How SATs Work

Before you start your college career, you have to take the SAT.
Photo courtesy of Duke Photography

Tests are a fact of life throughout our school careers, but one of the most important, and, to some, the scariest, of them all is the SAT -- that three-hour exam that's supposed to measure a high school student's chance of academic success in the first year of college. Some colleges consider SAT scores major factors in their admission process (See How College Admission Works), while others view high school academic performance, along with recommendations and extracurricular activities, equally, or even more, important. No matter where you're headed, if you're a high school student, the SAT is important to you because most colleges require students to report either SAT or ACT Assessment (another test) scores.

Why is this test so important? When should you take it? What are the questions like? What do the scores mean? In this edition of How Stuff Works, we'll look at all aspects of the SAT and tell you everything you need to know before and after taking it. And we'll give you some tips to help keep you calm and focused during your SATs! Can you say, multiple choice?


What Is the SAT and Why Is It Important?

First of all, SAT no longer stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test, the original name of the test when it was introduced in 1941. Although you may still see that name occasionally, the College Board, the not-for-profit educational association that sponsors the SATs, decided to let the acronym stand on its own as a way of addressing controversy about the meaning of the word "aptitude." The College Board also rejected the alternative "Scholastic Assessment Test." (English teachers probably pointed out that this name was redundant, since assessment means test.)

The SAT I measures verbal and math reasoning abilities that you've developed throughout your school years. The multiple-choice test, developed by the not-for-profit Educational Testing Service, is intended to let students demonstrate their verbal and math abilities without regard to the kind of schooling they've had. According to the College Board, the test looks for a student's ability to understand and analyze written material, to draw inferences, to differentiate shades of meaning, to draw conclusions and solve math problems -- all skills that are necessary for success in college and the work world.

(The American College Testing (ACT) Assessment, which was introduced in 1959, is an alternative to the SAT that virtually all colleges and universities now accept. Developers of the test tout it for its curriculum-based questions, saying that their test is more directly related to what is actually taught in high school.)


What's the SAT II?

The newer SAT II: Subject Tests, formerly the College Board Achievement Tests, are intended to measure a student's knowledge of a particular subject, such as English (writing or literature), history and social sciences, mathematics (various levels), sciences, and languages (Chinese, French, German, modern Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Spanish, English). Some colleges require one or more SAT II tests, but even if they aren't required, SAT II tests scores can help you present a more personalized portfolio that illustrates how well you would fit at a particular school. Most colleges use SAT II scores not for admission purposes but for program placement and counseling. SAT II tests are given on a slightly different schedule from the SAT I (here's the complete SAT schedule for 2000-2001). Generally, SAT II tests are one hour long and consist of multiple choice questions. There are exceptions. For example, the Writing Test has 40 minutes of multiple-choice questions and a 20-minute writing sample.

How Do I Know Which Subject Test to Take?

First, make a list of all the colleges you're considering. Then review their catalogs or Web sites to find out if they require Subject Test scores for admission and, if so, which ones. Use your list of colleges and their admission requirements to help plan your high school course schedule. For example, a college to which you plan to apply may require a language Subject Test score or might exempt you from a first-year course requirement if you do well on a language Subject Test.


In addition, the College Board Web site can be searched for information about Subject Test requirements at specific colleges:

When Should I Take the SAT?

Generally, the latest you can take your SATs and be eligible for admission in the next academic year is in the fall of your senior year of high school. You'll want to check application deadlines at schools in which you're interested to be sure your scores will make it in on time. (You can also take advantage of the College Board's new phone-for-results service. You'll be charged a fee but you'll get your scores about 10 days earlier.) Increasingly, students are taking the SAT in the summer before their senior years, in the 11th grade and even as early as the 10th grade.

It's very important to register early for the SAT to avoid the deadline rush, since testing sites can fill up quickly and force you to go to one farther away. (Deadlines are usually about a month or six weeks before the actual test). You can register online now -- but once you've registered, you can't cancel. However, you can change your test date for a fee.

Regarding the SAT II tests, if possible, take tests like American history, biology, chemistry and physics right after your course ends at school, while the information is still fresh in your mind. On the other hand, you’ll probably do better taking writing and language tests after several years of study. Most students take Subject Tests toward the end of their junior year or at the beginning of their senior year.

Before you take the SAT, you'll take the PSAT/NMSQT (it's co-sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corp., which, along with other scholarship funds, uses the scores to select scholarship recipients). The PSAT is similar to the SAT I except that it is a half-hour shorter and includes a grammar section that's absent from the SAT I. The PSAT is offered twice each year, usually in the fall. PSATs are typically taken in the 10th or 11th grade, and you can contact your school's counseling office for registration information. (PSATs, unlike SATs, are administered through your high school.) To help you keep up with all this information, use this SAT Planner!


What Kinds of Questions Can I Expect on the SAT?

