SAT: Basic Information and Helpful Preparation Resources

24 Sep 2019

SAT is one of the most popular standardized tests used to evaluate high school graduates that apply to US colleges. The test is owned and developed by a private not-for-profit US organization - the College Board and it is administered both in the US and abroad. In 2018, about 2 million students took the SAT– most 4 year colleges require their applicants to submit an SAT result. Besides the common SATs, 20 SAT Subject Tests fall into the following general categories: math, history, English, languages, and science.

The test is important because it assesses core abilities describing student preparedness for college and consequently, helps decide which candidates to favor during admission. Such key abilities include reading and understanding the material and correctly interpreting evidence, understanding the language in context and properly applying it, analyzing and evaluating visual, textual, and numeric data, reasoning logically, making calculations, etc.

Recent SAT Changes

To prioritize complex logical reasoning and analysis skills over test-taking skills, the test is back to its traditional two-part format. Unlike the two mandatory sections (3 hours to complete), the essay section (50 minutes) would be optional. Both concepts and vocabulary are being tested increasingly in context rather than as isolated elements.

The reading section can now contain questions that build on other questions but also data analysis questions, which is a reflection of a greater focus on reasoning abilities and analytical skills. The proportion of geometrical and abstract questions got reduced leaving place for more practical problem solving, graph interpretation, and data analysis.

Importantly, the number of options to choose from in multiple-choice questions was reduced from 5 to 4, which means greater chances of picking the right answer. In the same context, the penalty for wrong answers (0.25 points) has been eliminated, so there is no more need to leave questions blank. The score range and the total number of questions also changed.

Along with the changes to the test format itself, there are also updates to the adversity index proposed by the College Board recently. While the adversity score was proposed to combine data about a student’s neighborhood and school into a single figure, the new system called Landscape uses separate figures for both. Not only colleges but also students would be able to check these scores. While these changes are intended to better reflect the struggles faced by disadvantaged students, this system still faces criticism and skepticism. Thus, there is a certain level of support for the new system among admission directors, but many more are still hesitant about using it.

Online SAT and How it Works

The SAT is also available online, although, to date, only a couple thousand students take the online SAT yearly compared to the 2 million who take the traditional version. Nevertheless, this is likely to become the norm very soon as it happened with other tests, such as the TOEFL.

The online SAT has the same structure, number of questions, allotted time, and even the same fees as the paper-based test – the only key difference is the interface. Completed tests are sent for evaluation via the Internet directly to the College Board. Importantly, online tests would enable the paradigm of adaptive test-taking - adjusting the difficulty of each next question based on how correct the provided answers are.

SAT Sections

Reading


This part provides a series of 5 passages and 52 multiple choice questions based on them, which have to be answered within 65 minutes. Passages fall into the following categories: the US or world literature (both classical and modern); the US founding documents or texts from the Great Global Conversation; social sciences, for instance, psychology, sociology, economics; and natural or life sciences.

Questions test understanding of word meaning in context, the use of rhetorical devices. They require to locate/ cite evidence of interest in the passage and to explain how the evidence is used to support arguments or claims. They also ask to interpret, analyze, and synthesize key ideas or data presented in the passage or as part of the questions. Examples of questions could be choosing the correct or closest meaning of the word “intense” given the context of a passage, or picking which claim from the multiple-choice list is supported by a specific paragraph.

Example

The author includes the descriptions of the sunset, the clouds, and the hemlock shadows (lines 30–32) primarily to

A - suggest the peacefulness of the natural world.

B - emphasize the acuteness of two characters’ sensations.

C - foreshadow the declining fortunes of two characters.

D - offer a sense of how fleeting time can be.

To make the best of this section:

  • read the passages once carefully and then reread specific sections, lines, or even the entire passage as many times as needed in the search for specific and precise evidence
  • beware of personal bias – watch closely for the evidence and for what the authors precisely communicate rather than substituting these with your interpretations or beliefs.

Some other vital tips are equally applicable to other SAT sections:

  • always keep track of the time to avoid being forced to answer questions in a stressful rush - the latter can lead to mistakes and forced guesses
  • skip questions you find difficult or troublesome and return to them at the very end, otherwise, you risk losing too much time to the detriment of questions that you CAN answer easily
  • if, despite the effort, you can’t figure out the answer, make an educated guess. But to increase the chances, first eliminate all answers you can identify as wrong.

