SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What Is the SAT? A Complete Explanation of the Test


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 in 2016. 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. Schools must have approved of these changes because, in 2018, the SAT reclaimed its title and once again became the most popular college admissions test.

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 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, several states require all high school juniors to take the SAT, including Delaware, Illinois, and Michigan.


body_UofIIf 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.


What Does the SAT Cover?

The SAT has four sections, as well an optional essay. The first section will be Reading, followed by Writing and Language, then the no calculator section of Math, followed by the Math section you're allowed a calculator on. If you decide to take the SAT essay, it'll be the final section of the exam. Most SAT questions are multiple choice, but five questions on Math No Calculator and eight questions on Math Calculator will be grid-ins.

When you take the SAT, you’ll get a 5-minute break after about every hour of testing. That means you’ll get a break after the Reading section and a second one after the Math No Calculator. If you’re taking the Essay section, you’ll also get a break before starting. The total time of the SAT is 3 hours if you don't take the essay, and 3 hours and 50 minutes if you do take the essay.

The following chart breaks down the format of the test. 

Order Section Time in Minutes # of Questions Time per question
1 Reading 65 52 75 seconds
2 Writing and Language 35 44 48 seconds
3 Math No Calculator 25 20 75 seconds
4 Math Calculator 55 38 77 seconds
5 Essay (optional) 50 1  
  Total: 3 hours, 50 minutes (3 hours without essay) 154 (+1 essay prompt)  



How Is the SAT Scored?

When you take the SAT, you'll be given a total score between 400 and 1600. The SAT has two major sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (combined from Reading + Writing and Language), and Math. You can earn a scaled score of between 200 and 800 points on each section. But where does the scoring scale come from?

You start with a raw score for each topic area. Your raw score is simply the number of questions you answered correctly; skipped or wrong questions do not add or subtract from your raw score.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 is 1068, 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 likely need to score about 1500 or higher, but for the local branch of the state university you might be just fine with a 1050.



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.


body_planning-1You'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.


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 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 own? You 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. Taking official practice SATs is also key to understanding the exam and learning where you need to improve during your studying.


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, and writing.

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


What's Next?

Here are the best study guides for SAT Reading, SAT Writing, and SAT Math, available anywhere. I guarantee you that these guides will improve your score!

Want more guidance on SAT study plans? Get tips on how long you should study for the SAT and learn how many times you should take the SAT.

Taking the ACT instead of or in addition to the SAT? Then you'll benefit greatly by taking a look at our ultimate ACT guide. Like this guide, we give you tons of free links and resources so that you can have a successful test day!



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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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