SAT Guide

Most colleges and universities require students to submit SAT scores as part of their general application materials. SAT scores help a school compare individual students to their larger pool of applicants. After a student receives general admission into a school, some bachelor’s programs may also require students to submit their general SAT scores or SAT subject test scores for admission. Some students, for instance, may need to submit SAT scores for nursing programs even after they receive admission into college. When it comes to admissions considerations, SAT scores typically carry significant weight. An SAT score that falls below a school’s admission requirements may bar a student from acceptance while a high SAT score may not only lead to acceptance but also qualify students for scholarships.

The College Board creates and administers the SAT for students across the U.S. and abroad. The test measures high school students’ readiness for college and acts as a predictor of academic and career success. The SAT comprises three sections: evidence-based reading and writing, math, and an optional essay. Using a variety of question types, including multiple-choice, student-driven response, and the essay form, the exam measures a variety of academic skills, such as close reading, analysis and data interpretation, writing and editing, creating and solving equations, understanding causal relationships, and general problem solving.

SAT Subject Tests

In addition to general SAT scores, some undergraduate programs may also require students to submit scores from an SAT subject test. Subject tests assess a student’s ability in a specific discipline. Even if a student’s program does not require a subject test, students who excel in a given subject may want to take a subject test to stand from other applicants. Students can choose from 20 subject tests that fall into five main content areas: English, history, math, science, and languages. Subject tests take an hour to complete and test-takers earn a score between 200 and 800. Students can take a subject test at the same testing site where they take the general SAT test, but cannot take the SAT and subject tests on the same day. Students can take up to three subject tests per day, paying a $26 registration fee and an additional $22-$26 per test.

Can the SAT Be Used for Nursing Programs?

Like most bachelor’s offerings, nursing programs typically require applicants to submit qualifying SAT scores. For some undergraduate programs, students submit these scores along with their general application materials. Upon acceptance to the college, students can then apply to enter the school’s nursing program. However, some schools may require students to submit their SAT scores for nursing school itself. Other schools may require students to apply for the nursing program after completing a few semesters of school; students may need to submit their SAT scores for this application process as well.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

In 2016, the SAT underwent a makeover. Whereas the old version of the SAT emphasized reasoning skills and penalized students for guessing, the new SAT focuses on knowledge, understanding, and skills that predict college readiness. The new SAT does not penalize students for guessing and takes less time than the old test. Whereas the old test took three hours and 45 minutes, the new test takes three hours, with an additional 50 minutes for students taking the essay.

The SAT consists of three sections that appear in the same order every time: evidence-based reading and writing (100 minutes), math (80 minutes), and an optional essay (50 minutes). Evidence-based reading and writing comprises two smaller tests: a reading test (65 minutes) and a writing and language test (35 minutes). The evidence-based reading and writing section consists of exclusively multiple-choice items while the math section features both multiple-choice questions and student-produced responses. The essay section requires students to respond to a prompt that relates to a persuasive reading passage.

Students work on one section at a time and cannot skip ahead or revisit other sections if they finish early. Once students finish a section, they cannot go back and change their answers. Students can answer as many questions as they can in the time allotted; since the test does not penalize for guessing, students should fill in all responses if possible.

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The SAT Going Online

In 2016, select school districts around the country began offering an online version of the SAT. Over time, the College Board anticipates that a growing number of states and school districts will adopt an online testing format over the traditional paper-and-pencil test. Technological glitches and security concerns aside, online testing offers an array of advantages. In addition to convenience, online testing can more effectively accommodate special needs students and may also lead to quicker scoring turnaround times. As more schools incorporate technology into their classrooms, online testing will likely gain greater traction in years to come. Although most schools will still offer a paper-and-pencil option for students who need it, college-bound students should prepare to take the SAT online, in case their school district decides to adopt a digital testing platform.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

The online SAT features the same sections as the paper-and-pencil version: evidence-based reading and writing, math, and the optional essay. Although students take the test on a computer, they do so in a controlled, proctored setting. Students may not, for instance, take the exam on their personal laptop or home computer. At the designated exam site, students receive electronic versions of the amenities they would normally have access to, such as digital scratch paper, and a digital highlighter, as well as regular breaks for snacks. The online test also allows students to digitally “cross out” answers like they would on a paper test. The online test costs the same as the paper test.

