The SAT–An Introduction
The SAT is created by the College Board and used for admission to college. Your SAT scores are important for admission, but they are not the only factor. A student’s grades, application essays, extracurricular activities and recommendations factor heavily. It is our understanding that an SAT score can get you into the conversation for admission, but it cannot alone guarantee you admission.
What’s on it?
The SAT has five sections:
A reading comprehension section
A writing and language section that tests grammar
Two math sections
The math sections each have “grid-in” questions for which students must supply their own answers. All other questions are multiple choice.
Including breaks, the test is around three-and-a-half hours.
The College Board gives an extra, 20-minute section to randomly selected groups of students. This would seem to be an experimental section where questions are tested for future exams, but the College Board is purposefully vague about whether these questions count toward a student’s final score. As a result, students must try their hardest on every question and assume that everything counts.
Can I take it at home or online?
Are calculators allowed on the math sections?
One math section allows a calculator and one does not. The no-calculator section typically does not require heroic feats of multiplication or division, but students should be comfortable doing both.
How is it scored?
The writing and language section and the reading section are combined and scaled for an ELA (English Language Arts) score of 200-800, and the two math sections are combined and scaled for a math score of 200-800. These two scores are then combined for an overall score of 400-1600.
The SAT allows superscoring, which means that you can combine your best scores from different tests. For example, if you did better in math the first time you took the exam, but better in ELA the second time, you can combine your math score from your first SAT with your ELA score from your second.
The College Board also allows score choice, which means you can decide which scores to send to colleges. Be aware, however, that some colleges will want to see all of your scores. A complete list of these schools can be found here.
How many times can someone take it?
Students can take the SAT as often as they like. Test dates and registration can be found here.
Are past tests available?
Yes. Eight practice SAT exams from the College Board are available here. Other online tests can be found through a Google search. The SAT changed significantly in early 2016, and old SAT exams are not especially useful for practice.
If a student takes the October, March or May SAT, they can order a copy of their test through the QAS service on the College Board website here. You can order this service before or up to five months after the exam. It’s extremely valuable and you should definitely order it if possible.
The College Board also offers answer verification called the Student Answer Service (SAS). This does not include the actual test questions however, and in our opinion is not worth getting.
In addition to the above, Khan Academy offers practice SAT problems, which you can find here. The full online tests they offer are the same ones the College Board has released. The Khan Academy page is a little out of date, however, and still has a section on the SAT essay, which was discontinued last year.
When should my child take the SAT and when should they start studying?
We think it’s best for a student to take the SAT early in their junior year. Many students wait until the end of their junior year, but we feel that’s a mistake. The end of junior year is a busy time, with AP exams and finals. Throwing the SAT on top of that is not ideal. We usually aim for the December and March test dates.
SAT math does contain algebra 2 and trigonometry questions, so if your child is going for a top score without getting tutored, and they struggle learning math on their own, they may want to wait until the end of their junior year for the exam. The best way to tell is to have your child take a mock exam in May or June of their sophomore year. The feedback will help you determine when to start the prep process. You should give your child at least four months to prepare, ideally six.
There are misconceptions that some months have easier exams or more generous scoring curves than other months. The SAT scoring curve is set for the year, so all exams are scored the same.
In addition, test makers attempt to make each SAT equal in difficulty. While some exams are harder than others, test makers don’t purposefully make one month’s SAT different from any other.
Thoughts on the test
The SAT is challenging, and students will need to work quickly and carefully to do well. Mock exams are absolutely critical. Here’s a brief breakdown by section:
SAT reading is tough. There are 52 questions from 5 passages:
One passage from classic or contemporary fiction
One passage from a US founding document or a speech or text they inspired
One social science passage
Two science passages
One of the first two passages listed above will have pre-20th Century writing, which most students struggle to understand. Honestly, this section demands a lot of attention, and students should not assume that an A in English class will translate to a high score.
As always, the more a student reads, the easier the reading section becomes. Students should practice reading both contemporary and pre-20th Century fiction and non-fiction.
Writing and language
In this section, students must spot and correct grammatical errors in the context of a passage. Students often struggle when they first try this section, because in school they learned how to use grammar correctly and not how to spot errors. This section is especially difficult for many public-school students, as public schools usually stress grammar much less than private schools do.
More than any other standardized test, the SAT forces students to apply their knowledge to new types of questions, especially in the math sections. An example is below:
A new business opened with 10 employees. Their plan for growth assumes that 3 new employees will be hired every quarter (every three months) for the first 4 years. If an equation is written in the form y = jx + k to represent the number of employees, y, employed by the company x quarters after the company opened, what is the value of k?
Most students are confused by this question, even though they don’t need any special information or formulas to solve it (the answer is C). Students need to be able to untangle word problems, handle uncertainty and fight through questions that seem confusing/difficult at first read. Students usually don’t have to do this for school exams, so it’s an undeveloped muscle.
The SAT is hard, and good grades in school don’t necessarily translate to high scores. SAT questions are very different from schoolwork, and some students have a very hard time adjusting. If your child struggles with new types of questions, they may want to consider the ACT. I do a deeper dive into the ACT vs. the SAT here.
The first step in a student’s preparation is to take a Biometric Edge SAT mock exam. One of the huge benefits of a Biometric Edge exam is that you can see how long your child spends on each question to determine if they’re fighting through difficulty or giving up at the first sign of difficulty. This is always valuable, but especially on the SAT. In addition, Biometric Edge mock exams can show you if your child is going back to check their work. Only our mock exams can tell you this information with certainty. Your child can excel on this exam, but you must know what they need to work on to structure their time efficiently. Sign up for Biometric Edge mock exam here.
To your child’s success!