Pouring Your Brain into Little Ovals: The SAT - Surveying the Field: An Overview of the SAT - SAT For Dummies

SAT For Dummies

Part I

Surveying the Field: An Overview of the SAT

In this part . . .

As an SAT candidate, you need to follow one cardinal rule as you prepare to take what is perhaps the most important test of your life to this point: Know your adversary. In this case, your adversary is a little paper booklet with a deceptively innocent appearance. Don’t be fooled; the SAT holds one key to your future. To make your fight with the SAT fair, you must tour the SAT’s native habitat and figure out how to speak its language.

Part I is a field guide to the SAT: what it tests, when you can and should take it, where you can find it, and how it affects your chances for admission to college. Part I also explains when to guess and what to do to stay calm on SAT day.

Chapter 1

Pouring Your Brain into Little Ovals: The SAT

In This Chapter

Determining which test to take

Signing up for the SAT

Allowing for special needs

Previewing the SAT Critical Reading, Writing, and Math sections

Understanding SAT scoring

You may be wondering why you’re stuck with the SAT. Unbelievable as it may seem, the test was established to help, not annihilate (wipe out completely) students. Right about now you’re probably thinking that I’m giving you the old it’s for your own good line that authority figures always use when they’re about to drop you off a cliff. But the SAT was created to level the playing field — to predict the likelihood of academic success of students, regardless of family background, connections, and other privileges. The SAT has never actually succeeded in this lofty goal, and the college admissions playing field still resembles the Alps more than the Great Plains. However, the SAT does give colleges a number for each student that, theoretically at least, measures the ability of everyone who takes it without regard for the dollar value of trust funds sitting in the vault.

In this chapter — whether you have a trust fund or not — you can find the ABCs of the SATs: why you need to take the exam; when, where, and how often to take it; where to send your scores; and how to deal with special needs. Chapter 1 also provides a peek into the structure of the exam itself.

Sitting for the SAT Rather Than ACTing Up

Most college applicants pass through one of two giant gates on their way into U.S. colleges and some foreign schools. One is the ACT, and the other is the SAT. Most colleges accept scores from either test; check with the admissions office of the colleges on your list to be sure you’re taking the tests they prescribe. (A good general rule for college admissions is give them what they want, when they want it.) The SAT and the ACT tests are roughly the same in terms of difficulty. Unless you’re really obsessed, don’t bother to take both. Because you’re reading SAT For Dummies, 8th Edition, rather than downloading the latest rap song, presumably you’re taking the SAT. But if you’re also taking the ACT, don’t forget to check out ACT For Dummies, 5th Edition, by Lisa Zimmer Hatch and Scott Hatch (Wiley).

Don’t confuse the SAT with the SAT Subject Tests. You may have heard different names for both kinds of tests, including SAT I and SAT II, but those terms are now officially obsolete (outdated, so yesterday) because the company that makes them has renamed them the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. (Just to make life a little bit harder, the testing company sometimes calls the SAT the SAT Reasoning Test.) Whatever you call them, be sure you know the difference. The SAT tests the proverbial three Rs — reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic (but clearly not spelling). The SAT Subject Tests cover biology, history, math, and a ton of other stuff. Depending on the schools you apply to, you may have to take one or more Subject Tests or none at all.

Many libraries and nearly all bookstores have college guides — 20-pound paperbacks describing each and every institution of higher learning you may apply to. Check out the colleges on your list to see which tests they accept or require. Be sure to check the copyright date of the guide — the SAT went through some major changes in 2005, so earlier books may not be accurate. You may also visit individual college Web sites for the most up-to-date requirements. The official Web site of the College Board (the makers of the SAT) also lists popular colleges and the tests they want to inflict (impose) on you.

If college isn’t in your immediate future, you may want to take the SAT just to see how you do. If your plans include a stint in the armed forces or hitchhiking through Borneo before hitting higher education, you can keep your options open by taking the SAT before you go. Also, if you take the SAT while formal “book-learning” is still fresh in your mind, you may do better. Then when you retire your thumb or trigger finger, you have some scores to send to the college of your choice, though if a long period of time has passed, the colleges may ask for an updated score. How long is a long period of time? It depends on the college you’re applying to. Some may ask for an updated SAT after only a couple of years; others are more lenient. Obviously, whether you took three years off to work on the world’s deepest tan or ten years to decipher the meaning of an obscure archaeological site also influences the admissions office’s decision on SAT scores. Check with the college(s) you’re interested in and explain your situation.

