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Q: What is the SAT

A: The SAT is a standardized test that most colleges and universities use along with your transcripts to get a more complete picture of your math, verbal and reasoning skills. It's a long test with a lot of questions and you will have to work fast to do well. Most of the test is multiple-choice. The questions range in difficulty from very easy to very hard so that almost every student should be able to answer some questions but almost no student will be able to answer all of them.

Q: Why should I care about the SAT?

A: The SAT helps determine where you'll go to college, what courses you'll have to take and how you'll pay for it.

For years (if not decades) there has been talk of reducing the role of standardized tests in college admission (or eliminating them altogether), but tests like the SAT and the ACT are still the only measure of student performance that don't come from the schools and they provide information you just can't get from a transcript. Don't expect them to go away in the near future.

Most schools use low standardized test scores to identify which students may need to take remedial courses such as beginning algebra. These courses are a lot like root canals – they do a lot of good if you need them, but you would rather avoid them if you can. Remedial courses cost you money, make for a tougher schedule and, thanks to prerequisites, can force you to put off taking other course.

While a low score can cost you money, a high score on the SAT and its pretest the PSAT can make you money in the form of the very generous and prestigious National Merit program and other scholarships.  (Programs similar to the National Merit are available for students who score well on the ACT.)


Q: Can you cram for the SAT?

A: No, there's probably nothing you can memorize at the last minute that will significantly raise an SAT score (you'd be better off using the time getting a good night's sleep), but a good long-term study plan can make a big difference. You can sign up for an SAT prep course if you have the money (often over a thousand dollars), but there are plenty of cheap or even free options that may work just as well. Start with a collection of old tests ($20 at any good bookstore; free at your local library), then work your way through the book, ask your teachers for help and go online for more resources (the people who make the test have information at or you can go to my site, for tips, study guides and more links).


Q: How many times should a student plan on taking the SAT?

A: The SAT only reports your best score no matter how many times you take it. Some students take the test four or five times hoping to get lucky. These students generally learn a useful but unpleasant lesson in statistics: scores on large, consistent test don't vary that much.

The best score feature does come in handy in the event of a really bad day. The SAT is a high pressure test and whether it's a family crisis or a stomach flu or just an anxiety attack, everyone has bad days. Giving yourself the option of retaking the test takes some of the pressure off.


Q: Should a student guess on the SAT?

A: There is no more widely misunderstood part of the SAT than the penalty for guessing. Many educators, journalists and other people who should know better have written that you lose a point when you get a question wrong on the SAT so you should only guess if you have narrowed the answer down to two possibilities. They are wrong on both counts.

There is a penalty for guessing on the SAT but it is only a quarter of a point. With five choices on a multiple-choice test you can expect to get one out of five right. If you get one point for every right answer and lose a quarter of a point for every wrong answer, that adds up to zero, exactly what you would have if you had left them blank.

That's with completely random guesses. If you have any sense that one choice looks better or worse than the others, the odds for guessing are in your favor.

Here's a rule of thumb: if you've taken the time to read the question, go ahead and take your best guess. It won't hurt your expected score and the time you'll spend filling in the bubble is less than the time you'll lose disrupting your routine and keeping track of the blank space. (Blank spaces can lead to the worst possible SAT/ACT mistakes – spending ten or twenty minutes putting the answer to question twelve in the space for eleven, putting the answer for question thirteen in the space for question twelve, putting the answer...)