The SAT: The Basics

The SAT: The Basics

The SAT is one of the most well-known tests in the United States. Previously known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Scholastic Assessment Test, this important exam is now simply known as the SAT Reasoning Test. Read on to learn some basic facts about this important test, and its importance to those who hope to earn undergraduate degrees .


The SAT has existed for quite some time - the very first group of university hopefuls took the exam in 1926. Over 8,000 students took the 315-question test, and were given only an hour and a half to complete the SAT. It was composed of several different types of questions, including those dealing with analogies, definitions, and arithmetic. Many changes have been made to the test over the years. The most recent substantial change was made in 2005, when the writing section was added.

Who Must Take the SAT?

Many high school students applying to American universities are required to take the SAT. College entrance boards consider these scores in addition to a student's GPA and general background. How a student performs on the SAT has been found to be a good indicator of how well they will do in college. Since the SAT is a standardized test, universities can better compare applicants from diverse backgrounds by examining their SAT scores.


Each section of the SAT is scored separately. The lowest possible score on each section is 200, and the highest possible score is 800. Points are deducted for incorrect answers and unanswered questions; the scores from all three sections are combined to get the overall SAT score. Most years, the chances of getting a perfect score of 2400 are only about one in 1500. The majority of people who take the test will score in the 1500-1600 point range. On the test reports, SAT scores are also converted to percentiles, which tell you how well you did compared to others who took the test. Someone in the 99th percentile, for example, has a score that lies in the top 1% of all SAT scores.


The SAT is offered seven times a year at various test centers throughout the country. Tests are always administered on Saturdays, although students can take the test on the following Sunday if they have specific religious commitments preventing them from attending the Saturday session. Students can register online or by mail. Typically, registration forms must be received several weeks in advance of the test date, so anyone planning to take the SAT should consult the test schedule and be prepared to submit all required information punctually. The standard fee to take the SAT is $45. Late registration is permitted in some cases, and standby registration is an option for those who have missed both the original and late registration deadline. However, those considering this option should be aware that additional fees apply.

How important is the SAT?

In a word - extremely. The SAT is designed to measure critical thinking skills, which are indispensable for anyone who hopes to do well in university. For many universities, the decision about whether to accept an applicant into a program is based almost entirely on their GPA and SAT Reasoning Test scores. For this reason, it's important to take this test very seriously, prepare thoroughly, and get the highest score possible.

Format of the SAT

The SAT consists of three major sections: writing, math, and critical reading. The score for each of these sections can range from 200 to 800. The types of questions asked in each section are very specific.


This section was added to the SAT in 2005. A total of one hour is allotted to complete this section of the test. There are two main subsections in this part of the test: a short essay and numerous multiple choice questions.

In the short essay section, you will be presented with a question, scenario, or situation and asked to explain your personal point of view. An advanced prior understanding of the topic will not be required. You can use personal experiences and opinions to support your position. Essays are scored based on organization, how well the main idea is supported, grammar, word choice, and sentence structure.

The multiple choice section is intended to measure your ability to identify errors and improve sentences, excerpts, or paragraphs . For example, you might be asked how a sentence could be rewritten to express an idea more clearly or succinctly. You might be asked where a sentence in a passage could be repositioned to strengthen the main idea. Other questions might focus on identifying problems with subject/verb agreement, word usage, or grammar.


You will be given 70 minutes to complete this section. The math section of the SAT includes two different types of questions: multiple choice questions and student response, or grid-in questions. In the latter type, you won't be given any answer choices, but will instead have to shade in your responses using an answer grid. In this section of the test, questions focusing on many of the concepts you learned during high school may be addressed. Problems dealing with exponents, linear functions, and absolute value may be included. Skills like estimation will also be assessed.

Critical Reading

Just as with the math section, you will be given 70 minutes to complete this section. There are two types of questions: one type focuses on completing sentences, while the other will ask questions based on a reading passage. In the sentence completion section, you will be presented with a sentence containing one or two blanks. Then, the answer choices will present you with words that might be inserted to complete the sentence. Only one word or set of words will complete the sentence correctly. It is important to focus your efforts on expressing the main idea in a clear and succinct fashion. In the critical reading of passages, you will be given a longer section of text to read. The content in this section could be in the format of an argumentative essay, an excerpt from a fictional work, or a factual news or historical article. You may be asked questions about the vocabulary included in the passage, the most important ideas, the arguments presented, or the stylistic techniques used by the author.

Experimental Section

One 25-minute section of the SAT test is known as the experimental section. This section will not count towards your final SAT score - it is merely a place where those who develop the SAT can try out new test questions to determine whether they would be suitable to use on a future test. Unfortunately, the experimental section is not identified on the SAT itself. It will consist of critical reading, math, and writing questions. Although the experimental section is not identified, it is possible to make an educated guess about which section is the experimental one if you are familiar with the structure of the test. The math section, for example, consists of two 25-minute sections. If there are three on your test, you know that one of them must be the experimental section. However, it is a good idea to make your best effort on all sections because you cannot be sure which of the sections is experimental.

Top SAT Tips

When it comes to getting a great score on the SAT, there is no substitute for solid preparation and study. However, there are a few simple tips to keep in mind on test day that can help you boost your SAT score. Best of all, they don't involve putting in a lot of extra study time.