Getting Set for the SAT: Registering for the Right Test at the Right Time

The SAT is given at select high schools throughout the United States and in English-speaking schools in many other countries. Even home-schoolers can take the SAT, though not in their own living rooms. To find the test center nearest you or to request a registration form, ask the college or guidance counselor at your high school. If you’re home-schooled, call the nearest public or private high school. Or, you may register through the SAT Web site (www.collegeboard.com). If you’re hitting the SAT for a second time, you can register by phone. Call the College Board’s Customer Service center (within the U.S.: 866-756-7346; outside the U.S.: 212-713-7789). Hearing-impaired test takers can call the TTY Customer Service number (within the U.S.: 888-857-2477; outside the U.S.: 609-882-4118). If you’re stranded on a desert island without a phone, the Internet, or a school office (in which case the SAT is the least of your problems), try writing to the College Board SAT Program, P.O. Box 025505, Miami, FL 33102 for the forms you need. The SAT costs $47, though fee waivers are available for those experiencing financial difficulties, and extra services — additional score reports, for example — cost more. (See “Meeting Special Needs” in this chapter for more information.)

In high-stress situations — Martian invasions, nuclear meltdowns, the cancellation of your favorite TV show — rumors abound (grow and thrive). So too with the SAT. You’ve probably heard that certain versions of the SAT — the ones given in October or November or the ones given in a particular state — are easier than others. Not so. The SAT makers include a section in the test that serves as a statistical tool to ensure that all the SAT tests, regardless of when or where they’re given, are equal in difficulty. This part of the test, called the equatingsection, is the one section that you must answer that counts for absolutely nothing (for you). No matter how well you do on the equating section, or (if you’re having a bad day) how badly you blow it, the equating section won’t affect your score. However, because the equating section isn’t labeled, you have to take every section seriously.

The SAT pops up on the calendar seven times a year. You can take the exam as often as you want. If you’re a masochist — you enjoy pain — you can take all seven tests, but most people stick to this schedule:

Autumn of junior year (about 13⁄4 years before college entrance): Time to take the PSAT/NMSQT.

Spring of junior year (about 11⁄4 years before college entrance): Take the SAT strictly for practice, though you can send your scores in if you’re pleased with them.

Autumn of senior year (a bit less than a year before entrance): The SAT strikes again. Early-decision candidates prefer taking the test in October or November; regular applicants may choose from any of the three autumn dates, including December.

Winter of senior year (half-year before entrance): Some SAT-lovers take the exam in autumn and again in winter, hoping that practice will make perfect, at least in the eyes of the colleges. The high scores won’t hurt (and you probably will improve, just because the whole routine will be familiar), but don’t put a lot of energy into repeated bouts of SAT fever. Your grades and extracurriculars may suffer if you’re too fixated on the SAT, and you may end up hurting your overall application.

If you’re transferring or starting your college career midyear, you may sit for the SAT in January, March, May, or June. Check with your counselor or with the college of your choice and go with that recommendation.

Everyone takes the SAT on Saturday except for those students who can’t for religious reasons. If you fall into that category, your SAT will be on Sunday. Get a letter from your cleric (religious leader) on letterhead and mail it in with your registration form.

In terms of test sites, the early bird gets the worm. (Do you ever wonder why no one ever deals with the worm’s fate? He got up early, too, and look what happened to him.) When you register, you may request a test site, but if it’s filled, you’ll get an alternate. So don’t delay; send in the form or register online as soon as you know when and where you want to take the exam.

Meeting Special Needs

If you have a learning disability, you may be allowed to take the SAT under special conditions. The first step is to get an Eligibility Form from your school counselor. (Home-schoolers, call the local high school.) You may also want to ask your college counseling office for a copy of theCollege Board Services for Students with Disabilities Brochure (pamphlet). If your school doesn’t have one, contact the College Board directly (609-771-7137, TTY 609-882-4118) or check the testing agency’s Web site (www.collegeboard.com). File the form well in advance of the time you expect to take the test. Generally, if you’re entitled to extra test time in your high school, you’ll be eligible for extra time on the SAT. What does extra time really mean? Extra time equals 11⁄2 the usual amount for each section. So if regular test takers have 20 minutes for a section, extended-timers get 30 minutes.

