What Is the SAT? Learn about the History and Content of the Exam. (2022)

The SAT is a standardized test administered by the College Board, a non-profit organization that runs other programs including the PSAT (Preliminary SAT), AP (Advanced Placement) and CLEP (College-Level Examination Project). The SAT along with the ACT are the primary entrance exams used by colleges and universities in the United States.

The SAT and the Problem of "Aptitude"

The letters SAT originally stood for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The idea of "aptitude," one's natural ability, was central to the exam's origins. The SAT was supposed to be an exam that tested one's abilities, not one's knowledge. As such, it was supposed to be an exam for which students could not study, and it would provide colleges with a useful tool for measuring and comparing the potential of students from different schools and backgrounds.

The reality, however, was that students could indeed prepare for the exam and that the test was measuring something other than aptitude. Not surprisingly, the College Board changed the name of the exam to the Scholastic Assessment Test, and later to the SAT Reasoning Test. Today the letters SAT stand for nothing at all. In fact, the evolution of the meaning of "SAT" highlights many of the problems associated with the exam: it's never been entirely clear what it is that the test measures.

The SAT competes with the ACT, the other widely used exam for college admissions in the United States. The ACT, unlike the SAT, has never focused on the idea of "aptitude." Instead, the ACT tests what students have learned in school. Historically, the tests have been different in meaningful ways, and students who do poorly on one might do better on the other. In recent years, the ACT surpassed the SAT as the most widely used college admissions entrance exam. In response to both its loss of market share and criticisms about the very substance of the exam, the SAT launched an entirely redesigned exam in the spring of 2016. If you were to compare the SAT to the ACT today, you'd find that the exams are much more similar than they had been historically.

What Is on the SAT?

The current SAT covers three required areas and the optional essay:

  • Reading: Test-takers answer questions about passages they read. All questions are multiple choice and based on the passages. Some questions will also ask about tables, graphs, and charts, but no math is required to answer the questions. Total time for this section: 65minutes.
  • Writing and Language:Test-takers read passages and then are asked to identify and fix mistakes and weaknesses in the language. Total time for this section: 35 minutes.
  • Mathematics:Test-takers answer questions related to the types of math you're likely to encounter in college and your personal life. Topics include algebra, data analysis, working with complex equations, and some basics of trigonometry and geometry. Some questions allow the use of a calculator; some do not. Total time for this section: 80 minutes.
  • Optional Essay:The optional essay exam asks you to read a passage and then make an argument based on that passage. You'll need to support your argument with evidence from the passage. Total time for this section: 50 minutes.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT does not have a section focused on science.

How Much Time Does the Exam Take?

The SAT exam takes a total of 3 hours without the optional essay. There are 154 questions, so you'll have 1 minute and 10 seconds per question (by comparison, the ACT has 215 questions and you'll have 49 seconds per question). With the essay, the SAT takes 3 hours and 50 minutes.

How Is the SAT Scored?

Prior to March, 2016, the exam was scored out of 2400 points: 200-800 points for Critical Reading, 200-800 points for Mathematics, and 200-800 points for Writing. An average score had been roughly 500 points per subject area for a total of 1500.

With the redesign of the exam in 2016, the Writing section is now optional, and the exam is scored out of 1600 points (as it had been back before the Writing section had become a required component of the exam). You can earn 200 to 800 points for the Reading/Writing section of the exam, and 800 points for the Math section. A perfect score on the current exam is a 1600, and you'll find that most successful applicants to the country's most selective colleges and universities have scores in the 1400 to 1600 range.

(Video) SAT - All you want to know about the SAT

When Is the SAT Offered?

The SAT is currently administered seven times a year: March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. If you're wondering when to take the SAT, the August, October, May, and June dates are the most popular — many students take the exam once in the spring of junior year, and then again in August or October of senior year. For seniors, the October date is often the last exam that will be accepted for early decision and early action applications. Be sure to plan ahead and check SAT test dates and registration deadlines.

Note that prior to the 2017-18 admissions cycle, the SAT was not offered in August, and there was a January test date. The change was a good one: August gives seniors an attractive option, and January wasn't a popular date for juniors or seniors.

Do You Need to Take the SAT?

No. Nearly all colleges will accept the ACT instead of the SAT. Also, many colleges recognize that a high-pressure timed exam is not the best measure of an applicant's potential. In truth, studies of the SAT have shown that the exam predicts a student's family income far more accurately than it predicts his or her future college success. Over 850 colleges now have test-optional admissions, and the list keeps growing.

Just keep in mind that schools that don't use the SAT or ACT for admissions purposes may still use the exams for awarding scholarships. Athletes should also check NCAA requirements for standardized test scores.

How Much Does the SAT Really Matter?

For the test-optional colleges mentioned above, the exam should not play any role in the admissions decision if you choose not to submit scores. For other schools, you're likely to find that many of the country's most selective colleges downplay the importance of standardized tests. Such schools have holistic admissions and work to evaluate the whole applicant, not just numerical data. Essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, and most importantly, good grades in challenging courses are all pieces of the admissions equation.