Tip #1 - Remember that questions on the SAT are arranged from easiest to hardest: Chances are good that you'll breeze through the first few questions in most sections of the SAT. However, because the questions get increasingly more difficult as you progress toward the end of the individual section, you'll probably encounter more difficulty as you proceed from beginning to end. This is not a reason to panic and the format of the test can be turned to your advantage if you maintain a rational and calm approach to taking it. You can turn this progressively difficult format to your advantage by answering the easy questions first and going back to the more difficult ones later. This is tantamount to "banking" the easier points on the exam and buying yourself added time to devote to the more difficult questions. Not only will this tactic allow you to rack up some points in a short amount of time, but it will also boost your confidence.

Tip #2 - An educated guess is better than no answer at all: On the SAT, there is a greater detriment to your score for providing an incorrect answer than for leaving a question blank. However, the penalty is slight, so it's only in your best interest to leave a question blank if you have absolutely no idea what the correct answer is. With five possible choices, it's likely you'll be able to eliminate at least two of the answer choices; often, you'll be able to eliminate three erroneous answer choices. Having limited the possibilities to two or three answer choices which have a high probability of being correct, it would be worthwhile to make an educated guess.

Tip #3 - All questions are created equal: One thing to keep in mind at all times while you are taking the SAT is that all of the questions have the same value. Therefore, it's important not to spend too much time on the more difficult ones. A better use of your time would be to collect points for the answers you certainly know. Also, remember not to get upset and allow yourself to lose focus when you encounter a difficult question you can't answer. The most difficult questions have the same value as the easier ones, so just let yourself move on to other questions if you're stuck.

Tip #4 - Try to find the experiment: One section of the SAT is an experimental one that will not count towards your score. You should be able to identify the section containing the experimental portion quite easily - it will contain an extra 25-minute section. Many SAT experts say that the experimental section is relatively easy to pick out because it contains odd questions that stand out from the others. If you identify a section like this, you may decide to play your hunch and answer the others first. If your hunch is right, you might boost your score by allowing yourself to spend more time on the other sections. Of course, it's still crucial to complete all sections to the best of your ability. That's because if you skip what you thought was the experimental section and you're wrong, your score may be a lot lower than you'd like.

Tip #5 - Don't forget your calculator: All of the math questions on the SAT can be done by hand, but it's recommended that you bring a calculator to help you complete this section. You should have at least a scientific calculator, although a graphing one is preferable. However, choose one you are comfortable with and have used before.

Tip #6 - Pace yourself, but don't panic: Working within time constraints is an important part of doing well on the SAT, but it's important not to hurry yourself into making mistakes. Take the time to read each question, review the answer choices, and make sure you understand specifically what is being asked. It's better to leave a few questions blank than answer everything and make a lot of careless mistakes which will lower your score.

Effective SAT Prep

For many students hoping to get into university, taking the SAT is an extremely stressful experience, but it doesn't have to be. The SAT focuses on skills that most high school seniors already possess. For many, it's more the fear of failure than the actual test itself that causes so much stress. Preparing thoroughly and learning as much as possible about the SAT before test day arrives is one way to alleviate worries and boost your score.

Start Early

One of the most important tips to follow when you're preparing for the SAT is to start early, at least a few months in advance. Give yourself time to really learn what the test is about and address any weak areas on your own or with a tutor. That way, you'll feel confident and self-assured when you finally walk into the test center.

Take the PSAT

During your freshman or sophomore year in high school, make sure you take the PSAT. It's one of the most important things you can do to prepare for the actual SAT. The question types and categories are the same, and you'll get to see how it feels to take an exam under strict time constraints. The score you obtain on the PSAT can also give you an indication of just how much prep work you'll have to do to get an excellent score on the SAT.

Learn the Question Formats

If you've never seen firsthand how the questions on the SAT are formatted, your chances of doing well on the exam will be lower than that of someone who has studied the format of the questions. Without experiencing the format beforehand, you may have to spend too much time figuring out exactly what is expected of you in terms of response. There are plenty of online websites that provide sample questions, and you should make an effort to observe and work through as many as possible. After a while, you'll begin to notice patterns in the answer choices and in how the questions are posed. This study of syntax and format can work to your benefit on test day. From those examples, you'll learn how to enter your answers for the grid-in questions in the math section. These questions requiring a grid-in response must be answered in a very specific manner; trying to learn how to do this on test day is not a good idea and can use up valuable time. An answer of 3 1/2 can easily become 31/2 if you are not careful about filling in the answer grid correctly. Unintended mistakes of this type can negatively impact your SAT test scores.

Let Someone Else do the Legwork

There are many topics and concepts that may be addressed on the SAT. Trying to locate all of this material yourself can be exhausting, and it can take away from time that should be spent reviewing practice questions and addressing any weak areas. For this reason, it's definitely a worthwhile investment to purchase a book or sign up for an SAT course with a test prep company. Doing so will allow you to focus on the subject matter. Enlisting the aid of a test prep company and buying books with sample SAT test questions will help you do well on the SAT, and you'll have the convenience of being able to access these resources whenever you like.

Click here for Sample SAT Questions

Last Updated: 04/24/2014


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