SAT Basics – All about the SAT

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized test that evaluates verbal and mathematical ability in college applicants. Students usually take the test in their junior and/or senior year of high school, on any of seven annual testing dates and at hundreds of testing centers around the United States and worldwide. The SAT has been a work in progress since its inception in 1926 and has been subjected to many revisions that reflect contemporary trends in educational thought. The current version of the SAT was last revised in 2016 and includes two required sections (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math). The changes instituted in 2016 allowed for expanded scoring, which can be complicated but ultimately informative. The Total SAT score ranges from 400 to 1600 and is the sum of combined section scores. Section scores refer to the scores from two different sections (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math) and range from 200 to 800. Test scores are scores for individual tests (Reading, Writing and Language, and Math) and range from 10-40, with the Math test score being reported to the nearest half point. Cross-test scores reflect student performance on certain analytical abilities that are assessed in both required sections and range from 10-40. Subscores provide further detailed information on student performance across aspects of math and reading and range from 1-15. Optional essays were part of the test until 2021, when they were discontinued, along with SAT subject tests.

The SAT and College Acceptance

The SAT is used by most colleges and universities in the United States and some post-secondary institutions in other countries around the world. More than one million students take the SAT every year, and it is intended to be an objective assessment of college readiness that is not affected by variations in the content and difficulty of high school curricula. Though most institutions either did not require the test or made it optional during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2022, the SAT will continue to be an important part of the college application process in 2023 and beyond. High SAT scores still greatly enhance the odds of acceptance at most colleges. This is especially true of the more selective institutions, which show upper-percentile average SAT scores among their accepted students to a degree that is consistent with their acceptance rates and national rankings. Based on data from 2022, the top 75th percentile score at Harvard University, MIT, Yale University, Princeton University, and Stanford University was 1570. The average 75th percentile score across 11 American Ivy League universities was 1565, highlighting the importance of a very high SAT score when applying to the most prestigious undergraduate programs in the United States.

The SAT and Student Success in College

The SAT is owned by the College Board, a non-profit organization founded in 1900 for the purpose of increasing access to higher education. The SAT was created to replace and standardize earlier admissions practices in which each university had its own admissions exam. While the SAT was developed to be a reliable, unbiased method of evaluating skills necessary for successful performance in undergraduate programs, the validity of the SAT as a predictive instrument has been questioned by independent research. A 1992 study found that SAT scores were much less effective at forecasting college grades than high school class rank (the former explained just 4% of variance in college GPA, while the latter accounted for 9.3%). Another study conducted in 1998 at 11 selective colleges found that a 100-point increase in composite SAT scores led to a rise in college GPA of only one-tenth of a point. The role of factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural background, and individual traits including test-related anxiety and overall psychological wellbeing continue to be topics of great interest, as researchers attempt to determine correlations between these important variables and overall SAT performance. In the meantime, countless studies over the past twenty years have demonstrated that SAT scores are strong predictors of first-year college performance, with those who score higher on the test performing better during their freshman year. The most accurate assessment of first-year college performance can be predicted from combining a student's SAT scores with their high school grades, making the SAT an important predictor of future college success, even though it is not the only predictor of undergraduate academic performance.

It is always imperative to subject any test purporting to predict academic success to rigorous evaluation, and as statistical and research methods become more sophisticated, no doubt more detailed information on the relationship between SAT scores and college performance will become available, allowing the test to be utilized and interpreted in the most effective manner possible. The SAT is an entrenched right of passage in American high schools and a staple in the general American educational infrastructure, where it is viewed as an important part of the college preparation process. Current high school students can and should view the SAT as an opportunity to distinguish themselves rather than a formulaic requirement of debatable value. In addition to playing a role in admissions decisions, many colleges and universities use the SAT to determine offers of financial aid, including scholarships and merit awards, many of which are separate from a family's income level and depend almost entirely or at least significantly on the incoming student's SAT score.

The SAT and the ACT

The ACT (American College Testing) is the other major undergraduate admissions test and the SAT's main competitor. First administered in 1959, the data go back and forth on whether the ACT can be considered more or less popular than the SAT. In 2014, more students chose to take the ACT than the SAT (roughly 1.84 million) and this appeared to be a consistent trend through 2019, when 52% of the high school graduating class took the ACT. Beginning in 2020, however, the numbers began to change, with 2.2 million test takers choosing the SAT while 1.7 million chose to take the ACT. In 2021, the number of students taking the ACT declined by 22% compared to the previous year, and it remains to be seen which test will prove more popular among high school students moving forward.

Competition has been good for both tests, as revisions to one have frequently been incorporated into the other; however, there are still substantial differences between the SAT and the ACT. Vocabulary is more rigorously evaluated on the SAT, but the ACT tests more advanced mathematical concepts. The ACT, unlike the SAT, includes a dedicated science section, though it is oriented more around reasoning skills than scientific knowledge. The ACT also has a different organization than the SAT, and for college admissions officers the emphasis is often on the overall ACT score and the sectional SAT scores. Universities that require a standardized test for admission will generally accept either the SAT or the ACT, and for American high school students, it generally does not matter which test score they submit to a college or university. For international students applying to American undergraduate programs, the most pertinent question may be which entrance exam is available for them to take locally. The SAT appears to be somewhat more popular among international students applying to universities in the United States, but both the SAT and ACT are offered in more than 120 countries around the world.

When considering whether to take the SAT or ACT, it is generally recommended that a student take both, if they are able, and see which test they perform best on. Many students find they prefer the SAT's higher average of time per question and focus on critical thinking as opposed to memorized content. Other students, however, are critical of the numerous revisions to the SAT, noting that each change makes it more challenging to stay on top of test preparation. Some students may also find the wording of questions on the SAT to be challenging, instead preferring the straightforward manner in which questions are presented on the ACT.

While the SAT will continue to change as current thinking about learning and standardized testing evolves, it is clear that the test will remain an important part of applying to colleges and universities, particularly those based in the United States. As with any important undertaking, it is always wise to do your research, understand the options available to you, and then commit to preparing for the exam, as prioritizing your test preparation is one of the best ways to gain acceptance to the university of your choice, bringing yourself one step closer to the education and career of your dreams.

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