The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is an exam taken by millions of college hopefuls to ascertain their readiness for postsecondary education. Developed in the 1920s as a standardized way of assessing the core study skills needed to succeed in college, more than 1.7 million high school students now take the SAT each year. Used as a benchmark by college admissions offices and scholarship panels, the SAT is often a significant determining factor if a student is accepted to their top choice for higher education.
The following guide offers a host of community, professional and online resources while also providing glimpses of what to expect on the exam. Students who read this guide can also expect to gain expert guidance on acing the SAT from an admissions professional at the University of North Georgia.
Scores received on the SAT are one of the most important factors for many admissions department and scholarship panels as they demonstrate a student’s likelihood for success under the demands of college. Many of the top schools in America have score standards for admittance, making it important for students with aspirations to attend competitive schools to research the scores they’ll need to be considered.
1. Understanding Scores
College Board unveiled a wholly overhauled version of the SAT in the early months of 2016, so there may be confusion about what makes for a top mark under the new scoring system. Students who took the test prior to the new exam being implemented are able to use a score converter when applying to schools. Examinees wondering about the types of scores they’ll need can review
Compass Educational Group’s score ranges for 360 different colleges and universities in the United States.
2. Sending Scores
AT scores are sent to prospective schools by College Board, so examinees don’t need to worry about this extra step. When signing up for the test, students simply enter the names of their prospective schools and each will receive access to the scores once they become available. College Board provides this service as part of the examination fee for the first four schools, but students must pay $12 for every additional school that receives the scores.
3. Receiving Scores
AT scores are typically sent to students one day after they are received by colleges, which typically takes between three and four weeks. Scores are released via College Board’s online portal free of charge, although students can receive paper score reports or be told their score via phone if they’re willing to pay an additional fee. College Board maintains a calendar of testing days and when scores are released so test takers know when they should log in.
4. Old vs. New Scores
Prior to the changes in 2016, the SAT comprised four sections (including a mandatory essay) and was scored out of a possible 2400 points. The new SAT features two sections (alongside an optional essay) and is scored out of a possible 1600 points. A separate scoring system is used for the essay portion. Scores for each section now range between 200 and 800 points, with scores of two to eight given to each of the three dimensions used in grading the essay.
Changes to the SAT
The new SAT, revamped in 2016, looks similar to the older version but with a few significant changes.
180 minutes, or 230 with the essay
Evidence-Based Reading and WritingEssayMath
General reasoning skills; vocabulary (in limited context)
Knowledge, skills, and competencies important to success in college and professional life; extended context of vocabulary
Required; lasting 25 minutes and given at the start of the exam. Focus on writing skills and a student’s ability to present a position on a given issue
Optional; lasting 50 minutes and given at the end of the exam. Focus on reading comprehension, analysis, and written communication allowing students to analyze a piece of text
Ranging from 600 to 2400
Ranging from 400 to 1600, with separate scores for the essay
¼ point penalty for guessing incorrectly
No penalty for guessing
Print or computer-based
SAT Prep Timeline
Prepping for the SAT involves the right timing. Students who start too early are likely to experience burnout, while those who leave it until the last moment aren’t likely to retain much of what they studied.
1. Become Familiar With The TEst
According to admissions expert Molly Potts of the University of North Georgia, a good place to start in terms of preparing is to take the PSAT, a precursor to the SAT. “Taking a PSAT during sophomore year and comparing your results with the requirements of the institutions in which you’re interested is a good way to determine how much time you should spend studying for the SAT,” she says.
2. Start Taking Practice Tests
Khan Academy suggests students take two practice exams: one when they first begin studying as a barometer of baseline strengths and weaknesses, and one toward the end of the study period to see improvements. Khan Academy also encourages students to complete at least one of the practice tests using paper and pencil to simulate testing day.