Writing and Language


The writing section contains 44 multiple choice questions that need to be answered in 35 minutes. These questions are also based on passages (4 in total) and put the test-takers in the role of editors, requiring them to identify and fix grammatical mistakes or imprecision of language, to evaluate evidence in order to identify mistakes in the text, to provide additional meaningful detail, or to support a claim more explicitly. Higher-level critical interpretation of the text is expected. Importantly, the test doesn’t require to specifically define grammar rules or theoretical information – every single question is context-based (related to the passages).

Passages may be narrative, argumentative, or informative/ explanatory and are related to science, careers, humanities, history or social studies. Visual data representations, such as charts, graphs, tables may be part of the passages or the questions themselves. Questions may ask, for instance, to select the correct form of the verb “design” in a specific sentence or passage or to pick the most suitable transition sentence between two paragraphs.

Example

Which choice best maintains the sentence pattern already established in the paragraph?

A - No change

B - Coordinating stoplight timing can help alleviate rush hour traffic jams in a congested downtown area.

C - Stoplight timing is coordinated to alleviate rush hour traffic jams in a congested downtown area.

D - In a congested downtown area, stoplight timing is coordinated to alleviate rush hour traffic jams.

To make the best of this section:

  • keep in mind the differences between colloquial and written language, between academic and non-academic language, etc.
  • avoid tricky answers, especially towards the end of the section, where questions get more complex
  • this section would benefit significantly from a review of formal grammar rules (use of verb forms, tenses, punctuation, syntax rules, parallel construction rules, etc.)

Essay


The essay test is optional and is based on reading an argumentative/ persuasive text on a general topic, analyzing it carefully, and writing your essay based on it (50 minutes are allotted). Unlike in the old version of the test, where test-takers needed to express their views by making a rhetorical prompt, in the new version, they are only required to explain how the author builds and conveys the argument to persuade the reader and what tools or methods are used in the process.

In particular, the focus is on the use of evidence (data, facts, common truth, examples), on the reasoning through which evidence is connected to specific claims, and on elements of language or style (including rhetorical devices) through which persuasion is achieved.

Find examples at College Board website.

To make the best of this section:

  • read the instructions carefully and be sure to follow them
  • avoid summarizing the essay – the key aim is to explain, to clarify
  • use evidence to support your claims
  • as handwriting is involved, writing as legible as possible is essential
  • before writing, create a sound essay outline – having a clear structure allows knowing in advance where each piece of argument, idea, example, etc. belongs.

Math


The math part of the SAT is divided into a 55-minute session consisting of 38 questions where test-takers are allowed to use a calculator and a 25-minute session consisting of 20 questions where the calculator is not allowed. About 80% of the questions are multiple-choice, while the rest are gridded responses for which test-takers need to calculate an exact answer. Overall, these questions test concepts and skills in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, data analysis.

Example of non-calculator problem

Example of calculator problem

To make the best of this section:

  • although basic formulas will be listed at the beginning of the Math section, you should already know them by heart and should have extensive practice in applying these. It is recommended that you are already familiar with most possible question types
  • take shortcuts whenever you can – for instance, instead of determining equation solutions analytically, just plug in the options from the list of choices and test them
  • be sure to understand how to submit answers using grids

SAT Scoring System

SAT scores range between 400 and 1600. Evidence-Based Reading and Writing gets between 200 and 800 points - the Reading and Writing sections are scored in conjunction. Note that raw scores are slightly adjusted based on results from all test-takers to take into account variations in the difficulty of the test on different dates. The two Math sections also get between 200 and 800 points combined, while the essay gets scores between 2 and 8 for Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

Scores become available a few weeks following the test date and they can be checked online by logging into the personal account, by phone, or can be received via traditional mail. Test takers can choose to have their scores sent directly to specific colleges or scholarship programs either before or after passing the SAT. 4 scores can be sent for free before and 9 days after the test. The Score Choice option allows them to send only the best score if multiple tests have been taken.

Preparation for SAT

Different strategies, materials, and resources can be used to prepare for SAT, but ideally, one should use those that would not only help fortify the necessary skills but would also help get very familiar with the format and time constraints of each section as well as with most question types that can be expected. There is a variety of resources that can help with preparation.