¡Atención! What every foreign student needs to know about the SAT

First, welcome to the U.S.’s worst invention, the Seriously Annoying Test (SAT), which you’re taking so that you can attend an American institution. Getting ready for this exam may make you consider another American institution, one with padded rooms and bars on the windows. But a high SAT score is certainly within reach for individuals who have studied English as a second language. Here’s one secret: The SAT’s formal vocabulary is actually easier than American conversational English and slang. So even if you look up at the sky in puzzlement when someone asks, “What’s up?” you should be able to decode an SAT question. (By the way, “What’s up?” is a general inquiry into your state of mind, current occupation, and plans for the immediate future.) As a foreign student, pay special attention to the vocabulary words in this book. You may want to keep a notebook or a computer file of new words you encounter as you work through the sample questions.

Also turn your concentration up to “totally intense” in the math section (see Part IV) of this prep book because arithmetic doesn’t change from language to language. Neither does geometry or algebra. If you can crack the basic language used to put forth the problem, you should be able to rack up a ton of points.

At no additional charge, the SAT also provides wheelchair accessibility, large-print tests, and other accommodations for students who need them. The key is to submit the Eligibility Form early so that the SAT makers — the College Board — can ask for any extra documentation and set up appropriate test conditions for you. You can send paper documentation, or, beginning in 2010, file an Eligibility Form via the Internet. Check out www.collegeboard.com for details.

Questions about special needs? Your local high school’s counselor or principal can help, or you can e-mail the College Board (ssd@info.collegeboard.org).

If your special need resides in your wallet, you can apply for a fee waiver, which is available to low-income high school juniors and seniors who live in the United States, Puerto Rico, and other American territories. Ask your school counselor for an application. (As with everything to do with the SAT, if you’re a home-schooler, call the local high school for a form.) And be careful to avoid extra fees when you can. You’ll run into extra charges for late or changed registration and for some extras — super-speedy scores, an analysis of your performance, and the like. (See the section “Scoring on the SAT” later in this chapter for more information on score-reporting options.)

Measuring Your Mind: What the SAT Tests

Statistically, the SAT tests whether or not you’ll be successful in your first year of college. Admissions officers keep track of their students’ SAT scores and have a pretty good idea which scores signal trouble and which scores indicate clear sailing. Many college guides list the average SAT scores of entering freshmen.

That said, the picture gets complicated whenever the wide-angle lens narrows to focus on an individual, such as you, and admissions offices are well aware of this fact. How rigorous your high school is, whether you deal well with multiple-choice questions, and how you feel physically and mentally on SAT day (fight with Mom? bad romance? week-old sushi?) all influence your score. Bottom line: Stop obsessing about the SAT’s unfairness (and it is unfair) and prepare.

The college admission essay is a great place to put your scores in perspective. If you face some special circumstances, such as a learning disability, a school that doesn’t value academics, a family tragedy, and so on, you may want to explain your situation in an essay. No essay wipes out the bad impression created by an extremely low SAT score, but a good essay gives the college a way to interpret your achievement and to see you, the applicant, in more detail. For help with the college admission essay, take a look at College Admission Essays For Dummies, published by Wiley and written by yours truly.

The SAT doesn’t test facts you studied in school; you don’t need to know when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic or how to calculate the molecular weight of magnesium in order to answer an SAT question. Instead, the SAT takes aim at your ability to follow a logical sequence, to comprehend what you’ve read, and to write clearly in standard English. The math portion checks whether you were paying attention or snoring when little details like algebra were taught. Check out the next sections for a bird’s-eye view of the three SAT topics.

Critical Reading

This topic pops up three times per SAT, in terms of what counts toward your score. (All SATs include an extra section in either reading or math that the SAT makers use for research only.) You face two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section of Critical Reading, a fancy term for reading comprehension. Each section contains sentence completions and reading comprehension passages that are either short (about 100 words) or long (600 to 800 words). You also see a set of paired passages — a double-take on one topic from two different points of view.