Enroll in a Test Course
Testing companies typically offer year-round prep services, but some students may find that certain times of the year work better for them based on existing schedules. For instance, if a student plans to take the SAT in January but will be busy with fall sports leading up to that time, they may elect to sign up for the course during the summer and spend fewer hours but more weeks studying rather than trying to fit larger study blocks into their already busy schedules once school starts back.
4. Use Apps and Other Study Aids
Different apps serve different purposes, so it may well be that students begin using them rather early in their preparation time, but the apps they use vary as it gets closer to exam day. For instance, College Board’s app simply provides a Question of the Day which can be used for the duration of preparation. Meanwhile, other apps, such as iPredict, operates as more of a one-time diagnostic test to be used at the beginning of the process.
5. Take the Test
Test prep services like The Princeton review encourage students to take their first SAT during the fall of junior year. The first test of the academic year usually takes place at the start of autumn, with registration closing one month prior. Students who want to take the October test should register at the beginning of September. Professionals at the test prep company Magoosh suggest students should only take the exam three – or at maximum, four – times, so it’s best for students to measure how much time they have before college applications are due, then select a few testing dates throughout the year that provide time for them to improve on weak areas before re-sitting the exam.
Choosing an SAT Prep Course
Selecting the best SAT prep course can mean the difference between whether a student gets to attend their first or second choice of college, so taking time to find the perfect fit is worth the effort. Whether opting for free services or a paid course, high school students should first assess their needs before ascertaining what the top programs offer. A few things to keep in mind when looking at prep courses include:
SAT prep courses run the gamut between free practice tests and study guides to top tutors charging more than $1,000 per hour of one-to-one coaching. Before diving into the world of paid services, take time to create a budget of available funds and the services needed and stick to it. While a full SAT prep package with hours of tutoring may be too expensive, consider using free services for practice exams, vocabulary expansion, and math revision and rely on paid services for areas needing the greatest improvement.
Lots of prep courses follow a prescribed calendar of study that may not be aligned to a student’s needs. The needs of juniors will be far different than those who are sitting the exam in two weeks, so think about what’s possible with the time available and choose a course that will maximize that time.
Some students benefit greatly from the personalized nature of one-to-one tutoring, while others may find this approach too pressurized to truly focus. Bite-size doses of information provided by apps may suit some students best, but others may want to block off a few hours to truly dig into the materials. Assessing learning styles is a critical step in picking the best prep course, so take time to think about the pros and cons of each.
Writing + Language
The updated writing and language section of the SAT tests a student’s mastery of the conventions of English through a series of multiple choice questions about everyday usage.
Comprising 44 questions over 35 minutes, examinees are given four passages of approximately 400 to 450 words and then tested on questions ranging from word context and grammar to punctuation and vocabulary.
Each passage includes 11 questions about the language and writing style contained within. Topics covered by these passages usually relate to careers, the humanities, science, or social studies, but knowledge of these disciplines is not needed to correctly answer questions.
The goal of the writing and language section is to ascertain if a student’s skills in this area will serve them well at the college level and in the professional world.
Scored out of a possible 800 points (including the reading portion), the average for college-bound SAT examinees was 543 in 2017.
In addition to providing eight practice tests for this section, College Board also has an answer key with explanations of why each answer is wrong or right to help students better prepare for similar questions in the future.
The reading section of the new SAT shares its score with the writing and language section of the exam, meaning students can score up to 800 points if they ace both sections. This portion of the test lasts 65 minutes and includes 52 multiple choice questions that test a student’s ability to read college-level passages, comprehend the arguments being made and glean information from informational graphs.
Some of the questions in this section ask straight-forward questions about a specific piece of information, while others ask examinees to dig into the implications of the author’s words.
According to College Board, students can always expect to find a few different types of passages, including:
A piece of classic or contemporary U.S. or world literature
One to two passages from a founding document of the U.S. or a text inspired by them within the Great Global Conversation. Examples include the Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela
A social science passage relating to economics, psychology, sociology or political science
Two science passages related to foundational concepts and/or developments within biology, chemistry, Earth science or physics
Unlike the previous version of the SAT, the new exam makes it optional for students to complete the essay portion. While some students take it regardless to showcase their skills in writing and analyzing text, most students who undertake the section do so because their prospective colleges require an essay score.
