SAT Prep Guide for High School & College Students

Getting Ready for the Writing & Language, Reading, Essay & Math Sections

The Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, was taken by 1.7 million high school seniors in 2015. Scores from this test (or the ACT) dictate the types of colleges students are likely to be accepted to while also determining whether they qualify for merit-based scholarships. Students can lessen test stress by taking time to understand the SAT and developing strategies to tackle it. This guide offers an inside look at the SAT and expert advice from a tutoring specialist.

What is the SAT?

The SAT was developed in 1926 as a standardized method of assessing a student’s readiness for a college-level education. Typically taken by high school juniors and seniors, the topics and competencies tested by the exam help admissions counselors and scholarship programs assess intellectual potential. The SAT was the single most important litmus test for learners until the end of the 1950s when the American College Testing (ACT) examination debuted. Because the SAT and ACT test slightly different skillsets, most students now work with their guidance counselors to decide which one plays to their strengths best.

The SAT is a vitally important examination because it is a significant factor (alongside GPAs, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities) in determining whether or not a student is accepted to the college of their choice. Many schools have SAT minimum score requirements for applicants to be considered.

SAT scores are also crucial when it comes to garnering scholarships and grants to help offset the rising costs of college. In concert with a high school advisor or college coach, students with impressive SAT scores may receive funding in a variety of forms. Lots of colleges and universities have score benchmarks for providing departmental or school-wide merit scholarships, while foundations like the National Merit Scholarship Program also offer funding to students who meet scoring requirements. A range of private foundations and public organizations also use standardized test scores in the decision-making process and a good SAT score can often tip the scales in a student’s favor.

Registration & Fees

Registering to take the SAT is easy thanks to College Board’s online portal. Students need only to create a free account via the College Board website to get started.

  • Once the account is created, students provide identification information such as their legal name, contact details and an approved photograph to register their place.
  • Students can also elect to answer a few optional questions for a scholarship database so colleges and foundations can find out about scores and award funds to candidates who excel.
  • Because the SAT includes the option to complete an essay, students must indicate whether or not to include this portion in their examination.
  • Lastly, students must print their admission ticket to show on testing day.

Basic fees for taking the SAT range between $45 for the traditional SAT and $57 for the SAT with the essay component.

  • College Board will send score reports to four schools at no extra charge, but additional score reports cost $12 each.
  • Other potential costs include registering by phone ($15), changing the testing center or date ($28), registering after the deadline ($28), and placing a rush order on score reports ($31).

College Board offers fee waivers for the cost of the exam, additional score reports, and a question-and-answer service for students who meet specific criteria. As of the 2016-2017 exam period, these include:

  • Enrollment in or eligibility to take part in the National School Lunch Program provided by the federal government
  • Enrollment in government programs providing support to students from low-income families
  • Qualification for public assistance
  • Residence in public housing or a foster home, or qualification as a homeless student
  • Family income that falls within the Income Eligibility Guidelines used by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

SAT Important Dates & Deadlines

Dates and Deadlines for Administration 2017-2018 SAT Examination

Exam Date Deadline for Registration Deadline for Late Online/
Phone Registration
Online Score Release
August 26, 2017 July 28 August 15 September 14
October 7, 2017 September 8 September 27 October 27
November 4, 2017 October 5 October 25 November 23
December 2, 2017 November 2 November 21 December 21
March 10, 2018 February 9 February 28 March 29
May 5, 2018 April 6 April 25 May 24
June 2, 2018 May 3 May 23 June 21

2016 Changes to the SAT

The SAT got a significant facelift in 2016 when College Board revamped the content, format and scoring mechanisms of the exam. The new examination ensures the content presented represents the type of math and reading challenges students are likely to encounter in college and beyond.

Testing Time

The test was shortened to 3 hours, with an additional 50 minutes allowed for students who elect to complete the essay.

Sections

The former critical reading and writing sections were combined into evidence-based reading and writing, with sub-tests on reading and writing/language. The math and essay sections remain unchanged.