Sentence completions

The sentence completions are just fill-ins. You will encounter three sets of five, six, or eight questions. Sentence completions test vocabulary and your ability to decode the sentence structure, as in the following:

The SAT sentence-completion section is guaranteed to give you a headache, so the test makers thoughtfully provide _____ with each exam.

(A) aspirin

(B) dictionaries

(C) answer keys

(D) tutoring

(E) scalp massage

The answer is Choice (A). Given that the sentence specifies headache, your best choice is aspirin, at least in SAT world. In real life you may prefer a day at the spa, but the test makers haven’t included that option. Choice (E) is a possibility, too, but the SAT goes with the best answer, not the only answer.

Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension questions are a mixture of literal (just the facts, ma’am) and interpretive/analytical. You may be asked to choose the meaning of a word in context or to assess the author’s tone or point of view. Passages may be drawn from the natural and social sciences, humanities, or fiction, as in the following:

Tim was frantic to learn that the first GC-MP8 handheld was already in circulation. And here he was wasting his time in college! The degree that he had pursued so doggedly for the past three years now seemed nothing more than a gigantic waste of time. The business world, that’s where he belonged, marketing someone else’s technology with just enough of a twist to allow him to patent “his” idea.

In this passage, the word his is in quotation marks

(A) because it’s a pronoun

(B) because the reader is supposed to hiss at Tim, whom everyone hates

(C) to show that the idea really came from someone else

(D) to demonstrate that the idea really came from a female masquerading as a male

(E) because the typesetter had some extra quotation marks

The answer is (C). These quotation marks refer to Tim’s claim to “someone else’s technology.” Although he isn’t quoted directly, the quotation marks around his imply that Tim says that a particular invention is his, when in fact it isn’t.


To the chagrin (disappointment or embarrassment) of English teachers everywhere, the SAT Writing sections contain only a sliver of actual writing: one 25-minute essay on a topic that you’ve never seen before, plus 35 minutes’ worth of short answers. Why so little writing? As those of us who sit with 4-foot-high piles of essays on our laps know, it takes a long time to read student prose. The SAT test makers must pay people to read and score essays — a much more expensive and time-consuming proposition than running a bubble sheet through a scanner. The multiple-choice questions check your ability to recognize errors in grammar, punctuation, and word use and to make sentence revisions. You also see a couple of pseudo (fake) first drafts of student essays and answer some questions about the writer’s intentions. In these longer passages, you again have to select the best revisions.

Error recognition

Error-recognition questions are long sentences (they have to be long to allow enough room for four possible errors) with underlined portions. You choose the portion with a mistake or select (E) for no error.

The correct choice is (C). Each half of the sentence can stand alone, so a comma alone can’t join them. You need a semicolon or a word such as and or so to glue the two parts together.

Sentence revision

In these questions, the test gurus underline one portion of a sentence and provide four alternatives. Choice (A) always repeats the original wording.

Having been turned down by 15 major league baseball teams, Flabberton changed to basketball, and he succeeded in his goal where he was aiming to be a professional athlete.

(A) in his goal where he was aiming to be a professional athlete

(B) in that he reached his goal of aiming to be a professional athlete

(C) where he became a professional athlete

(D) in his goal of becoming a professional athlete

(E) because he wanted million-dollar sneaker ads

The answer is (D). Just kidding about (E), though an endorsement contract actually was Flabberton’s motivation.

Paragraph revision

These questions throw you into the mind of a fairly competent student writer who has had only enough time to complete a first draft of an essay on a general topic. Some of the questions ask you to combine sentences effectively; others resemble the sentence-revision section — an underlined portion with possible improvements or alternate versions of entire sentences.


This section is the only spot in the Writing section where you actually get to write something. And I do mean write. For those of you who have keyboards permanently implanted under your fingernails, this section may be a handwriting challenge. And thanks to ever-evolving technology, an image of your essay — inkblots, saliva drools, and all — will be available on the Web to the college admission offices that are reviewing your applications. Start practicing your penmanship.

In terms of what you write, the essay is a standard, short discussion of a general topic that the SAT makers provide. You have to take a stand and defend it with evidence (from literature, history, and/or your own experience or observation). The main challenge is time: You have only 25 minutes to think, write, and revise.


