SAT Guide

Introduced in 1926, the SAT is a standardized test commonly required for undergraduate admission. Educational Testing Service develops and administers the test on behalf of the College Board. Individual schools place varying degrees of emphasis on applicants' SAT scores. Some colleges and universities do not view the SAT as an accurate reflection of college readiness and therefore do not require exam scores. To encourage more students to apply, associate programs rarely require SAT scores. However, most four-year institutions require standardized test scores to holistically evaluate applications. Students should take the SAT seriously since it affects admission and financial aid opportunities.

The SAT evaluates knowledge and skills necessary to succeed at the college level. The test consists of an evidenced-based reading section and a writing and mathematics section. Some universities also require applicants to take the optional essay test. The reading and writing sections consist of multiple-choice questions. The math section includes multiple-choice questions and grid-ins, questions that require test takers to submit their own answers. In the essay section, students explain how an author creates and sustains an argument. This social work SAT guide provides information on the exam structure and highlights best practices to help test takers succeed.

SAT Subject Tests

In addition to the general SAT, the College Board offers 20 subject tests in areas including math, biology, physics, chemistry, literature, and U.S. history. Students can also take reading and listening tests in languages including Latin, Chinese, Spanish, and Italian. Subject tests consist entirely of multiple-choice questions and last one hour. Subject tests are only available in paper form and are scored from 200 to 800.

Higher education institutions generally do not require subject tests, but the College Board provides a list of schools that do require subject tests. Students should contact their prospective institution for details. Subject tests also allow some students to skip introductory coursework. Home-schooled students and those who without a strong GPA can use subject tests to verify their college readiness. Most subject tests cost $22. Language tests with listening cost $26 each. Test takers also pay a $26 registration fee.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

The standard SAT lasts three hours and consists of two sections. The optional essay test takes an additional 50 minutes. The evidence-based reading and writing section consists entirely of multiple-choice questions based on passages. The section comprises a 65-minute, 52-question reading test and a 35-minute, 44-question writing and language test. The math section takes 80 minutes and includes 58 questions, which are divided into no-calculator and calculator subsections. Math questions include multiple-choice questions and grid-ins. Students receive points for correct answers and are not penalized for wrong answers or skipped questions. In the essay section, students must explain an author's argument.

The SAT sections are ordered in the following manner: reading, writing and language, math without calculator, math with calculator, and essay. Test takers have a 10-minute break and a five-minute break and can work freely within each section, which allows students to prioritize easy questions. Students must work only in the specified test section during the allotted time; those who work outside the allowed section risk immediate dismissal and score cancellation.

The SAT Going Online

As online testing becomes more commonplace, students should prepare for an online version of the SAT. Many standardized exams, including the GRE and GMAT, are already available online. Similarly, professional license examinations in areas such as nursing, accounting, and pharmacy use computer-based formats.

Since spring 2018, the College Board facilitates online SAT testing in about 100 schools in Oklahoma and Ohio. Typically located in urban centers, such as Tulsa and Cincinnati, participating schools generally require students to take the SAT through the College Board's School Day testing program. The College Board plans to introduce the online SAT slowly over upcoming test cycles but has not set a nationwide or international release date.

Before making large-scale changes, the College Board must confirm that the online exam offers the same evaluative standards and test conditions as the paper test. Currently, students who take the online SAT receive valid scores and participate in the College Board's extensive statistical analyses and pedagogical studies.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

Like the paper test, the online SAT costs $64.50 with the essay section and $47.50 without the essay. Most high schools that currently use the online SAT organize institution-wide testing days. Students complete a questionnaire beforehand and may receive fee waivers based on the information they provide. While the College Board aims to improve accessibility and reduce administrative costs with the computer-based format, the organization must also maintain testing standards. To this end, the online SAT sections are the same as those in the paper version, and students complete sections in the same order. Break lengths are also unchanged. Test takers have access to scratch paper and number two pencils. They also benefit from computer functions, including the abilities to electronically cross off answers, highlight passages, and bookmark items.

