The SAT: What Parents Need To Know

You’ve known this day was coming: your high schooler is growing up, getting taller, and beginning to think about what will happen after the 12th grade. College might seem far away, but it is never too early to begin considering important components of your student’s college application. One important factor in the college admissions process, particularly for those students who are applying to competitive or elite schools and/or applying for scholarships, is the SAT or ACT.

How much do you know about these all-important tests? Here are some questions we frequently hear from Noodle Pros parents regarding the SAT.

How does my high schooler register?

Registration deadlines are typically one month before the SAT test date, with a late registration deadline two weeks before. Students register by creating a profile on the College Board website, selecting a test date, and paying the required fee ($60 with the optional essay, $46 without). Students are prompted to answer questions about themselves during the registration process; they should answer thoughtfully, as responses to these questions are used to match high schoolers to university programs and scholarships. Don’t be surprised if your student suddenly starts to receive copious amounts of mail and email from prospective colleges after registering for the exam.

How long is the SAT?

The SAT is either 3 hours long, or 3 hours and 50 minutes long; the longer version is for students who elect to take to optional essay component.  Students are strongly encouraged to make a decision regarding the essay when they register for the exam, but the College Board notes on their website that testing facilities might offer flexibility for last minute changes day-of.  

All SAT testing sites follow the same test day schedule: students are asked to arrive at 7:45am, and must be in the building by 8:00am. The exam starts between 8:30am and 9:00am, and students are given one 10-minute break and one 5-minute break to drink some water, have a snack, and use the restroom. Students who opt out of the SAT Essay are generally done at 12:00pm, and those who write the essay wrap up around 1:00pm.

Akin to marathon training, it is helpful for students to participate in at least one practice exam that mimics the test-day environment. If you decide to administer this mock exam in your home, your student will want to wake up early, start at a set time, stick to a strict schedule, and limit eating and drinking to “break times.” You can also take advantage of mock exams that are offered through tutoring companies (we offer free diagnostics to all Noodle Pros clients), which will imitate an exam at a real testing center.

Should my student think about the ACT?

You might be wondering whether your child needs to take the SAT, ACT, or both. The answer is that all students are different, and there is no one right decision. The biggest differences between the two tests are that the ACT has a dedicated Science section, and that the SAT has one math section for which students are not permitted to use a calculator. Additionally, of the two tests, the ACT is designed to push students through problems more quickly: averaged across all sections, students have about 50 seconds per question on the ACT versus 71 seconds per question on the SAT.

In terms of difficulty, the tests are evaluating proficiency with nearly identical concepts. Though the SAT does not contain a science portion, it does integrate charts, graphs, and scientific passages that require similar skill sets to those needed for the ACT Science section.

You might start by having your child take practice tests for each exam. If he or she expresses a strong preference for one test over the other, then you have your answer. Otherwise, you might consider registering for both. Students are increasingly taking advantage of the similarities between the tests, and taking both for an extra crack at competitive college admissions and scholarships.

When should my student take the SAT? How many times?

Exams are offered seven times throughout the year, in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. While there are pros and cons to taking the SAT at different times of the year, we generally recommend that students start their prep by the beginning of junior year, and aim to take the exam at least once before the senior year rolls around. The reasons for this are twofold: most students need 6 to 9-months to fully prepare for the SAT (and students should plan on taking the exam at least twice), and the senior year is a busy and hectic time in which outside pressures might have a negative impact on test results. If students wait to prep until late into junior year, they will probably not want to sit for the exam until fall of their senior year. In addition to adding another high-stakes enterprise into what is already a high-stakes semester, waiting until the senior year leaves very little wiggle room should students want to retake.

Other considerations include school deadlines — for students who plan to apply early admissions, their final chance at the SAT will be August or September leading into senior year — AP and final exams at the end of junior year, athletic seasons and schedules, and students’ math curricula. Though the SAT does test a few beginning trigonometry and pre-calculus concepts, students who have completed algebra 2 and geometry should be equipped to begin studying. Plan for the first and second administrations of the SAT to be placed during slow periods in your student’s schedule, and be sure to leave enough time for a third administration if you think your child might need it.

Is the PSAT just a practice SAT?

Not exactly. PSAT/NMSQT stands for preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and that is exactly what it is. Though the skill sets used for the PSAT and SAT are virtually the same, the PSAT is slightly different in structure and has its own separate purpose. Far from a throwaway test that is merely used to practice for the “real thing” (the SAT), the PSAT is used to qualify students for the National Merit Scholar program. The test is administered once per year in schools, generally in students’ sophomore and junior years.

The best way for students to prepare for either exam — PSAT or SAT — is to begin studying for the SAT. SAT practice questions will be in line with (but slightly more difficult than) PSAT questions, and the more early familiarity students have with the SAT, the better.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?

In addition to the regular SAT, the College Board offers 20 subject-specific tests that allow students to focus on their individual strengths. Though not universally required, many colleges have specific guidelines regarding the number (and even the type) of practice tests they like to see from applicants. Subjects include English, U.S. History, World History, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math 1, Math 2, and several languages (with and without listening components), and tests are all one hour long. Students can take up to three tests in one administration, but should be aware that the SAT Subject Test dates overlap with the regular SAT test dates. You’ll want to schedule carefully if your student plans on taking subject tests (and we recommend that they do), so that they don’t face conflicts with their main SAT prep.

What’s the best way to prepare?

Your student’s best friend when it comes to SAT preparation is time. Even the most adept test-takers sometimes falter when they do not leave enough time to prepare; after all, this will likely be the highest-stakes test your student has ever taken. It’s important to give your high schooler enough time to review key content areas of the SAT, while also becoming comfortable with the test’s style and format.

Along with time comes practice tests. The importance of regularly scheduled practice tests cannot be overstated; though you don’t want your student to burn out, the right number and frequency of mock exams will help them get their timing down, learn where they’re missing important points, and develop a muscle-memory for important test-taking techniques.

If your student is not an avid reader by their freshman or sophomore year of high school, it might also be time to start pushing them to find some high-quality reading material. Reading is one of the best ways to increase vocabulary and grammar skills, and the more students read for pleasure, the easier it is for them to get through dense reading passages on the SAT.

There are plenty of websites, texts, and companies to which you can turn for additional SAT help, all viable options depending on your student’s needs. In our experience, one-on-one tutoring is one of the most effective ways to increase students’ scores, and brings with it numerous additional resources including proctored practice tests with analysis, advice from experienced educators and educational consultants, and the ear of a long-time standardized test expert who can answer any questions that come up along the way.

For a comprehensive list of SAT tips from an experienced Noodle Pro, check out 100 Ways To Improve Your SAT Score.

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