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The SAT: all the key facts

The SAT: all the key facts

For tens of thousands of students at international schools, at some point the SAT will occupy much of their waking thoughts. Nick Morrison investigates for Winter's...


Students at American curriculum schools will take the SAT as a matter of course, but even students at non-US schools will find themselves having to turn their minds to it if they are considering applying for a place at a US university.

Originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and now just known as the SAT, it is a standardised test used for university admissions in the US. An alternative, the ACT, originally American College Testing, is also widely used. Most   although not all   US universities require applicants to have taken either test.

The SAT is administered by the College Board, a non-profit organisation. A redesigned test, introduced for the first time in 2016, aims to bring it into closer alignment with the curriculum, as well as to give it a closer fit with the skills students will need at university.

In 2016 a scoring system was introduced which aims to identify specific strengths and weaknesses within the test. Previous iterations also penalised students for guessing; in the new version they only earn points for questions they answer correctly and there is no benefit to leaving any blank.

"The SAT includes a reading test, a writing and language test and a maths test."

The test itself takes three hours. An essay component   an optional part of the test but required by many colleges   takes an additional 50 minutes, double the time allowed under the previous version.

What does the SAT test include?

  • The SAT includes a reading test, a writing and language test and a maths test. In the reading and writing and language tests, students are asked to interpret and synthesise evidence from a range of sources, which will include science, history and social studies materials. 
  • Students will also be asked to read a passage from a U.S. founding document, such as the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights, or related material.
  • For the essay, students must read a passage and then explain how the author builds an argument.
  • The maths test is comprised of sections on problem-solving and data analysis, algebra and advanced maths.

Each section is timed separately, so that even if students finish one section early, they may not move onto the next one until the allotted time.

Under the SAT’s new scoring system, scores range from 400 to 1600. A percentile ranking system also allows students to compare their scores with other entrants.

Image: UWC South East Asia, East Campus, Singapore.

Image: UWC South East Asia, East Campus, Singapore.

The SAT is offered seven times a year and it is possible to cancel your original score and sit the exam again. As a result, many students take it in 11th grade with a view to retaking it in 12th grade in time for university admission deadlines.

According to the College Board, just over half of students who do this improve their score, but around a third see their scores fall, although in this case they can choose not to report the retake and revert instead to their original score.

Retakes do involve additional fees, however, with the cost for international students varying for the test with the essay and the test without it.

The SAT is not the only measure universities use in deciding on admissions. Instead, it is considered alongside a student’s academic record, as well as their extra-curricular activities. But it can be a decisive factor in determining which students are awarded scholarships.

"The SAT is considered alongside a student’s academic record, as well as their extra-curricular activities."

Image:  Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil, Switzerland

Image: Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil, Switzerland

The popularity of the SAT   and its importance in college admissions  has created a huge industry in preparation courses, although the College Board claims that it is not possible to coach students and that tutoring has only a minimal effect.


Much of the above also applies to the ACT. Although less well-known than the SAT, the ACT is taken by as many students, although probably less so in international schools.

The ACT is made up of English, maths, reading and science reasoning, with an optional writing element, and is offered four to six times a year. Since 2015, the ACT has been offered as a computer-based test, although it is still available in paper format.

A new scoring system has also been introduced and, as with the SAT, there is no penalty for incorrect answers on the multiple choice part of the exam. Most colleges make no distinction between students with the SAT and those with the ACT.


International School Ho Chi Minh City - American Academy (top image)

UWC South East Asia, East Campus, Singapore 

Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil, Switzerland

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