The SAT: A Complete Guide
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What Is the SAT?
The SAT is a standardized college admissions test in the US, administered by the College Board. It is one of two recognized admissions tests, the other being the ACT.
The SAT is currently the most popular college admissions test; if you are a US high school student or an international student looking to study in at an American college, you will likely need to sit the exam.
US students applying to study abroad in the UK or Canada will also be required to take the test.
Your score on the SAT is used by prospective colleges to assess your ability and to differentiate between candidates.
As a standardized test, it is seen as a fair and effective way to whittle down the college applicant pool by assessing intellectual potential.
As it is widely administered, it enables colleges to compare student results nationwide. This allows colleges to be confident that they are admitting the best students who will thrive in their college programs.
It does, however, add extra pressure, as a nationally competitive score is vital to securing a place at your chosen college.
Whilst a good SAT score alone will not decide a college admission outcome, a low SAT score will hold you back.
Luckily, with practice you can improve your score and ensure you secure a result that reflects your abilities on test day.
What Is Being Assessed in the SAT?
The SAT is designed to give colleges an indication of how prepared students are when moving to higher education and how well they will tackle the academic challenges of largely self-guided study.
The test is split into four sections, each focusing on a different skill.
The sections of the test are:
- Writing & Language
- Math (No Calculator)
- Math (With Calculator)
There is also an optional SAT Essay which, if being taken, will comprise the final section of the exam.
The Reading section of the SAT is made up of multiple-choice questions based around passages of text. It tests key comprehension skills and your ability to absorb and make deductions from new information.
The passages will vary in topic and could be excerpts from literature, historical documents or scientific writings.
The Writing and Language section focuses on your vocabulary, grammar and editing skills – specifically the ability to convey information clearly and concisely.
The math sections of the test are split into no calculator and calculator but cover similar topics, such as geometry, algebra (both I and II) and trigonometry.
The optional SAT Essay assesses your ability to analyze a longer passage of text in greater detail.
You will be provided with the text and a question prompt and will be required to respond with a well-constructed, critical essay.
The different SAT sections assess not only targeted subject knowledge but also mental agility, problem-solving capacity and accuracy under pressure.
The test covers all the skills that the College Board feels are needed to thrive in your study and research at college.
As mentioned above, although a SAT score is not considered in isolation, it can account for up to 50% of the admissions decision. This percentage varies depending on the college.
To comprehensively prepare for the test, it is vital to clearly understand what will be asked of you in each section.
SAT Question Types and Format
The majority of the questions on the SAT will be multiple-choice, except some of the math questions which are referred to as grid-ins – for which you will need to come up with your own answers and enter them into the grid on the answer sheet.
Below are more detailed explanations of the types of questions you are likely to come across in each section:
Section 1: Reading
Questions in this section will directly relate to passages of text.
After reading the passage or pair of passages to which the questions correspond, you will be asked to choose the best answer based on what the passage states and implies.
There may also be accompanying graphics to take into consideration (graphs and tables are sometimes included).
There will be 52 questions in total (usually around ten for each passage).
Example question premises include:
- Choosing which statement best describes what happens in the passage
- Selecting the answer which best describes the developmental pattern of the passage
- Choosing which word most closely relates to one selected from the passage
- Direct questions on the content of the passage
- Choosing evidence from the passage to back up a statement
- Identifying the main purpose of a paragraph in the passage
- Identifying why certain information has been included in the passage
Section 2: Writing and Language
In the Writing and Language section, the questions also refer to passages of text. These passages are, however, shorter than those in the Reading section.
You will be asked to approach and edit each passage differently.
- You may be required to revise the paragraph to improve the expression of its ideas.
- You may be asked to edit a passage to correct errors in punctuation, sentence structure or word usage.
Graphics may be included to use as consideration when making editing decisions.
Each question will relate to an underlined and numbered part of the text or the paragraph as a whole.
All possible changes will be presented through multiple-choice answers.
You will be required to select the edit that most effectively improves the quality of the writing or makes the passage conform to conventions of standard written English.
A ‘No Change’ option is included as an option in many questions.
There are 44 questions to answer in total, usually spread across four passages.
Section 3: Math (No Calculator)
The first 15 or so of these will be multiple-choice. For the rest, you will be required to enter your answer on the grid on the answer sheet.
Make sure you read how to enter your grid answers carefully so you do not lose marks unnecessarily.
The first math section has a total of 20 questions.
Cori bought a new car stereo with her student discount of 15%.
The total cost that she paid is 'p' dollars which includes 10% for added insurance on top.
Which of the following equations will give us the original price of the stereo?
a) (1.10)(0.85)p = x
b) 10/100 x p = x
c) p/(1.10)(0.85) = x
d) (0.85)p = x
The correct answer is c)
Cori is paying 10% for her insurance (110% of the price, or 1.10). There's also a 15% student discount, meaning she's paying 85% of the price, or 0.85.
