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Everything You Need to Know About the SATs

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted plenty of upheaval, including for college bound high school students attempting to take the SAT. As test centers closed because of regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, parents and teens have scrambled to secure new SAT tests dates ahead of college application deadlines. And, as the pandemic continues, so could the uncertainty and the potential for SAT cancellations in 2021.

An image of a teenage girl taking a test.
Credit: Getty Images.

Because of the cancellations, many colleges and universities have gone test optional, no longer requiring test scores for admission. But that could change as we emerge from the pandemic, say college counselors. Students should prepare. “Stay in training shape,” says Tiffany Blessing, a master college admissions counselor with IvyWise, who has worked in admissions at the University of Virginia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Colgate University. “It’s just too early to count it out altogether.”

Here’s what you need to know about the SATs.

What Does SAT Stand for and Why Do Kids Need to Take It?

In the past, the SAT has stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Scholastic Assessment Test. Today, it doesn’t stand for anything at all. “It’s kind of like KFC dropped the chicken, and KFC is now just officially KFC,” says Blessing. “The College Board officially calls it the SAT right now.”

Teens take the test because many colleges and universities require it for admission. Some states also have scholarships that are tied to standardized testing, says Blessing. And the NCAA has a standardized test requirement for student athletes.

What Subjects Are Included in the SAT Test?

After the June 2021 test date, the SAT will have only a math section and a reading and writing section. In January, the College Board announced that it would discontinue an optional essay after the June test. “It was never a huge part of the admissions process even for the schools that did require it,” says Ashleigh Taylor, founder and CEO of Empowered 4 College Coaching, who used to work in admissions at the University of Michigan.

Separate from the SATs, the College Board also announced in January that it would no longer offer SAT Subject Tests. These tests focused on specific subjects not covered on the SAT, such as chemistry or advanced math. Schools typically did not require them, says Taylor, but some more selective schools recommended them.

What Is the Average SAT Score, and What’s Considered a Good SAT Score?

The SATs are scored out of a possible 1600 points. Test takers earn between 200 and 800 points each for both the math section and the reading and writing section. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the SAT mean score of high school seniors in 2018 was 1068.

But a good score, says Mark Greenstein, founder and lead instructor at Ivy Bound Test Prep, “depends on the college that you’re choosing.” The average SAT score varies widely at different institutions, and an 1100 will be the right score for one school, but not another. The average score at the University of Connecticut, for example, is about 1300, says Greenstein. It’s 1560 at ultra-competitive Yale University.

How Does SAT Registration Work?

The College Board administers the test, and students can register on its website. Registration deadlines are about a month before each test date.

How Long Does the SAT Take?

Students should arrive by 7:45 a.m. as the doors close at 8 a.m. Testing starts between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., and students stumble out around 12:30 p.m., says Blessing. Test takers get two short breaks.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

The test costs $52, and fee waivers are available for low-income 11th and 12th graders. Additional fees, which the College Board’s website spells out, cover late registrations, changes to test centers or test dates (though change fees are waived through March 2, 2021) and other services.

What Should Students Bring to the SAT?

During COVID, a face covering is required. Students also should make sure they have their up-to-date admission ticket, an official photo ID, two No. 2 pencils with erasers and an approved calculator, which can be used only on the calculator portion of the math section, according to the College Board. It’s also good to have a watch without an alarm to track your time, extra batteries for your calculator just in case and a snack or drink to have during one of your breaks.

What’s the Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

Both are standardized tests that are widely accepted at colleges and universities across the country. “Colleges truly have no preference between the SAT and the ACT,” says Blessing, who recommends students try both tests to see which one is best for them.

Like the SAT, the ACT tests students on math, English and reading skills too. It also includes a science section and offers an optional writing test. Blessing says it might be the better choice for some students with learning differences or particular needs. For example, if a student isn’t great at doing math in their head, the ACT might be a “friendlier” choice, she says. Calculators are allowed for only one portion of the SAT math test, but all of the ACT math section.

There’s also a difference in the way the tests are scored. Instead of the SAT’s 1600 points, students earn up to 36 points on the ACT. The average ACT scorefor the class of 2020 was 20.6.

While it’s easy to get laser focused on numbers during the admissions process, Blessing often reminds students that their college application includes so much more than just a test score.

“Schools can fill their classes, three times, four times, six times with perfect grades and perfect scores,” says Blessing. “All of the schools I’ve worked with have been highly selective universities and institutions, and it’s never simply been [about] the SAT or ACT.”

Written by Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

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