In order to protect your answers, the online SAT features several security measures. Before a school administers an online test, it checks that their network can support the necessary number of test-takers. As students work, their answers save to multiple servers, so that, in the event that a testing site loses connection, students can continue the test where they left off at another testing location. Once a student completes the test, their responses immediately and automatically transfer to the College Board, where they are graded and analyzed.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

The evidence-based reading section consists of 52 multiple-choice questions that assess critical reading and analysis skills. The reading test presents students with five passages (some with infographics) and then asks questions based on these passages. They always include at least one literary text, one text or pair of texts from a founding U.S. document or a “great global conversation,” a text that relates to a social science, and two texts that relate to an Earth science.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students may fall into predictable traps in the reading section. The most common trap involves mismanaging time. Students may spend too much time on one question or passage and run out of time for the remainder of the test. With five passages that require 10-12 questions each, students should plan to spent around 12 minutes per passage or pair of passages. Students may also fail to consider the passage’s context. Because each test must present a passage in each of the five categories discussed above (literary text, social science text, etc.), students should consider which category a passage falls into. This context may help the student understand the purpose of the passage and the types of questions asked about it. Lastly, students should not rely on any outside knowledge to answer the questions. All answers should come from the text itself.

Helpful Tips

  • If You Get Stuck, Move On: Rather than waste too much time on a question or passage, mark difficult questions and then move on. If time allows, return to these questions at the end of the section.
  • Beware of Personal Bias: Some questions may attempt to elicit responses based on a student’s opinions or beliefs. Avoid using personal judgements and instead focus on evidence from the text.
  • Use the Process of Elimination: If an answer does not immediately stand out, try eliminating blatantly incorrect answers first.
  • Attack Dual Passages One by One: When presented with a pair of passages, read the first passage and answer its questions first. Then read the second passage and answer that passage’s questions. This helps distinguish between the two passages, reducing confusion.

 

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

In this section, students answer 44 multiple-choice questions based on four reading passages relating to careers, science, humanities, and history/social studies. The questions measure a variety of skills, such as command of evidence, standard English conventions, and words in context. Questions in this section typically challenge students to fix sentences that feature some kind of error, assessing whether the students knows how to edit and revise for clarity, grammar, or factual accuracy.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Test-takers in this section typically fall into two traps: spending either too much or not enough time on a given passage. Rather than hesitate too long on a question, students should trust their gut, answer the question, and move on. However, students who rush through a passage may fail to see the passage’s larger picture, which can affect how they answer questions based on that passage. Students should read the passage carefully, but not spend too much time hesitating on a given sentence. It’s a delicate balance, and students who study ahead of time will be better prepared to tackle this section than their peers.

Helpful Tips

  • Consider the Passage’s Context: The four passages fall into one of the following categories: descriptive, narrative, argumentative, or informative. When answering questions, keep the passage’s overall purpose in mind.
  • Avoid Choosing “No Error” Too Often: Students who rush may feel compelled to choose “no error” too often. Before choosing this option, make sure to consider all other answers.
  • Read Each Question Carefully: Students who feel rushed may also skim through questions and misunderstand them. Read each question carefully. Reread the question at least once more, looking for words like “not” and “except,” which can alter the meaning of the question.
  • Don’t Think Too Much: Although this portion of the test requires thought and analysis, at a certain point it becomes useful for students to trust their instincts. Avoid wasting time over-analyzing simple questions.

 

The Math Section

Skill Areas

The math section of the SAT focuses on three main areas: algebra, advanced math, and problem solving and data analysis. These areas measure students’ fluency in carrying out procedures and solving problems, their conceptual understanding of math operations, and whether they can apply their math knowledge to practical problems. The test also measures a student’s calculator skills and may touch on trigonometry and geometry.

Question Types

The math test consists of 45 multiple-choice questions and 13 grid-in questions; grid-in questions require students to write in their answer. The questions break down into the following categories: 19 algebra questions, 17 problem solving and data analysis questions, 16 advanced math questions, and six questions on additional math topics. The test features a calculator section and a no-calculator section. Students may come across multiple questions based on a single scenario.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

Students may use approved calculators during the calculator section of the test. This section not only assesses a students’ ability to use a calculator but also assesses whether a student knows when to use it. Some questions in this section may not require a calculator, meaning students who recognize these questions may finish faster than those who waste time trying to solve every problem on their calculator.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The math section elicits a few common mistakes. To save time, many students choose not to write out their work in this section. Although some of the problems may appear simple, students should always write out every step to a problem to make sure they find the correct answer. Students may also make the mistake of not mastering certain topics, such as functions. Learning and practicing functions leads to more confidence on test day. Practice, in general, is always helpful. Students familiar with the types and formats of different questions may feel less stressed than those for whom each question appears unfamiliar and possibly confusing.