So, if 'p' is the total amount Cori paid and 'x' is the original price of the stereo, the equation should read:
p = (1.10)(0.85)(x)
Now find 'x' by dividing both sides by (1.10)(0.85).
p/(1.10)(0.85) = x
Section 4: Math (With Calculator)
The Math (With Calculator) section has a similar format to the above.
For the first 30 questions, you will be required to choose the best answer from the multiple-choice selection.
For the remaining eight, you will need to enter your answers in the grid.
The price of ice creams at the fair are $3.50 for two scoops and $5 for three scoops.
During the 5 hour day, the ice cream stall sold 200 ice creams and the total sum earned was $835.
Which of the following system of equations will reveal the amount of two scoop ice creams (x) and three scoop ice creams (y) sold?
a) x + y = 200; 110x + 90y = 835
b) x + y = 200; 110x + 90y = 835/5
c) x + y = 835; 110x + 90y = 200
d) x + y = 835; 110x + 90y = 5 x 200
The correct answer is a)
x + y equals the total number of ice creams sold and 110x + 90y represents the total amount earned.
Registering to Take the SAT
There are seven opportunities to sit the SAT each year, so you can select the test that fits best with your study schedule and deadlines.
Some schools require their students to sit the SAT at a set time; in which case, you will not have the same freedom to create your own schedule.
The best time to take the SAT is considered to be the winter of your junior year.
Taking the test when you have covered all necessary material – but still have time to re-sit if necessary – is the most sensible option.
As college admission deadlines are in January of senior year, this arrangement comfortably gives time to achieve the score you are aiming for.
The registration deadline for each round of SATs tends to be around a month before the test.
It is good practice to register for your test as far in advance as you can, so you can ensure you put in the revision time needed to secure a high score.
It costs $49.50 to register for the SAT, which increases to $64.50 for the SAT with Essay.
There are also other fees to consider such as a $30 late registration or exam change fee, or a $53 waitlist fee, which may be incurred depending on circumstances.
What to Expect When Taking the SAT
The SAT is administered at registered test centers. This may be at your high school or the premises of your education provider, or it could be at a separate testing facility.
The test is generally administered on a Saturday, but a few Sunday sittings are also available.
The test is usually sat in the morning, starting between 08:00 a.m. and 09:00 a.m.
On arrival, you will be required to present your admission ticket, photo ID and will be given an assigned seat.
The SAT is a paper-based, timed assessment and is three hours long. This will be adjusted to include an extra fifty minutes if you are also completing the SAT essay.
During this time, you will be expected to complete all the test sections, but note that they each have different time allocations:
- 65 minutes to complete the Reading section
- 35 minutes for the Writing and Language section
- 25 minutes for the Math (No Calculator) section
- 55 minutes for the final Math (With Calculator) section
You will be told by the test coordinator when to move on to the next section.
The timings are strict, so you cannot go back to a previous section once the time has passed or move on to a new section if you finish early.
Each section has a different number of questions to answer, totaling 154 overall (without the SAT Essay question). It is important to know the section timings well and practice each portion of the test to its time limit so you can get your question pace right on the day.
In terms of breaks during the test, you should receive a comfort break every hour. These breaks usually last between five and ten minutes.
You should bring along all the equipment you need for the test as it is not provided. Ensure you have your stationery (pencils with rubbers and pens, including spares) and an approved calculator.
Although you cannot bring in any rough working paper, you can use any available space in the test booklet for your workings out.
It is also sensible to bring a snack and a bottle of water – the test will be at least three hours long, so you are likely to need sustenance to perform at your best.
A watch may also be handy for quick timekeeping, but there is likely to be a clock on the wall to help you structure your time during each test section.
You can bring your phone to the exam, but it must be on silent. The test coordinator may gather phones or electronic devices before the test and, if not, they reserve the right to confiscate devices at any time.
Phones are not to be accessed during the exam or breaks. You will be disqualified for doing so.
SAT Scoring and Results
SAT scores will be between 400 and 1,600.
Your raw score – which directly reflects the number of questions you answered correctly – will have been converted into a scaled comparison score.
This scaling is conducted through a process called equating, which allows the College Board to ensure that scaled scores reflect the same level of ability across different test dates.
There is not a way to know exactly how a raw score will equate to a scaled score, but the College Board does release score ranges to give students an idea of the raw score they should aim to achieve.
You will also receive two percentile scores – the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile and the SAT User Percentile.
The first uses the ability of all 11th and 12th graders that year as a point of comparison and the second uses the scores of recent test cohorts (for example, students who sat the SAT in 2018 and 2019) to compare.