That said, SAT and ACT scores get reported to the Department of Education, and they are frequently used as a measure for rankings such as those published by U.S. News & World Report. Higher average SAT and ACT scores equate with higher rankings for a school and more prestige. The reality is that high SAT scores greatly increase your chances of admission to highly selective colleges and universities. Can you get in with low SAT scores? Perhaps, but the odds are against you. The score ranges below for enrolled students illustratethe point:

Sample SAT Scores for Top Colleges (mid 50%)

Reading 25%Reading 75%Math 25%Math 75%Writing 25%Writing 75%
UC Berkeley590720630770620750
University of Michigan620720660760630730
U Penn670760690780690780
University of Virginia620720630740620720

On the plus side, you clearly don't need perfect 800s to get into painfully selective universities such as Harvard and Stanford. On the other hand, you are also unlikely to get in with scores significantly lower than those listed in the 25th percentile columns above.

(Video) Everything You Need to Know about the SAT

A Final Word:

The SAT is constantly evolving, and the test you will take is quite different from the one your parents took, and the current exam has little in common with the pre 2016 exam. For good or bad, the SAT (and ACT) remains a significant piece of the college admissions equation for the majority of non-profit four-year colleges. If your dream school has selective admissions, you'd be well advised to take the test seriously. Spending some time with a study guide and practice tests can help make you familiar with the exam and more prepared come test day.



Your Citation

Grove, Allen. "What Is the SAT?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-sat-788444.Grove, Allen. (2020, August 25). What Is the SAT? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-sat-788444Grove, Allen. "What Is the SAT?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-sat-788444 (accessed August 23, 2022).

Watch Now: Difference Between Early Decision and Early Action



What are the contents of SAT? ›

The SAT is comprised of two sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math.
SAT Sections
  • Reading.
  • Writing & Language.
  • Math (No Calculator & Calculator Sections)

What history is on the SAT? ›

The exam includes political, economic, social, and cultural history, as well as foreign policy. Political and social history are emphasized more than the others.

Do you need to know history for the SAT? ›

The College Board recommends that you take a college preparatory U.S. History class before you sit for the SAT Subject Test. If you've taken that course, then you're in a great position to potentially excel on the exam.

What is the SAT summary? ›

The SAT is a multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test created and administered by the College Board. The purpose of the SAT is to measure a high school student's readiness for college and provide colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants.

What is the purpose of SAT exam? ›

The SAT is a globally recognized college admission test, administered by the College Board, that lets high school students show colleges what they know and how well they can apply that knowledge.

Is SAT exam easy? ›

SAT is easy for Indian students who have done test prep well in advance. Factors like time limitation, new concepts, and slow passage reading might make the test harder for some. Predictable patterns, no need for memorization, and multiple-choice questions make SAT easier than some other tests.

How many history questions are on the SAT? ›

What's the Format of the SAT World History Subject Test? The World History Subject Test contains 95 multiple-choice questions which you will answer over the course of an hour. Like other subject tests, it is scored on a scale from 200-800.

How can I improve my SAT history? ›

Top tips:
  1. Cover up the choices.
  2. Go back to the passage to find the word/phrase.
  3. Make up your own version of the word/phrase using context clues in the surrounding sentences.
  4. Uncover the choices, and find a match to your prediction in the choices.

How can I improve my SAT reading history? ›

How to conquer this passage?
  1. Use what you do know (anchors) to figure out what you don't. ...
  2. Avoid re-reading. ...
  3. Read the opening blurb prior to the start of the passage. ...
  4. Use the main idea or central stance to eliminate wrong answers. ...
  5. Match the tone of the passage and the tone of the answer choices.
28 Apr 2021

How do I study for SAT? ›

What is the Best Way to Prepare for the SAT?
  1. Start early. ...
  2. Study with Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy. ...
  3. Take a full-length practice test. ...
  4. Pay attention in class. ...
  5. Know what to expect on test day.
26 Aug 2019

How long is SAT exam? ›

The SAT clocks in at 3 hours (3 hours and 15 minutes with breaks). And if you choose to sign up for the optional essay, the SAT takes 3 hours and 50 minutes to complete (or 4 hours, 5 minutes with breaks).

What's a good SAT score? ›

A good score is in the range of 1300 to 1500 (Math: 650 to 750, Reading/Writing: 650 to 750). Colleges like Emory University with a 25.2 percent acceptance rate list accepted student SAT scores in the range of 1330 to 1520.

What is the history of standardized testing? ›

Standardized tests were used when people first entered the US to test social roles and find social power and status. The College Entrance Examination Board did not offer standardized testing for university and college admission until 1900. Their first examinations were administered in 1901, in nine subjects.

How many subjects are required for SAT? ›

The SAT exam syllabus has a total of 3 sections. The three sections of the SAT syllabus are Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. Earlier, there was an optional essay writing section which was recently discontinued by the SAT College Board. Thus, the subjects in SAT are reading comprehension, writing, and maths.