Rather than multiple choice, students are given one passage of approximately 650 to 750 words that they must read, analyze, and craft a response to. The timer for this section is set for 50 minutes and in that time students must examine how the author uses facts or examples to support his/her claim, deploys reasoning to further develop ideas and connect them to evidence, and adds elements of style or persuasion to add power to the argument.
Specific topics aren’t released beforehand, but all passages have a few commonalities, including:
Written with a broad audience in mind
Makes an argument
Expresses nuanced views on complicated topics
Employs logic, reasoning, and evidence when making claims
Scrutinizes the arts and sciences and civic, cultural, and political life via ideas, debates, and trends
Taken from a published work
Math on the new SAT is divided into two sub-sections: calculator and no-calculator. The 25-minute no-calculator section includes 20 questions focused on fluency, understanding of mathematical concepts, techniques and number sense. The calculator section lasts 55 minutes and includes 38 questions related to complex modeling and reasoning. The majority of questions are answered in multiple-choice format, but a few “grid-in” questions require students to find the answer on their own rather than selecting from a list of options. All math questions center around algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and quantitative literacy, regardless of their format. The average score in 2017 was 541 based on a sampling of college-bound examinees.
Skills and knowledge needed for both sections are included in the table below:
Single equations and phrases
Creating linear equations or system of equations
System of two equations
Sine and cosine
Creating, solving, and graphing non-linear equations
SAT Subject Tests (previously called Achievement Tests) were introduced in 1939 as a way for promising students to demonstrate specific knowledge in subjects that either aren’t covered at all on the general SAT or are not covered in depth. All subject tests are considered optional, but some college departments may require students seeking entrance to a competitive program to complete related subject tests. Students who are particularly skillful in singular areas may also elect to take a subject test to demonstrate further competency and interest.
All subject tests last one hour and are comprised entirely of multiple choice questions, are offered six different times per year, and cost $26 per exam taken. The 20 tests currently available are divided into five disciplines:
Math Level 1
Math Level 2
SAT Disability Services & Accommodations
College Board makes available a number of accommodations depending on individual student needs. To meet eligibility requirements, a student must demonstrate that their disability impinges on their capacity to take the SAT and that accommodations are necessary to ensure a good test-taking experience. Students with short-term injuries or conditions that have not been diagnosed are not eligible to receive accommodations, but they may qualify for assistance under provisions for temporary medical conditions.
Accommodations available are wide ranging and currently include:
Additional and/or Extended Breaks To qualify for this accommodation, students must demonstrate that additional breaks are needed for physical or medical disabilities requiring them to test blood sugar, take medicine, rest or visit the restroom. Students with ADHD may also be eligible. Examples include breaks between each test section or extended breaks lasting twice the usual time.
Four-function Calculator This type of calculator can be used even on the math section that disallows a calculator if students have a specific learning disorder that affects their ability to perform mathematical calculations or if they have dyscalculia.
Time Extension Examinees who require additional time due to a documented disability may receive time-and-a-half or double time based on their needs. Options are also available for extended time on individual sections.
Reading and Seeing Assistance Blindness, severe reading disabilities, or other visual impairments meet the requirements for students to receive these types of accommodations. Examples of available accommodations include readers, magnifiers, braille test booklets, large-print text and tests in audio format.
Use of Computer Students may be eligible to use a computer for short-answer responses and essays if they have documented physical disabilities limiting their ability to write, language-based learning disorders, or dysgraphia. Tools such as spell-check or grammar-check must be turned off during use.
Approval Process for Accommodations
Test takers with documented disabilities are eligible for the accommodations described above, provided they gain approval prior to the deadline. College Board suggests students with disabilities work with their schools directly to get approval as this will expedite the process and ensure it goes smoothly.
