What is the SAT? - History, Changes & Importance

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  • 0:30 SAT History
  • 2:04 SAT Basics
  • 3:37 SAT vs. ACT
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

You know you have to take the SAT. But did you know where it comes from, how it's changed over time or why it looks the way it does? And are you wondering whether you should go for the SAT or the ACT? Find out here!

SAT History

Imagine three students all applying to the same university. Student A comes from a small Catholic high school in rural Wyoming where grading is done on a special scale from 1 to 7. Student B comes from a huge public high school in San Francisco. Student C comes from an experimental arts focused charter school in New York City, where teachers give comments instead of grades. How is this university supposed to compare these three students?

The SAT is a test designed to solve that problem. The SAT is a standardized test used to assess high school students applying for college. Students typically take it their junior or senior year. Every student taking the SAT takes the exact same test, so it's supposed to let colleges compare students from totally different backgrounds.

An organization called the CollegeBoard writes the SAT and administers it several times a year. Some students take it only once, but many also take it twice or more. The SAT has gone through quite a few changes over the years. Up until 2005, it had two sections: math and verbal. That was the old SAT. Then it changed to a three section structure with math, critical reading and writing sections and added a required essay. That was the new SAT.

But now we have the new new SAT, as of March 2016. It changed back to a two section test. The current SAT has two sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. The essay is still there, but now it's optional. The scoring system has changed along with the test. The pre-2005 SAT was out of 1600 points. The 2005-2016 SAT was scored out of 2400 points with the essay included in that score. The new SAT is back on the 1600-point scale, but now you get a totally separate score for the essay.

You have to hand it to the CollegeBoard. They're good at keeping us all on our toes.

SAT Basics

So, what exactly will you see on the latest version of the SAT? Multiple-choice, free-response questions and the essay.

All the questions on the evidence-based reading and writing section of the SAT are multiple-choice with four answer choices. The math section is mostly multiple choice but it also includes thirteen free-response questions where you have to come up with the answer on your own. And of course, there's also the essay. The essay used to be required and part of the writing section, back when the SAT had a writing section. Now it's totally separate and also optional. Some colleges require it and others don't.

Two sections; three tests: On the old SAT you got 10 short groups of questions, so you were switching back and forth from reading to writing to math every 20 to 25 minutes or so. On the new SAT, the questions are clumped together by subject area into three longer tests. The math section has one test: the math test. It's 80 minutes long. The evidence-based reading and writing has two tests: the reading test and the writing and language test. Reading is 65 minutes and writing and language is 35 minutes. The reading test is a revised version of the old critical reading section and the writing and language test is a revised version of the old writing section. When you take the SAT, you'll do all the math questions together, all the reading questions together, and all the writing and language questions together. The essay will be last and it's optional. If you take it, it's 50 minutes long.


So, how does this all stack up to the ACT? The ACT is the major competitor for the SAT, and the idea is basically the same: both are long, multiple-choice tests that you take for college admissions. The changes in 2016 actually made the new SAT a lot more like the ACT than it used to be. The essay is now optional for both the SAT and the ACT, although for most colleges it's recommended. Both tests now have four answers for each multiple-choice question and there's no more guessing penalty on the SAT.

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