Five things to know about the SAT
November 30th, 2011
07:16 AM ET

Five things to know about the SAT

by John Martin, CNN

This Saturday, thousands of students across America will wake up, sharpen their number 2 pencils and proceed to take what could be the most important test of their lives – the SAT. There are some differences between the SAT that you probably took and the one students are taking this weekend. Here are five things to know about the big test.

1. What is the SAT?
The SAT is a college entrance exam taken by millions of students each year. The College Board, an association of colleges and high schools that creates and administers the test, says the exam tests skills and knowledge students acquire during high school and measures how that knowledge is applied, which many say is critical to success in college.

2. What is a perfect score on the SAT?
If you took the SAT before March 2005, you probably remember your score was out of 1600 points, 800 from math and 800 from reading. Today's nearly four-hour test includes a critical reading section, a mathematics section, and a writing section. Each section is still worth 800 points; 2400 is today's perfect score.

3. What's on the test?
The old version of the SAT had analogies and math problems that asked you to compare two quantities. These kinds of questions are gone. Today, the critical reading section consists of two kinds of multiple choice questions. Test takers either have to fill in a missing word in a sentence, or answer questions based on a long or short passage. The math section consists of mainly multiple-choice questions. There are also a few questions where students have to solve a math problem and bubble in a numerical answer. The writing section also has multiple-choice questions that ask students to identify errors in writing or improve a piece of writing. That section also includes an essay that must be written in 25 minutes.

4. How is the SAT scored?
Most of the questions on the exam are multiple-choice. Each correct answer adds a point to a raw score. Wrong answers result in a 1/4 point deduction, which penalizes wild guesses. There are no points added or deducted for questions that are skipped. On math questions where students have to supply an answer, there's no penalty for a wrong answer. The essay is graded by two graders; each one gives the exam a score from 1 to 6 and the two scores are added together.

5. Is the SAT the only option?
The SAT is required by many schools, particularly West and East Coast colleges in the United States. Many Midwestern states accept the SAT, but prefer the ACT, a different entrance exam. Some schools use class rank or grade point average (GPA) as admissions standards and do not require either test. Others may use it only for placement. According to FairTest, about 850 colleges make the tests optional for admission.


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soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Zach

    Most kids fear the SAT, but if you go about it right, you can turn it into your greatest edge. It is an opportunity dangling itself in front of everyone, but most just shy away from it.

    I studied and raised my score on the test A LOT. If not for the SAT and my embracing it rather than fleeing from it, I wouldn't have been accepted to the college I'm attending now.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  2. Ellen

    At our son's school, there is no A+, top grade possible is 4.0, so no one there can be "above 4.0" as in schools with A+ in their grading system. They also do not stack rank their students. By the time he takes the SAT, he will be two years past Geometry, with Calculus and Trig as his most recent math. Using a lower level math that you haven't done regularly in the past couple of years is a disadvantage, although he will brush up on it before he takes the SAT, and likely do fine. I think a test that you can prep for to increase your score is not a valid indicator of "scholastic apptitude". Back in the day, they told us the SAT wasn't really something you could/should study for, as it should be a broad indicator of your overall intellectual ability, which when combined with your grades would give an idea of your ability to fit into a particular university and perform well. I think that students and parents are too set on matching the university, rather than presenting an accurate picture of the student and allowing the school to choose whether or not you will be a good fit for them. It is a high-stakes game now, where we try to force the student into the box, rather than seeking the school that will provide the path to the brightest future for our child. Both the family and the school need to decide based on the best accurate representation you can present, as to whether the school and the student are a good fit. Local 4.0 students are turned down at our local state university, so that higher paying out-of-state and foreign students can be admitted and pay the higher nonresident tuition. The gamesmanship of having someone write/edit your essay for you, a prep course or two prior to taking the SAT, and taking easier courses to earn higher grades, doing volunteer service you don't care anything about in order to present some made-up image of who you are – none of this will prepare you to do good university-level coursework.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • I bleed blue & white, Lion Pride

