SAT Basics: The Key Facts

Are you overwhelmed with trying to understand where to start with the SAT? This SAT basics post will guide you through the key facts you should know before starting.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized test used for admissions into many U.S. colleges and universities. Currently, University of California schools are no longer using the SAT and some other schools are Test Blind (they won’t use test scores to decide on admissions) or Test Optional (they will use the tests, but not having a test score won’t affect the outcome-maybe). 

What is tested on the SAT?

The SAT is split into 4 sections: Reading, Writing & Language, No Calculator Math and Calculator Math. The Math sections test topics including linear equations, quadratic word problems, and data analysis. The Reading section is composed of five 750-900 word passages with a total of 52 multiple choice questions. This section is testing reading comprehension, vocabulary, logic and other related reading skills. The Writing & Language section has 4 passages with 44 questions that test grammar and style skills including subject/verb agreement, pronoun usage, punctuation, word choice, sentence placement, and concision. The SAT is primarily a skills test, not a content test and so you should be concerned with being skilled in Reading, Vocabulary, Grammar, Editing, and Math.

SAT study in progress
SAT Basics are just the beginning

When and How can I take the SAT?

The SAT is currently offered only as a paper test in the United States in August, October, November, December, March, May and June. There may also be an April test taken in school.  Outside of the U.S. the SAT is available in August, October, December, March and May as a paper test. (The ACT is offered as a computer based test currently for international students). The simple and SAT basics answer is that you can expect to take the test on paper in one of those months, but you should register 2-3 months before the testing date.

What is an SAT II or an SAT Subject test?

These tests were offered before 2021, but are no longer offered and no longer considered by universities. These were 1 hour long tests that each focused on a specific subject such as Biology or French. The College Board has shifted to encouraging students to take AP exams if they are interested in demonstrating specific knowledge.

What is a good SAT score?

The SAT has gone through some changes over the last 20 years. Prior to 2005, the test was scored out of 1600 and included very different question types including analogies. If a parent took the SAT before 2005, his or her understanding of the current SAT may be flawed. In 2005, the test shifted to a new format and was scored out of 2400. But in 2016, the test was revamped (again) and went back to a scale of 400-1600. 

The average SAT score is 1050/1600, but a good score is 1300 or above. A score that will be considered good  by a top level school is 1550/1600. A good score really depends on the school you are applying to. Most school publish the average scores by accepted applicants in past years to give you an idea of what score you should be aiming for.

When should I start preparing for the SAT?

The answer to that question depends on where you are starting from and what your target score is. In general, I suggest students try a practice test in Grade 10 to get a sense of where their skills lie and how much work they might have to do to reach their target. Most students start in the summer before grade 11 and then try to complete 2 official tests by the end of Grade 11. This allows them time to improve for the August test before Grade 12. However, don’t panic if you haven’t started yet. In your grade 12 year you have at least the August, October and December tests that can be used for most applications during your grade 12 year. 

Where can I find a practice test?

The College Board’s Website has 8 free practice tests that you can download and try. These are the same tests as those that can be found in the official SAT book. BUT don’t race through the practice tests early in your preparation. There are a limited number of available SAT practice tests and students often run out before they are finished preparing.

Is that all I need to Know?

Unfortunately, the SAT Basics are just the beginning to understanding this test and how it plays a part in the application process. But stick with these posts, and I will guide you through the process.

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