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What is the SAT test?

If you’re a college bound student, you’ve probably heard your friends, teachers, and parents mention the SAT.

They talk about how difficult the test can be for countless students, they warn about preparing for this test early, and they make it clear that doing well on this test can make or break whether or not students will be able to get into the colleges of their dreams.

While you may have heard a lot of people talk about the daunting nature of the SAT, you likely haven’t heard many of them discuss the details of the test.

This may leave you wondering: What even is the SAT in the first place? Why do I have to take the SAT? Why is taking this test such a big deal?

In this article, I will answer these questions and break down the origins of the SAT for you so it won’t seem as intimidating.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a multiple-choice, standardized test created by the College Board. While this test has traditionally only been available to take using pencil and paper, in 2024, it will be administered online.

Until the College Board finalizes all of the changes for the new version of the test, the SAT will continue to be a three hour test comprising two main test sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.

Depending on how many questions they answer correctly, students can earn a score between 200-800 points for each section allowing them the possibility of scoring between 400 and 1600 on the SAT.

Although the College Board is currently working on implementing new changes to the test in anticipation of moving the test online, the SAT has been around for a long time. In fact, since the test debuted in 1926, it is likely that your parents and even your grandparents took this test.

Originally, the test was created to be a college aptitude test of sorts, adapted from the Army Alpha IQ test. 

While a lot has changed since the test was first administered, like the removal of a points penalty for wrong answers and the addition of multiple test sections and new scoring methods, ultimately, this test still intended to measure the same type of data.

What does the SAT measure? 

The SAT was designed for two key reasons:

  1. As a way to measure how prepared a high school student is to tackle college-level work
  2. As a standardized way for colleges to compare applicants with one another

College readiness

The SAT aims to measure college readiness based on students scores on the Math and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Sections. 

The SAT Math section is split into four categories of questions: heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Additional Topics in Math. These questions cover material students should have mastered in high school like geometry, trigonometry, systems of linear equations, solving for variables, analyzing graphs, solving quadratic equations, operations with rational expressions, ratios, percents, scatterplots, and data inferences.

The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Sections test reading comprehension and grammar. To do well on this section, students will be expected to know topics covered in high school like proper semicolon use, vocabulary in context, understanding author’s purpose, finding evidence to support a claim, comma usage, parallelism, and identifying dangling and misplaced modifiers.

Students who earn high SAT scores demonstrate that they have a solid understanding of these topics, making it far more likely that they are ready to build upon their existing knowledge and handle the advanced concepts they’ll experience in college.

Applicant ranking

When students receive an SAT score between 400 and 1600, that score will be used to determine their percentile score on the SAT.

A student’s percentile lets them know how well they did on the test in comparison with other students who also took the test. For instance, a student who scores in the 80th percentile scored higher than 80% of other test-takers.

Since the SAT is a standardized test, college admissions officers can use SAT scores and percentiles to rank applicants.

Every college and university wants the top of the top students to attend their school and contribute to their campus. The SAT allows them to see which students were the top test takers when compared to other test takers who took the test under the same conditions and circumstances.

In this way, the SAT can help schools determine which applicants might be the best fit.

While students who do not score well on the SAT can certainly still do well in college, and college admissions boards look at more than just SAT scores when making admissions decisions, typically earning a higher score on the SAT improves your chances for college admittance and academic success.

How to prepare for the SAT?

Now that you know what the SAT is and how your score on this test can affect you in the future, it is important that you prepare for the test so you can do well.

Here are a few ways you can get ready to take this test before your senior year:

  • Take challenging classes. While it might be tempting to go the easy route when it comes to selecting your high school classes, doing so will do you a disservice when it is time for you to take the SAT. Taking challenging math and English classes will help ensure that you have a strong understanding of the concepts that will show up on the SAT.
  • Read. While this might seem like it is too simple to be effective, taking the time to read each day will have a major impact on your SAT score. Many people who score poorly on the SAT Reading section of the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portion of the test often cite slow reading speed as one of the main reasons why they weren’t able to do well. You will be required to read several passages within a short period of time to answer your SAT Reading questions. The more you read on your own time, the more your reading speed and reading comprehension will improve.
  • Take the PSAT. The PSAT tests similar concepts, so taking this test in the fall of your sophomore and your junior year is a good way to see what information you need to brush up on before you take the SAT.
  • Review SAT practice tests. The College Board offers full length SAT practice tests with detailed answer guides for you to use to prepare for the SAT. I recommend taking these practice tests under similar testing conditions as the ones you will encounter when you take the SAT. When you finish taking the test, determine your score, and review the questions you missed as well as any questions where you guessed the answer. For each question you miss, figure out exactly what you missed and how to avoid making the same mistake on similar questions in the future.
  • Memorize the test format. When you know the format of the SAT, you will not feel as overwhelmed or surprised when it is time for you to take the test. Some important SAT test components for you to know: there is a Reading section (65 minutes, 52 questions), a Writing and Language section (35 minutes, 44 questions), a No Calculator Math section (25 minutes, 20 questions), and a Calculator Math section (55 minutes, 38 questions).
  • Learn SAT test-taking strategies. Learning strategies like choosing the most concise answer for the Writing and Language section and note overusing your calculator on the SAT Math section can help you earn a higher score on the SAT. You can learn helpful SAT strategies when you read an SAT prep book, take an SAT prep course, or work with a private SAT tutor.
  • Take an SAT prep course. SAT prep courses are designed to help you walk though each and every section of the SAT with an experienced instructor. At the conclusion of your SAT prep course, you will have learned useful strategies to tackle each section of the test as well as an overview of the tested content and the test format. These courses help you review your SAT practice tests so that you can learn from your mistakes and improve your chances of scoring within a top percentile on the SAT.
  • Hire a private SAT tutor. A private SAT tutor will help make sure you are fully prepared to take the SAT. Your tutor will know how to improve your weaknesses and knowledge gaps while also building upon your strengths so that you can earn an impressive SAT score. With individualized instruction tailored to meet your specific needs and goals for the SAT, private tutoring is one of the most effective SAT preparation methods fo high school students.

When you hear people talk about the SAT and the fact that it is a major test with challenging questions, you don’t have to worry.

If you use the preparation steps above, you will find that the SAT is not actually as intimidating as it might seem.

Get started with your SAT preparation early when you enroll in one of Prep Expert’s SAT prep courses or hire a private tutor through Prep Expert today.

Prep Expert

Written by Prep Expert

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