An SAT Introduction


This is the SAT--everything you ever wanted to know about it!

Overview: What is the SAT?

The SAT is the most popular standardized test used for admission into colleges and universities in the United States. First started in 1941 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test as an IQ test, the SAT of today has earned a place in every college going student's life. Oddly enough SAT no longer stands for anything; rather than deal with controversial acronyms, the College Board sidesteps the issue by not having SAT actually be an acronym.

The SAT is generally taken by high school students who will soon be applying to postsecondary colleges and universities, though the test is open to anyone over the age of 12 desiring to attend college or university in the United States. All that is required is to pay the registration fee, which can be waived in certain circumstances. After taking the test, students can elect to send their official scores to any college or university to which they would like to gain admission.

Students should be careful in taking the SAT multiple times, as the College Board will send all previous scores to these universities. For this reason, students should not take the SAT more than three times total, and should be careful to study between these tests to make sure each successive score report shows an improvement over the previous. There is an advantage to taking the test more than once, however, as many universities will combine the highest score for each of the sections across multiple test dates. For example, if you score 650 on the Critical Reading, 600 on the Math, and 650 on the Writing section the first time you took the SAT and 680 on the Critical Reading, 580 on the Math, and 660 on the Writing section many colleges will consider your total score to be the 680 for Critical Reading from the second time you took the SAT, the 600 for Math from your first SAT, and the 650 from your first SAT for the Writing Section.

Why is the SAT so important?

The SAT is required by many universities to be considered for admission. Though there are colleges that do not require it, all "brand name" universities and virtually all public ("state") universities do require it. In many cases, students can take the ACT rather than the SAT, and this decision often comes down to geography. Students in the Midwest tend to take the ACT and SAT, while students on the U.S. coasts tend to not take the ACT at all.

Other than being required for admission to many U.S. universities, the SAT is important for the following reasons:

  • Many scholarships require a minimum SAT score.
  • Many universities, especially state universities, will offer academic scholarships for students with a certain GPA and a minimum SAT score.
  • The SAT is a great way to set yourself apart from the college admission crowd. Having a high SAT score will allow you to separate out from the thousands of other people applying to college.

For some students, taking both the SAT and ACT is a great option because they can submit whichever of the two scores is better (based on their percentile ranking) which then lets them increase their odds of acceptance in college admission. In general, taking both tests is highly recommended as students have little to lose but much to gain.

Details about the test

The SAT consists of three sections: Math, Critical Reading, and Writing. Scores on each section range from 200–800, with scores always being a multiple of 10 (i.e. 580, 720, never 645 or 643). The scores for each of the sections are added together for the composite score, with a 2400 being a "perfect" SAT score. Students do not need to get all answers on the SAT correct to get a perfect score. More details are below in the Scoring section.

In addition to the nine sections that count towards the student's score, there is a 10th section that will not count but that the College Board administers to test questions for future SATs. This extra section does not count towards a student's score. During the test, students will not know which section will not count towards their final score, so they should treat each section as though it does count. What is known, however, is that the essay, which is always the first section on the SAT, and Section 10, which is always a 10-minute writing section, will always count towards a student's SAT score.

The SAT is administered seven times a year in the United States: in October, November, December, January, March (or sometimes April), May, and June. The SAT is usually offered on the first Saturday of the month for November, December, May, and June. Outside of the United States, the SAT is offered on the same dates as in the United States except for the first spring test date, which is either March or April.

There are three separate scored sections that comprise the Math score:

  • One 25-minute section with 20 Multiple Choice questions
  • One 25-minute section with 18 questions: eight multiple choice questions, 10 grid-In questions (not multiple choice!)
  • One 20-minute section with 16 Multiple Choice questions

There are three separate scored sections that comprise the Critical Reading score:

  • One 25-minute section with 24 questions: eight sentence completions; four short critical reading passage questions; 12 critical reading questions from one passage
  • One 25-minute section with 24 questions: five sentence completions, four short critical reading passage questions, 15 critical reading questions from two distinct passages
  • One 20-minute section with 19 questions: six sentence completions, 13 Critical Reading questions from two related passages

There are three separate scored sections that comprise the Writing score:

  • One 25-minute section with one Essay
  • One 25-minute section with 35 questions: 11 improving sentences questions, 18 identifying sentence errors questions, six Improving Paragraphs questions
  • One 10-minute section with 14 Improving Sentences question

How is the SAT scored?

Each of the questions within a section is ordered by difficulty, other than questions that follow the long and short reading passages that are organized with respect to where in the passage they refer. Thus a question referencing an early part of the passage will occur before a question asking about the passage's conclusion, regardless of difficulty.

Each question on the SAT is worth one point regardless of difficulty. Though most questions are multiple choice, 10 math questions require a numerical answer that the test taker must bubble in on his or her answer sheet. For each of the multiple choice questions, a correct answer will add one point to a student's "raw" score, an incorrect answer will deduct one-quarter of a point to the raw score, and a blank answer will yield zero points. For the 10 math questions that require a numerical answer, a correct answer adds one point to the raw score and an incorrect answer is worth zero points.

The total number of a student's correct answers (a student's "raw score") on a section gets compared to all other students who took that same test and converted to a "scaled score" from 200–800. We commonly think of this as grading on a curve.

Scaling is done to make sure that the same percentage of people on each test receive the same score to maintain consistency between SAT tests. This process of taking a raw score and computing the equivalent scaled score based on all students' performance on that test is what makes the SAT a standardized test.

For example, on one test date the test may be relatively easy so receiving 50 correct answers, 16 incorrect answers, and one blank on the Critical Reading section for a raw score of 46 (50 - (16*0.25)) on the Critical Reading section may be enough for an SAT score of 600, but on another test date the test may have been much more difficult and therefore the average student would have missed more questions. This means your raw score could be lower (say 44) but your scaled score would be the same, a 600.

The SAT Writing section is graded slightly differently than the Reading or Math sections, which simply have a raw score to scaled score conversion. The SAT essay is graded on a scale of one to six by two raters and their scores are added together for your SAT essay grade. This essay grade is then combined with your score on the multiple choice writing questions for your scaled Writing score from 200–800 based on a table the College Board uses. The SAT composite score is just the sum of the scaled scores for each of the three sections.

On test day you should make sure to bring:

  • At least two number two pencils
  • An approved calculator. Any four function, scientific, or graphing calculator other than the TI-92 should be fine but you should confirm when you receive your registration materials (in which you will be sent a list of approved calculators).
  • A picture ID. if you have a driver's license this will be fine, if not bring your school ID. Remember to make sure that the ID has your picture on it.
  • A bottle of water and finger foods such as a bag of grapes to snack on during breaks between sections

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