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An Overview of the SAT

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This lesson provides a brief overview of the SAT college entrance exam offered by the College Board. The SAT is a standardized test designed to measure college readiness in reading, writing, and mathematics. Like all standardized tests, however, the SAT is as much a measure of how familiar students are with the exam format as they are with the exam content.


Test Structure

The SAT is divided into 10 timed sections, with the Essay section always coming first. The Essay section gives students 25 minutes to write a short (two pages max) response to a question posed in a broadly-defined prompt. The test then interleaves 9 subsections of multiple-choice Reading, Writing, and Math. There always two longer and one shorter subsection of Reading and Math. There is one longer and one shorter subsection of Writing. Subsections are designed to provide students with just enough time to complete all of the questions. For example, one of the longer Reading subjections gives students 25 minutes in which to answer 24 questions.

How the SAT is graded

The Essay section is scored on a scale of 2-12. Two essay graders read your essay and grade it on a 1-6 scale based on the scoring rubric. Their scores are then combined. (In rare circumstances where the graders disagree by more than a point a third grader is brought in. The three scores are then averaged together.) Essay graders move through essays very quickly. They usually spend only a few minutes on an essay.

Multiple choice sections reward 1 point for each correct answer and deduct ¼ of a point for each incorrect answer. Skipped questions don’t affect a student’s score one way or the other. Math “student produced response” questions are the exception. There is no ¼ point penalty for answering one of these incorrectly.

The “raw” scores are calculated and weighed against those of other students taking the same SAT. This produces the familiar 200-800 “scaled” score for each section. A student’s scaled Writing section score is also influenced by his or her Essay. About 30 percent of the scaled score comes from the Essay. The rest is based on a student’s multiple choice Writing score.


“Quirks” of the SAT

As we mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, understanding the format of the SAT is as important for receiving a high score as understanding its content is. While students typically do better in the sections that test the subjects that they are strongest in, many receive a lower score than they expect to the first time that they take the SAT. While this can be due to many factors, one common problem that students face is a decided disconnect between how the exam presents a given subject and how that same subject is taught in high school.

Because the SAT is a standardized test, it had to be designed in such a way that there could be only one correct answer per question. However, some of the material that the SAT attempts to measure doesn’t naturally lend itself to such a format. The Reading section, for instance, prioritizes memorization of arcane, rarely-used words over the correct usage of the sort of words that students will actually need to know for college. It also employs a much narrower and more literal definition of “reading comprehension” than what students are typically taught in school.

Furthermore, questions on some parts of the SAT (such as the Reading section) are written in such a way as to make them appear more ambiguous and open-ended than they actually are. Alongside such deliberate choices, various unofficial “rules” and patterns have emerged as the SAT has evolved over time. Understanding and mastering these is important for success on the SAT.

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