Preparedness

The exam now places greater emphasis on the specific skills and knowledge that research has shown to be essential to college preparedness rather than general reasoning skills. The vocabulary section has moved beyond limited context to provide greater emphasis on meaning.

Essay

The essay is now optional and given at the end of the examination instead of at the beginning. Rather than only testing writing skills, the new essay also looks for reading analysis competencies as well.

Scoring

There is no penalty for guessing, unlike the previous exam which deducted points for every incorrect answer. Scores now range between 400 and 1600 (600 and 2400 previously), with up to 800 points provided for each of the three sections.

Gearing up to Take on the SAT

Students with aspirations to attend a great school or receive significant funds rely heavily on their SAT score to achieve these dreams. But landing in the top percentile of scorers requires dedication, focus and determination. Fortunately, there are numerous options when it comes to preparing for the big day.

Online Preparation

Students who don’t have access to a local tutor often use an online preparatory course to help them address weaknesses and become familiar with the exam layout. The internet is filled with such services, including those that charge for their courses and those that offer them free of charge.

  • Khan Academy

    Khan Academy has been providing free, personalized practice tools to students preparing to take the SAT since 2006. This non-profit hosts a range of services to help test-takers ace the exam, including eight official full-length practice tests, thousands of interactive practice questions and videos, and steady feedback on progress so students know how they’re doing. Khan Academy also has a tailored practice plan that uses PSAT/NMSQT scores to create an individualized study plan that targets areas for improvement.

  • Prep Factory

    A potential resource for students and teachers alike, Prep Factory offers a range of preparatory services alongside curricula to ensure examinees are getting help inside and outside the classroom. Students can take advantage of practice questions that are broken down in stages to help them understand the type of answer being sought. Strategy modules are also available to address common pitfalls and time-wasters they’re likely to encounter. And because studying shouldn’t be completely serious, students can also play a number of games to help improve their grammar skills, mathematical abilities and vocabulary.

  • Shmoop

    Diagnostic exams, full-length practice tests, statistical reports and access to thousands of vocabulary words are just a few of the services students can expect to receive when subscribing to Shmoop. Led by a team of experienced and qualified course developers who understand how students learn best, the programs offered tap into specific strategies and 21st century preparation tactics to help examinees succeed.

  • Veritas Prep

    More than 310,000 users are currently registered with Veritas Prep and are taking advantage of both free and paid services to help improve their SAT scores. Offering a range of videos, webinars and practice problems, users can select from one-to-one tutoring services (including subject-specific tutoring) or self-study programs to help them achieve the scores they need to attend the college of their dreams. The company also offers a free test to help decide whether the ACT or SAT is best for them.

  • College Confidential

    Looking for insider knowledge from students who have used various prep services to prepare for the SAT? College Confidential has an active forum on SAT Test and Test Preparation where students voice their opinions about the process and whether or not the services were helpful.

  • Reviews.com

    Before diving into a free or paid service, examinees can use Reviews.com to learn about 37 different preparatory service providers and find the one best suited to their learning needs. Contenders are ranked in four different categories: Most Practice Tests, Best One-on-One, Best Free Services and Most Engaging.

  • College Board

    College Board is the official overseer of the SAT and as such is the only qualified body able to provide examples of official SAT practice exams. The organization offers a variety of paper-based practice exams meant to simulate testing day conditions and provides examinees with a helpful look at the types of questions they’ll encounter. College Board currently offers eight full practice tests on their website.

  • The Princeton Review

    In addition to paid services, The Princeton Review also has one online practice test and a range of pencil and paper tests scheduled in cities throughout America during the summer and academic year. Students can sign up for these at no cost if they live near a testing center and fully recreate how exam day will look and feel.

Independent Preparation

Practice exams, webinars, and one-to-one subject tutoring are the perfect answer for many students leading up to the SAT exam, but others may prefer to prep on their own with the help of a few resources. A number of websites offer self-guided preparation materials and other resources to help these types of learners gather all the intel they’ll need to feel confident and prepared when test day arrives.

