Although the SAT gets a lot of attention and everyone has heard a great deal about it, in my experience, I’ve discovered that too many students and their parents fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the test. So let’s start with some basics:

  1. What does the SAT look like?
  2. What does it test for?
  3. Why do colleges require it?

What does the SAT look like?

Let’s get some basic information about the SAT out of the way.

As most students will already know, the SAT tests abilities in three subjects: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math and an optional Essay.

Altogether, the SAT is three hours long for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math sections, with an additional 50-minute session for the optional Essay.

This includes four scored sections:

  • one Reading section of 54 multiple choice questions
  • one Writing and Language section with 44 multiple choice questions
  • one Math sections with two parts:
    • one that is calculator-optional with 38 questions
    • one without a calculator with 20 questions
  • one Essay section with one reading passage and an essay response

There is also an additional fifth section, twenty minutes long, that does not count toward the student’s score and is given to those students who opt out of the Essay section.

This experimental section may test Reading, Writing and Language, or Math, however it does not affect a student’s score and has been the fifth and final section for non-essay students since the debut of the redesigned SAT in March 2016.

What does the SAT test for?

In the words of the College Board, the organization that writes and administers the SAT, “[The SAT] is highly relevant to your future success…[it is] more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education. It measures:

  • What you learn in high school
  • What you need to succeed in college”

In other words, the SAT isn’t designed to test memorized words or facts you’ll never use in real life.

It’s designed to test the ability to think critically, reason things out, and solve puzzles—skills that are supposed to get trained and developed in school no matter what the student is learning.

Why do many colleges require the SAT?

In assessing general skills rather than knowledge retention, the SAT is designed to level the playing field and provide colleges with a piece of quantified, easily comparable data that can be used to identify the “best” students.

How does the SAT level the playing field?

Consider two students from very different high schools.

One attends a Midwestern public high school which offers very few AP courses. Another attends Stuyvesant, a high-prestige public high school in New York City.

Both students maintain straight As in their coursework…but the student from New York City has taken more difficult courses and has had the opportunity to participate in summer research internships. How could a college measure these two students against each other?

The SAT can help students who haven’t had the same opportunities shine and compete with their better situated peers. An excellent SAT score will identify the Midwestern student as someone who most likely would have thrived in the more intense New York school system. That is, the SAT helps colleges compensate for differences in opportunities.

Of course, the SAT doesn’t simply favor students from less competitive high schools. Consider two further students, again from very different high schools, applying to the same college.

One student has a 3.9 GPA from Harvard-Westlake, one of the premier private high schools in the U.S. The other has a 4.4 at a public high school in Southern California with a far less rigorous curriculum.

How is a college admissions officer supposed to compare these two students? Is it fair to say that the student with the lower GPA is less academically able?

Again, this is where the SAT comes into play. Since all students across the nation—and increasingly in other countries—take the same test, colleges can compare their academic abilities.

Although, as we saw in a previous post, college admissions officers are giving less weight to the SAT and putting more emphasis on GPA, the SAT is obviously still an important part of the college application.

And the SAT is unlike any exam students will have taken in school. It cannot be mastered by cramming in information or by memorizing enough formulas and vocabulary words.

Nevertheless, the skills needed to succeed on this test can be developed. The next section offers three very general tips for preparing for the SAT.

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