Helpful Tips

  • Memorize Formulas: Many questions on the math test require students to know a formula by heart. Students should memorize formulas not only to solve equations correctly, but also to save time.
  • Check the Numbers on Your Calculator: Students who rush may input the wrong numbers into their calculator. If this happens, their answer may not match any of the multiple-choice options. Students who realize their error may waste time re-entering the problem into their calculator.
  • Pace Yourself: Because the problems in each section grow increasingly more difficult, students should attempt the easiest questions first before moving on to more difficult problems. Students aiming for a high score should attempt to complete the easier questions as quickly as possible in order to reserve time for the more difficult questions at the end.
  • Make Sure You Read Each Question Correctly: Confusing wording may cause students to solve for the wrong value in an equation. When confronting a wordy question, read the question carefully and make sure you understand what value the questions wants you to solve for.

 

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

Although not all schools require the essay portion of the SAT, some schools require or recommend that students submit this score as part of their application. Before deciding whether or not to take the essay portion of the SAT, students should first check to see whether their prospective schools require it. The College Board offers a search tool that provides each college’s essay policy. Students who excel in writing may want to take the essay test regardless, since a high essay score might make them stand out among other applicants. Students who struggle with writing should weigh the pros and cons. The essay portion does cost extra, but students who need financial assistance can apply for a fee waiver.

Skill Areas

The essay assesses a student’s reading, analysis, and writing skills. It measures whether a student can comprehend a text’s meaning, including its central ideas and supporting details. It also examines whether the student can determine which stylistic elements make the text persuasive. Students also show whether they can use textual evidence to create a cohesive and organized argument that displays control or mastery of the English language.

The Essay Prompt

Although the author and content of each reading passage varies, the gist of the essay prompt is identical for each essay. Students must write an essay in which they explain how the author of their reading passage builds an argument to support their claim. Students must note how the author uses evidence, examples, and stylistic elements like word choice to persuade his or her reader.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

When completing the essay portion, students should avoid a few common mistakes. One of these mistakes involves leaving too much blank space. Students should fill the writing space provided without repeating ideas or arguments. Students may also feel compelled to populate their essay with lofty vocabulary words. Rather than trying to force a showy vocabulary word into a sentence where it may not belong, use the most appropriate word for the context. Most importantly, students should avoid making too many arguments at once and instead develop a clear, straightforward argument they can sufficiently explore within the parameters of the essay. Students should remain committed to this argument throughout the essay, citing concrete examples and pulling relevant quotes from the passage.

Helpful Tips

  • Use a Five-paragraph Format: Students should organize their essay into a traditional five-paragraph format. The essay should start with an introduction, present three body paragraphs that support and defend the thesis, and end with a conclusion.
  • Create Examples: In order to support or illustrate their argument, students should come up with concrete examples. This may include examples from the world or creative examples the student comes up with on their own.
  • Write Legibly: Neat handwriting not only allows the scorer to more easily read and understand the essay, but can also make the essay appear more professional and competent. Ilegible handwriting may negatively affect scoring.
  • Stay On-Topic: Make sure the essay keeps to its purpose and continues to serve its original thesis. Stay on-topic and avoid extraneous arguments or examples.

How is the SAT Scored?

Students who take the SAT earn a score between 400 and 1600. Evidence-based reading and writing count for 800 points and math counts for 800 points. The College Board scores the essays separately, on a scale from 2-8. The SAT also measures a cross-test score, which assesses a student’s ability to analyze history/social science and science texts. This cross-test score derives from how well a student responds to history/social science and science questions in the math and evidence-based reading and writing sections of the test. This score ranges between 10 and 40 points but does not affect the overall score total.

The College Board scans and electronically grades the bubble-in answer sheets; students receive points for each question they answer correctly. For the essay section, two trained, qualified scorers grade each essay independently. The essay’s final score results from the average of these two scores.