To ensure standardization, students cannot use their own computers. Instead, test takers use school laptops, Chromebooks, and desktops. The College Board works with AIR Assessment to help schools analyze and maintain network health, preventing slow connections and program crashes. The service also stores test answers on multiple servers. In the case of single server error, students can immediately log into another server to continue testing.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

During the reading test, students answer multiple-choice questions based on passages, which align with material students typically encounter in college. Test takers can expect one U.S. or world literature passage, one historical document (such as the Declaration of Independence), one social science selection, and two readings on foundational concepts and developments in the natural sciences.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The reading test does not evaluate knowledge of specific topics. Rather, the questions test the student's ability to interpret evidence, comprehend difficult words in context, and analyze historical and scientific information. To prepare, students should review test-taking strategies, including tackling easier questions first and budgeting their time. However, students should avoid reading answers first. This popular method actually warps a test taker's understanding of the text, leading them to choose logical but false answers. Instead, test takers should read the questions and the passage first to make sure they grasp main ideas.

Helpful Tips

  • Read Strategically: Each person engages with written information differently. Identify and practice the reading strategy that works best for you, such as reading for complete details or skimming the passage for major ideas.
  • Predict Answers: The College Board sometimes complicates answer choices with tricky wordplay and extraneous information. To avoid these traps, come up with your own answer before looking at the four options.
  • Eliminate Choices: Multiple-choice questions do not contain partially correct answers. Find solid justifications to eliminate as many choices as you can. Reasons include reversed relationships, unrelated concepts, and answers that are too narrow or too broad.
  • Always Guess: Because the SAT does not penalize test takers for wrong answers, always choose an answer before skipping a question. However, try to cross off at least one option before guessing.

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

In the writing and reading section, test takers must improve passages that contain deliberate grammatical, stylistic, and rhetorical errors. This section does not require topic-specific knowledge. Though some passages include charts, graphs, and tables, test takers do not need specific math skills. Students read each passage, identify mistakes, and correct errors through multiple-choice questions.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Careless reading is one of the main errors students make in this section. The exam includes convoluted answers and complex questions, in which a word such as "except" changes the meaning entirely. Students must read actively to understand major concepts and their relationships with one another. Test takers also commonly overuse the "NO CHANGE" answer, which is often an easy and plausible option. However, on any given SAT, "NO CHANGE" is the correct answer in less than 20% of cases. Before students choose to this answer, they should revisit the passage and confirm there are no available improvements.

Helpful Tips

  • Study Grammar: This section evaluates test takers' mastery of standard English conventions, such as comma splices and subject-verb agreement. Brush up on language fundamentals for test day.
  • Pace Your Reading: Because many questions deal with mistakes within a specific paragraph, students should read the passage one part at a time. If you identify a paragraph that does not logically fit, expect to encounter a question that asks you to reorder the passage.
  • Identify the Question Type: The writing and language test consists of specific question types, including questions about sentence placement, transitions, and data interpretation. Correctly identify the type of question to choose an appropriate strategy.
  • Analyze Your Options: To effectively employ the process of elimination, test takers must understand how answer choices relate to one another. Provide concrete justifications for each answer you eliminate.

The Math Section

Skill Areas

The math section tests knowledge and skills applicable to personal, academic, and professional life. Questions cover three major areas: problem solving and data analysis, which evaluates quantitative literacy, heart of algebra, which focuses on linear equations and systems, and passport to advanced math, which covers complex expressions and functions.

Question Types

In addition to multiple-choice items, this section contains grid-ins, which require students to submit their own answers, rather than choosing from provided options. Grid-ins are at the end of each subsection. The no-calculator portion consists of 15 multiple-choice questions and five grid-ins and takes 25 minutes. Students then complete the 55-minute calculator portion, which comprises 30 multiple-choice questions and eight grid-ins. Regardless of type, each question requires the test taker to complete multiple steps.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

The math section comprises no-calculator and calculator subsections, in that order. Because test centers do not provide calculators, students must bring their own College Board-approved graphing or scientific calculator. Approved brands include Casio, Sharp, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, and Radio Shack. Test takers who are eligible for special accommodations may use a four-function calculator during the no-calculator portion.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Lack of familiarity with question types often results in poor performance on the math section. Test takers should practice carefully and extensively to understand the question forms, red herrings, and effective strategies for each situation. To develop effective strategies, students should work through practice questions step by step. Instead of immediately consulting study book explanations after getting a question wrong, students should try to solve the question again. By analyzing mistakes and arriving at solutions independently, students strengthen long-term retention.