      "Using a lower level math that you haven't done regularly in the past couple of years is a disadvantage.." I wouId have to disagree with that. I recently took the SAT and did very well. My current mathematics course is AP Calculus. The beautiful thing about math is that it just builds on itself. You're still using Algebra concepts even when doing Calculus problems. Also, I think the SAT questions are more designed to make you think, rather than asking you to recall specific information. It really doesn't matter what levels of courses you have taken to succeed on the SAT, you just need to be able to think.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  3. sonjahof

    It is near impossible to create one evaluation tool that assesses all students on particular concepts. Hence, the reason why there's a big push for differentiation in the classrooms - give students a choice in what they learn, how they learn, and how they're assessed. I'm all for differentiation, but there's no follow through with tests such as the SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, etc. Nor is it widely practiced on the college level. And real life doesn't really differentiate much.

    December 3, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  4. Mitch

    I didn't do too well on the SAT. I didn't do too well on my grades. I didn't finish college for a business degree because they embed terrible business practices in your head and I argued with everyone on how flawed it is. Somehow I have my own small business that does well for how small it really is. (I'm the only employee). 1 week a month off to do something fun in another state or country! Set a goal and stick to it!

    December 1, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  5. Anna

    I'm taking it this Saturday thanks to the Duke TIP program (I'm a seventh grader) and its good to know you won't get points off for wrong answers. I hate how you always have to get up early for big tests, my brain isn't functioning at six AM. :/

    December 1, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Boyce Brown

      good luck!!! make sure you get a lot of sleep!!

      December 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Sarah

      You do get 1/4 point off per wrong answer; read carefully!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  6. Sophomore in high school

    I think that the SAT is way overrated. I've already been pushed and prodded to start studying for a test two years in the future. My GPA is a 97.5 this quarter. Is it really that big of a deal?

    December 1, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  7. Emma

    I don't know of any schools that require the SAT, every single school I have heard of has accepted the SAT or the ACT. the ACT has become completely equally accepted at all colleges and universities. It's true that some Midwestern schools still prefer the ACT, but all (major) schools accept both.

    November 30, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Boyce Brown

      II took the SATs over 10 years ago, but I don't recall my high school offering students to take the ACT.

      December 2, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  8. Kevin Santamaria

    If you read CNN daily, you probably took the SAT at some point in your life..

    November 30, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  9. nick

    I'm taking it this weekend. I feel as though its a scam, I'm in higher level math classes, the SAT is all lower level stuff I never learned ... Its stupid

    November 30, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Boyce Brown

      ummm...if you are in a higher level math, wouldn't you automatically be able to do lower level math or at least have the ability to figure it out?? Don't worry, I am sure you will do fine....

      December 2, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  10. Mary

    The test seems waaaaay to soft, if there aren't penalties for wrong or skipped answers. I do like the idea of the essay part–we didn't have in my day.

    November 30, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • Bob J

      1/4 point is deducted from your raw score for incorrect answers on multiple choice questions.

      December 1, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  11. Stacie Leonard

    The SAT is not fair to the students. I have a daughter who is in the top ten percent of her class with a 3.84 GPA and she is in her senior year of HS. She has been on the high honor roll consistently since 9th grade, and has taken both college classes and AP classes, including Calculus, Trig, Physics, etc. She is above average and has proven that year after year. Yet when she took the SAT in November she scored well in everything but Math. Yet her math scores at school are amazing. She told us that because most kids do not take the upper level classes those questions were not on the math test. If this test is soooo important then it should be geared for all students. Not an accurate assessment for any of the kids in my opinion it needs to be re-assessed.

    November 30, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Stacie Leonard

      The GPA and students record should ultimately be the final judgement. I think their high school careers should be heavily weighted especially over this ridiculous assessment.

      November 30, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • Joe

      The SAT is a joke it measures nothing except BS. I did poorly on it and I'm now in graduate school pursuing my Master's right after graduating as an undergrad. GPA means much more than a dumb test.

      November 30, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
      • Jack

        After reading your comment, no wonder you did so poorly on your SATs. You just really had to explain that you're doing your master's in graduate school after graduating as an undergrad? Jeez. What school do you go to? Phoenix? DeVry?