It usually takes two to three weeks to receive your online SAT results. Essay scores may take slightly longer but are usually released within ten days of the main test results.
As standard, scores are received in isolation and not alongside the student’s answers.
For a fee, additional score verification services – such as the Question-and-Answer Service ($18.00) and Student Answer service ($13.50) – are available.
These provide the test questions, student answers, correct answers and categorization of the question.
If you need to attach your results to an imminent application, a SAT Score Report Rush Service is available for $31.00.
Also, if you wish to receive your SAT score by phone, this is possible for an additional $15.00.
You can receive up to four SAT Score Reports free, but after that, they will cost $12.00 each.
What qualifies as a good score for you will depend on which college you are applying to. The top US colleges usually require an SAT score of 1,500 or above but state universities have less demanding requirements (from around 1,050 and above).
To put scores into perspective, the 2020 national SAT average is 1,059 and this tends to be around the same mark each year.
If you score above this, you have achieved a better result than the majority of students taking the test and should be more than eligible for college admission.
Top Tips: How to Do Well on the SAT
One of the easiest ways to give yourself a better chance of doing well on the SAT is to be forward-thinking.
Work out your college admissions schedule early in your school career and keep the SAT in mind as you work through the curriculum.
Choose to take the test as early as possible without overloading yourself, considering both application deadlines and your school workload.
Sitting the test early means you will have more than enough time to re-sit the test if you need to. This avoids unnecessary stress and pressure.
Registering early for the test date you have chosen will help to give you extra focus and ensure SAT prep has a dedicated portion of your time each week.
Take the Time to Study
As the SAT is an extra exam on top of your usual school workload, it is important to find time to familiarize yourself with the different sections of the test and learn how to ace each section.
Practice working on improving your performance in one section at a time. Planning out a SAT study schedule can help you stick to the task and ensure that you dedicate more time to focusing on your weakest areas.
You may need to be willing to sacrifice other activities to adequately prepare for the SAT but, when you have been accepted into your top college of choice, this temporary compromise will seem more than worth it.
Practice with the Right Questions
When preparing for the SAT it is important to use practice questions that are as close as possible to those you will encounter on the test.
SAT questions are designed to be tricky and are often worded in slightly unnatural or convoluted ways. Getting used to the specific style of the questions in the SAT will increase your chances of performing well under pressure on test day.
When conducting further practice outside of the official samples, ensure that the questions and advice you are accessing come from an expert in SAT prep who has scored highly on the test themselves and knows exactly what is needed to succeed.
For our list of the top SAT prep courses, see our dedicated article.
Hone Specific Skills
As we know, the SAT consists of four sections (plus an optional essay), each testing different key skills. Ensure you are aware of and practice the sub-skills each portion of the test will require.
- For the math sections, practice your algebra, geometry and probability skills, etc. Within these topics, think about the sub-topics too. For example, the algebra questions will likely cover different types of equations and number functions.
- For the Reading section, practice with different types of passages to test your comprehension and deduction of different subject areas. Try to include passages with graphs and figures as these may feature in the test.
- In the Writing and Language section, you will likely need mastery of grammar rules that may be less commonly used in everyday life. Practice editing paragraphs so their expression is as concise as possible. It is also worth brushing up on your synonyms (when in a given context), as this is a common style of question.
Training specific skills and weaknesses is key, rather than simply taking entire practice sections over and over.
Make sure you are on top of all these key skills – then the SAT will be an opportunity for you to show your abilities, rather than a stressful experience.
Learn from Your Mistakes
During your practice, go back through your tests and highlight questions that you skipped or answered incorrectly.
Explore the reasons you lost marks on that question – perhaps you didn’t know the material well enough, made a mistake in your working or jumped to conclusions too soon.
Commonly, making careless mistakes in the SAT is down to the impact of time pressure.
Practicing to time will help you to find the correct pace for answering questions rapidly and accurately, instead of in haste.
If, instead, your mistakes are largely related to inadequate knowledge of the subject matter, identifying your weaknesses early on will enable you to strengthen your knowledge and performance in that area.
The SAT is one of the most important tests of your school career, as it will do much to determine the outcome of your college applications.
If you are serious about pursuing a certain educational path, the test should be regarded as a priority in your last years of high school.
If you are set on a particular college, research the SAT score needed for admission and use it as your study motivation.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of the SAT and the decisions that ride on its outcome – but remember, you have the control.
Scores in tests such as the SAT can be greatly improved with targeted practice and familiarization with question types.
Choosing to dedicate time to targeted SAT preparation could well be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection from your favorite college.
Doing your research on the particularities of the test and putting in the hours of practice required will mean you can approach the challenge of the SAT calmly and with confidence.