Helpful Tips

  • Identify Your Weaknesses: After completing a practice test, students should identify and address major shortcomings, such as poor time management, to focus study sessions on improving high-level weaknesses.
  • Memorize Formulas: Solve problems more efficiently by memorizing common formulas, such as the quadratic formula. By relying on mental math, students reduce the risk of errors from unnecessary calculator functions.
  • Work Backwards: Take advantage of answer choices by approaching questions in reverse. This technique is especially useful for equation-based questions; test takers can plug in provided numbers until finding the correct solution.
  • Proof Your Answers: Spend time wisely, and budget time to double check responses. While reviewing answers, test takers often find incorrect answers that are one or two digits off from the correct choice.

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

Competitive colleges and universities often require applicants to complete the SAT essay test, which provides one more criterion by which to judge strong candidates. Other schools recommend that applicants submit essay scores to make up for poor grades in high school English and writing classes. The College Board provides a list of schools' SAT essay policies. Students who have not chosen schools to which they plan to apply can take the essay section to ensure they complete all admissions requirements. However, taking the essay test requires additional preparation and fees.

Skill Areas

To perform well on the essay test, students must demonstrate the ability to identify an author's main ideas and employ those concepts as textual evidence in their own writing. Test takers must also analyze the passage and dissect the author's usage of logical reasoning and other rhetorical techniques. Finally, students must write an organized and focused essay that follows standard English language conventions.

The Essay Prompt

The essay prompts involve pertinent contemporary topics, including ideas, debates, and trends related to science, politics, culture, civic life, and the arts. However, regardless of the specific subject, the prompt format always contains the same elements. Students read a passage from a published work, in which the author presents an argument using complex ideas connected by commentary and supported by facts and examples. In addition to explaining the author's position, test takers must dissect their usage of rhetorical devices, such as pathos, logos, and ethos, and stylistic elements, such as word choice.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students do not need to use outside knowledge or personal experiences to write an effective essay; the passage and accompanying notes provide sufficient information. Another common error is responding to the wrong prompt. The essay test requires students to explain how the author builds the argument. Test takers should not state whether they agree or disagree with the argument itself. Since each essay prompt includes similar elements, students benefit from practice, which helps learners strengthen their time-management skills and prepares them to quickly identify and dissect a passage's main idea.

Helpful Tips

  • Build Your Vocabulary: An expansive vocabulary helps students analyze the passage and write a clear and creative essay. Graders value diverse and precise word choice.
  • Structure the Essay: Plan in advance to keep your essay on track. A well-structured outline helps test takers support their central point with relevant body paragraphs.
  • Employ Evidence: Students should support ideas with demonstrable evidence from the text. Test takers can quote the author or paraphrase ideas, but all information should be factually correct.
  • Edit: Pace yourself, and leave enough time to proofread for spelling, grammar, and stylistic elements. Also ensure that you provide an accurate explanation of the author's central argument and supporting claims.

How is the SAT Scored?

The College Board scores the math and evidence-based reading and writing sections from 200 to 800, which results in total scores of 400 to 1600. A test taker's number of correct answers comprises their raw score, and there are no penalties for skipped questions or wrong answers. Raw scores are then converted to scaled scores, which account for variations in test dates and versions. The conversion process does not curve a student's scores relative to other examinees; the resulting scaled scores reflect the student's actual performance. According to the College Board 2017 Total Group Report, the average social science student scored 1146.

Two graders assess each essay and award one to four points based on three test dimensions: reading, writing, and analysis. Students earn up to eight points for each dimension and receive three scores for their essay test; there are no composite scores or percentiles for the essay section. Consult the College Board's official guide for more information on scoring.