Online Resources


Online resources are typically freely accessible and offer more diverse, flexible, and convenient ways of training when compared to printed materials.

  • The College Board offers a collection of online and printable full-length SAT practice tests, but also sample questions and explanatory info. Here, one can also register for the SAT and check personal scores.
  • The Khan Academy also offers official full tests along with materials for practicing math, reading, and writing, as well as guidelines and tips for taking the test.
  • Varsity Tutors – the SAT preparation page contains dozens of diagnostic tests and hundreds of training questions for each section (Reading, Writing, and Math).
  • PrepScholar – here, aside from the new printable SAT Tests, one can find test of older formats.
  • Ivy Global – here, besides the official tests, one can find a couple of practice tests designed by Ivy Global (a leading publisher of educational content).
  • Kaplan – offers free online practice tests, training sessions, and guides.

SAT preparation courses


SAT prep courses are typically fairly intensive courses carried in a physical or virtual classroom over the course of weeks or months.

  • The Princeton Review offers various SAT preparation courses with different timelines and different minimum guaranteed scores, but also private tutoring, last-minute cram courses, on-demand essay review, etc.
  • Kaplan – offers individual or teacher-assisted preparation for SAT.

Mobile Apps


Mobile apps combine lots of content and functionality that can help practice anytime and anywhere.

  • Daily Practice for the New SAT – this app makes SAT practice a daily routine by asking a question a day (math, reading, writing) and providing immediate feedback, hints, explanation of answers. It also helps automatically calculate scores for officially released practice tests by simply taking photos of filled in answer sheets.
  • Ready4SAT – this app offers more than a thousand realistic practice questions with answer explanations, dozens of lessons explaining the fundamentals of SAT, etc.
  • SAT: Practice, Prep, Flashcards (iOS) or SAT Prep: Practice Tests, Flashcards, Quizzes (Android) – full length timed tests, practice questions.

Books


SAT preparation books are typically well-rounded resources containing a mix of high-quality and relevant information backed up by the reputation of a solid publisher. Some good preparation books come from:

  • The College Board – the official study guide with sample questions, practice tests, etc.
  • Ivy Global – 6 full practice tests that don’t repeat the official College Board tests but closely adhere to their requirements and practices.
  • Varsity Tutors – a Kindle book with practice questions, diagnostic tests, a full practice test, and guidelines.
  • The Princeton Review – more than 500 practice questions with answers and explanations.

Tutors


Any solid academic tutoring company is supposed to have lots of tutors offering SAT practice. Some good tutoring companies include:

  • Varsity tutors – a reputable company with a vast network of freelance tutors (40k) – both in-home and online SAT tutoring is possible
  • Skooli – SAT math help offered by highly rated tutors from prestigious universities
  • ClubZ – in home and online tutoring covering all SAT sections.

Flashcards


Desktop and mobile apps using flashcards are a separate category of preparation tools – they traditionally help improve vocabulary, but also help learn English and Math concepts employing smart spaced repetition algorithms. Here are some popular apps

Cheap Ways to Prepare for SAT

The comforting truth is that there is a wealth of study materials online and offline that can spare you the need of ever investing in costly SAT preparation courses or proprietary study materials. In fact, all you need is to invest a bit of effort in assembling a well-rounded collection of free materials with full practice tests, practice questions, useful advice, test guidelines, and tricks. In particular, consider the following aspects:

  • the College Board publishes almost a dozen free printed and online SAT tests of the new format absolutely for free – a dozen such tests are fully sufficient to get familiar with the type of questions, structure, format, and improve time management. However, if these tests are not enough, you can also get freer and carefully written tests written by other publishers (Ivy Global) or older format tests from PrepScholar.
  • take free diagnostic tests online from Varsity Tutors, identify your weaknesses and train correspondingly using hundreds of practice questions for the corresponding section (using apps like Ready4SAT).
  • buy used SAT preparation books including previous editions – such books might only cost you a few dollars, while the content is very similar to that found in newer editions. Nevertheless, take great care about the differences between the old and new SAT formats.
  • prepare well for the test and try to ace the test from a single attempt to avoid registering multiple times and pay additional fees.

If approached correctly and with the right mindset, the SAT might not seem that scary intimidating test but rather an exciting challenge to conquer.