What is the SAT? A Complete Guide to the Exam
Virtually every college’s admissions committee uses the SAT as a way to compare students from different educational backgrounds. It is managed and published by the College Board, which makes sure that the test covers skills relevant to colleges.
The SAT has changed a lot over its history, including what it measures, who uses the exam, and even what the letters stand for. We’re going to focus on what you need to know about the SAT as it exists today.
Why Should I Take the SAT?
The SAT demonstrates your academic ability to colleges, especially in language arts and math. Colleges use these scores to gauge if you are ready for college classes. Based on your score, they may even award merit scholarships or admission to their honors programs, and sometimes place you in higher-level courses.
The SAT is not the only test that colleges look at—there is also the ACT, an exam used in the same ways the SAT is used. Most colleges require either an official SAT or ACT score.
While used in similar ways, the SAT and ACT have different test structures, and most students prefer one style of test over the other. For example, the ACT has a science section, a different format for the essay portion, and tighter time constraints than the SAT. For more information on the two exams and how the SAT can help you earn scholarships, check out these posts:
- Should You Take Both the SAT and ACT?
- Which is Easier, the SAT or the ACT?
- Which Colleges Award Automatic Scholarships Based on SAT Scores?
- How Your SAT Scores can Help You Earn Scholarships
What is the SAT like?
How the SAT is Structured
The SAT is structured into three tests with an optional fourth test: Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and an optional Essay.
The Reading Test measures your reading comprehension and analysis skills using excerpts from literary fiction or academic texts. You have:
- 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.
- 4 single passages in prose, social studies, and sciences.
- 1 pair of passages in either social studies or science.
- 10 to 11 questions for each single or paired passage.
- All multiple choice questions.
The Writing and Language Test measures your proofreading and editing skills using unfinished drafts. You have:
- 35 minutes to answer 44 questions
- 4 passages in narrative nonfiction, social studies, science, and career/industry
- 11 questions per passage.
- All multiple choice questions
Note that the questions may be in an unfamiliar format. Many questions refer to an underlined portion within the passage as a point of reference, and you will be asked to choose the answer that best improves the passage. These questions will also include a “NO CHANGE” option, which means that the way it appears in the passage is the best choice.
The Math Test measures your logic and problem-solving skills using math concepts. You have:
- Two sections, a no-calculator and a calculator section
The no-calculator section is 25 minutes long with 20 questions
- 15 multiple choice questions
- 5 gridded-response questions
The calculator section is 55 minutes long with 38 questions
- 30 multiple choice questions
- 8 gridded-response questions
The SAT Essay is optional and allows you to demonstrate your reading, analysis, and writing skills. You have:
- 50 minutes to respond to 1 essay question.
- The question involves analyzing a provided argument and explaining how the author develops the argument to persuade the reader.
- The 50 minutes includes time for reading the argument, analyzing it, planning your essay, and ultimately writing it.
The SAT was significantly modified in 2016, both in structure and scoring. For more information about the new SAT, check out these posts:
- Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Reading Test
- Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Writing and Language Test
- Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Math Test
What to Expect when Taking the SAT
The SAT is offered a handful of times throughout the school year, usually on Saturdays. Some high schools participate in SAT Day, where you take the SAT in school instead of having to go on your own time.
You will probably need to sign up for the SAT on your own at least once, and we’ve compiled a list of the SAT dates for 2018-2019 to get you started.
On test day, you’ll need to bring the following:
- Your admission ticket
- A photo ID
- Two no. 2 pencils with erasers
- An approved calculator
- Recommended: a watch without an audible alarm (not a smartwatch), extra batteries for your calculator or extra pencils, water and snacks
For a complete list of which items you are allowed to bring, check out College Board’s Test Day Checklist.
No matter where you take the test, the testing center doors open at 7:45 a.m. and testing starts between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. You will be assigned a seat and the testing coordinator will read you the testing instructions.
You will work on the Reading, then Writing and Language, then Math, then Essay portions of the test in that order. If you have extra time, you can check your answers in the current section, but you can’t move onto the next section or go back to a previous one.
Most students have one 10 minute break and one 5 minute break. You may use the restroom or eat a snack during the break, but you may not charge electronic devices, such as a phone, or else your scores will be canceled.
For students who don’t take the essay, they usually finish the test around 12:00pm. For students who do take the essay, they usually finish around 1:00pm.
How the SAT is Scored
Although the SAT has a whole suite of score assessments, the most common ways that people report scores is with the total score and section scores. There are two section scores on the SAT: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math. Each section is scored from 200 to 800 points.
The total score is the sum of the section scores, so it ranges from 400 to 1600.
Tips for Doing Well on the SAT
To do well on the SAT, you should do your best to simulate a real test using one of College Board’s free practice tests. This will give you the best idea of what taking the official SAT will be like as well as the types of questions you can expect to see.
Analyze your score and reflect on what the test was like for you. Did you second-guess yourself? Rush through the test? Develop strategies to prevent negative test habits from happening and brush up on any academic skills you may need.
Depending on how much you want to improve your score, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to practice and study before taking the official SAT. Create a consistent study schedule and stick to it, using practice tests to measure the effectiveness of your strategies.
For more information about the SAT and improving your score, check out these posts:
- How to Get a Perfect 1600 Score on the SAT
- What to Do if You’re Not Improving on the SAT
- How to Set a Realistic Target SAT Score
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