Basics of the SAT: Tips, Tricks, and Understanding Your Score

What is the SAT?

The SAT is one of the main standardized tests used to qualify for college admission in the United States. Most US colleges require either the SAT or the ACT for admission. Doing well on these tests can open doors to many colleges, honors programs in college, and scholarship opportunities.

SAT Structure

Doors to your testing center will open at 7:45 AM and close at 8:00 AM. There will be a proctor to distribute exams, give you instructions, and monitor the testing room. You test should start between 8:30 AM and 9:00 AM.

Remember to bring your printed admission ticket, acceptable photo-ID, two standard No. 2 pencils with erasers, and an approved calculator. Refer to the Test Day Checklist for details on what you can and cannot bring.

Reading65 minutes with 52 questions (75 seconds/question)
10-minute break 
Writing and Language35 minutes with 44 questions (48 seconds/question)
Math (no calculator)25 minutes with 20 questions (75 seconds/question)
5-minute break 
Math (with calculator)55 minutes with 38 questions (87 seconds/question)
2-minute break 
Essay (Optional)50 minutes for 1 essay
Total Time (no essay and not including breaks)  3 hours
Total Time (with essay and not including breaks)  3 hours and 50 minutes

When should I take it?

The SAT is offered 7 times a year in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. Technically, you can take the SAT at any point starting your Freshman year. But, most students wait until they have gained more math background through their school curriculum and will test during the spring/fall of their Junior year.

Tip: Do not wait until the last minute! After your test, it takes several weeks to process and get your score. It takes even longer for your chosen colleges to receive and process your score.

If you are applying Early decision, the latest you should test is November of your senior year. If you are applying Regular decision, the latest you should test is December of your senior year.

When should I start studying?

Most students start the bulk of their studying during the spring/summer before their junior year of high school starts. Starting early leaves you time to change your study process, take a re-test if you need, take SAT subject tests, and also consider studying/taking the ACT if you are unable to hit your target scores after steady practice.

Tip: Plan your studying time early so that you aren’t also stressed about other responsibilities like studying for AP exams, participating in extracurriculars, or taking a part-time job.

How do I study for it?

There are many test prep companies that offer books and courses. Only two are College Board approved:

  1. College Board! They offer 8 free practice exams on their website and you will find the most details about the SAT on their website. Also offers tutorials, practice questions, and other test resources.
  2. Khan Academy: Partnered with the College Board, they offer a free adaptive online learning program and full-length practice tests.

Tip: Always do your research when considering third-party material.

Tip: Read books, news articles, and challenging literature starting from your freshmen year. Getting better at reading comprehension will serve you through college and will do wonders to boost your score on other standardized exams like the MCAT, DAT, and LSAT.

How do I sign up?

This test is developed and administered by College Board. You will need sign up for the exam yourself, not in the name of your parents, by making an account with College Board.

Tip: You must register and sign up approximately one month in advance of your exam date if you do not want to pay late registration fees. Check their website for registration deadlines.

Cost + Fee Waivers

The SAT exams for the 2019-2020 school year costs $49.50 without the essay. The SAT with Essay costs $64.50. There are additional fees for things like late registration or changing your exam date.

The College Board does have Fee Waivers available for students of many different backgrounds. See if you are eligible on their website.

What is a good score?

While every student wants to know, no one will give you a definite answer, because every college has different expectations.

Every year, the College Board calculates the National Average. In 2019, the National Average SAT score was 1059. The Evidenced Based Reading and Writing (ERW) score was 531 and the Math score was 528.

Tip: Average students are not usually the first ones to get into top colleges and qualify for scholarships. Most colleges will provide the SAT scores for their previous years incoming freshman and this can help you form a target score for yourself. Most of them will give you a range of their school’s average, so you can aim to hit above the average.

Understanding Your Score Report

Remember, do not get held up in the numbers. During your test, focus on staying calm and trying your best. Do not try to identify which questions will contribute to your different scores. After you take your test, use you score report to learn about your strengths and identify any weaknesses that you can improve upon.

The scores that students care about the most are Total score, the Math score, the Evidenced Based Reading (ERW) and Writing score, and the Essay score. The other scores are more diagnostic, but can help you interpret what you could use more practice on.

Total Score: 400 – 1600

You will receive 1 Total score. You were essentially tested on two sections (1) Evidenced Based Reading and Writing and (2) Math. Each section is given a score ranging from 200 to 800. The sum of these two section scores is your Total score.

Essay Score: 2-8

You will receive 3 total Essay Scores. Your essay is evaluated on reading, analysis, and writing. You will get a score for each of those elements.

Test Scores: 10 – 40

You will receive 3 total Test Scores. These represent the three subjects you were tested on- reading, writing and language, and math.

Cross-test Scores: 10 – 40

You will receive 2 total Cross-test Scores. One score represents your Analysis in History/Social Studies. The other score represents your Analysis in Science. There are certain questions that test-makers put in the different sections of the SAT to examine your analysis skills. You will not be told which questions are contributing to your cross-test score.

Subscores: 1- 15

You will receive 7 total Subscores for the following:

Reading and Writing and Language:

  • Command of Evidence
  • Words in Context

Writing and Language:

  • Expression of Ideas
  • Standard English Conventions

Math

  • Heart of Algebra
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  • Passport to Advanced Math

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