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 2016 version includes two required sections (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and Math), along with an optional Essay section. One of the most important new features of the 2016 SAT is expanded scoring. Students receive composite scores of 400 to 1600, built from the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math section scores of 200 to 800. Test-takers are also given scores for individual tests within the sections in addition to subscores on specific verbal and mathematical skills. Cross-test scores reflect student performance on certain analytical abilities that are assessed in both required sections. Essays are scored separately by two independent readers, and these essay scores do not affect any other scoring area.

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 1.67 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 several institutions have recently decided to make the test optional for their applicants, 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. At Harvard University, for example, the top 75% of composite SAT scores were 2130 or above, with at least 25% receiving a perfect score of 2400. Middle 50% SAT scores for students accepted to Stanford University were between 2070 and 2350.

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. The College Board claims that the SAT evaluates skills that are necessary for successful performance in undergraduate programs, and that the SAT combined with grade point average is a more reliable predictor of success than high school grades alone. 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. However, these research findings are of little consequence for today's high school students because the test is still entrenched in the American educational infrastructure. Current high school students can and should view the SAT as an opportunity to distinguish themselves rather than a formulaic requirement of debatable value.

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 ACT is currently taken by more students than the SAT (about 1.84 million in 2014). Competition has been good for both tests, as revisions to one have frequently been incorporated into the other (such as the ACT's introduction of a writing assessment in 2005 and the SAT's adoption of enhanced scoring in 2016). 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, but the SAT is likely to be a better choice for many types of students. The advantages of the SAT are significant, including a higher average amount of time per question and a focus on critical thinking rather than memorized content. The main disadvantage of the SAT in comparison with the ACT is the fact that the former has been subjected to far more revisions than the latter. This situation makes up-to-date preparation all the more essential for students choosing to take the SAT.