Kate Sundquist 6 min read SAT Guides, Standardized Tests

So, What is the SAT Anyway? (A Newbie’s Guide to the College Board SAT)

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The SAT is a long-standing test used to assess college and career readiness. It is most commonly used for college admissions and is one of the most common standardized tests in the college admissions world.


Originally known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, next as the Scholastic Assessment Test, then as the SAT I: Reasoning Test, it is now simply known as the SAT, and has no official acronym associated with it anymore. The SAT is managed and published by the private, not-for-profit corporation College Board, and is administered on behalf of the College Board by the Educational Testing Service.


While more than 6.7 million test-takers completed an SAT- or PSAT-related assessment in the 2015-2016 school year, the test wasn’t always so popular. In fact, the growth of the SAT program from nearly nothing to its current popularity over the past century speaks to its ability to adapt with the ever-changing environment of American education and student learning goals.


Although it may be unrecognizable from its original form, today’s SAT serves the same purpose as it did 90 years ago, when it was administered to high school students for the very first time. But its roots go even further back. To learn more about the SAT exam, from its controversial origins to today’s current test format, read on.


What’s the history of the SAT?

Today’s SAT is the marriage of two assessments developed during the early 1900s. In 1900, the College Entrance Examination Board, which would later become today’s College Board, was founded by the presidents of 12 leading universities with the purpose of administering an admissions test that would standardize both their own admissions process and the curriculum being delivered at the elite boarding schools that were the primary feeders for these top universities.


In 1901, the first College Board tests were conducted. These tests were originally in essay format for specific subject areas.


Not long after the original College Board essay tests were administered, a psychology professor from Princeton University, who happened to be studying the current emergence of IQ tests, developed a similar standardized test to be used for army recruits. Carl Brigham, a known proponent of eugenics, soon adapted his test to be used as a part of the Princeton University admissions process.


Often criticized for his broadly offensive ideas about the relationships between race and intelligence, Brigham was said to have changed his mind later in life when his test ironically proved his own theories about race incorrect. As a result, admissions at top universities soon included fewer legacy students and more students who performed well on the SAT.


Which schools used the SAT first?

Although Princeton University first used the earliest SAT in 1926, it did not require the test until much later. In 1934, Harvard became the first college to require SAT scores from its scholarship applicants. By 1938, all the member schools of the College Board were using the SAT as a uniform exam for scholarship applicants.


How has the SAT changed over time?

The SAT was originally designed to eliminate differences in schooling when measuring intelligence for college admissions, but the test itself does not operate in isolation from the American education system, and, since it is not an IQ test, it does serve to measure how much you know.


The SAT, however, aims not to simply assess your knowledge but to measure your ability to apply common knowledge in complex or unique ways. That is to say, it takes content that all students should know and asks you to put it to use. As such, the test is constantly adapting to reflect changes in the educational standards of the best colleges and universities and to mirror the standards emphasized by American high schools.


The most recent SAT changes include:


  • 1994: Antonym questions removed. Longer reading passages added. Open-ended math questions added. Calculators permitted on the math section.
  • 2005: “Verbal Reasoning” section of the SAT renamed “Critical Reading.”  Elimination of analogy and quantitative comparison questions. Addition of short reading comprehension passages. Addition of higher-level math concepts. Addition of writing section. Test length increased to 3 hours and 45 minutes (not including breaks). “Perfect score” changed from a 1600 to a 2400.
  • 2016: Essay made optional and scored separately, reverting the maximum combined score back to 1600. Guessing penalty eliminated. Calculators no longer allowed for some of the math sections. Range of math content areas reduced. Inclusion of reading passage “drawn from the Founding Documents or the Great Global Conversation.” Some reading passages accompanied by tables or graphs. Test available in both paper-and-pencil form as well as on a computer.


To learn more about the changes instituted in 2016, read CollegeVine’s A Guide to the New SAT.

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What’s the format of the new SAT?

As of 2016, the SAT consists of four required sections and one optional section. The required sections are: Reading, Writing, Math (no calculator), and Math (with calculator). The optional section is the Essay.


SAT Reading Test

The Reading portion of the SAT is the first section you will take. It consists of 52 multiple-choice questions taken in 65 minutes. In this section, you’ll read text selections from various genres and answer a series of approximately 10 questions after each selection. Some selections will include tables, figures, or graphs. If you finish early, you can review your work but may not move to another section of the exam.


SAT Writing and Language Test

The Writing and Language portion of the SAT comes next and consists of 44 questions in 35 minutes. You will read several passages and consider how each might be revised to improve the expression of its ideas. After reading each passage, you will be asked to choose the answers that most effectively improve the quality of writing or that make the passage conform to the conventions of standard written English. Many questions will also include a “NO CHANGE” option. Choose that answer if you think the best choice is to leave the indicated portion of the passage as it is.


SAT Math Test: No Calculator

The Math section without calculator come after the Writing and Language Test. This section contains 20 questions, and you’ll have 25 minutes to complete it. For the first 15 questions, you’ll solve the problem and select the best answer from the multiple-choice question. For the last five questions, you’ll use grid-in answers. Although you won’t be given scrap paper for your calculations, you’re welcome to use the test booklet for any writing you need to do.


SAT Math Test: Calculator

On the final required section of the SAT, you’ll be allowed to use your calculator to solve 38 questions in 55 minutes. Like in the previous section, you’ll first answer questions with multiple-choice answers. The last eight questions will require grid-in answers.


SAT Essay

This portion of the SAT is technically optional, though some colleges and universities do require it for admissions. In this section, you’ll have 50 minutes to analyze a source and write an evidence-based essay. To find out which schools require the SAT Essay on their applications, check out the College Board’s College Essay Policies.


For more information about the new SAT, check out CollegeVine’s A Guide to the New SAT.


Should I take the SAT?

If you’re planning to apply to college, you’ll most likely need to take either the ACT or the SAT. While many students stick with the SAT due to its well-known name, the new SAT has fewer available commercial study materials because of its most recent changes. However, updated SAT study materials can be sourced through the College Board website. Check out CollegeVine’s A Guide to the New SAT to learn more.


That said, the tests are significantly different regardless. For example, the ACT has a science section, a different format for the essay portion, and tighter time constraints than the SAT. Students may find that one test is more tailored to their own strengths than the other.


Every year, about 1.6 million graduating high school students take the SAT and submit their scores to colleges as a part of the college admissions process. Although SAT scores are not required by all schools as a part of their admissions process, most colleges and universities require that applicants submit either the SAT or ACT. SAT Subject Tests that measure skills in areas beyond the SAT Test are also available and some programs may require specific SAT Subject Tests of their applicants. To learn more about the differences between these tests, check out CollegeVine’s ACT vs SAT/SAT Subject Tests.


If you’re interested in a personalized SAT study plan or tutoring service, check out CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

Latest posts by Kate Sundquist (see all)

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.