What is the SAT?

Understanding the Scholastic Assessment Test

The SAT (previously referred to as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, and now simply the SAT) is a standardized test used for college and university admissions in the United States (and, more recently, in universities abroad). It, along with the ACT , are the two primary exams students use to gain admission to American colleges and four-year educational institutions.

The SAT is created, owned, and published by The College Board , a not-for-profit organization based in the United States. It has been administered since 1926.

The present day SAT is intended to test a student’s readiness for college. It is designed to test a student’s mathematical aptitude, reading comprehension, essay writing ability, and knowledge of basic high school level grammar concepts.

Most American colleges and universities require  students to submit SAT or  ACT scores with their admission applications. These scores are used to compare the aptitude of one applicant to another. Utilizing standardized test scores to compare student applicants has been a widely held practice relied on heavily by institutions of higher education for decades, but is now being called into question on a routine basis. Many colleges and universities are either implementing or exploring the idea of not requiring these tests for admission purposes. Colleges that do not require the scores are called test optional schools . These schools place emphasis on other parts of the student’s application, like their GPA , essays, and extracurricular activities. The number of these schools is increasing every year and they give students who do not perform well on these standardized tests another option for applying to college. However, some feel that the concept of “test optional” is questionable, as test optional schools still rely heavily on SAT and ACT scores .

The History of the SAT

The first ever SAT was offered on June 23rd, 1926. At that time, it was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Only 8,000 students took the test, and its original applications were extremely narrow; over a quarter of the students who took the test (60% of whom were male) took the test in an attempt to gain admission to only two schools: Yale University and Smith College .

The test was designed by a committee led by renowned Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham. The test was created as the first-ever attempt to gain an objective benchmark for student scholastic achievement, and tested a broad swath of material in a loosely-organized format. The original test was composed of 315 questions covering classification, arithmetic, definitions, antonyms, number series, paragraph reading, logical inference, and analogies, and gave testers only 90 minutes in which to complete these questions.

In 1930, the SAT underwent its first major revision; the number of subjects tested was significantly reduced, and split between two broad categories: verbal and math. This dual-category structure would remain in place until 2004, when the test underwent another massive revision in structure.

From 1930 through the major SAT overhaul in 2005, the SAT underwent changes on an almost-yearly basis, though the overall structure and content remained largely untouched. Antonyms were removed to eliminate dependence on rote memorization, the time given for each section was increased and decreased, and the specific subject material on both the math and verbal sections was continually tweaked and tested to gain a more accurate understanding of student academic and scholastic achievement based on the needs of universities and the average results of the test from students across the United States.

The major changes taking place from the 1930-2005 era centered largely around scoring. Throughout this era, the SAT was graded to create a mean score of 500 points per section, with a standard deviation of roughly 100 points. As average scores around the country increased and decreased with changes to the grading algorithms of the administrators and the academic track records and knowledge of the students taking the SAT, this algorithm was continually tweaked to create a more useful comparative mechanism for college admissions committees, and for those school and government administrators interested in using the SAT as a gauge of overall American academic performance.

As the SAT became more and more widely used as a college admissions tool, increased attention was paid to both the content tested by the SAT and the scoring criteria used to grade the exam. Criticisms of the test ranged from its tendency to favor children of higher income parents ( an issue still present to this day ) to its insistence that students not use calculators – a trend that was overturned in 1994 when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics demanded that students be permitted to utilize commonplace academic tools on the test itself.

After mounting problems and criticisms, the SAT underwent its first massive revision in 2005, largely in response to criticisms from the University of California System, which felt that the test was no longer an accurate indicator of future student performance. The first edition of this new test was offered on March 12, 2005.

