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All the Basics You Need to Know About the SAT

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Most colleges still require applicants to take the SAT (or the ACT). That’s shifting a bit because of the coronavirus pandemic, so keep an eye on what your target colleges are doing. 

Both the SAT and ACT tests are three hours long, testing multiple subjects with challenging reading prompts, timed mathematics problems and an optional essay (for now, read more later on).

The SAT test has a reading comprehension section, a grammar section and a math section with and without a calculator. The entire English section (reading comprehension and grammar) is 800 points and the math section is 800 points for a total of 1600 points. 

When should I start studying for the SAT?

Start studying for the SAT in the summer before junior year.

BTW, here are some super simple tips to get you started. 

Managing junior year classes (all your APs and advanced coursework) while studying for this test at the same time can be stressful. Ideally, studying the bulk of the content in the summer before junior year frees you to concentrate on achieving higher in your junior year.

Aim for fall testing dates in the beginning of your junior year and, if you need to, you can retake the tests throughout the school year.

Take advantage of the August, October, November and December SAT testing dates in junior year and finish it early.  

What is the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

The SAT reading section has 5 passages whereas the ACT reading section has 4 passages.

The SAT math section will test arithmetic, algebra I, algebra II, geometry, trigonometry and data analysis and includes both calculator and non-calculator sections.

The ACT math section tests arithmetic, algebra I, algebra II, geometry, trigonometry, probability and statistics only with calculators.

The ACT science section tests critical thinking skills (not specific science knowledge).

SAT does not offer a science section but one of the five passages in the English section will be nonfiction.

Both tests include an optional essay, and the purpose of the SAT essay is to test your comprehension of a source text while the ACT essay is to test how you evaluate and analyze complex issues.

Both tests are approximately three hours long with breaks. 

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

The ACT test is also accepted in place of the SAT.

General consensus is that the ACT is perfect for students who excel at working under pressure, answering questions fast and enjoy or are skilled at science.

The SAT is for students who enjoy in-depth critical thinking for reading passages and have the ability to perform math calculations without a calculator.

Additionally, there is no exact conversion between the scores ranges. To know which test is right for you, take a practice test in both and see which one is closer to your goal score. 

How do you study for the SAT?

Most of us really just need to be familiar with the types of questions on the test. Some of us will also need to freshen up on the content.

But you definitely need to know how to take the test. So take advantage of the College Board SAT practice questions to get comfortable with the content and format.

Studying takes about two months or roughly one summer, so start studying early. 

Should I take the optional essay?

For now, yes. But, College Board announced that it will be discontinuing the optional essay in June 2021.

The essay is optional and scored separately from the multiple choice portions of the test. This means that your essay score does not affect your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score.

Some colleges require them, and it’s better to have a full test than have to retake the entire SAT for the essay. You cannot only sign up for the essay.

If you take the essay, you will be covered for all schools and a good score may boost your application slightly.

The only way that the essay would hurt you is that if you get a really low score (almost fail the essay), and your college application essays are too good. That would be a red flag in the admissions counselors eyes.

But overall, even if the essay is lower than you expected, don’t worry. 

What is superscoring?

Your superscore is the total of your highest scores on each test section.

For example, if in November, you received an 800 on the English section and a 750 on the Math section, your composite score would be 1550.

If you retake the test again in December and receive a 770 on English and a 800 on Math, your composite score would be a 1570.

Your superscore would be the highest of each section, which would be the 800 from November’s English section and the 800 from December’s English section for a superscored total of 1600.

Your highest composite score, however,  is the best score from a single sitting. This would be the December score of 1570.

Some colleges allow you to superscore, others require you to put all your scores down, others a combination.

For this reason, technically you can take the SAT as many times as you want to achieve the highest superscore. But a lot of people say two or three is a good number of times to take it. 

What score do I need?

Top colleges are not going to admit you solely because you have a perfect SAT or ACT score.

Colleges don’t view a 34 on the ACT as drastically different from a 36.

There is not a single stat that will get you in. You have to be more than a test score. So I can’t tell you a magic number that you have to reach.

To get a sense of what individual colleges are looking for, you can search Niche’s college profiles (just filter based on your actual or goal SAT/ACT scores) or visit your target university’s website to understand the ranges and medians of successful applicants. 

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Author: Lauren

Lauren is a college student, double majoring in Economics and Psychology.