Score Ranges on the SAT

SAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 200-800
Math 200-800
Essay 2-8

What's the Difference Between Score Ranges, Average Scores, College Readiness Benchmarks, and Percentile Ranks?

Official SAT score reports contain means of assessing a student's exam performance. In addition to scaled scores, reports include the mean scores of test takers by grade level. Score ranges include 30 or 40 points above and below a student's scaled score. Students who score at or above college readiness benchmarks typically possess the skills needed to succeed in a postsecondary academic setting. A student's percentile represents the number of test takers the students scored as well as or better than. For example, a student in the 65th percentile has a score that is equal to or higher than those of 65% of test takers.

What's an Average Score on the SAT?

SAT Section Average Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 533
Math 527
Essay 5,4,5

How Do You Register for the SAT?

To register for the SAT, students must create a College Board account. Students can register for the SAT online or through postal mail. After creating an account, students can sign up for tests, select score recipients, and personalize reports. They can also cancel and reschedule tests. Students can opt to use the Student Search Service, which shares their name and information with colleges and nonprofit scholarship organizations. The service provides students with information about financial aid opportunities and schools.

When Should You Take the SAT?

When choosing a test date, students should remember that schools do not receive score reports for about one month. Learners should also consider this question: How long does it take to prepare for the SAT? Most students need at least two months to properly study for the test.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

Test takers pay a $26 registration fee. The SAT costs $64.50 with the essay section and $47.50 without the essay. Most subject tests cost $22, except the language test with listening, which costs $26.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

Students can take the SAT as many time as they want. The College Board offers the general test seven times per year and the subject tests six times per year.

How to Prepare for the SAT?

At-Home Study Methods

Each learner studies differently. Below are five of the best ways to prepare for the SAT.

  • Printed Study Guides: These include portable and comprehensive study books that contain test-taking strategies for each section and two to three full-length practice tests. Students who like to work with hard copies of materials benefit from these guides.
  • Flashcards: This method helps students integrate test preparation into their daily routine. Because they require active recall, flashcards are one of the best ways to learn vocabulary words.
  • Private Tutoring: Though private tutoring is usually costly, one-on-one instruction benefits most students. Experienced tutors help test takers utilize their strengths while simultaneously improving weaknesses.
  • Studying Apps: These mobile and computer-based tools utilize various study methods, including flashcards, practice questions, video guides, and skill-based games. Students benefit from the interactive and visually engaging study tools.
  • Online Practice Tests: All students should use practice tests, which simulate real testing scenarios. They help students become comfortable with section order and question formats.

SAT Prep Courses

Students have a plethora of prep course options, including PrepScholar, Kaplan, Ivy Bound, and the Princeton Review. These companies usually provide limited free resources, such as blog-based tips and strategies, but students can expect to pay $400 to $1,200 for full services, which typically include online seminars, problem-solving tutorials, and adaptive practice questions. Students choose from in-person, online live, and online asynchronous classes. Students who do not want to pay for test preparation should visit Khan Academy, which offers comprehensive resources at no cost.

Studying Tips for the SAT

  • Do Not Cram: While this method may work for short tests, the SAT lasts three hours and 50 minutes. Create a study schedule that allows you to pace yourself with sessions lasting two to four hours.
  • Practice Extensively: Use practice tests to replicate section order and time restrictions. Afterward, analyze missed questions to locate major gaps in knowledge and skill. Focus your studies on those areas.
  • Build Vocabulary: Learning new words is extremely beneficial for students completing the reading, writing, and essay sections, but expanding one's vocabulary takes time. Furthermore, not all words hold the same value. Research words commonly found on the SAT.
  • Mark It Up: After choosing a study book, work extensively with the materials. Marking up questions and paraphrasing information helps retention and prepares students to apply the concepts.
  • Understand Question Types: Like other standardized tests, the SAT employs distinct types of questions. Understanding these formats helps students recognize the question's difficulty and apply the correct problem-solving strategies.

