SAT Starter’s Guide

There’s been a lot of talk in the test prep world about the redesigned SAT and how much it’s turning into the ACT. Here’s a guide that will help you understand the test and how it impacts your child’s college application process.

How is the New SAT Structured?

The SAT is a three-hour affair (3 hours and 50 minutes if you choose to do the optional essay) testing a student’s understanding of and ability in reading, writing and language, and math with a total of 154 questions.

Evidence-Based Reading and Writing

Reading: 65 minutes for 52 questions

  • Focused on assessment of students’ comprehension and reasoning skills
  • Items contributing to subscores:
    • Words in context
    • Command in evidence
    • Analysis in history/social sciences
    • Analysis in science
  • Passage contents:
    • U.S. and World literature: 1 passage, 10 questions
    • History/Social Studies: 2 passages or 1 passage and 1 pair of passages. 10-11 questions each.
    • Science: 2 passages or 1 passage and 1 pair of passages. 10-11 questions each.
    • 2 passages will include one or two graphics (tables, graphs, charts, etc.)

Writing and language: 35 minutes, 44 questions

  • Focused on assessment of students’ revising and editing skills
    • Items contributing to subscores:
      • Expression of ideas
      • Standard English conventions
      • Words in context
      • Command of evidence
      • Analysis in history/social studies
      • Analysis in science
  • Passage contents:
    • Careers: 1 passage, 11 questions.
    • History/Social Studies: 1 passage, 11 questions.
    • Humanities: 1 passage, 11 questions.
    • Science: 1 passage, 11 questions
    • 1 or more graphics in 1 or more sets of questions
  • Text Types:
    • Argument: 1-2 passages
    • Informative/Explanatory: 1-2 passages
    • Nonfiction Narrative: 1 passage


Calculator section: 38 questions, 55 minutes

  • 30 multiple choice, 8 grid-in responses
  • Heart of Algebra: 11 questions
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: 17 questions
  • Passport to Advanced Math: 7 questions
  • Additional Topics in Math: 3 questions

No calculator section: 20 questions, 25 minutes

  • 15 multiple choice, 5 grid-in responses.
  • Heart of Algebra: 8 questions
  • Passport to Advanced Math: 9 questions
  • Additional Topics in Math: 3 questions

Essay (optional)

  • Given at the end of the test
  • 50 minutes to write it
  • Focused on assessment of students’ skill in developing a cogent and clear written analysis of a provided source text
  • Score will be based on:
    • Reading: comprehension of text, understanding of ideas, and use of textual evidence.
    • Analysis: Analysis of text, evaluation of author’s use of evidence and reasoning, support for claims made in the response.
    • Writing: Use of central claim, use of varied sentence structure, command of conventions of standard written English.

How is this different from the old SAT?

  • No point deduction for wrong answers. Guess away!
  • Only two sections (+essay) compared to three sections (+essay)
  • Essay is about analyzing a passage rather than answering a question and having to remember examples.
  • Score is out of 1600 rather than 2400
  • Less focus on difficult vocabulary words

Why is the SAT Important?

If taking the SAT was something students did just for kicks, it would no longer exist, let alone have 1.6 million annual test takers. Standardized tests exist for a reason. For students, the SAT provides an opportunity to stand out from the crowd by demonstrating intellectual fit with a particular institution. For institutions of learning, tests like the SAT provide admission officers a common measure to evaluate students.

And the data shows just how much value admission officers put behind this common measure (we’ll cover what they look for in applications later on). Here’s some information on a recent pool of applicants to Boston University:

Source: Cappex

This chart can be difficult to interpret at first. But the X-axis represents a student’s test scores, the y-axis represents his or her grades and the color represents the school’s admission decision (green = admitted, red = denied).

Of course this is from the old SAT, as the score is out of 2400 and not 1600, but the concept stays the same.

As you may have guessed, students in the top right quadrant, those with both strong grades and test scores, were much more likely to be granted admission than students elsewhere across the spectrum. And in the middle of the chart you’ll notice a pretty firm cutoff for SAT scores right around 1750. Below this mark, no matter how exceptional their GPAs students are likely to be denied admission to BU.

This pattern holds true at most competitive universities, and illustrates just why the SAT is so important. An SAT score too low can detract from a student’s candidacy, while a score above the university’s mean can be exactly what the admission committee needs to make a student’s acceptance a no-brainer.

Adding even more to this importance: the SAT score is the only academic measure that a student can change in a short period of time.They can be moved over weeks and months. Grades, on the other hand, are not something that can be changed come application time. They have already been set in stone, for the most part, come senior year.