The 2005 changes to the test split it into three sections, all graded by 800 points:

  1. A reading comprehension section, which tested contextual use of vocabulary and overall understanding and comprehension of reading passages of varying length. This section eliminated analogies, a cornerstone of the former editions of the test, and replaced them with less rote-based concepts such as logical inference and overall usage of the English language.
  2. A math section, which tested the same mathematical principles and concepts tested by previous versions, but which aimed to reduce the wide standard deviation of scores extant in previous versions of the SAT.
  3. A new “writing” section, which tested student grammar and basic grasp of the English language and grammatical conventions. This was the first time that the SAT had set out to test specific grammatical principles.

Additionally, the 2005 SAT required that students write a 25-minute essay to gauge their overall writing ability. This essay was graded on its own out of 12 points, and was also used to scale the 200-800 point writing section score.

Overall, the 2005 edition of the SAT was wildly unpopular. The new grading scale was unfamiliar and confusion to both college admissions committees and to parents and students alike, and many felt that the new test was both harder and more unpredictable. In 2012, for the first time ever, the ACT overtook the SAT as the most popular college entrance exam .

In response to the declining popularity of its test, the College Board announced in March of 2014 that it would launch a new version of the SAT in March of 2016.

The New SAT (Delivered March 2016 and Beyond)

Having undergone a major revision in 2005, the SAT is launching yet another revision of its formatting and subject matter in March of 2016. The New SAT will be scored on a 1600-point scale, will be essay-optional, and will take slightly under four hours to complete.

The New SAT will eliminate the use of vocabulary almost entirely (instead opting for “vocabulary in context” problems) within the reading section, will disallow the use of a calculator on one of its two math sections, will remove a penalty for wrong answers (a hallmark of all previous versions of the exam), and will aim to be a more accurate reflection of the Common Core Curriculum in an attempt to appeal to students and college admissions committees.

Many believe that the New SAT will be easier and more consistent than the version offered from 2005-2015 . However, some believe that it’s best not to take the New SAT until the College Board has had a chance to test its new scoring system and roll out the newly-formatted exam around the country.

As of the time of this posting, no plans or revisions beyond those of March 2016 have been announced by the College Board.

What’s the Function of the SAT?

The SAT is not an IQ or intelligence test . Instead, the College Board states that the SAT tests the literacy, writing, and mathematical competency skills required to thrive in American universities.

While the SAT is not taught in American high schools, it is meant to be a reflection of the CORE Curriculum and to predict college success. The College Board states that any student capable of getting a high GPA in an American high school should be able to excel on the SAT.

The SAT is used by American college admissions committees, along with student GPA, essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities, to evaluate the merits of their applicants.

While many dispute the validity of the SAT as an evaluation tool , it and the ACT are the only objective, standardized metrics that American universities have at their disposal to evaluate students. Because the meaning of a particular GPA can vary widely from school to school, and because colleges are so inundated by applications, admissions committees need a shortcut to help them evaluate the competency of their applicants.

The SAT is one of the fastest, simplest methods that admissions committees have at their disposal to evaluate the mathematical and literary competency of their thousands of applicants.

What’s on the SAT? (Structure and Timing)

The SAT offered from 2005-2015 was formatted to contain three different sections:

  1. Reading Comprehension
  2. Mathematics
  3. Writing

All three sections were scored on a scale from 200-800 points. The Writing section also included a required essay, which affected the 200-800 point scoring of the section.

The New SAT, that will begin to be administered in March of 2016, will follow a different scoring and structural framework.

First, The New SAT is dropping down to a 1600-point scale from its previous 2400 point scale.

As for structure, The New SAT is composed of four sections and an optional essay. These are composed of:

  1. Two mathematics sections, one which allows a calculator, and one which does not.
  2. One reading comprehension section.
  3. One writing + language section
  4. An optional essay

A student’s math scores from both math sections are combined to create a 200-800 math score.

A student’s reading score scales from 100-400 points.

A student’s writing+language score scales from 100-400 points.

Both the reading and writing+language scores are added together to create a single “evidence based reading and writing score” from 200-800 points.

These two scores are added together for a 400-1600 point final scaled score.

The essay is scored separately, and does not affect a student’s scaled score.

Each section is delivered under strict time limitations, which contributes to the wide variety of student scoring.