According to the College Board, there are three types of verbal questions used on the SAT I:

  • Analogies (19 questions) -- These questions measure your knowledge of the meanings of words and your ability to see a relationship between a pair of words and to recognize a similar or parallel relationship.
  • Sentence completions (19 questions) -- These measure your knowledge of the meanings of words and your ability to understand how the parts of a sentence logically fit together.
  • Critical reading (40 questions) -- These measure your ability to read and think carefully about a single passage or pair of related passages.

There are also three types of math questions on the SAT I:


  • Five-choice multiple-choice (35 questions)
  • Four-choice multiple-choice (15 questions that focus on the concepts of equalities, inequalities and estimation)
  • Student-produced response (10 questions that have no answer choices provided)

You can find examples of these kinds of questions in the College Board's SAT Question of the Day section, in practice test books you can buy (or find in your school's counseling office) and at the offices of testing services like Kaplan and Princeton Review. These won't be the actual questions you'll find on your SAT, but they will be good practice and get you in the rhythm of answering multiple choice questions while being timed. (As of fall 1999, the College Board's SAT Learning Center makes past SAT test questions available online.)

Who Comes Up with These Questions and Why Do Some of Them Seem Like Trick Questions?

The Educational Testing Service produces the questions on the SAT. But they go through several channels before the questions make it onto your test. Once the questions are developed, a test committee, made up of high school teachers and college faculty and administrators, reviews them and makes recommendations for improving them. Some test questions are even submitted randomly by high school and college teachers.

About those "trick" questions: The College Board says the SAT isn't out to trick you. However, they admit that there are some difficult questions that require concentration and good thinking. Here's a tip: Many have incorrect answers that look good at first or that will seem correct if you aren't paying attention.

Why Is the SAT I Limited to Three Hours?

Studies have been done to learn whether most students have enough time to try to answer all the questions in each section of the test. These have shown that time limits are appropriate if all students taking the test answer 75 percent of the questions in each section and if 80 percent reach the last question in the study. Under these criteria, three hours is enough time for most students to complete the SAT I. However, students testing under the SAT Program for Students with Disabilities may request extended time for taking the test.

How Much Does It Cost to Take the SAT?

The $23.50 fee for the SAT I includes a basic registration/reporting fee of $13. This $13 will cover sending score reports to up to four colleges and scholarship programs. These fees are non-refundable.

Additional services and fees include the following:

  • Pre-registration by phone, $10
  • Surcharge on test fees in the State of New York, $1
  • International processing fee (for students outside the United States, U.S. territories and Puerto Rico), $15
  • Fax registration fee (for students testing in non-U.S. countries), $5
  • Security surcharge to test in India, $15
  • Late registration fee, $15

Score reporting service fees include:

  • Each additional score report to a college or program (beyond the four requested on your registration or correction form), $6.50
  • Rush (telephone) reporting of scores, $20 (plus $6.50 for each report to a school or scholarship program)
  • Additional (telephone) reports, $10 (plus $6.50 for each report)
  • Scores by phone, $10

Fees for SAT II tests vary, so the $13 basic fee (including reports to four specified schools or programs) is added to the total for all subjects taken. The writing test costs an additional $11 and language tests with listening, another $8. All other subject tests are $6. The registration and reporting service fees we mentioned earlier are also applicable here. (Check this Test and Service Fees listing for details.)


Can I Study for the SAT?

That's a good question and one that educational experts still debate. The College Board stops short of endorsing the use of test prep services, which can charge hundreds of dollars per person per prep course. Board officials maintain that the nature of the SAT makes it difficult to study, or "cram" for and that your best bet is to take academically challenging, pre-collegiate courses in high school and to keep your study habits strong and your grades high. The College Board suggests that taking the PSAT/NMSQT is a good way to prepare (it also gets you on college mailing lists) as are studying the types of questions in the SAT and taking the sample SAT I, which is provided free at high schools.

On the other side of the fence sit test prep giants making millions of dollars each year offering courses designed to help students boost their performances on the SAT, PSAT, ACT and a variety of other academic and professional tests. These companies resent any implication that they teach students test-taking "tricks," saying that their businesses spend a lot of money on specialized research aimed at learning what it takes to get good test scores and that they pass those findings on to course-takers. Some test-prep companies even guarantee specific score increases. If the scores aren't there, these firms offer cash back or, more often, a free repeat of the course. (There are many of these services, so cruise the Internet and your local telephone directory if you're interested.)


Tests Make Me Nervous -- What If I Panic?

It's very important not to panic -- if you panic when you take the test, it doesn't really measure what you can accomplish. Take a look at one person's tips for staying calm before test day.

You're less likely to be nervous if you go prepared to take your test. Remember to bring these things to the test center:

  • Your admission ticket (which will have been mailed to you in advance)
  • Two No. 2 pencils and a good eraser
  • Approved identification (you won't be admitted without it!) -- Approved ID will have a photograph or written physical description, your name and your signature (for example, driver's license, school picture ID card, valid passport -- See How a Passport Works.)
  • Acceptable calculator, only if you are taking the SAT I, SAT II: Math Level IC or Math Level IIC

There are also some things you cannot bring to the test center. These include the following:

  • A watch with an audible alarm
  • Food or drink
  • Scratch paper
  • Notes, dictionaries, books
  • Compasses, rulers, protractors or any other aids
  • Colored pens, pencils or highlighters
  • Cell phones or pagers
  • Portable listening or recording devices (this doesn't apply if you're taking an SAT II language listening test.)