Helpful Resources

Preparing for the SAT does not need to cost money. Ample free resources exist, such as those below.

  • College Board Practice Tests: This resource contains eight official practice SATs, half of which were used for actual testing. Students can take these tests online or download and print the paper format to simulate real test conditions.
  • Khan Academy: Like the College Board, Khan Academy provides computer-based and paper practice tests. Students can work on questions from specific sections and access tips and strategies.
  • Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel: In addition to updating students on SAT changes, Magoosh publishes explanations for practice questions found in its study book. The channel provides concise guides on topics such as high-utility vocabulary words and important math formulas.
  • Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel: This resource provides accessible videos on every SAT section, including writing tips and best practices for solving math questions. The channel also offers general guides on topics such as how to plan effective study sessions.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

Unless otherwise stated on the admission ticket, test center doors open promptly at 7:45 a.m. and close at 8:00 a.m. Test coordinators assign student seating. The test begins between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Students have a 10-minute break after the reading section and a five-minute break after the no-calculator math section. Test takers cannot use the bathroom outside these break times and should plan accordingly. Additionally, students do not have access to scratch paper. They must use space in the test booklet to take notes and work through questions.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID: To confirm the student's identity matches the one on their admission ticket, test takers must present an original driver's license, passport, or other approved document. The identification must be valid and in good condition and must include an up-to-date photo and the student's full, legal name.
  • Admission Ticket: Test takers create an admission ticket as part of the registration process and must furnish the printed document on test day. After logging into their College Board account, students can print unlimited copies.
  • Number Two Pencils: Test takers must bring their own number two pencils with erasers to fill in answers, write down notes, and work through questions. The College Board prohibits pens and mechanical pencils.
  • Approved Calculator: Because test centers do not provide calculators, students must bring their own. The College Board allows most graphing calculators and all scientific calculators. Ensure your calculator works correctly on test day.
  • Watch: Since test takers must shut off cell phones for the duration of the test, a timepiece with an audible alarm helps students stay on track.
  • Layers of Clothing: In addition to bringing snacks and drinks, students should dress in layers to accommodate physical needs. Test centers generally keep the rooms cool.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Math Tools: Besides the approved calculator, students cannot bring any math tools, including rulers, compasses, and protractors. Using a prohibited tool results in immediate dismissal and score cancellation.
  • Unapproved Electronics: Test takers can bring a cell phone, but they must keep it off the entire time, including during breaks. The College Board bans smart watches and all other electronics with recording functions.
  • Books: With the exceptions of an ID and the admission ticket, students may not bring any paper or printed materials, including dictionaries for non-native English speakers.

Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

Students with documented learning disabilities or health challenges can apply for special accommodations, including computer use for essays, extended test time, extra or longer breaks, and usage of four-function calculators on the no-calculator math section. Students can also ask for seeing and reading assistance. The approval process can take up to seven weeks. Required documentation varies but usually consists of psychoeducational evaluations and physician letters. Students who need accommodations should plan early, since they cannot register for tests until receiving the approval letter.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

All students access test scores through their College Board account. Students can also request a paper copy during registration. For a $15 fee, students can receive scores by phone the day they are released. Multiple-choice scores usually arrive in two weeks, and students receive essay scores a couple days later.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

Students can select up to four score recipients during registration, each time they register for the SAT. Additional reports cost $12 each. The delivery process usually takes one week, but the time frame varies based on how the school receives scores. Rush orders cost $31.

What Scores Will Schools See If You Take the Test More Than Once?

Score Choice enables students who take the SAT more than once to choose which scores individual institutions receive. However, this is only available for scored tests in their entirety. Students cannot send writing scores from one test and math scores from another. Score Choice is a free, student-only function, so schools cannot opt out. Students see brief descriptions of a school's SAT policy through their user account, but learners should speak directly with prospective institutions for full details.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

SAT scores do not expire, but individual schools may only accept scores from a specific time period. Generally, students should send scores within five years. Results sent after this timeframe come with a note from the College Board, stating that these scores may not accurately reflect a student's college preparedness.

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