The SAT is one of two tests, along with the ACT, most often used for college admissions. Learn how the SAT works and how your score might influence your college admission chances.
Both the SAT and the ACT play the same role in the admissions process, and colleges don't prefer one test over the other. Both tests measure the knowledge you have gained in high school and help colleges assess your readiness for college-level instruction. But the two tests are different. The SAT is designed to measure critical thinking skills you'll need for academic success in college. The ACT measures the academic knowledge and skills you should have acquired in a standard high school curriculum.
What the SAT Includes
The SAT is three hours and 45 minutes long and includes three test sections: Math, Critical Reading, and Writing.
Math. This test covers math concepts through Algebra II, including arithmetic, geometry, statistics, data analysis, probability, exponential growth, absolute value, and functional notation. It puts more emphasis on linear functions, exponents, and tangent lines. You are allowed to use a four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator during the test. (Length: two 25-minute sections, one 20-minute section.)
Critical Reading. Divided into three subsections, this test concentrates on sentence completion, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. It includes both long and short reading passages. For the short passages, you'll be asked to choose the most correct explanation of a word, phrase, or idea. (Length: two 25-minute sections, one 20-minute section.)
Writing. This test focuses on writing mechanics and communicating clearly. The first two sections consist of multiple-choice grammar and sentence construction questions. (Length: one 25-minute section, one 10-minute section.) The third section is an original essay that you write on the spot. (Length: 25 minutes.)
When to Take the SAT
It's a good idea to take the SAT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This will give you time to take the test again in the fall of your senior year. If you are applying Early Decision or Early Action, you may need to take the test by the early fall. For most other application deadlines, you may be able to take the test as late as December of your senior year. Be sure to confirm the last possible date you can take the test with the colleges you are applying to.
How to Prepare for the SAT
You can study SAT sample questions and answer sheets online. The College Board offers testing tips and a free practice test on collegeboard.com. There are many other inexpensive or free online resources and books to help you become more familiar with the test content. Many students take the test two or three times, if only to get familiar with the question formats and the actual test-taking environments.
How the SAT is Scored
Your SAT score report will include a Math score of 200–800, a Critical Reading score of 200–800, and a Writing score of 200–800. The highest combined score you can earn is 2400. The national average is 1500.
You earn one point for each correct answer; you lose a quarter of a point for each incorrect answer. If you leave a question blank, no points are awarded or deducted.
The essay is scored by two readers on a scale of one to six points, six being best. If the readers' scores differ by more than a point, a third reader scores the essay. You could get a zero score if you don't write on the assigned topic.
Comparing SAT and ACT Scores
You can roughly estimate how your SAT score would translate to an ACT score by using the concordance tables published on the College Board website. For example, if you got a combined score of 1510 on the SAT Critical Reading and Math Tests, that would be the equivalent of 34 on the ACT.
Sending Your Scores to Colleges
When you register for the SAT, you can choose up to four colleges to receive your scores. The College Board will send your scores to these colleges free of charge. You can also, for a fee, designate colleges after you have taken the test. Fee waivers are available, based on income.
Before you arrange to send your scores to colleges, make sure that you understand their score-use and admissions policies. Some colleges may require all your scores. Others may give you the option to send only a single test date with your best combined score or only the test dates with your highest section scores. This score-reporting policy, called Score Choice, is optional for you. If you do not use Score Choice, the College Board will send colleges your entire SAT history.
Many college advisors and admissions officers recommend that students send all their scores to give colleges a full picture of the student's academic profile and to avoid missteps due to confusion about what scores to send and when to send them. For more information, visit the College Board website.
How Important is the SAT to Colleges?
Your SAT scores help admissions staff judge how ready you are to attend their college compared to other applicants. You can see how much importance a college gives test scores by using College Data's College Match. When you search for a college and view the Admissions page of its profile, you can see whether SAT scores are required, how important they are to the college, and the average scores of recently enrolled freshmen. To see the SAT scores of students recently admitted to your target colleges, visit CollegeData's Admissions Tracker.
In part because of concerns about the validity of test scores as a measure of college readiness, an increasing number of colleges do not require the SAT or ACT for admission. You can find a listing of all colleges and universities that do not require the tests at fairtest.org.
You are not your test scores. Colleges know that. Doing well on the SAT does not guarantee that you'll get into the college of your choice. Doing not as well as you hoped is not the end of the world. Your test score is just one of several factors colleges consider when weighing your application.