        December 1, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • Curtis

      The math section of the current SAT doesn't require any knowledge beyond basic geometry, as it's entirely made up of trick questions. There's no real thinking involved – you either know the trick that will solve the problem right now, or you will waste time trying to work out the problem.

      It's stupid, but it's the point of this whole test. More like an IQ test than anything.

      December 1, 2011 at 12:32 am |
      • Bob J

        So, IQ tests are mostly trick questions?

        December 1, 2011 at 2:18 am |
      • Bob J

        . . . and IQ tests require "no real thinking?"

        December 1, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • Alexa

      How is it not geared toward all students? You're contradicting your own statement. The fact that it does NOT test on Calculus and higher level math is what makes it fair for all students. SAT Math was easier than any sort of material I studied in high school. If your daughter has taken such high level classes, SAT Math should have been a breeze for her.

      December 1, 2011 at 12:40 am |
      • Stacie Leonard

        Alexa..your reply is portraying ignorance. If the test was to be fair to all students. Then it would host a certain number of questions for all students on all levels. Especially since there is no penalty for not answering the ones you don't know. If it was a fair test, then it would include questions of all levels for all types of students. As far as it being a breeze, you take a test on something you learned in middle school...your senior year in high school after not using those skills. And let's see how easily you breeze through.

        December 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Bob J

      You're right. The SAT is not entirely fair, and your daughter's situation is not too uncommon: high math GPA but modest SAT math score. Sometimes students are just not accustomed to the style of questions asked on the exam and, yes, there are some tricks/traps if you're not careful. Try to get the Official SAT Study Guide published by the College Board (for around $20) and have her work every problem in the book. It includes 10 practice tests and there are 54 math problems on each test. It's the best $20 you could possibly spend for her SAT prep.

      December 1, 2011 at 2:49 am |
      • Bob J

        Alternatively, she could try the ACT instead, depending on the colleges you're considering. The ACT math portion is more straight-forward/less tricky, and includes a bit of basic trigonometry as well.

        December 1, 2011 at 3:26 am |
      • Boyce Brown

        Not to mention that a lot of high schools also offer a SAT prep class or one can search for a local SAT prep course offered at a local college or library... or there are tutors to help prepare to take the test as well!!!

        December 2, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • Somebody

      If your daughter is in the top 10% with a 3.84 GPA, your school has a problem. I go to a modest sized high school, and to be in the top 10% you need to be well over 4.0. Also, if your daughter is so good at math, she shouldn't have any problem at all with the geometry-level questions on the SAT. Just because she can't use her calculator to breeze through them doesn't make them unfair. In fact, most are downright simple, if you can only think your way through them. This test focuses more on logic and thinking problems through than knowledge or button-punching. Surely she knew that before she took the test?

      December 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
      • Sarah

        I completely agree. Everyone in the top 10 percent of my high school had no problem with SAT math. The math is very basic, and we were all in calculus when we took it as well!

        December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  12. Paul

    Thank you for this preschool level analysis of the SATs... Are you getting paid?

    November 30, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Boyce Brown

      Paul- who is this comment geared to?

      December 2, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  13. Dee

    Good luck to everyone taking the test! I know it's not fun but it's worth all the hard work – I just started at Stanford and it's paradise! If there's one piece of advice I can give for anyone who wants it: do a lot, a lot, a lot of practice questions! You start catching all the tricks College Board throws at you after a while... and when you're done, the relief is just incredible!

    November 30, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  14. Name*gift

    that was cool. I thought at first thAt SAT was meant only for foreign students..

    November 30, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  15. Patrick

    1. its a fraud

    November 30, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • ma degree holder

      Yeah but its a money making fraud. GRE was even worse, nothing was college material in it, same sort of stupid test.

      Now GMAT , MCAT and other professional exams for graduate education have some worth.

      December 1, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  16. STREET KNOWLEDGE=REAL SAT

    RIGHT NOW ANY KIND OF SAT KNOWLEDGE WILL BENNEFIT

    November 30, 2011 at 6:46 pm |