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

Source: The College Board

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

Because test scores fluctuate based on the day and the test, score ranges show a snapshot of what a student would likely score if he or she took the test again. The range typically covers 30-40 points below and above what the student actually scored. Colleges see and consider this score range along with the student’s actual score. Mean scores, college readiness benchmarks, and percentile ranks all help determine a student’s college readiness. The mean score shows what test-takers in each grade earned on average while college readiness benchmarks predict whether a student possesses the tools he or she needs to succeed in college. Percentile ranks show students how they compare with other test-takers in their grade.

What’s an Average Score on the SAT?

Average Scores on the SAT, 2016-17
SAT Section Average Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 533
Math 527
Essay 5,4,5

Source: The College Board

How Do You Register for the SAT?

The first step in registration involves going online and creating an account with the College Board. Students who need to register by mail must request a student registration booklet from their counselor; the College Board recommends that students register online if they can. All students must supply their name and a photo ID, but can also provide additional information for the College Board’s student search service, which connects students to colleges and scholarship opportunities. After creating an account, students can sign up for the test they wish to take (SAT or SAT with essay) and designate which schools receive their scores. To receive a refund, students must cancel their test more than five days before their registered testing date. Because the fee to reschedule a test costs less than the fee for registering twice, students should reschedule rather than cancel their test and register again.

When Should You Take the SAT?

In the U.S., the College Board administers the SAT seven times per year. Students can take the test as early as their freshman year of high school, but most students take it the fall of their junior year and may retake it fall semester of their senior year. The College Board typically takes 2-6 weeks to send scores to schools, so students should schedule their test accordingly.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

The SAT costs around $48 without the essay and around $65 with the essay. Low income students can apply for fee waivers. Extra fees apply for late registration, phone registration, changing test centers, and additional scoring services.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

Students can technically take the SAT as many times as they want. Students may want to take the test at least twice, since most students improve their score each time they test. Students applying to schools that use superscoring may want to retake the test to improve their score on certain sections.

How Should You Prepare for the SAT?

At-Home Study Methods

Students who wish to prepare for the SAT from the comfort of their own home can explore a variety of study methods.

  • Printed Study Guides: Printed study guides help students familiarize themselves with each section of the test and the types of questions encountered in each. Students can find printable study guides online or in SAT study books. Most study guides include a practice test.
  • Flashcards: Flashcards serve as a great way to memorize basic information that may appear on the test. SAT flashcards typically focus on vocabulary words, math topics, formulas, and grammar. Students can purchase premade flashcard sets online or in some bookstores.
  • Private Tutoring: Although costly, private tutors can work with students to identify and overcome particular areas of weakness. Experienced tutors may also know the ins and outs of the test, providing helpful tips and guidance.
  • Studying Apps: SAT studying apps offer a fun, flexible way for students to prepare for the test. Students can practice on the go or in short bursts in their free time. Many apps offer daily practice questions to keep students engaged and on track.
  • Online Practice Tests: In addition to providing sample questions, online practice tests also allow students to experience what it feels like to take the full exam. This helps students consider their pacing and confront any feelings of anxiety or stress. Self-scoring tests help students monitor their progress and check their answers.

SAT Prep Courses

SAT prep courses help students learn about and practice for the exam under the guidance of experts. Some of the bigger names in the prep course industry include Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Sylvan Learning. The cost of prep courses vary depending on the type of course. In-person or live online courses may cost anywhere between $600 and $1,300. These courses typically follow a set schedule and include several practice exams, quizzes, prep books, and some one-on-one coaching. Online self-directed, self-paced courses typically cost between $100 and $300. Students can also find free SAT prep courses that provide a practice test and self-directed study, but do not offer live instruction.

Studying Tips for the SAT

  • Identify Your Goal: Decide what score you need to earn to get into your schools of choice and work toward that score. Students interested in nursing programs may want to look up the average SAT scores for nursing schools and start there.
  • Study Effectively: Take a few practice tests and determine which areas need the most work. Rather than studying topics you already know, focus on the areas that need improvement. This might involve learning a certain concept or learning how to balance your time more effectively.
  • Practice with Real Questions: The best way to prepare for the test involves seeing real questions that appeared on previous tests. This ensures that you see exactly the types of questions that might appear on the SAT, rather than questions that only resemble test questions.
  • Identify How Much Time You Need to Study: Increasing an SAT score takes time. In general, students should plan to spend at least 10 hours studying to improve their score 30 points, 40 hours to improve 70-130 points, and 150 hours or more to improve 200-300 points. Deciding how much you want to improve determines how many hours per week you need to study.
  • Identify How You Learn Best: Students learn in different ways. While an online prep course may help one student, another may require in-person help. Another may simply need to take as many practice tests as possible. Decide which study methods work best for your learning style and pursue those.