  • College Board

    In addition to practice exams, College Board is home to hundreds of different types of resources to meet the needs of singular learners. The Featured Article section of the website has a range of helpful pieces written by SAT professionals, with tips on creating a test day checklist, knowing what to expect on test day, interpreting scores and learning how to send scores to prospective colleges. The Section Topics portion of the website provides further information divided into numerous categories, including: Registering for the SAT, Practice, Inside the Test, Scores, and Taking the Test.

  • Method Test Prep

    Rather than focusing on practice exams, Method provides numerous self-directed SAT study guides that students can work through on their own time and in their own way. A number of recorded classes are also available for students who prefer to complete the lectures on their own rather than in a live webinar format.

  • The Princeton Review

    Students looking to gain a more overarching view of the SAT and its importance in admissions and scholarship processes can find much information on The Princeton Review’s website. Questions about how many times per year the test is offered, cost, average scores and duration are all answered along with helpful details about registering and interpreting scores based on college acceptance requirements.

Day of the Test Preparation

After months of studying, taking practice tests and reviewing incorrect answers to strengthen the likelihood of scoring well on the SAT, it all comes down to the day of the test. In the final 24 hours leading up to sitting for the SAT, the best thing test-takers can do is be prepared. Top tips for arriving confident include:

  • Step 1 – Grab your gear

    Examinees are allowed two sharpened No. 2 pencils, an eraser, calculator, wrist watch, water, snacks and clothes for layering. An approved photo identification card and the admission ticket will also be needed. Lay these items out the night before so you won’t be scrambling on test day.

  • Step 2 – Get some rest

    Prepare to go to bed a bit earlier than usual so you can wake up an hour before heading to the testing center. The last thing you want is to still feel groggy when the exam begins, so leave time for breakfast and/or a short walk before setting off.

  • Step 3 – Fuel up

    The last thing you want is to be half-way through the exam and feel ravenously hungry. In addition to eating a hearty breakfast with protein, carbohydrates and fat to satiate you, be sure to pack some snacks and a bottle of water incase hunger strikes.

  • Step 4 – Know the plan

    All testing centers adhere to the same schedule, so students can plan accordingly regardless of location. Doors always open at 7:45 a.m. and close at 8:00 a.m., with students who arrive late risking being turned away. The exam starts between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and students will be assigned a seat. A proctor will read all instructions and answer procedural questions before beginning the timer for each section. Once a new section is started, students cannot return to the previous section.

  • Step 5 – Take breaks

    Proctors allow for two breaks, one lasting 10 minutes and the other lasting five, during the course of the test. Use this time to have a snack or run to the restroom, but be sure to bring your photo ID and admissions ticket or else you won’t be allowed back in the room.

SAT Scoring

Competitive schools often have very specific requirements when it comes to admitting students, and standardized test scores are a large part of the decision-making process. Before taking the SAT, students should have a clear idea of what makes for a great score, how to achieve their best score and the process for receiving scores and sending them to prospective colleges or universities.

  • Understanding Scores

    The new SAT is scored out of 1600, with additional points provided for the essay. A great score is considered to be in the 90th percentile or above, which equates to a score of 1340-1600. Anything above 1220 is still considered a notable score nationally, while a score of 1080 is the national average. Scores below 950 are considered very low. Students looking to understand how their new SAT scores compare to scores from the older version of the test can access College Board’s SAT Score Converter free of charge.

  • Sending Scores

    As part of initial testing fees, College Board will send scores to four different prospective schools without additional charges. If a student has taken the old version of the SAT, College Board will also convert the scores free of charge. Students who want to send their scores to more than four schools can either apply for a fee waiver if they meet specific criteria or pay an extra fee of $12 per school. If the school needs to receive them quickly, they can be rush delivered for an additional fee.