Other tips from College Board, official administrators of the SAT exam, include:
Don’t Request Accommodations if You’ve Already Taken a Test Previously Students who have already taken the PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10 or AP Exams and received approval for accommodations don’t need to go through the steps again as approval for those exams carries over to the SAT.
Get Started Early Approval can take upwards of two months, so consider this timeline when picking an SAT testing day to ensure there will be enough time to receive confirmation of accommodations. College Board provides an accommodations request deadline calendar to make the process easier.
Preparing for Test Day
When testing day arrives, students who have used their study time wisely can walk into the exam room feeling confident and equipped – especially if they prepare for the day itself as well as they have for the test. Since all the hard work is done, students simply need to make sure they get lots of rest and eliminate any situations that may cause them stress or anxiety before picking up their pencils and getting to work.
Stay up late the night before the test.
Try to go to bed a bit earlier than usual so you can wake up feeling refreshed and have time to get your brain going before the test begins.
Go in on an empty stomach.
Students are allowed two short breaks during the exam to have snacks, but a solid breakfast will go a lot further in helping students focus on the exam rather than their rumbling bellies.
Save packing a bag until the last minute.
College Board provides a list of approved items that can be brought into the exam room – including two No. 2 pencils, a calculator, erasers, a watch, clothes, water, and snacks – so lay these things out the night before so you won’t be scrambling on the morning of the test.
Forget to look at the schedule.
Testing centers across the country adhere to the same simple plan, so get to know it well. Doors are open between 7:45 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., at which point students are given assigned seating. A proctor will go over all the rules and read procedural notes before the exam official begins at 8:30 a.m.
Think you can go back to a previous section.
Once a specific section of the SAT has been completed and a new section started, students can’t return to that section to answer more questions or make corrections – even if they have time left over at the end.
Forget to take breaks.
The SAT is a long and strenuous exam, and College Board provides breaks for a reason. Take advantage of the two breaks (lasting 10 minutes and five minutes) to drink some water, stretch your legs, and clear your mind for the next section of the test.
An Expert Weighs in on the SAT
Molly Potts is the director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Georgia and has worked in admissions for more than 15 years. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in marketing and a Master of Business Administration in leadership development from Brenau University.
Director at University of North Georgia
What are your best tips for preparing to ace this examination?
Take the SAT at least once in your junior year to become familiar with the format and content. Also, be sure to review study resources and take practice examinations to be fully prepared. For those who don’t feel they perform well on standardized tests, consider a prep class. If you require accommodations, be sure to secure those prior to your test date. Finally, relax! Thorough preparation can ease anxiety when you go to sit for the exam.
Is it worth a student’s time and money to hire an SAT tutor or take advantage of paid services?
Deciding whether to hire an SAT tutor is an individual decision. Many students who practice disciplined self-study and take advantage of free preparation resources, such as practice tests, are satisfied with their testing results.
When should students begin studying for this exam, and how much time should they devote to study guides?
While students should really start to focus on studying for the SAT after the completion of their sophomore year, reviewing the material during the freshman and sophomore years is advisable. Taking a PSAT during sophomore year and comparing your results with the requirements of the institutions in which you’re interested is also a good way to determine how much time you should spend studying for the SAT.
Why is it important for students to take the SAT in relation to college acceptance, scholarships, etc.?
Many institutions have minimum test score requirements for students to be considered for admission. For those with a competitive admission process, standardized test scores are often a key factor in determining the competitiveness of a student’s academic profile. Scores are also a factor taken into consideration for many merit-based scholarships.
Student Help & Resources for the SAT
At School & In the Community
Before logging onto the Internet and searching for apps and study guides, examinees would do well to see what is available in their local community. Students can often find assistance at community centers, local tutoring programs, colleges, and even possibly at their own high school. The options below are given as examples of programs that can likely be found in your community. Boys & Girls Club of America
BGCA has partnered with Kaplan to provide free test prep scholarships throughout America to help college hopefuls gain admittance to the school of their choice. Students should check with their local chapter to see if these services are available.