SAT math questions rely on Algebra II and some advanced topics in geometry, statistics, and probability. Your SAT contains two 25-minute Math sections and one 20-minute section that count toward your score (and perhaps one equating section that the SAT uses for its own statistical analysis only). Almost all the questions are multiple choice, in which you choose the answer from among five possibilities. Ten are grid-ins in which you supply an answer and bubble in the actual number, not a multiple-choice letter (check out Chapter 11 for more on these). Here’s a sample multiple-choice problem:

If xy – 12 = z, and the value of x is 2, which of the following must be true?

(A) z = the number of days since you’ve had no homework

(B) y = 12 + z

(C) z = 2y – 12

(D) 2yz = 100

(E) y > the number of hours you have to spend studying SAT math

The answer is (A). Just kidding. It’s actually (E). Oops, kidding again. The correct choice is (C).

Scoring on the SAT

No, I’m not talking about that kind of scoring. I’m talking academics here, or at least the SAT’s version of academics. The maximum SAT score is 2,400 (with a top score of 800 on each of the three main sections: Critical Reading, Writing, and Math).

You get one point for each correct answer you supply on the SAT, and for everything but the essay and math grid-ins, you lose 1⁄4 point for each incorrect answer. (If you make a mistake on a grid-in, you receive no points, but nothing is deducted.) Two (severely underpaid) English teachers who have undergone special training in SAT scoring standards read your essay. Each reader awards it 1 to 6 points. If the readers disagree by more than one point, which happens in about 6 percent of the essays, a third super-expert reader weighs in. When you get your Writing score, you see a score of 20 to 80 for the multiple-choice questions and an essay subscore of 2 to 12. The multiple-choice score counts for 70 percent of your total Writing score, and the essay for 30 percent.

The SAT isn’t curved, but raw scores are converted to a number between 200 and 800. You receive 200 just for showing up, and an 800 — the highest score — can be achieved even if you’ve made a few errors. How did the test makers settle upon this score range? I have no idea!

To guess or not to guess; that is the question. The answer is a definite maybe. On the grid-ins, always guess because you won’t get a penalty for a wrong answer. If you have no clue on the grid-ins, bubble in your birthday or the number of cavities you had during your last checkup. For the other five-answer, multiple-choice questions, try to eliminate obviously wrong answers. If you can dump one, you have a one in four chance of guessing correctly. Go for it. If you can’t eliminate anything, leave the question blank. Always guess if you can eliminate two of the five choices because the odds favor you. Students who make this sort of educated guess usually score higher on the SAT than they would have if they’d left more blanks.

The basic fee for the test is $47, with the first four score reports being free, but you pay about $10 extra for additional score reports. (Prices, of course, are always subject to change, and don’t expect any to go down. Check the College Board Web site for pricing changes.) You can request additional score reports on the (how do they think of these names?) Additional Score Report Request Form, which you can download from the Web site.

For a higher fee ($12.50), you can get a detailed analysis of your test performance — how many of each sort of question you answered right and wrong and how difficult each question was. Then you can tailor your prep hours to the stuff that’s hard for you. Ask for the Student Answer Service when you register. For even more money ($18), the SAT sends you a copy of the questions and your answers, along with a form you can use to order a copy of your answer sheet, but only for certain test dates. Look for the Question and Answer Service when you register.

If you’re planning to take another SAT, spring for the Student Answer Service. Seeing what you got wrong gives you a blueprint for review.

Score reports arrive at your high school about five weeks after you take the test. (Home-schooled? Call your local high school for results.) If you’re the antsy type and are willing to fork over a few more dollars, you can find out the good news by phone. Call Customer Service (within the U.S.: 866-756-7346; outside the U.S.: 212-713-7789; TTY 888-857-2477 for the U.S. or 609-882-4118 for outside the U.S.). Have a credit card, your registration number, and your birth date ready. If you have access to the Internet, you can create a free (yes, something’s actually free!) account on the College Board Web site (www.collegeboard.com). Look for My SAT Online Score Report. It tells you your 200–800 scores in Critical Reading, Writing, and Mathematics, and some information on how well you did on various types of questions.