The Nuts and Bolts of the SAT

The SAT - Another test that tests how well you take tests?

The SAT – Another test that tests how well you take tests?

What we have here today is a primer on the SAT. Obviously, this is not the first time that such a project has been undertaken. A search for SAT-related books on, for instance, yields several thousand results. Almost the same can be said for a walk through any bookstore.

In other words, there’s little that could be said about our subject, the SAT, that hasn’t already been covered in some way or another. What I hope this post can do, though, is provide a clear overview of the most significant aspects of the test. We’ll be avoiding detailed strategic approaches, and we’ll just focus the nuts and bolts.

So, let’s begin with an overview…

The SAT is a test used by most – but not all – colleges in the United States as manner of differentiating students from one another. It does a poor job of predicting college success, and it is not a gauge of intelligence. It’s what some people have referred to as a “blunt instrument.” It does nothing more than rank people on a largely self-referential scale.

The SAT is scored on a scale of 2400, with each three sections scored from 200-800:

  • Critical Reading (which entails short and long reading passages, as well as vocab in context)
  • Mathematics (through Algebra II level)
  • Writing (a short essay and multiple choice grammar questions)

The national average is about a 1500 composite. Clearly, some schools will have higher average scores than others. Most schools report a “middle 50 percent” of their scores, but let’s make it easy and use a straight average:

San Jose State… 1535
UC Berkeley…2040

UCs typically have higher average scores than CSUs. Private schools are usually higher than public schools of the same tier. How important are the SATs in general? “Less important that students think, but more important than colleges like to admit,” goes the saying.

For the top tier schools – schools with acceptance rates lower than, say, 20 percent – high test scores are a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for admission. The lower you go in the rankings, the rarer high scores are, so they’re more coveted. Somewhat counter intuitively, then, high test scores mean relatively more to a mid-tier school than to an Ivy League college.

Students should not take a prep course too early. Generally, the student’s level of reading, writing, and mathematics will dictate when they should begin preparing. The SAT tests through Algebra II in the math section, and students will typically need through sophomore English to be successful.

However, this does not mean that students should avoid early preparation in general. The best preparation, in my opinion, involves encouraging students read at as high a level as they can as early as they can. This is important. Critical Reading is the most difficult section in which to improve. It’s hard to become a faster, more attentive reader in a short period of time – far harder than it is to improve at math and writing. So, as early as possible, get kids reading good, difficult literature.

When the student is ready, take a prep class. The SAT tests knowledge, but it also tests speed and strategy. Do your research and ask friends. Every company advertises their “Massive score improvements!” Stay calm and don’t get sucked in.

An ambitious schedule would entail taking a prep class during the summer between sophomore and junior year, with testing scheduled as follows:

  • Fall of 11th
  • Spring of 11th
  • Fall of 12th (if necessary)

If this seems like a lot of work to take a test that really doesn’t test that much, you’re not alone in this opinion. More and more schools are moving away from standardized testing. They’re usually small liberal arts schools in the Northeast, but a few larger schools have recently come on the scene, Wake Forest University being the most prominent of these. For a full list of testing-optional schools (as well as innumerable screeds against the flaws inherent in standardized testing) visit

There are literally scores of aspects to the SAT that we could cover: Score Choice, Super Scoring, and SAT Subject Tests, to name just a handful. Additionally, we haven’t spoken about the ACT – the SAT’s cousin used mostly in the Midwest – which is generally easier than the SAT and accepted at just as many schools. All of these, though, demand their own posts.

In the meantime, the advice is simple: For older students, look into prep courses. Younger high schoolers need to begin looking at their schedules to plan the coming years. Everyone should be reading, and they should be actively reading (pen in hand) good, difficult stuff. Parents have a job, too: emphasize the importance of the test, but only for what it is. The SAT doesn’t test intelligence, and it certainly doesn’t examine work ethic or passion. For all the craziness that surrounds it, the SAT is just another test that tests how well you take tests.

This blog was provided by Eddie LaMeire, an independent college consultant and the owner of LaMeire College Consulting, who was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on April 27th, 2013.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.

Photo Credit: Sewanee

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