What Else Do I Need to Know About Test Day?

You should plan to arrive at the test center between 8 and 8:15 a.m. on test day. The actual test starts at about 8:30 a.m. and ends at 12:30 p.m. You will be given a short break at the end of each hour of testing.

If you are taking the SAT I, you must work within each section of the test during the time allotted. You won't be allowed to go back to a section once its time has ended. Likewise, you won't be allowed to move ahead and finish a section early. If this sounds complicated, don't worry. The test supervisor will be your guide and will give you all the information you need to get through the test.


If you are taking SAT II tests, you may work only on one test during each testing hour. The order in which you take the tests is sometimes determined by which Subject Tests you are taking, so check this College Board advisory.

How Is the SAT Scored?

First of all, it's true that there is a 30-minute equating section in each SAT I that doesn't count towards the test-taker's final score. You can't tell which section it is and it can be either verbal or math. The equating section is used because it works well for trying out new questions for future versions of the SAT. And, according to the College Board, equating adjusts for minor differences in difficulty across different forms of the SAT and makes sure that a score of, say 560, represents the same level of ability no matter which form of the test you are taking. In other words, equating plays an important role in making the SAT a "standardized" test. Now, back to general scoring -- The SAT I is scored through a two-step process. Correctly answered questions receive one point. Omitted questions receive no points. For multiple-choice questions answered incorrectly, a fraction of a point is subtracted -- 1/4 point for five-choice questions and 1/3 point for four-choice questions. No points are subtracted for incorrect SAT I math questions requiring students to produce the answer without any choices, and, as we just explained, questions in the SAT I equating section do not count toward your score.

To get your raw score, a fraction of the multiple-choice questions answered incorrectly is subtracted from the number correctly answered. If that resulting score is a fraction, it's rounded to the nearest whole number. For example, 1/2 or more is rounded up, and less than 1/2 is rounded down. Then your raw score is changed into a scaled score by a statistical process called equating. Equating adjusts for slight differences in difficulty between test editions and ensures that a score on one edition of a test reflects the same ability as the same score on another edition. Equating also makes sure that your score does not depend on how well others did on the same edition you took.

Because the average score for both verbal and math is around 500, your scores will indicate where you're stronger. However, since no scaled score is completely accurate, you may score a little higher in one area but have equal skills in both. According to the College Board, for 1999 college-bound seniors, the average verbal score was 505 and the average math score was 511.

To mixed reviews, the College Board "recentered" the average scores on both the math and verbal sections of the SAT in 1995. The board recalculated the average scores to reflect the results of students who took the test in 1990, rather than by the standards of those who took the test in 1941. Critics charge that this grading on the new curve meant a student who scored 800 on the verbal test in 1996 did not necessarily achieve perfection, but rather the equivalent of about 730.

SAT II test scores and averages vary from one subject to the other. Since no numerical score can represent your complete knowledge of a specific subject, colleges ask that score ranges be included in SAT II score reports. You can check these average Subject Test scores for specifics.


When Will I Know My SAT Scores?

In most cases, your score report (containing your most recent scores, score ranges and percentiles, ID information, personal and college profiles and other information you provided by agreeing to participate in the Student Search Service) is mailed about three weeks after you take the test. If you requested that your score(s) be sent to colleges or scholarship programs, a report will be sent to them within that same period of time. If you listed your high school code number on the Registration Form, your high school will also receive a copy. (For an extra fee -- see fees, above -- you can get your scores by phone.) If you have not received your score report eight weeks after your test, send the College Board an email that includes your name, date of birth, mailing address, test date and your registration number.

Can I Take the SAT Again?

You can re-take the SATs but you should think carefully before you cancel scores since, once canceled, scores cannot be reinstated or reported to you or your designated colleges or universities. If you finished the test but are sure you did poorly, you can cancel the score by asking the test supervisor for a Request to Cancel Test Scores form. Complete the form immediately and return it to the supervisor before you leave the room. If you decide after you've left the test center to cancel, you must do so in writing to the College Board in Princeton, N.J., by the following Wednesday. (See their Web site for the address.)


Another important consideration: You must cancel all scores for that test date. This means if you took SAT II Subject Tests, you must cancel scores from all of the subject tests you took on that date. If you erase all responses to an individual Subject Test, it will be considered a request for cancellation, and scores from all tests taken that day will be canceled as well.

If this seems like a lot to consider, remember that most colleges and universities don't have a specific SAT cutoff for admission. (Most now report scores of only the middle 50 percent of entering first-year students.) There are many good schools that are eager to get to know you, and your application, test scores, academic record, extracurricular activities, recommendations and interviews will all be considered in that decision!