- Why? I read the passage too quickly.
- Why? I was scared about running out of time.
Wow—you see how a single question can give you a TON of information about where you went wrong? Now you have a lot of opportunities to improve—on how you read passages, how you eliminate answer choices, and how to process big picture questions.
Very few students actually have the discipline to go through this reflection. And this is why YOU’RE going to get a better score.
Step 4: Find Patterns in Your Weaknesses, and Drill Them to Perfection
Now that you’re collecting mistakes in a notebook, you’ll be able to start finding patterns to your weaknesses. This might be a content area—like problems with math circle problems, or a specific grammar rule. Or it might be a personal habit of yours, like misreading the passage or eliminating the wrong answer.
Focusing on your weaknesses is CRITICAL because you have a limited amount of time to study, and you need to spend that precious time on the areas that will get you the biggest score improvement.
I’ve worked with students who just love drilling their strong points because it’s comfortable. Of course, this is a waste of time—you have to confront your demons and pick at where you’re weak, which is uncomfortable and difficult.
When I was studying for the SAT and MCAT, I kept track of my mistakes in an Excel spreadsheet. I found, for example, that I consistently missed Reading passage questions about inferences because I was reading too far into what the author was saying. I then focused on drilling those specific types of questions until I had developed my own strategy for solving the questions.
As another example, back when the SAT emphasized vocab more, I needed to study thousands of vocab words, any of which could show up on the test. I developed my own method on the best way to study SAT vocab words—what I call the Waterfall Method. This method forces you to review words you don’t know over 10x more than words you already know—efficient studying. You don’t need to use this for the New 2016 SAT, but you may still find it helpful for any class you need to use flashcards for—foreign language, history, or English.
Find the weak link in your chain.
When you find your weakness, you need to find resources to drill that content area. If you’re weak in Trigonometry questions, you need to find a lot of SAT Trig questions to really drill those skills. If you’re weak in subject/verb agreement, you need to find grammar questions to drill.
Doing all of this well is tough for many students, because you have to at once:
- Do practice questions
- Diagnose your weaknesses
- Find more practice questions
- Understand whether you’re improving or not
- Adjust your plan continuously
This is the backbone of every effective study method, but it takes a lot of mental energy to do well. This is actually why we started PrepScholar—we wanted to build an online prep program that would do all the heavy lifting for you, so that you can concentrate on learning. In our PrepScholar program, we detect your weaknesses and automatically organize your quizzes by skill so that you can focus on learning and not on the higher-level activities of analyzing your own progress.
By the way, a quick side point—be suspicious of any content-level strategies that promise you results. By content-level, I mean strategies that tell you how you must solve a type of question. At your level, you need to focus on what works best for you. For example, people approach reading passages differently. Some read the passage first, then answer questions. Some skim questions first, then go back to the passage. I know what works best for me, but that’s not necessarily what works best for you.
Step 5: Eliminate Careless Errors
These types of mistakes are by far the most frustrating. You know the content, you know how to solve it, but because of a misreading of the question, you don’t get the question right.
In my own SAT, I made careless errors because I would rush through questions too quickly and then get upset with myself for missing something I should have gotten right. But one simple strategy allowed me to claim back my lost points:
Double-check that you’re answering the right question
The SAT is designed to ask you tricky questions. You might find the area of the square, but the question actually asks for the perimeter.
To eliminate this, always underline what the question asks you to solve for. Don’t stop your work until you solve for the correct thing.
Another strategy is to write what the question is looking for in your scratch area. For example, if it asks for seconds instead of minutes, write “= ____ seconds” and circle it before you start your work.
This might sound like extra work, but how you defeat careless errors is by having a reliable, failproof system.
Step 6: Develop Amazing Study Habits
If you’re highly motivated and aiming for a top score, you’re likely to spend at least 200 hours studying for the SAT.
You need to get the most out of every hour you can.
Learning how to study more effectively has huge returns on your time. Think about it—if you can learn some techniques to improve your study efficiency by 20%, this will effectively give you back 40 hours of your life.
Here are my best recommendations on great study habits, all of which I follow myself.
Habit 1: Create a Schedule and Force Yourself to Stick to It
It’s important to have a plan. You need to understand when you’re going to do what, and then you need to follow that plan.
Here are questions to ask yourself:
- How much time do I have until my next test?
- How much time will I spend studying every week?
- How many practice tests should I take before then? When will I take them?
- During each week, what specific times and days will I be studying?
- What will I actually be studying each day? Why?
- How should my schedule change based on the info I receive from practice tests?
Do NOT approach SAT prep without a plan like this. You’ll wander aimlessly from book to book, test to test, without actually focusing on what is going to get you results.
We designed PrepScholar to take care of all this hard work for you. Every week, we create customized lesson plans so you know exactly what to study and when. We schedule practice tests for you at the best moments leading up to your test date. We ask you for your weekly study schedule, then text you reminders to study. We send you progress reports so you know how well you’re doing and whether you need to study more.
If you feel like you don’t know how to create your own study schedule or aren’t confident you can stick to one, you might like PrepScholar’s SAT program.
Habit 2: Eliminate All Distractions
You have so many distractions at your fingertips—streaming, social media, YouTube, games, and more.
All of these are super fun and super easy to consume for hours on end.
All of these will improve your SAT score by ZERO points.
