SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What Is the SAT? A Complete Explanation of the Test

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Dec 9, 2018 4:45:00 PM

SAT General Info


If you’re thinking of applying to college, it’s vital that you know what the SAT is and how it will affect your application process.

So what is the SAT? It’s one of two standardized college admissions tests in the US. (The other is the ACT.) It's run by the College Board, a non-profit that also administers the PSAT and the AP (Advanced Placement) program.

The SAT was originally adapted from an Army IQ test and administered as a college admissions test for the first time in 1926. However, it didn't really catch on until 1933, when the president of Harvard started using the test to assess scholarship applicants because he believed it was an effective measurement of intellectual potential. This view of the SAT helped propel its popularity—by the 1940s, it had become the standard test for all college applicants and was administered to over 300,000 people across the country.

The SAT's dominance of college admissions testing was challenged with the creation of the ACT in 1959. Though initially much less popular than the SAT, the ACT took hold in the Midwest and the mountain states and, in 2010, actually surpassed the SAT to become the most popular college admissions test.

In part because of the increased competition from the ACT, the SAT recently underwent some big changes. The basic purpose and form of the test are the same (it’s still a multiple choice test used for college admissions decisions), but certain aspects of the structure and content have changed.

This post will establish the basics of the SAT to help you prepare for this important test.


Why Do People Take the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized test meant to show schools how prepared you are for college by measuring key skills like reading comprehension, computational ability, and clarity of expression. Because so many students take the test, it also provides schools with data about how you compare to your peers nationwide.

You'll almost certainly need to take the SAT or ACT if you're applying to any colleges or universities in the United States, since most require you to submit test scores with your application. Depending on where you want to apply, your ACT or SAT score can account for as much as 50% of the admission decision, so a strong standardized test score is vital.

Additionally, a few states require all high school juniors to take the SAT, including Delaware, New Hampshire, and Michigan.


If you want to go to University of Illinois, you must submit SAT or ACT scores. (Kevin Dooley/Flickr)


Which Schools Accept the SAT?

All four year colleges in the US accept the SAT, and, as I mentioned above, most schools require either the SAT or the ACT (they don’t differentiate between the two). However, there are an increasing number of colleges and universities with more flexible policies, so make sure to check with the specific schools you're planning to apply to.

You’ll also need to take the SAT or ACT if you’re a US student looking to apply to schools in the UK or Canada or an international student hoping to attend college in the US.

This information all holds true for the redesigned SAT as well, although if you’re thinking of taking the current SAT and aren’t graduating until 2018 or later, you should check whether the schools you’re interested in will require scores from the new version of the test.


What Does the SAT Cover?

The SAT has ten sections: the first is always the essay, followed by two reading, two math, one writing, and one experimental section of 25 min each (in a random order), and then one 20-min reading, one 20-min math, and one 10-min writing section. The test is mostly multiple choice, with the exception of the essay at the beginning of the test and 10 grid-in questions in one of the 25-minute math sections.

The following chart breaks down the format of the test. Click the links for more depth on what material each section covers.


Topic area


Total number of questions

Critical Reading

2 25-min sections

1 20-min section

48 Passage-Based

19 Sentence Completions


2 25-min sections

1 20-min section

44 Multiple Choice

10 Grid-Ins


1 25-min essay

1 25-min section

1 10-min section

25 Improving Sentences

18 Identifying Sentence Errors

6 Improving Paragraphs


The new 2016 SAT will test most of the same topics, but the format and some of the question types will be different. For more on the changes, check out our full breakdown of the redesigned test.


How Is the SAT Scored?

When you take the SAT, you'll be given a total score between 600 and 2400, which is the sum of reading, math, and writing scores between 200 and 800. But where do those numbers come from?

You start with a raw score for each topic area: the number of questions you got right minus ¼ times the number you answered incorrectly. That number is then converted into a scaled score through a process called equating—the College Board is a bit cagey about how exactly this works, but it's based on years worth of data rather than how people do on a specific test date.

The average SAT score hovers around 1500 with some variation from year to year, but what counts as a good score for you will really depend on where you’re looking to apply. To get into a top-tier school you'll probably need a score above 2000, but for the local branch of the state university you might be just fine with a 1400.

Note that the redesigned SAT includes some big changes to the scoring: it's returning to original 400-1600 scale (you'll receive a Math score and a Reading/Writing score) and getting rid of the wrong answer penalty.


When Should You Take the SAT?

The ideal time to take the SAT for the first time is usually in winter of your junior year, when you’ve covered most of the material in school, but you still have time to take it again. Your testing schedule may be different, however, especially if you need SAT scores for another purpose or are required to take it by your school.


You've got to be organized in your SAT prep planning! (Teresa Robinson/Flickr)


Everything You Need to Plan for the SAT 

Hopefully you now understand what the SAT is and why you might need to take it. The hard part is still to come, however—preparing for the test. To help with that, I've listed some of the key questions you need to consider as you start planning for standardized tests and college applications more generally.


Should I Take the SAT or the ACT?

It's hard to know for sure which of the two standardized tests will be better for you without your trying them out. However, if you aren't up for spending the time to take two full practice tests, take a look at this guide to help you decide. Also, keep in mind that, for many students, there's not that big of a difference between the SAT and the ACT.

If you’re a member of class of 2017, you may want to take the ACT in order to avoid dealing with the changes to the SAT, which will make the test somewhat harder to prepare for. Read more about the differences and similarities between the ACT and redesigned SAT here, and take this quiz to determine which you'll prefer.


What SAT score do I need to get into college?

To reiterate: what score you should shoot for depends on where you want to apply. Use the formula in this article to calculate your ideal SAT score.


What's the best way for me to prepare for the SAT?

Now that you've calculated what your SAT score goal is, you need to decide how to get there. Will you do better hiring a tutor or studying on your ownYou may also want to consider an online program like PrepScholar!

If you do decide to take on the SAT prep process on your own, make sure you get the best book for your needs. Or if you're preparing for the redesigned SAT, learn how to go about it here.


What do I need to know to prepare for the SAT?

There are three key aspects of prepping for the SAT: learning the logic of the test, studying the content, and practicing the questions.

To get a sense of how to think effectively about the SAT, download our guide to the 5 strategies that you must use.

For specific information on the material covered and the styles of questions you'll see on the SAT, try our complete guides to each section: reading, math (coming soon), and writing.

For practice materials, you can find the best SAT practice tests here and an in depth guide on how to use them here.


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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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