Helpful Resources

Students can access a variety of free resources to help them prepare for the SAT, including the ones listed below.

  • College Board Practice Tests: The College board offers eight different practice exams that students can take either on paper or online. Half of these exams feature questions that appeared on past exams. The online test automatically grades the student’s answers and offers practice recommendations.
  • Khan Academy: As a nonprofit that provides free educational resources, Khan Academy offers a full length SAT practice test and practice for the math, reading, and writing sections. Students can also explore an array of tips and strategies.
  • Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel: Students who prefer to learn through videos can access this channel, which features study tips and strategies for the SAT.
  • Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel: Supertutor offers a selection of videos that provide tips and answer basic questions about the SAT. Students can discover new calculator techniques, listen to advice from a perfect scorer, and learn how to avoid common errors.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

All SAT testing sites follow the same protocol. Students must arrive before eight in the morning; doors close promptly at eight and the test begins within the hour. Students sit according to an assigned seating chart — they cannot select their own seat. During the testing session, students receive one 10-minute break and one five-minute break during which they can eat, drink, and use the restroom. Students may not eat, drink, or leave to use the restroom while the test takes place. Students do not receive separate scratch paper but can use their test book (not the answer sheet) to work out math problems.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID: Students must bring a valid photo ID, such as a driver’s license or recent school ID. The ID must feature the student’s full name and a clear, recognizable photo that matches the one on their admission ticket.
  • Admission Ticket: When students register for the SAT, they receive a printable admission ticket that features their name and photo. Students should print this ticket and bring it with them on their testing day.
  • No. 2 Pencils: Students should bring at least two sharp no. 2 pencils with new, non-smudging erasers.
  • Approved Calculator: For the math section of the test, students can use an approved calculator. These calculators include most graphing calculators, all scientific calculators, and all four-function calculators.
  • Watch: Students can bring a watch to help keep track of time. The watch should not make noise and should not play music or connect to the internet.
  • Layers of Clothing: Because students cannot control the temperature of the testing site, they should bring layers of clothing to ensure they remain comfortable throughout the test.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Math Tools: Students may only use their calculator, pencil, and paper during the math portion of the test. All other tools, such as rulers, protractors, and compasses, should stay at home.
  • Unapproved Electronics: Students may not bring any unapproved electronics. These include laptops, cell phones, tablets, audio players, timers (other than a watch), and PDAs.
  • Books: Students may not bring print or digital references, such as dictionaries or thesauruses. Students should not bring any books or printed materials.

Accommodations for Test-Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

Students with a documented disability may qualify for testing accommodations, such as additional time and breaks, extended breaks, computer use, large-type print, and Braille testing materials. Examples of qualifying disabilities include visual impairment, motor impairment, and learning disorders. Students seeking accommodations should start the process as soon as possible, since the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities may take up to seven weeks to process and approve accommodation requests. To learn more or apply for accomodations, visit the College Board’s website.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Students receive their multiple-choice test scores around 2-6 weeks after their exam date, depending on when they take it. Essay scores typically arrive two days after the multiple-choice scores. Students can check their scores in the College Board’s online score portal.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

Each time a student registers for the SAT, they can select up to four schools to receive their test scores for free. Students can select these schools before they take the test or up to nine days after they take the test. After this, students must pay a fee each time they send their scores to a school. The College Board automatically sends the scores to student’s chosen schools within 10 days after students receive their scores.

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

The College Board offers test-takers a free option called Score Choice that allows students to choose which test scores a school can see. Students may want a school to see their highest overall score. Others may want a school to view whichever test boasts the highest score in a certain subject area, such as math. Students should keep in mind that some schools require students to submit all of their scores. Some of these schools perform superscoring, in which they consider the highest scores in each subject from all testing dates, providing an additional incentive for students to take the SAT multiple times.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

A year after students take the SAT, the College Board archives their scores indefinitely. Students may request to retrieve these scores at any time and submit them to schools. However, after five years, the College Board includes a message to schools indicating that the student’s test scores may no longer accurately indicate the student’s college preparedness.