First, some useful vocabulary …
College: Equivalent to University in the UK.
GPA: Grade Point Average (The GPA is calculated by taking the number of grade points a student earned in a given period of time of middle school through college).
SAT: Scholastic Aptitude Test- used by colleges as a predictor of first-year GPA at college.
ACT: American College Testing Program- an alternative to the SAT.
What is the SAT?
The SAT is one of two standardised college admissions tests used by US colleges/universities. The other is the ACT which is also used by US colleges. The SAT is run by the college board who also run the AP (advanced placements), taken by students in US high school instead of A-Levels. It was thought in the early 1900s that the SAT was a good predictor of grades achieved in the first year of university and therefore was a popular tool used by colleges.
The SAT measures key skills such as reading comprehension, computational ability, and clarity of expression. Your SAT score must be submitted alongside your College application and can account for up to 50% of the admission decision. While some exceptions remain, such as liberal arts colleges that may de-prioritise the SAT or the maths sections within it, the SAT score remains the single most pivotal factor in most applications for American colleges.
What are the SAT requirements by colleges?
All US colleges running four-year courses accept the SAT and most will require either the SAT or the ACT. Increasingly however colleges are becoming more flexible with policies so do ensure you check requirements with the college you’re applying to. Any international students looking to apply to the US will need to sit the SAT or ACT.
What does the SAT consist of?
There are 10 sections in the SAT:
Two reading sections
Two maths sections
One writing section
One experimental section
One 20-minute reading section
One 20-minute maths section
One 10-minute writing section
Sections 1-5 are each 20 minutes long and sections 2-5 are presented in a random order.
The test is mostly multiple choice, apart from the essay at the start and 10 grid-in questions in one of the 25-minute math sections.
How is the SAT scored?
The maximum possible score that can be obtained on the SAT is 1600. This number is then converted into a scaled score through equating. It is slightly unclear how this process works however it means that a score of 650 in maths on one test will always correspond to a 650 in maths on another test even if one test contains easier questions.
The average SAT score year on year is around 1500 however what counts as a good score will really depend on the college you’re applying to. For example, the 75thpercentile for Ivy League universities lies at 1560-1600. That said, if you are aiming for Ivy League, your application alongside your SAT will need to be really strong.
How can you prepare for the SAT?
You most certainly should prepare for the SAT, if only to get the feel of the test. There are many ways to prepare for the SAT. These include preparation books, private courses and having a private tutor. A few questions answered correctly or incorrectly can mean the difference between obtaining that sought-after place at college or not.
Part of the role as a tutor is not only to prepare a student in terms of familiarity with strategies, exam content and study skills but to give them the capacity to feel confident, prepared and grounded which both lowers stress and improves functionality. Confidence and a knowledge of the style of question asked have as much to do with boosting one’s scores as critical reading skills and advanced algebra skills. Hence a good tutor will not only teach the exam but will also teach the student how to feel both prepared and at ease.
A good tutor knows, not only the skills assessed, but also the strategies involved in applying those skills. A basic example is that the penultimate problem in most math sections is the hardest (a crafty tactic to trick students into spending too much time on it). In actual fact, finishing the equally-weighted final problem can be a more prudent strategy. A good tutor also identifies where and how a student will move forward most efficiently. Each Student needs a unique plan of how to approach the exam. A good tutor will teach differently for each student.
How many times should you take the test?
This will depend on the College’s admissions process. Some colleges will take a student’s best score and some an average of all tests taken. In both cases it will be beneficial to take the test many times. Some colleges split scores where they compile the student’s best scores in each section of the exam, regardless of date taken. Some colleges weight each section differently as well. It may also be beneficial for international students to ask the college whether they have any particular approach towards these student’s test scores that may differ from the way they assess native student’s scores. Preparation and familiarity are the best way to be successful, and so taking the exam a few times may well be the best course of action.
What sort of student excels in the SAT?
Students who do well are those who are consistent in preparing over a long period of time. Also, students who are willing to apply test strategies that are effective even when they contrast what is learned in school; students willing to work on weaknesses as well as strengths; and finally, students responding to challenges with increased efforts and determination rather than believing that they have plateaued.
— Mitch Artman is an experienced Princeton-trained SAT tutor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
US College Rankings: The Best Colleges in America, Ranked by Value