What is the age limit for SAT test? ›

Q. What is the age limit for the SAT examination? There is no minimum or maximum age criteria for College SAT. Students in the age group of 17 to 19 years usually appear for the examination for admission in various SAT-accepted colleges and universities in countries like the USA, Australia, Germany, and Canada.

Is the SAT Math hard? ›

The SAT likely won't be too hard on the math front. The trigonometry is high level and the word problems aren't unlike questions you've seen in class. Sure, some of the algebra can get a little technical, but if you are strong in this area you'll likely excel on the test.

Is SAT hard to pass? ›

The SAT can be intimidating if you don't know much about it, but it's far from an insurmountable challenge if you prepare properly and understand the format of the test. The SAT covers concepts that are typically taught in the first two years of high school, with a few more advanced concepts sprinkled into the mix.

How many times can you take the SAT? ›

Students can take the SAT as many times as they want. We recommend that they take it at least twice—in the spring of their junior year and the fall of their senior year. Most students get a higher score the second time, and most colleges consider a student's highest SAT score when making admission decisions.

How many questions can you miss on the SAT? ›

You can find official SAT practice tests and their scoring tables at the College Board. As you can see with the above SAT scoring chart, it's possible to get some questions wrong and still earn the max SAT score. Generally speaking, you can miss 1-2 questions on each section and still get a perfect 1600.

What kind of Math is on the SAT? ›

The SAT Math questions draw from four areas of math: number and operations; algebra and functions; geometry and measurement; and data analysis, statistics, and probability.

Is Social Studies on SAT? ›

On every SAT, students will encounter source texts from science, history, and social studies, analyzing them the way they would in those classes.

What kind of Math is on the SAT? ›

The SAT Math questions draw from four areas of math: number and operations; algebra and functions; geometry and measurement; and data analysis, statistics, and probability.

What is the structure of SAT? ›

How the SAT Is Structured
ComponentTime Allotted (minutes)Number of Questions/Tasks
Writing and Language3544

How hard is the SAT? ›

The SAT can be intimidating if you don't know much about it, but it's far from an insurmountable challenge if you prepare properly and understand the format of the test. The SAT covers concepts that are typically taught in the first two years of high school, with a few more advanced concepts sprinkled into the mix.

How many times can you take the SAT? ›

Students can take the SAT as many times as they want. We recommend that they take it at least twice—in the spring of their junior year and the fall of their senior year. Most students get a higher score the second time, and most colleges consider a student's highest SAT score when making admission decisions.

How long should you study for SAT? ›

Studying for the SAT in a month is possible, though it's recommended that you spend 10 to 20 hours per week over the course of two or three months prepping for the SAT.

How many hours a day should I study for SAT? ›

Develop a study schedule

So, how many hours do you really need per day to study for the SAT? Ideally, you should spend about 5 hours of studying per week. Whether you study for 1 hour every day during school days or you spend long hours on weekends, as long as you cover 5 hours per week, you're good.

Does the SAT have an essay? ›

March 28, 2022, at 5:21 p.m. Although the essay portion of the SAT became optional in 2016, many students still chose to write it to demonstrate strong or improved writing skills to prospective colleges. In June 2021, the College Board opted to discontinue the SAT essay.

Can you take a calculator to the SAT? ›

You can only use your calculator on the portion of the test labeled Math Test – Calculator. You may not use a calculator while working on the Math Test – No Calculator portions, or during the Reading and Writing and Language sections.

What kind of questions SAT? ›

It is a college entrance exam having four tests, Reading, Writing & Language, Math and the Essay (which is optional but some colleges may ask for an Essay score also).

What are the SAT skills? ›

SAT Basics

The SAT is a standardized test that measures a student's skills in three core areas: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. Students in grades 11 and 12 take the SAT so that they can submit their scores to colleges as part of the college application process.

How many questions are in SAT? ›

The SAT gives you 3 hours (180 minutes) to answer a total of 154 questions.

Is SAT exam online or offline? ›

Exam NameScholastic Aptitude Test
Exam ModeOffline
SAT Exam RegistrationOnline and Mail
SAT Exam Fee$104 [INR 7,700] *includes the Regional Fee
Fee with Essay (Discontinued)$117 [INR 8,680] *includes the Regional Fee
4 more rows

What happens if you don't pass the SAT? ›

And now, you may be wondering what would happen if you failed the SAT. No one can fail the SAT. The lowest possible score a test-taker can get on the SAT is 400. While it's not possible to fail the SAT, it's very much possible for a student to fail to get accepted into a college because of a low SAT score.

How do I pass the SAT test? ›

Below, we break down nine ways to prepare for the SAT, with advice from test-prep experts.
  1. Create an SAT Study Schedule. ...
  2. Use Quality Prep Materials. ...
  3. Increase Your Reading Speed. ...
  4. Target the Mistakes You Can Control. ...
  5. Come to Test Day Prepared. ...
  6. Answer the Questions You Know First. ...
  7. Eliminate Incorrect Answers.


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