SAT Test Overview: Get the Facts

SAT Test Overview

The SAT is actually a suite of assessments that includes the main SAT college entrance test, SAT II Subject Tests, and the PSAT/NMSQT test. Administered by The College Board, a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York, the test has long been used as a method to assess students’ critical reasoning and thinking skills. Most colleges accept either the SAT or the ACT test for admission, but some prefer the SAT, so check with the colleges you plan to apply to in order to know which test to take.

About the SAT

Back in the early part of the 20th century, if you wanted to go to college, you had to travel to the campus itself on a specific date and take the college’s own admission test in order to gain entrance. This was fine for rich families who could afford to send their sons (rarely, their daughters) to the campus, but middle and lower class students had a tough time affording the travel costs.

A group of college presidents banded together to find a solution. They found it in the burgeoning science of I.Q. testing, or aptitude testing. These professors and educators created a special test that would measure not just what students learned, but how they think. Their goal was to create a test that would measure a student’s aptitude or potential for college success, not just a test to measure what students had learned to date.

Called originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the very first SAT was given on June 23, 1926 to 8,000 young people. Since then, millions of people have taken the SAT as part of the rite of passage of college entrance exams.

The test itself has changed greatly over the years. Landmarks in the test’s history include the addition of a writing section, removal of the dreaded analogies, and other changes that have been made under the assumption that the test itself would become a better predictor of college success.

Today, the College Board continues to administer the test. The organization states on its website that the test’s goals include:

  • Measuring the ingredients for college and career success
  • Demonstrate and test a connection to classroom learning
  • Instill practice habits

The test has come under considerable fire, especially recently when numerous organizations insist it does little to predict college success. Still, many colleges require the SAT, and it is an important test to take if you are considering going to college.

SAT Test Overview

The SAT consists of Math, Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections. There is an optional Essay section which is required by some colleges, but not by all.

The test takes three hours to take without the Essay section. If you take the Essay, this adds 50 minutes onto the test.

The test itself breaks down into the following sections:

Math test: There is a 55-minute section that you can take with a calculator. There is also a required additional 25 minute section that you must take without using a calculator. Most math questions are multiple choice but some questions, called “grid in” questions, ask you to write in your answer. Some test questions are answered independently while others give you one scenario with several questions that refer back to the original scenario. The Math test focused on Algebra, Data Analysis, Problem Solving, and Advanced Equations. The Advanced Equations are closer to college level mathematics than many other equations on the test.

Reading test: The Evidence-Based Reading section is given in a 65 minute time block. During this section, you will be given passages to read. Some passages include graphics that provide you with more information about what you are reading. This is very similar to the way information is presented in books, journals and articles online that you will need to read and understand in college. The graphics are usually tables, charts and graphs, but you won’t be required to do any calculations to answer the Reading questions correctly. Most of the questions are based on the passage, but some will ask you to draw conclusions about what you have read based on the facts presented. The Reading section always includes at least one passage from a classic or contemporary work of literature, a passage from a U.S. founding document or another text that quotes a founding document, a social science selection, and two science passages. The idea behind this wide array of literature is to assess how well you can read different types of materials that are commonly found in college courses. A second portion of the reading text includes “Language in Context.” This includes a 35 minute language and writing section that tests your ability to understand the implications of tone and language choices, as well as understand specific words in context.

If you do take the optional Essay portion, here’s what to expect:

Essay: You’ll have 50 minutes to read a passage, explain how the author builds an argument, then make your own argument. You’ll need to support your thesis based upon the materials presented in the passage given to you.

The SAT claims to measure “real world skills” you need in college. The Reading and Writing portion measures:

  • You ability to read and interpret literature
  • Ability to read and interpret scientific and social science texts
  • Interpreting graphs, charts and graphically presented data
  • Understanding words in context, and how an author’s word choices can influence readers’ perception of the passage.

According to The College Board, the Math section analyzes your ability to:

  • Carry out mathematical procedures accurately, flexibly, and efficiently.
  • Quickly solve problems.
  • Identify the most expedient method of problem-solving.
  • Demonstrate your understanding of graphs and charts.
  • Apply these concepts to the real world.


The SAT is scored in two segments: the Math portion and the Reading/Writing section. Each section is worth between 200 and 800 points, with no points taken off for a wrong answer. That means it is better to answer all questions, even if you answer them incorrectly, then it is to skip a question.