Numerous churches are expanding their missions to include preparing high schools students for higher education and now offer free or discounted SAT prep classes. New Life Church and West Angeles Church are just two examples.
Many high schools now offer SAT preparation courses either free of charge or for a small fee, as evidenced by Archbishop Murphy High School in Washington. Even if your school doesn’t have SAT classes, consider speaking with a guidance counselor to find out about other local resources.
Online Practice Tests & Free Help
Online SAT practice tests, available via many free providers, are valuable resources as they allow test takers a glimpse of the types of questions they’ll encounter on exam day. Practice tests are valuable both in the early days, when students are assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and then when they’re ascertaining how they’ve improved while studying. Students who want to mimic testing conditions can take the practice exams via pencil and paper while timing themselves to get a fuller sense of what they might expect on test day. College Board
CB oversees the administration of the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT exams and also provide a vast range of free resources to help students learn more about what to expect. The organization has several practice tests and examples of scoring.
A full practice test, diagnostic test, mini diagnostic test and an SAT guide can all be downloaded free of charge from Ivy Global.
In partnership with College Board, Khan Academy provides a full suite of free personalized practice exams, study plans and feedback to helps examinees do their best.
A roundup of free practice tests and other resources can be found on Prep Scholar’s SAT website.
The Princeton Review
Whether looking for online help or free practice events near their home, students who use The Princeton Review can find many helpful resources at their fingertips.
The fast-paced nature of a typical student’s school day means that, sometimes, studying may need to happen on the go. Smartphone and tablet apps are great resources to brush up on vocabulary, learn about math formulations, or review practice questions. Daily Practice
College Board’s free app provides a new SAT question each day with instant scoring and explanations of why a particular answer is the correct choice.
The Grading Game
At a cost of 99 cents, this app is well worth the investment. Users play a “game” which involves spotting grammar and syntax errors in essays to sharpen their skills.
Move over, flashcards. IntilliVocab uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to figure how users learn best and then tailor questions to their individual learning styles.
This free app allows students to answer 18 questions and then gauges their readiness for the SAT based on their current level of skills. Problem-solving strategies are also provided.
Math Brain Booster
Another free app, MBB helps students improve their attention spans, reaction times, and mental acuity – all of which will come in especially handy on the SAT’s no calculator section
Tons of lessons, virtual flashcards, diagnostic tests, and practice questions are available via Ready4’s free app.
This all-around app includes more than half-a-dozen diagnostic tests, 4,000 vocabulary words and 1,000+ questions with full explanations on why answers are right or wrong.
SAT Score Quest
Although The Princeton Review’s offering costs a one-time fee of $9.99, this highly interactive tool provides a tutor, extra practice questions and a score report.
The most frequently used app today, SAT Up provides daily questions, mid- and full-length practice tests, games and tutoring – all free of charge.
You Can Learn Anything
Khan Academy’s free offering includes more than 150,000 interactive exercises, a library of videos and progress reports.
Paid Services & Courses
Free services provide a range of base-level support to help students ascertain their readiness and prepare for the SAT, yet many of these services lack the personalized nature of a paid course. Students seeking more substantive support from a tutor or a guaranteed improvement of scores often elect to use these services. While the majority of paid SAT courses are legitimately provided by qualified professionals, students should do their homework before signing on the dotted line. Kaplan
SAT prep packages at Kaplan start at $299 for self-paced online courses, while the unlimited prep package costs $1599 and includes online and in-person tutoring, unlimited use of prep courses, and personalized testing advice.
The Princeton Review
The self-directed online prep course at TPR costs $299 while the “ultimate” course includes an additional 140 lessons, 25 hours of live lectures, and three hours of one-to-one tutoring for $849.
Depending on their individual needs, Veritas Prep provides a personalized prep package to help students strengthen their skills while reviewing materials in ways that suit their learning style best. Self-study and subject tutoring are also available both online and in-person.