  • Receiving Scores

    No matter whether a student registers to take the SAT via mail or online, all scores are uploaded to a secure online portal when they are ready. They are typically sent to the schools one day before being released to students, a process which takes between three and four weeks from the time the exam is taken.

  • Old vs. New Scores

    Before being reworked, possible SAT scores ranged from 600 to 2400. Scores ranging from 200 to 800 were allotted for each of the three sections: critical reading, mathematics, and writing. The new essay ranges from 400 to 1600 points and includes 200 to 800 points for both evidence-based reading/writing and mathematics. The essay is weighed against three criteria, each of which is given a score ranging between two and eight.

Determining what test is best for me, SAT or ACT?

Aside from the SAT, the most common standardized test used for college admissions and scholarship applications is the ACT. While no choice is better than the other in the eyes of admissions and reading panels, students typically find that they are more drawn to one over the other. According to Diane Patton, the director of tutoring at Prep Scholar, there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding. “Which test to take comes down to which one you can get a better score on and which one feels most comfortable to you,” she says. Some of the common reasons to take the SAT over the ACT include:

  • You prefer puzzles and reasoning to straight-up knowledge questions
  • You read a bit more slowly
  • You’re uncomfortable with science
  • You haven’t gone past Algebra II in school
  • You prefer analyzing a passage to writing about your opinions

Patton says that, if a student still isn’t certain after reading about both exams, they should take full-length practice tests for both. “Afterwards, score both and compare how you did, but also think about which one you liked better,” she suggests. “Did one of them tire you out less? Was one easier to focus on? The test to take is the one you like better and can do better on.”

Interview with a Test Prep Expert

Diana Patton has spent more than 11 years teaching classes, tutoring and creating tools and programs to foster learning and motivation for students. For the last four years, she has specialized in working with students of all levels and backgrounds to prep for standardized tests including the SAT, ACT, SSAT and ISEE. She has written books for tutors to teach the SAT and ACT effectively, and in her current role as director of tutoring at PrepScholar, she leads a growing tutoring team to provide a learning experience that is completely individualized and available to all students around the world.

Why is it important for students to take the SAT in relation to college acceptance and scholarship probability?

The whole reason the SAT exists is to give colleges a simple number to compare students from all different high schools and backgrounds, so it’s one of the biggest factors in deciding whether an admissions office will look at your application or just toss it on the rejection pile. The good news is that your SAT score is also one of the easiest parts of your application to change late in the game. By junior and senior year, your GPA is fairly set, and you can’t get too far into a new extracurricular, but you can still prep to ace the SAT.

More than that, doing well on the SAT can also place you out of certain (boring) freshman-level classes, and let you start off college taking the classes you want to take. A lot of students don’t start thinking about the SAT until later in high school, but the PSAT is just as important: when you take the PSAT in junior year, you have the chance to qualify for a National Merit scholarship. This is a big deal: not only does it help pay for your college, but it also opens a lot of doors, because colleges want National Merit Scholars in their classes.

Even if you don’t get the scholarship, but score well enough to be a National Merit finalist or a semi-finalist, that’s something you can put on your application that will get you accepted to more colleges, often with merit-based scholarships from those schools.

What are your best tips for preparing to ace this examination?

Discipline, practice, and review: start at least two months before the exam, set a goal and a schedule, and absolutely stick to it. Practice carefully and consistently, timing yourself under as realistic conditions as possible. Every time you practice, review each of your wrong or skipped answers, identify why you missed it, and write down strategies or rules you will use next time to get questions like that right.

If you’re not sure you can do that on your own, try setting up a study group with friends, or ask for the help of a parent or older relative. If it’s an option for you, meet with a really good tutor, who will guide you and make sure your prep is as effective as possible. In general, you should plan to spend at least 40 hours total on your prep, but this depends a lot on what score you’re starting from and what score you want to get for your colleges and scholarships. Taking practice tests will tell you if you’re on track or not so you can adjust your plan to complete the right amount of studying for you.