Subscores are available, which breaks down your answers by type of question. The Essay is scored separately.

When to Take the SAT

Most students take the SAT in the spring of the their junior year in high school. This gives you enough time to receive your scores and decide if you’d like to take the test again to improve your scores. If you do, you can take the first fall administration and still make the early decision deadline given by most colleges.

Testing Dates and Fees

The current SAT administration is available in both print and digital formats. Spring testing dates are in early March, May and June; the fall dates have not been announced yet, but typically two to three test administrations are scheduled each fall.

You must register for the test by the deadlines given by The College Board, which are typically one month prior to the test administration date. The test is given at high schools nationwide, along with special test centers as needed.

The test costs $43 without the essay, and $54.50 with the essay portion. Fee waivers are available for low income students. A fee waiver means you do not have to pay to take the test.

Fee waivers are available to students who meet one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Are enrolled in the national Free and Reduced Lunch program;
  2. Enrolled in TRIO or Upward Bound programs;
  3. Your family receives public assistance;
  4. You live in federally subsidized housing;
  5. You are an orphan or a ward of the state;
  6. Your family falls within the USDA Income Eligibility guidelines.

Fee waivers cover up to two test administrations. They also include up to four score reports, which can be sent to the colleges of your choice.

Sending Scores

Scores are generally posted to a secure, password-accessible area on the College Board’s site about three weeks after you take the test. Scores are also available by phone, but there is a charge to get your scores by phone.

When you register for the SAT, you can indicate which schools you want your scores mailed to, and which scholarship programs you’d like them sent to as well. Many scholarship programs consider the SAT as part of your application process. These are sent automatically after the scores are available. Your high school, district and state education office also get access to your scores.

You can send your scores to more than four colleges, and you can change your mind and have the scores sent to different schools. There is a fee for these services, however. Each additional score report above the four included with your test fee will cost $11.25 per score report to send out. As with the SAT test itself, fee waivers are also available.

Score Choice

Score Choice allows students to select from among all of their test administrations the scores they wish to releases to the colleges they’ve chosen. If you don’t elect Score Choice during registration, all of your scores are sent. If you think you’re going to take the test several times to improve your scores, selecting Score Choice makes sense and can hide poor scores or highlight good ones for you.

Preparing for the SAT

So much has been said both for and against SAT test prep that it’s a difficult subject to tackle. Educators don’t agree on whether or not special test prep classes, books or software can actually help students do better on the SAT. The College Board has long held the position that familiarity with the test helps, but you can’t study for it the way you can for your regular Algebra or English Literature tests in school.

Because the questions on the SAT may seem very different from the ones you are used to in school, it does make sense to become familiar with their specific format and style. The best place to start is with The College Board’s website itself. They provide free study information online.

They have also formed a partnership with the Khan Academy for free test prep classes. You can attend any sessions, watch videos, and get test taking strategies and tips.

Many books, publications and websites are offered to help students prepare for the SAT. Your best course of action is to take as many practice tests as you can under timed conditions. Timed conditions are important, especially if you know that you are a slow reader or slow at calculating math problems by hand. By timing yourself, you will learn which areas of the test you need to work on, and you can concentrate your efforts on those specific areas.

Other ways in which you can practice for the SAT include:

What About the SAT II?

The SAT II: Subject Matter Tests are in-depth tests that assess your knowledge of specific subjects. There are 20 subject tests ranging from that include science, mathematics, English, and other major areas of study.

Some colleges prefer these or ask for a subject matter test in addition to the SAT. That’s because they’re most interested in how you’ll fare in a specific course of study rather than if you’re prepared for college overall. Their assumption is that you are probably prepared for college if you want to go to their school, but they need to get a feel for how much you know about your intended area of study.

Other colleges have actually stopped accepting the SAT or given students an option of taking two SAT II: Subject Tests instead of the generalized SAT. It’s best to check with the colleges you wish to apply to in order to understand their specific SAT requirements.

The SAT: Is It Worth Taking if You Don’t Know Where You Want to Go to College?

Some students worry that they’re wasting time taking the SAT when they still don’t know where they want to go to college or what they want to do after high school. Even if you plan to enter trade school, the military, or the job market right after high school, the SAT is still a good preparation for many things in life. It will help you learn how to prepare in advance for an important task. It will help you build discipline. More importantly, it will sharpen your mind. All of these are worthwhile skills no matter where you decide to go in life.