The intricacies of each section are highlighted below:

What do the New SAT Math Sections test?

The two sections covering math on the New SAT math portion test the following four concepts:

Numbers and Operations

Algebra and functions

Geometry and measurement

Data analysis, statistics, and probability

All of the material under these four subjects is covered in a standard high school curriculum before the student usually takes the exam in their junior year (according to the College Board).

There are 44 multiple choice questions and 10 student-produced response questions in total.

What does the New SAT Reading Section test?

Students will be given 65 minutes to complete 52 questions over the course of five passages to answer SAT reading problems.

Of these passages, one will cover US and World Literature, two will cover history and social studies, and two will cover science.

Unlike the old SAT, which required extensive knowledge of esoteric vocabulary, the New SAT reading section will require that students demonstrate a basic grasp of the material within the passages and analytical reasoning ability related to it.

All 52 questions in the New SAT reading section are multiple choice, and all give students a total of four possible answer choices.

Students will be asked to define vocabulary in context, to sum up the main idea of the passages, to find specific evidence within the passage, to construct logical arguments based on each passage, and to demonstrate their logical reasoning ability.

No outside knowledge is required to attain a perfect score on the SAT reading test. All the material students are tested on is contained within the presented passages themselves.

What does the New SAT Writing+Language Section test?

Students will be given 35 minutes to answer 44 questions over the course of four passages during the SAT writing+language test .

All 44 questions are multiple choice, and all give students a total of four possible answer choices.

The writing+language section will test basic grammatical concepts, along with more advanced concepts such as relevancy, evidence and sentence placement, sentence structure, and more.

Students are expected to know high school-level grammar and writing concepts in order to attain a perfect score on this section.

What does the New SAT Essay test?

The New SAT essay section is now optional (unlike the SAT offered from 2005-March of 2016).

The essay is scored separately, and is meant to gauge a student’s ability to analyze and deconstruct an argument.

Students who opt into the essay will be given 50 minutes to write their essay over four lined pages.

Students will be presented with an argument written by another author. They will then need to spend their four pages analyzing the evidence, structure, and persuasive elements used by the author in making his or her point. Students are not required to evaluate the quality of the argument, or whether or not they agree with it. Instead, they’re simply required to explain how the author gets to his or her point, and which elements are used where in order to do so.

Many believe that the SAT essay is irrelevant to college admissions (a large criticism of the old SAT, which was found to be graded almost entirely based on length) and so the New SAT has made the essay optional to counter this complaint. Some colleges and universities will continue to require that the essay portion be completed and submitted for review and others will not make it mandatory for admission purposes.

When can I take the SAT and where is the SAT offered?

The SAT is offered seven times per year in the United States, typically in January, March (or April), May, June, October, November, and December.

It is always administered on a Saturday. If a religious obligation or belief prevents a student from taking the SAT on a Saturday, Sunday tests are also available by request.

Internationally, the SAT is offered on the same dates as it is in the US, with the exception of the March/April test, when it is usually not offered.

You can find a full calendar of SAT testing and registration dates here:


The SAT costs $51 for US students – fee waivers are available for financially underprivileged students. The SAT usually costs $78- $99 for students taking the test internationally.

Students who wish to take the SAT can register directly on the College Board’s website, by mail, or by telephone at least three weeks in advance of their target test date.

Students can register for the SAT on the College Board’s website here:


SAT Raw Scores, SAT Scaled Scores, and Percentiles

The SAT is a comparative test – it is used to compare students to each other in order to evaluate college readiness. Therefore, the test scores provided to students and colleges by the SAT are scaled. Students receive both their raw score and their scaled score when they receive their results.

The raw score is a simple sum of all the problems that students answered correctly in each section. For instance, if a student answers 39 math problems correctly, he will achieve a raw math score of 39.

Unlike the Old SAT, there is no penalty for wrong answers when taking the New version of the SAT.

