The SAT Reasoning Test (note: NOT the subject specific SAT tests) is used widely by colleges and universities as one of their admissions criteria. It is also often used as a criterion in awarding scholarships. It is claimed to test students’ abilities in subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics; subjects that are supposed to predict those students’ college success. It does not, however, do a very good job at this task, even by the admission of the College Board, the company that makes the SAT.
Normally taken by high school juniors and seniors, it’s become a dreaded rite of passage for many high school students around the world. Let’s take a look at the basic layout of the test.
Given seven times a year in the U.S., and six times a year overseas. the SAT tests three different areas; reading, writing, and math. Each of these are scored on a 200 to 800 point scale, and people usually talk about a combined score, adding the scores from each section together. A mid-level score might be 1500, while a perfect score would be 2400.
The SAT has several different question types including a short essay, five-choice multiple-choice questions, and grid-ins, where the student enters their answer on a number grid.
The Writing Section
The SAT Writing section takes a total of sixty minutes; thirty-five minutes test grammar and word usage in the form of multiple-choice questions. Students will also be asked to spend twenty-five minutes writing an essay.
More details about this section, including exact question types and examples can be found here. The writing section is relatively new and many colleges and universities do not even consider it in their admissions. To find out how your schools of choice handle it, you will have to ask their admission’s counselors directly.
The Reading Section
The critical reading sections of the SAT include two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section. Question types include sentences with a blank or two blanks in which you must pick the best word or words to go in the blanks. This mainly tests vocabulary. There are also short reading passages over which students must answer a series of questions about passage details, structure, main idea, author’s intentions, etc. These questions mainly test reading comprehension and are the single, hardest section in which to increase your score, mainly because reading comprehension takes months or years to improve significantly.
See more details and examples of these question types here.
The Math Section
The math section of the SAT is also divided between two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section. While the majority of the questions are five-choice multiple choice questions, there are also grid-in questions (the College Board calls these “student-produced response” questions), where students must fill in their answers. The math section tests algebra, geometry, graphing, functions, basic statistics, and data-analysis. American students can expect to have learned everything they might see on the SAT by tenth grade.
Students are allowed to use a calculator, although every question can be answered without one. To see the specific question types and examples as well as more details on calculator usage look here.
The Unscored Section
Students will also have an additional twenty-five minute section in either critical reading, mathematics, or writing multiple-choice. This section is used by College Board to try out new questions, and it does not count towards your score. However, it will not be identified as an experimental section, and you shouldn’t try and guess which section is the unscored section. Just do your best on all the sections.
College Board claims that this section is used to make sure tests and question types are comparable from test to test and to “insure fairness.” It also enables them to do some research at your expense.
The SAT has a total of 10 sections. The 25-minute essay always comes first, and the final section will always be a 10-minute long, multiple-choice, writing section. Sections two through seven are always 25-minutes each and will alternate between reading, math, and writing in relatively random order. Sections eight and nine are 20-minutes each. In a single SAT administration you and the test-takers next to you may all have different versions of the test with section types (math, reading, writing) in different orders. There are also two, ten-minute breaks; one after the third test section, and one following the sixth section.
It is very important to prepare for the SAT, not only to make it easier for you to get into the college of your choice, but also to put yourself in the best position to get scholarships and fellowships. Plan on taking it two or even three times. You can take a free SAT test here. I’ve also written about my preferred test prep books here, and I’ve written about the advisability of taking a prep course here (although the article is specifically about the GRE test–similar to the SAT but used for graduate school admissions–the principles are much the same. I’ve also written on the best schedule to prepare for a test such as this (again, it’s written specifically for the GRE, but the principles are identical.)
Can you apply? Yes. Definitely. There are many factors that go into a school accepting you and your GRE score is only one of them.
Every graduate school is different. Some may weigh your GRE score very heavily in their admissions process, while others may pay it little or no attention. The only way to know for sure is to ask the schools to which you’re applying.
Tip: call and talk to an admissions counselor one-on-one (better: schedule an appointment and go see them). Spend time making a good impression; don’t just blurt out your question. Ask them about your GRE scores after you’ve established some rapport.
Why? Admissions personnel are supposed to give you the “official answer,” for example, “We won’t even consider you if your GRE score is below a 1260.” But, after you’ve talked to them a bit and they see you as a person and not just a part of their job, they might give you the real answer; “We tell people 1260 minimum, but truthfully, with your GPA and background, you can probably get in with anything above 1150.
However! The higher your GRE score is, the easier it will be to get into most programs. Even if your GRE score is sufficient many fellowships and TA positions depend directly on your score. “We’ll give the TA spot to the highest GRE score that applies,” or “You must have a 1250 to be eligible for this fellowship.” It really pays to get your GRE score as high as possible.