So if you have a daughter with a 3.7 GPA and a heart set on Boston University, a strong performance on the SAT is a must. It’s what will move her application to the happy side of the desk and make your postman’s load a little heavier come Spring. For a great framework to help her do that, check out our guide on “How to Achieve Mastery on the ACT or SAT”.

When Should My Student Take the SAT?

As if the SAT wasn’t bad enough already, there is no way to escape it because it is offered seven times a year. Once a month in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December, students across the country let out a communal sigh because SAT day has come again. Except for January (when it is administered the last Saturday of the month), this always happens the first Saturday of each month.

At Testive, we typically don’t like to orient around hours (since our philosophy is all about learning efficiency). But many SAT experts will tell you it takes about 100 hours for a student to reach his or her maximum score potential. Getting to a student’s full potential is like climbing up a mountain. The first 30 or 40 hours will be where the largest score gains will take place. After that, it will get harder to increase the overall score.

Any way you look at it, improving scores takes hard work on the student’s part. Therefore, the best time to take the SAT is right after a student has put in those 100 hours of prep. While it won’t be your student’s first choice activity as the days get longer and the sun gets warmer, the best time to prep is over the summer, when a student has the most time.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Like anything you try for the first time, the SAT will not be pretty. It takes getting used to. No amount of prep can prepare you for the real deal, which is why we encourage students to take the test more than once. Students should get all those panic attacks out of the way the first time so that they’re free to enjoy the test when they take it again. Of course, the word “enjoy” is used lightly here. The magic number we recommend is three, though that will change depending on how well your student does each time.

We recommend taking the test twice in your student’s junior year and once senior year. Taking the first test in October/November of your child’s junior year is the best option since it leaves him or her the time to take it again that year. It also comes fresh off the summer, when your child has had more time to prep, and at the same time as the PSAT/NMSQT. The PSAT offers the student a chance to experience an abbreviated version of the SAT and qualifies students for scholarships and an admission boost.

The next opportune time for taking the SAT is either the winter or spring of junior year. It’s important to take a break from such a huge test so that your child can properly reflect on his/her experience. Just make sure your student isn’t taking finals or AP exams at the same time, no use pulling out more hair than necessary.

The final test should be taken during the fall of senior year. This is your child’s last chance to get the scores sent out to colleges. Make sure you plan accordingly with SAT Subject tests since those are generally taken senior year as well. It’s not a good idea to take the SAT in back-to-back months so make sure your student gets a break in between tests. While the SAT is important, it’s not worth getting burned out for.

When Should My Busy Student Prep?

For students who are three-sport athletes, talented pianists, presidents of their high school chemistry clubs and straight A students despite carrying multiple AP classes, SAT prep is one of those things that’s never quite crossed off their long to-do lists. While they may believe it is important, they will not begin to prep unless they believe it is urgent. This is why many of them choose not to take the time to sign up for an SAT prep class. And if you’ve ever been to one of those classes, who can blame them? We wouldn’t be knocking anyone over to sign up for that either.

SAT prep for these students must be something they can complete on their own schedules, from anywhere so that they don’t waste valuable time commuting to a class or tutor. It also helps to work a little at time so that it doesn’t seem too overwhelming, but is still effective. The 100 hours needed to gain mastery can be spread over two to three months, which is generally how long it takes for busy students to complete.

For these ambitious students, balancing SAT preparation with other time commitments can mean the difference between a dream score and a dud on test day. They need to be especially disciplined in their preparation plan. For more information on the best way to improve scores, check out our guide, “How to Achieve Mastery on the ACT or SAT.”

How Does the SAT Fit in With College Applications?

By now, hopefully you know that the SAT is a really important part of your student’s college application. But it’s not the only part. For more context, we spoke to Andrew Magliozzi, Harvard alum, admissions expert and author of How To Get Into Your Harvard, about the many components of your student’s application. Andrew will tell you that the admissions process works like a funnel, with an admission officer evaluating each applicant’s six admission components one by one starting with grades and ending with the interview (if applicable). Here’s how that funnel looks for Harvard:


Grades are the best indicator of academic success in college, and therefore are the most important component of any college application. All those moments of telling your student to keep his or her grades up are now going to pay off. Without good grades, your student would have a much harder time of getting into a school of his or her choice. Those bad boys represent four years of your student’s life. They should not be taken lightly, which is a good thing for most students. They have worked hard to earn those grades and should be confident that they can use them to their advantage in the college application process. This is advice you have probably been telling them all along, so give yourself a pat on the back for that one.