Students also receive their scaled score, which is the score that colleges use to evaluate and compare applicants. This score ranged from 600-2400 on the Old SAT, and will range from 400-1600 points on the New SAT.

Every college expects a different score to be considered for admission. For instance, a score of 1280 can be extremely competitive at one university, and mediocre at another. Each college publishes their previous year’s admitted score ranges for public consideration. These score ranges help students to determine what colleges and universities they are best positioned to apply to. Having this hard data assists students to develop realistic lists that they can concentrate on when it comes time to apply.

The New SAT will also offer “sub-scores” to its students, with specific data pertaining to performance within each section. However, it is widely believed that these sub-scores will be ignored or taken lightly by admissions committees, who are already overburdened and cannot take on the extra work of evaluating an entirely new set of metrics. Therefore, the scaled score is the golden standard by which students will be judged.

Many colleges view scaled scores in terms of percentile. This is simple the percentage of students who’ve scored lower than a particular student based on his scores.

Historically, the following scores correlate with the following percentiles for the new scoring scale of the SAT:

1600 = 99.93rd percentile

1480 = 99th percentile

1340 = 93rd percentile

1150 = 72nd percentile

1010 = 48th percentile

And so on and so forth.

One can generally evaluate the quality of a college or university by its average incoming SAT and ACT scores. A school that only accepts 95th+ percentile scores will usually be in the top 5% of American colleges.

You can find a full guide on SAT scoring here:


Additionally, you can find free New SAT practice tests and scoring rubrics here .

You can find a full list of SAT percentiles and comparative score charts here:


Extra Time and Special Accommodations

Students with disabilities can attain extra time and special accommodations on the SAT.

Because the test is time-intensive, it puts students with certain disabilities (ADHD, dyslexia, processing difficulties, etc.) at a distinct disadvantage.

Therefore, students with these disabilities can attain extra time by documenting these disabilities and applying for special accommodations.

By far the most common accommodation is extra time, with most students receiving an extra 50% on the clock, and a rare few receiving as much as an extra 100%.

Students may also receive special accommodations such as private testing rooms, computers on which to write their essays, and more.

A full list of qualifying disabilities, along with accommodations that can be received and processes for attaining them, can be found here:


If you think you will qualify for extra time or special accommodations, it’s also highly recommended that you read our free guide on the topic here:


Comparison Between the SAT and ACT

Over 1.6 million students take both the SAT and the ACT each year .

In 2011, for the first time ever, more students took the ACT than the SAT , and this trend is continuing. This is a major reason why most people feel the SAT is changing its format – in an effort to become more like the ACT and regain market share.

While the Old SAT and the ACT were extremely different exams, the New SAT is being modeled almost directly upon the ACT. As a result, the two tests are now extremely similar.

Colleges have no preference for the SAT or the ACT – they simply use something called the concordance table to compare scores between the two tests, then select whichever test is comparatively highest. For that reason, students are advised to stick with one test or the other, rather than taking both.

Historically, the ACT was more popular in the American Midwest, whereas the SAT was more popular along the American coasts. However, as the number of students taking the ACT has increased, this trend is vanishing.

Neither the New SAT nor the ACT is harder than the other – they present the material in slightly different ways, but overall, both tests are remarkably similar. Which test a student prefers depends largely upon his or her pre-existing knowledge, learning style, and test-taking style.

Can one study for the SAT?

The significance of the SAT in determining an applicant’s admission to colleges and universities has spawned a multi-billion-dollar test prep industry offering classroom courses, tutoring, books, flashcard packages, and online packages and programs.

The SAT is not an IQ test or a test of innate ability . It is designed to test a very narrow group of information. For that reason, students can study for the SAT with great success. As with any subject matter, proper preparation will alter a diligent student’s outcome.

Unfortunately, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the fact that most SAT prep isn’t achieving real results, and as a result, SAT scores are declining across the country .

That being said, a small group of private tutors and quality programs has achieved success in improving student SAT scores, focusing on education fundamentals and patient, systematic, consistent learning.

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