What Parents Need to Know About the SATs

Student taking SATs
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The SATs change every few years. The content shifts, the rules change, and emerging technology allows for new test-taking and scoring opportunities. Despite those changes, some of the basics of this college-prep test have remained the same.

1. The SAT isn’t an Intelligence Test

It doesn’t measure how smart you are – it only measures how well you do in certain very specific tests. The SAT is made up of three sections: Critical Reading, Math and Writing.


  • Critical Reading - tests critical reading, diction, vocabulary, how well the test taker reads passages and how well the test taker can complete sentences.
  • Math - tests basic arithmetic, algebra I and II and geometry.
  • Writing multiple choice questions and an essay questions test the student’s ability to identify sentence errors and how to improve sentences and paragraphs.  

2. The SAT Isn’t a Do-or-Die Test 

Your SAT score is not going to determine your teen’s fate as to whether he gets into a specific college or not. It’s one of several factors -- such as grades and extracurricular activities -- that college admissions staff consider in determining admissions. Students can take the SAT multiple times if they’re not satisfied with their scores.

3. The SAT Measures Certain Abilities

It is a good indicator of the specific math, reasoning, writing and logical skill sets it tests -- but it doesn’t measure subjective factors -- such as creativity in writing, music, art, dance or any number of areas in which a student might excel in.

4. Teens Can Pick Which Scores to Send to Colleges

A few years ago, the Educational Testing Service allowed students to choose to choose which scores to send to colleges. This applies to the SAT reasoning test and to the individual SAT subject tests.

Some colleges don’t allow Score Choice, but many do.

You can select by test date which scores to send to which colleges. For the SAT subject tests, you can select which individual subject test scores to send.

5. Practice Improves Scores

Retaking the test might not be a bad idea, since the first time students take the SAT they’re faced with problems they might not have encountered before – unless they had already taken the PSAT. As with any skill set -- the more you practice -- the better you can become.

Many students are nervous when taking tests -- and some students might freeze or not know how much time to allow each portion of the test. Practice will help a student gauge how much time to allow. Practice will help a student better learn how to take the test.

It is best, however, to practice in situations that are similar to the actual test – in other words, don’t try this at home. Practice in an environment that’s similar to the test itself. Go to a coffee shop, where people are on their computers or smartphones and where there is background noise similar to the test-taking environment.

6. Test Prep Improves Scores

US News & World Report says average scores improve by about 40 points on the second test. Test prep doesn’t have to be expensive. Although commercial centers offer courses – and many are pricey –less expensive and free options exist, too. For example, Number2.com  and the SAT Preparation Center offer free help.

Buying a test prep book won’t set you back much or you can always borrow one from a library. Be sure to get an up-to-date version, though, as the test changes every few years. Taking a practice test at home a few times can help ease “test jitters” and can help a student feel more comfortable. There is no absolute guarantee that taking a test prep course or reading a test prep book will improve a student’s score -- but practicing any skill will always enable a student to perform that skill more easily next time.

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