You had to know these would be on the list somewhere near the top. Otherwise, there would be no need to call on a fox named Sly to help your student out with test prep. Standardized tests are the only thing colleges have to objectively measure your student against others in the nation. An “A” at Attleboro High School in Massachusetts means something completely different than an “A” at Oxford Academy in California. To combat this issue, standardized tests were put in place to level the playing field. An 800 on the SAT Math section taken by a student in Massachusetts means the same thing for a student who took the test in California.

Even though SAT scores have become Public Enemy No. 1 for most high school students, it is the easiest part of their college application to move in a short time. Rather than redoing their last four years with a time machine yet to be invented (we’re working on it), taking two to three months to prep for the SAT can make the difference between your student’s top school acceptance and safety school acceptance.

Along the same vein, the difference between your student’s scores helping or hurting a college application can be as little as 50 points. One way to determine if the scores will do more harm than good, or vice versa, is to take a look at your student’s top schools. If your child’s scores are below the median average for your student’s target school, then it’s safe to say that those scores are hurting your child’s application. If they are higher than the median average, then you can add them to the helping column. That’s why getting those scores as high as possible is an important part of the college application process.


These are the reason you never see your student around the house anymore. Sports, clubs, instruments, volunteer work, or anything else a student does outside of the classroom are all a part of creating the “well-rounded student” that colleges crave. One of the caveats to this request is that what colleges really want to see is that students held leadership roles in those activities. So if your student is on the soccer team, they should make captain before they graduate. Are they active in their student government? Better make sure they land the role of president their senior year. If that isn’t enough, students must also prove that they excelled in these roles. Awards, published work, and any other accolades are all welcome too. Students who pick activities they are passionate about will naturally want to excel in these areas and won’t mind putting in the extra time.


Up to this point, college admissions have seen grades, scores, and lists of activities. But those things aren’t going to show them all the times your student stayed up past 2 a.m. to finish a history paper or capture the hours your student labored over that student government presidential speech. The way they can get some of that color is through recommendations from their educational and extracurricular mentors. These are the people who know your student the best in their respective settings and will be able to share their view into your student’s busy life.

But beware! What a recommender says about a student can be just as important as what is not said. That is why it is imperative that students do not find the most famous person they know to write them a recommendation. Just because your child worked at the White House one summer doesn’t mean that President Obama should write his recommendation (unless your kid has been shooting some presidential hoops with him). While it’s tempting to choose the “biggest fish” your student knows, it’s better to stick with the one who knows your student the best.

The Application

Phew, almost there! The next part of the application is where your student gets to share who they are with admissions. Most colleges accept the Common App, which makes it easy for students to send their applications to multiple colleges. Included in the application are writing supplements required by specific schools and an essay that goes to every school.

The college essay, that daunting piece of writing that a many students break pencils, rather keyboards, over, is where students have the chance to explain why they are qualified to get into the school of their dreams. Or so they think. The truth is that it is where they get to share a small moment of their life that illustrates who they are. That’s not even the best part! They’re encouraged to do this in SUPER simple writing, as in something a fourth grader would understand. Admissions officers are ready to pull their hair out by the end of the day. The last thing they want to read is an entire essay of SAT vocab words. Show, don’t tell, should become your child’s latest assignment. If it takes a taped piece of paper on your student’s computer to help them understand that, then so be it. When they get into Harvard, they’ll have you to thank.

The Interview

Interviews, in any context, are nerve racking. The interview that determines which school your student will be a part of for four years can be even scarier than going to the dentist. Luckily, many colleges are doing away with the interview, but there are still a few schools that use them, Harvard included. Basically, interviewers are looking to confirm what they have already heard about the student. As long as your student didn’t tell admissions that he is the real inventor of Facebook and is responsible for landing the first human on the moon, you have nothing to worry about.

Instead of sweating through the process and stuttering through a conversation with a complete stranger, your student can do some research on their interviewee ahead of time. Usually it’s an alum from the school who would most likely rather be doing other things. To make it easy on them, your student should bring a resume with scores and a GPA on it so that the interviewer has the information in front of them. Doing a quick LinkedIn stalk is also a good way for the student to know who they’re dealing with. Just be ready to answer the question “Why *insert school name*?”

A lot of schools are doing away with interviews, but there are still some that use them. The interview is never going to be the part that gets your student into school, but could be the part that prevents them from getting in. What this means is that it’s a chance for the interviewer to see that everything that has been said about the student is true. As long as students act like themselves, they will be fine.

Ready to get started prepping with Testive? Schedule a call with one of our student success advisors to discuss your options or enroll in a plan today!  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *