1.1 Just the Facts
1.2 Know the Score
1.3 The PSAT
1.4 The SAT FAQs
Over the years at SparkNotes, we’ve read thousands of questions from students about the SAT. In the last few months, a flood of questions about the SAT has overwhelmed us and threatened to drown the entire staff. To put a stop to this madness, we’ve compiled the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions students have about the SAT.
Why do I have to take the SAT at all?
Admit it. You’ve asked yourself this question. Everyone has. Well, there’s a quick and easy answer to that one:
Colleges make you.
If you want to go to college, you pretty much have to take the SAT (or the ACT; we cover that in this FAQ too).
But why do colleges put you through this ordeal? Why do they require you to take the SAT? Two reasons:
  1. Colleges consider the SAT a standard by which they can evaluate students from high schools across the country. Imagine you’re a university admissions officer considering the applications of two students, Justin and Ben. Both of these students have A averages, but Justin goes to Grade-Inflation High, whereas Ben goes to Impossible Polytechnic. How are you, the admissions officer, supposed to know that Ben’s A is so much better than Justin’s? That’s where the SAT comes in. Ben and Justin may go to different high schools, but when they take the SAT, they’re taking the same standardized test. So colleges can use the SAT as a tool to measure all students against each other without worrying about differences in their schools.
  2. Colleges have considered SAT scores valuable in predicting how students will perform in the first semester of college. This reason is much more controversial. A ton of data has been thrown back and forth over the years about whether the SAT can effectively predict first semester grades, but the truth is, nobody knows. What we can’t understand is why anyone cares so much about predicting first- semester grades. Sure, they’re important, but shouldn’t the focus be on grades throughout all four years of college? Nobody has claimed that the SAT can predict college grades over all four years.
Why did they change the SAT?
In 2005, the SAT underwent some extensive changes. The Writing Section was added, analogies were cut, tougher math concepts were added, and the entire test was scored on a scale of 2400 instead of 1600. The official line is that the College Board, the organization behind the SAT, made the change to the SAT for three reasons:
  1. To better align the SAT to the curricula of high schools.
  2. To provide a third measure—writing skills—that will help colleges make better admissions decisions.
  3. To reinforce the importance of writing in education.
Okay, beautiful. Now, there’s a fourth reason why the College Board switched from the old SAT to the new SAT:
  1. They had to.
Here’s what happened: the University of California system of schools began to criticize the old SAT because it focused more on memorization of vocabulary than on actual writing or reading skills. The University of California is the biggest client of the College Board. If the University of California had switched to another test, say the ACT, the SAT and all the money it brings in to the College Board might have slowly disappeared. Well, you know what happened next. The old SAT became the new SAT, which does indeed focus much more on reading and writing skills.
What’s the ACT?
We’ve mentioned the ACT a couple of times now, but haven’t discussed it in detail. Here’s the detail. The ACT is a competitor of the SAT. Many people have argued that the ACT is actually a better test than the SAT, and, in fact, most of the changes made to create the new SAT actually made the SAT more like the ACT.
While the SAT dominates the national discussion of standardized tests for college admission, only slightly fewer students take the ACT each year than take the SAT. An increasing number of colleges around the country have begun to accept ACT scores from applicants, either in addition to SAT scores or instead of them. In general, colleges on the east and west coasts accept the SAT, while colleges in the middle of the country accept just the ACT, or both tests. But don’t just assume the colleges you’re applying to fit the general mold. Be certain which schools you’re considering applying to require (or prefer) the SAT or the ACT.
To decide which test is right for you, you should do two things:
  1. Find out whether the colleges to which you’re applying require one test rather than the other test. Confirm this by speaking to representatives from the college.
  2. If it doesn’t matter which test you take, decide which test is better suited to your skills and will likely result in a better score. To do this, take one SAT practice test and one ACT practice test, and compare the results both in terms of how well you score and how suited you feel to the skills that the test tests.
If you’d like more information on the ACT, check out SparkNotes: The New ACT.
What’s a good score on the SAT?
There’s no one “good” score on the SAT. A good score is different for different people. Think back to why you take the SAT. Because colleges make you. So a good score is a score that gets you into the college of your choice. Want to go to Yale? You have to shoot for at least a 2100. Interested in UCLA? You’re probably looking for a 1900 or higher. Only concerned about athletic eligibility? You’re looking to score more in the 1200 to 1300 range. An average score on the SAT is somewhere around a 1520.
Having score goals and sticking to them is crucial for the SAT. Why? Because your strategy for taking the test will differ depending on what score you need. So do some research. Check out the projected average SAT scores of the schools you want to attend. Talk to a guidance counselor at your school. Get a clear sense of what your goals are, and then use this book to go after them.
When should I take the new SAT?
Most students take the SAT for the first time in the spring of their junior year—that means either in March or in May. Depending on their scores, many students then decide to take the test again in the first semester of their senior year. If you’re planning to take the test a second time, make sure you take it early enough so that your scores will reach colleges before the application deadline passes. If you’re taking the test senior year, you should take it in either October or November to be certain nothing goes awry. The December date is often too late. So check with the schools to which you are applying and make sure that you’re on track to take the test by the correct date.
How much does the SAT cost?
It costs about $40.00 to register for the SAT. The SAT does offer a fee waiver program to help students who might have difficulty meeting the fee requirements for the SAT. To find out if you’re eligible for the fee waiver program, talk to your high school counselor.
How do I register?
There are two ways to register for the test: online or by mail. To register online, go to the website and follow the directions there. Just know that you can’t register online if you’re under 13 years old, if you want to take the test on a Sunday (as opposed to a Saturday), or if you’re planning on taking the test in Kenya. We’re not making this up.
To register by mail, you’ll first have to pick up an SAT Registration Bulletin from your school counselor’s office. In this packet you’ll find a registration form and a return envelope. Complete the form and send it in the return envelope along with the proper payment (in check or money order).
How can I raise my score on the SAT?
Now that’s a helluva question. Here’s a helluva answer: Use this book.
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