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Understanding the SAT

Ah, the SAT – perhaps the most feared (or disdained) aspect of the college admissions process. Indeed, this standardized test stands looming before so many high school students. And while the number of test optional schools is certainly growing, the vast majority of colleges still require SAT (or ACT) scores. So, aside from inducing stress, what exactly is the point of this exam?

The SAT is a reasoning test that aims to measure your ability to solve problems and assess your readiness for college. It’s also used as a means to compare you with other applicants who come from varying school systems/academic backgrounds. And clocking in at approximately three hours and 45 minutes, the SAT is a bit of a marathon. 

The test covers three areas - critical reading, math and writing. Each of the three sections uses a 200-800 score range, with a maximum total/overall score of 2400. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you’ll be tackling:

Critical Reading: The critical reading section includes both short (roughly 100 words) and long (500 to 800 words) reading comprehension passages from a variety of texts as well as sentence completion questions. The section contains a total of 78 multiple choice items.

Math: The math section includes numbers, operations, algebra, functions, geometry, measurement, data analysis, statistics and probability. The majority of the math questions are multiple choice. However, there will be 10 questions towards the end that will require you to produce your own responses. Calculators are allowed but are not required. We recommend checking the College Board’s website to see which types you may bring.

Writing: The writing section asks you to compose an essay that takes a position on an issue. You must use critical reasoning and examples to support said position. Multiple choice questions follow the essay, testing your knowledge of grammar and conventions and measuring your ability to identify sentence errors and improve sentences and paragraphs.

When should I take the SAT?
Most college-bound students take the SAT either in the spring of their junior year or fall of their senior year. Unless you are rather advanced in your studies, we recommend you follow suit. Some of the more advanced math concepts covered on the SAT aren’t broached until your junior year.

Additionally, you may take the exam more than once. And the good news is that most colleges will only look at/consider your strongest scores from each individual section. You’ll need to plan accordingly if you think you’ll be taking the test multiple times. You want to make sure you have enough time to receive your scores before application deadlines.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?
A handful of selective colleges and universities also require the SAT Subject Tests. As the name implies, these one hour, multiple-choice tests are focused on a specific subject area. You can sit for exams in literature, biology, chemistry, physics, math, U.S. history, world history and a variety of foreign languages. These tests are scored on the same 200-800 scale as each SAT Reasoning section. It’s important to note that some schools have preferred or required Subject Tests. Therefore, you should do some investigating before signing up. Of course, it would probably behoove you to take the tests in your strongest subjects (if possible).

How do I register?
Visit the College Board’s website to research upcoming test dates and register for either the SAT Reasoning or Subject Tests. You can also request a registration form from your high school guidance counselor. Remember to be aware of registration deadlines! Moreover, if you’re planning on sitting for any subject tests, be sure to specify which ones you want to take. You can always opt out of taking a test on the actual exam day. It’s much more difficult to add a test last minute.


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Don Munce