If you’re studying and you glance at your phone every 3 minutes, you are NOT STUDYING. The brain is actually terrible at multitasking, and every time you lose attention, you take minutes to go back to full concentration.
I know how tempting it is to stay up to date with everything your friends are doing. You don’t want to miss a hilarious joke or be late to a scandalous story. But you don’t really need to be online 100% of the time. When was the last time responding to a text within 3 minutes was actually important? You are not missing out on anything important if you text back an hour later.
Instead, here’s what you need to do:
- Go to a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Wear earplugs if it helps.
- Turn your phone off or leave it another room.
- Don’t study with friends. It’s more fun but everyone does a worse job of studying.
- If you’re using a program like PrepScholar on a web browser, use tools like StayFocusd to keep yourself off of distractions.
Treat this seriously. One hour spent studying at full concentration is better than three hours at 50% concentration.
Habit 3: Have a Positive Mindset. Your Job Is to Grow.
When you’re trying to get a perfect 1600 SAT score, you’ll get frustrated when you make mistakes. I was the same way, and I got mad at myself for making careless mistakes or for forgetting something I used to know.
The important thing is to channel that frustration into learning and growth.
Treat every mistake as a learning opportunity. Every mistake tells you exactly where your weakness is, and what you need to do to fix it.
You are allowed to get upset, but not so much it paralyzes you. Instead, treat your primary goal as getting better—not as getting a specific score.
Step 7: Get Fast Enough to Always Double Check Your Answers
Now that you’re aiming for a top score, you need to finish each section ahead of time to give yourself time to double check your answers. A good rule of thumb is to finish the section with at least 5 minutes to spare. As you get better at the SAT, this will be easier to accomplish since you’ll solve each question in less time.
When I took the SAT, I reliably finished each section with 5-10 minutes to spare. I would mark any questions that I felt I had to return to and double-check. I had enough time to review all my answers twice.
The real time-killers are questions you get stuck on. It’s very easy to get sucked into a question for five minutes, frustrated that the SAT is taking a point away from you. Avoid this temptation. Follow this rule: if you’ve spent 30 seconds on a question and can’t see how you’re going to get to the answer, circle the question, and skip it. You’ll have time at the end to come back to it. For now, you need to work on the other questions.
How do you double check effectively? It varies between sections. For math, you should try to re-solve the question quickly in a different way. For some questions, you’ll be able to plug the answer back in. For others, you’ll just need to check your steps you took the first time around. For writing, confirm that the sentence has the error you think it does. For reading, confirm that there is no other better answer choice than the one you picked and rule out the three incorrect answers.
As you get better at the test, you’ll have more time left. Aim for at least 5 minutes left after each section, and use that time to double-check your answers.
Stay calm during the test, even if you get confused on a question.
Step 8: Don’t Get Inside Your Own Head During the Test
If you’re vying for a perfect 1600 score, you’ll face pressure during the test. You know how little room for error there is.
This means that if you’re having trouble with a question, it’s easy to psyche yourself out. “Oh no! I’m having trouble with this math question. If I don’t get this right, my 800 in math is gone!” This will make you nervous, which makes you even less likely to answer the question, which makes you more nervous, and so forth. This vicious spiral can suck you down for the rest of the test.
Controlling your mental status is important during the test. Just like a pro athlete or performer, you need to be confident about your skills. You already put in a ton of work, and you’ve learned most of what the College Board has to throw at you.
Don’t let a single question you’re unsure about derail you—it doesn’t affect your performance on any other question. Try your best and clear your head, then move on.
Does All of This Really Work?
I can say from personal experience that these principles catapulted me to academic excellence throughout high school and college. If you follow these principles, you’ll do an amazing job in your own academic endeavors.
This advice also works if you’re not aiming for a 1600. If you want to improve from a 1200 to a 1500, you can use these principles to power your learning.
While the SAT tests specific skills that you may not use in everyday life, the process of preparing for it can teach you a lot about yourself, your limits, and your ambitions. This sounds a little hokey, but take it from this old man, you can learn a lot about yourself.
Finally, keep in mind that you don’t need a 1600 to get into top colleges! A 1540+ will make you more than competitive for top schools like the Ivy League. If you get above a 1550, your time is better spent building up the rest of your application than eking out a few more points.
Quick Plug: I’ve mentioned my company PrepScholar a few times. If you agree with what I say above, you’d like my course. I designed our SAT course around the principles above, knowing that most students don’t have the energy or expertise to diagnose their own weaknesses. PrepScholar automatically figures out what you need to work on and focuses your learning by drilling your weak skills. It also builds in motivational features so you’re up to date on your progress and commit to more study time. Check out our SAT program here.
If you liked this article, you’ll also like my expert guides on getting an 800 in each of the SAT sections. Each one goes further into deeper details on how to ace each section.
Aiming to get into Harvard and the Ivy League? Read my How to Get Into Harvard guide. You might learn that you’re headed straight to the rejection path.
Finally, check out our online SAT prep program. We have a 160+ point money back guarantee: if you finish our course and don’t improve by 160 points, you get all your money back, no questions asked.
I designed the PrepScholar program around the principles in this article. Thousands of students have used PrepScholar to improve their score by hundreds of points, which is why I’m confident it’ll work for you too.
Try our program with a 5-day free trial today: