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What is the SAT?

Two students sitting at a desk preparing for the SAT

Three letters in the alphabet can make a high school student tense up.

S-A-T. Formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

"At its core, it's designed to test for academic college readiness and aptitude," said Tim Whittum, associate vice president of admission at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

The exam — typically taken by high school juniors and seniors — is administered by the College Board, an organization that's offered the test for about 100 years.

What Does the SAT Test For?

The SAT test is split into 2 sections: reading/writing and math.

Each portion is scored individually, and they then combine for one overall score that universities may require as part of their admission requirements.

The reading and writing sections of the SAT — which are fully multiple choice — currently include:

  • Reading Test: Read passages, then answer multiple-choice questions.
  • SAT Vocabulary: Define words that come up in college-level reading and professional life, with context clues.
  • Writing and Language Test: Read passages, then identify and fix mistakes.

Math is split into 4 sections on the SAT:

  • Heart of Algebra: Create and solve functions, linear equations and systems of linear equations.
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: Take command of percentages, proportional reasoning and ratios, as well as statistical data.
  • Passport to Advanced Math: Show understanding of STEM-focused equations and functions.
  • Additional Topics in Math: Review geometry, trigonometry, radian measure and complex numbers.

The math section is primarily multiple choice, though some questions ask you to write in the answer.

Up until 2021, the SAT included other sections, like subject tests — in English, history, science, math and world languages — and an optional essay.

"We’re adapting to respond to the changing needs of students and colleges," the College Board announced at the time. "This change simply streamlines the process for students who have other, more relevant opportunities to show they can write an essay as part of the work they’re already doing on their path to college."

What's a Good SAT Score?

SAT scores range between 400 and 1600, with the latter being a perfect score. But there's a much wider range of "good" scores — and depending on your college goals, what you consider good may be different for someone else.

The average SAT score for high schoolers who took the exam in 2022 was 1050, according to the College Board — almost right in the middle of the scoring range.

Because each college has its own admission requirements, a 1050 may be all you need to get into the college of your choice. However, to get into more competitive colleges, a minimum score may be necessary.

Oftentimes, a score of 1350 or higher would put you among the top 10% of test-takers. And should your sights be set on an Ivy League institution, you may need to be as close to that perfect score as possible.

You'll receive your scores 2 to 3 weeks after you take the SAT. Students can create an online account on the College Board's website to access them.

Is the SAT Hard?

"Hard" is subjective. While some test-takers are confident in their abilities to do well, others have anxiety leading up to the exam. Both ends of the spectrum can affect SAT test scores.

The SAT is primarily made up of multiple-choice questions, meaning students are offered a variety of answers from which they can choose.

There are pros and cons to multiple-choice exams.

For students who feel a little unsure in their studies, being provided with answers could help them make the right decision by being able to narrow down the choices. However, you may also get rattled by seeing a number of options and second-guessing yourself.

The SAT is also a timed exam. This can put pressure on test-takers who are already uncomfortable with what some may consider a high-stress event. It can leave students wondering how much time to spend on a question — or if they still have time to finish the test.

What is the Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

Tim Whittum and the text Tim WhittumThe ACT — formerly known as American College Testing — is another well-known exam at the high school level.

The ACT is another assessment option that high schoolers have, though the SAT has typically had a slight lead over the years. In 2022, 1.7 million students took the SAT while 1.35 million sat for the ACT.

"The ACT is designed to test the same aptitude readiness, but it's executed a little differently," Whittum said. "For example, it has a science section, where the SAT does not. It has a broader range of subjects."

Both the SAT and the ACT are well-known exams at the high school level. Some colleges prefer one test; others may require both, while a number of colleges don't ask for either.

The Controversy Around Standardized Testing

One reason a growing number of colleges don't require standardized test scores is that many experts in the field believe they're biased.

Some of those arguments say that standardized tests are:

  • Racist. In the class of 2022, the only race/ethnicity groups to break into the 1000s on the SAT on average were Asian, Two or More Races, and White (College Board PDF source). 

    "Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools," said Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be an Anti-Racist," referencing studies that have shown Black and Latinx groups often experience bias.

  • Classist. Taking — and re-taking — standardized exams costs money. Plus, as many high school students aim for higher scores, they and their families may turn to books, prep courses or both.

    "Students with family income of $100,000 or more are more than twice as likely as students with family income under $50,000 to have combined SAT test scores of 1400 to 1600," a 2021 Forbes article stated.

  • Geared toward educated families. Not surprisingly, students with parents who'd earned an associate, bachelor's or graduate degree were the ones with average scores over 1000, the College Board stated.

    "Socioeconomic family background factors, such as the level of parental education and/or household income, are related to students’ SAT scores inasmuch as students who come from homes with higher levels of parental education and income tend to perform better on the SAT," a National Library of Medicine article reports.

Some colleges have taken note of this — and have even removed more barriers for college entrance by creating open enrollment admission policies. Open enrollment — sometimes known as open access or open admission — means that a college isn't selective in their acceptance process, that as long as you've completed high school or an equivalent, you can attend.

One such institution is SNHU, which doesn't require test scores for admission for either its campus or online programs.

"In addition to it being inequitable, it's a one-time test score," Whittum said. "Does that really show aptitude? It doesn't tell us enough about the student, and it's why we do a more holistic review process."

Denisse Vega with the text Denisse Vega In particular, for SNHU's online student population, the SAT could be even more of a deal-breaker. Many online students are older than the traditional campus age of attendance, meaning they may not have taken the test back in high school or the score wouldn't accurately reflect their knowledge today.

"When I decided to go back to school, I knew many requested so many things, including SAT scores," said Denisse Vega '21, who earned an associate degree at SNHU and has since enrolled in a bachelor's program. "Although I was an A+ student, I never took the test. Then, I found out SNHU didn’t ask for any kind of test or scores! I went ahead, applied and got accepted."

Not requiring test scores can also help you move through the admission process faster. Many online students are motivated to start their degree program quickly, and waiting for test scores could push back their start date.

If you plan on going to a college that requires standardized test scores for admission, you probably can't get around it. Check out admission requirements at the schools you're considering for either test-required, test-optional or no-test-required admission, and consider whether the exam is a deal-breaker for you.

Online. On campus. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Deidre Ashe '18G is a copywriter in higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.