SAT Tips and Advice: How to Do Your Absolute Best


The SAT, previously known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test but now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test, is an admissions test employed by most American universities as a compulsory part of the admissions process, regardless of the subject for which the student is applying.

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Its function is to put applicants’ literacy and numeracy skills to the test under exam conditions, and it is thereby used to judge their suitability for academic studies at university (alongside their normal exam results and other factors). Many students are daunted by this, especially if they’re not currently studying in the USA, so we’ve put together this article to demystify the process and help you prepare for your SAT to the best of your abilities.

What does the SAT involve?

The SAT is broken up into three main parts. These are:
– Critical Reading
– Mathematics
– Writing
The SAT is designed to test what you already know, and the skills you’ve developed in the course of your normal school studies, so you don’t need to learn new things in order to do well in it. However, there are things you can do to help improve your score, which we’ll come onto later in this article.

The SAT test

Image shows three orange no. 2 pencils.
The checklist suggests bringing no. 2 pencils and a soft eraser.

The test itself takes three hours and forty-five minutes, which sounds a long time, but you’ll be given three short breaks during which you can have a snack if you want to. The test costs $91 for international students, who can take the test in October, November, December, January, May and June, usually on the first Saturday of the month.
Make sure you bring the correct things to your test, as the rules are strict. Here’s a handy checklist from the College Board.

The questions

The SAT questions test your ability to analyse and solve problems, as your ability to do this will be necessary for the sort of academic work you’ll be expected to complete at university. But what style of questions can you expect to have to tackle in a SAT? Let’s look at each section individually.
Critical Reading
You’ll find three sections within the Critical Reading part of the SAT, each scored individually. There will be two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute sections, with question types including the following:
– Sentence completion – designed to test your vocabulary and grammar, this style of question requires you to complete a sentence by filling in the blanks with one or two appropriate words. There will usually be between five and eight such questions.
– Appraisal of reading passages – you’ll be given some short and long passages of reading on a variety of topics (from literary to scientific) and you’ll be expected to answer questions on them. For instance, you might be asked to compare and contrast two related passages.
Questions are ordered according to which part of the passage they refer to, but those towards the end are typically harder than those at the beginning.

Image shows a standard scientific calculator.
Calculators are permitted, but not if they have a QWERTY-style keyboard.

Like the Critical Reading section, the Mathematics part of the SAT (also known as the Quantitative or Calculation Section) is also comprised of two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. Question styles you can expect are as follows:
– Multiple choice questions – the first part of this section is made up entirely of 20 multiple choice questions, with five answers to choose from per question, while the second part has eight multiple choice and ten of another question type. The final part consists entirely of 16 multiple choice questions. Note that with this style of question you are penalised for incorrect answers.
– ‘Grid-in’ questions – these are ten mathematical questions for which a blank box is supplied below for the answer to be written in. You won’t be deducted points for incorrect answers to these questions (you just won’t gain any).
Questions become progressively more difficult throughout the test, but you’ll be pleased to hear that you are allowed to use a calculator (have a look at the checklist we linked to above to ensure that you take the correct kind of calculator with you). Topics you’re likely to cover in the Mathematics section include geometry, algebra, probability, data analysis and statistics.
This section assesses your written English skills, in particular grammar.
– Multiple choice questions – these cover a range of topics designed to test your knowledge of grammar and sentence structure. For example, you’ll be required to correct grammatical errors, reword badly written sentences and suggest how illogically ordered paragraphs might better be restructured.
– Essay – contributing around 28% to your score for this section of the SAT, the brief essay you’ll be required to write in the first part of this section of the test takes up 25 minutes, and you’ll be given a prompt on what to write about. This will often be based around a philosophical question, but don’t worry; these are usually questions that anybody can have an opinion on. In the words of the College Board, you’ll be expected to form arguments based on your own “reading, studies, experience or observations”.
The ‘Unscored’ section
At the end of your test is an extra 25-minute section with multiple choice questions on critical reading, mathematics or writing, and this doesn’t count towards your final score. Confused? We don’t blame you. It’s just where new questions are tested out to ensure that they can be understood by all students regardless of their backgrounds.

How SATs are marked and graded

Scores for each of the three sections range from 200 to 800, giving an overall possible score range of 600 to 2,400. You’ll usually receive your score around five weeks after you take the test.
Questions are awarded an equal number of points, but note that points are deducted for incorrect answers to multiple choice questions. This is designed to prevent students from simply guessing the answers. It’s advisable, therefore, that when you don’t know the answer, you only provide one if you can eliminate at least one incorrect answer, as this decreases your chances of having points deducted.
If you want to learn in more depth about the ins and outs of the scoring process, here’s a detailed breakdown of how SATs are marked and scored.

