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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University - Must read

What is the SAT exam?

If you’re a prospective international student aiming to study in the USA, then you need to know about the SAT exam. We tell you why and what it’s all about.

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During your exploration of potential study abroad destinations, we’re pretty confident you would have considered the USA. You would have noticed that universities in the USA have a set of entry requirements for international students, from English language criteria to academic qualifications. In addition, some universities require students to sit for the SAT exam to gain entry onto a degree course. We take a look at what the SAT exam involves, what it covers and what you can expect if you need to take the examination. 


What exactly is the SAT exam?


The SAT exam is a standardised entrance test used by American universities to evaluate the academic abilities and readiness of prospective students. While your academic results from high school or additional post-secondary qualifications are a useful indicator of ability, universities often require the verification of these through this additional test. 


The SAT exam was created and developed by the College Board in the USA, which is an independent non-profit organisation with a mandate for increasing access to higher education. The College Board oversees standardised testing for university admissions in the USA, including the SAT test, which is administered by the Educational Testing Service.


Take some time to compare the grading system in the UK and in Canada to get an idea of how scores and results translate. 


Why do I need to take the SAT exam?


If you intend to apply to an American university and want to study in the country, then an SAT exam is often a prerequisite. While not all universities require the submission of SAT exam results for admission, many do. 


The key thing is that universities are interested in establishing a baseline or standardised measurement of your academic abilities and your potential for taking on an academic degree, especially in particular subjects. The test allows you to demonstrate your knowledge and gain some key skills that could be useful during your degree. 


Explore some of the potential institutions where you could study in the USA:



What subjects are tested in the SAT exam? 


If you sit for the SAT exam you will be writing a multiple-choice, paper-based test. You’ll have to prepare to face four key sections that will evaluate your reading, writing, language and mathematical ability. The mathematics component section of the test is divided into two sections, one in which you will need to perform mental calculations and the other using a calculator.  Let’s explore the different sections in a bit more detail.


1. SAT Reading


The SAT exam reading component covers 52 questions that will test your ability to read passages of text which may also include contextual charts, graphs and tables. You will have five pieces of text to read that draw on the fields of social studies, science and history. This can include information on economics, sociology, psychology and literature. You’ll be tested on your understanding of the context of words and the information presented. 


2. SAT Writing and language


This section of the test will see you answer 44 multiple-choice questions. You’ll be given paragraphs of text to read and be required to make corrections and suggestions. You’ll be evaluated on your ability to understand arguments, analyse topics, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and vocabulary. 


3. SAT Mathematics


The mathematics component of the test is divided into two sections, one where you can use a calculator and the other where you can’t. The section is made up of a total of 58 questions, of which 45 are multiple-choice and 13 grid questions. 


You’ll have to answer 20 of the questions without a calculator and the remaining 38 with the device. The section measures your knowledge of linear equations, linear functions, statistics and problem-solving. 


Interested in pursuing an engineering degree in the USA


How long is the SAT exam and when can I take it?


The SAT exam will take you three hours to complete. Each section of the test is also allocated an ideal time for completion:


  • Reading – 65 minutes 
  • Writing and language – 35 minutes
  • Mathematics – 80 minutes


If you wish to sit for the SAT exam you should aim to apply two months in advance of the exam date. Tests are usually scheduled in October, December, March and May. It is possible to take the test at an international centre in the country in which you are based. Remember that there is a fee to be paid for taking the test which amounts to about USD 90. 


Get some inspiration for studying in the USA with our look at successful international alumni


What is a good score on the SAT exam?


The SAT exam is scored out of a total of 1,600 points, made up of the sub-scores from the various sections. The reading, writing and language section is marked out of 800 points and the mathematics section makes up the additional 800 points. 


The average score by students on the SAT exam is 1,060 points, so you would be aiming to do considerably better than this to enhance your prospects. Much will depend on the institution at which you wish to study, with Ivy League universities requiring scores of above 1,380, while other universities would accept a score of between 1,250 to 1,320. Make sure to check what the minimum score for your desired university would be and aim to exceed this. 


Still unsure of what the difference between a college and a university is? 


How do I prepare for the SAT exam?


Like any exam, it’s best to start early and employ some good examination revision techniques. One of the best ways to do this is to take as many practice tests as you can. This way you’ll get a great idea of what you can expect and the type of questions you’ll need to answer. The College Board, who design the tests, suggest that between 15 and 20 hours of practice tests is a good way to ready yourself for your first exam. 


You should also try and sit for the full-length practice test, once you are familiar with the sections. Make sure that you take the time to review concepts or subject matter that you are struggling with. What also helps is getting your timing for the sections right. This is key to successfully completing the test on exam day. 


Most importantly don’t let anxiety get the better of you. Good preparation and a well-designed study plan will give you the best chance on exam day. Planning for the day itself is also important, including arriving early, having all the materials you need and feeling energised from a good night’s sleep. 


With a better idea of what taking the SAT exam involves you may be ready to explore more about studying in the USA. You will also find our guide to the top universities in the USA helpful and gain some insight from our take on what the USA offers international students.



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