What scores do good US universities expect?

Image shows Nassau Hall, Princeton University.
The average Princeton student has an SAT score of 2120-2390.

As you might expect, the top US universities will be looking for strong scores in the SAT – here’s a table of average Ivy League SAT scores to give you an idea. 1980 is the lowest score on this table (not including Brown, but this is only because this university doesn’t publish data relating to the Writing section of the SAT). This longer list gives you average SAT scores for America’s top 25 universities, with 1780 being the lowest score to make an appearance.
Note, however, that even if you gained a perfect SAT score, this won’t guarantee you a place at every university you apply to. Entry to the top universities is fiercely competitive, and the SAT is only one of a number of factors on which you’ll be judged.

What you can do to improve your score?

Leaving aside the obvious – that is, that you need to study hard in school, because the SAT is there to test what you already know – there are a few things you can do to help you prepare for the SAT and do as well as possible in it.
Do some practice questions
Familiarise yourself with the style of questions in the SAT by answering some sample questions. Try to do these under exam conditions so that you get used to the time pressure you’ll be under when it comes to the real thing. The College Board site offers some free practice questions, as well as preparatory DVDs and online courses (the latter available for a fee).
Draw up a study plan
Be organised about how you study and revise for the SAT. Draw up a timetable that ensures you will be able to cover everything in time, and identify your weaker areas so that you can devote more time to improving these. You’ll find suggested study plans tailored to you on the College Board site.
Improve your handwriting

Image shows someone writing with a fountain pen.
If you normally need a fountain pen to write neatly, now is the time to start practising with pencil, since that’ll all you’ll be allowed in the exam.

For the essay you’ll write in the Writing section, you’ll be awarded zero points if your handwriting is considered illegible despite several attempts to read it on the part of the examiner. If your friends and family have commented that they often have problems reading your handwriting, it’s time to do something about it. What’s more, you must ensure you use the correct writing implement – you must use a No. 2 pencil to write your answers.
Read lots
One of the best things you can do to improve your performance in the Writing and Critical Reading sections of the SAT is to read widely. Not only will this get you used to absorbing new material, which you’ll be required to do in the exam, but it will also indirectly help build on your vocabulary – so keep a dictionary with you so that you can look up words you don’t recognise. What’s more, reading a lot – particularly classic literature – will help improve your knowledge of how to structure a sentence elegantly, which will come in useful for your test, when you’re specifically asked to restructure sentences so that they read better.
Try to read a range of different materials – newspapers, magazine articles, classic literature, modern literature, a friend’s essay, and anything else you can get your hands on. Don’t just read it and forget about it; read it critically and think about why the writer has used certain words or phrases, and the techniques they’re using to write effectively. Start trying to spot errors, as you’ll need to do this in the SAT. Get a red pen out to circle any you spot, and note down your correction.
Brush up on your maths
You shouldn’t have to learn anything new on top of what you’ve done at school, but it’s advisable to go over what you’ve learned and practice plenty of mathematical problems prior to taking the SAT.
Watch the news or read newspapers

Image shows a stack of newspapers.
Vary your choice of newspaper to get a more balanced view of current affairs.

In the essay you’ll write as part of the Writing section of the SAT, you may be asked to discuss a philosophical problem relating to modern life. Having some knowledge of what’s happening in the world may come in handy here, as you’ll be able to refer to current affairs and use them to help make your argument. This is sure to impress and will demonstrate how switched on you are!
Attend our SAT Summer Preparation Course
At Oxford Royale Summer Schools, we run a summer school dedicated to helping students like you prepare for the SAT test. During this two-week course, you’ll gain 42 hours of valuable tuition, take some practice tests under realistic conditions and develop important SAT skills such as essay writing, reading comprehension and tackling mathematical questions. By the end of it, you’ll have a clear idea of what’s expected in the SAT, a better vocabulary and stronger mathematical skills, good essay writing technique and a plethora of tactics to help you cope under exam conditions. Not to mention a horde of new friends!

Don’t panic!

Remember that although the SAT is important, it is just one aspect of your university application on which you will be assessed, so it’s not the be all and end all. Admissions tutors will also take into consideration a wealth of other factors, including your exam results, references from teachers and extra-curricular achievements when judging the overall strength of your application. Not all universities use the same weightings for each of these factors, either, so if you felt your test didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, try not to worry too much. You can even retake it if you’re not happy with your score – in fact, many students choose to do this because they’re more familiar with the process second time round.
Good luck, and don’t forget that exams and tests can even be enjoyable if you’re well-prepared for them!


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Image credits: banner; pencils; calculator; Princeton; pen; newspapers

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