Read an Excerpt
The *SAT I For Dummies
By Geraldine Woods
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7193-1
Chapter OnePouring Your Brain into Little Ovals - the SAT
In This Chapter
* Determining which test to take
* Signing up for the SAT
* Allowing for special needs
* Previewing the SAT reading, writing, and math sections
* Understanding SAT scoring
You may be wondering why you're stuck with the SAT. Unbelievable as it may seem, the test was established to help, not annihilate (wipe out completely) students. Right about now you're probably thinking that I'm giving you the old "it's for your own good" line that authority figures always use when they're about to drop you off a cliff. But the SAT was created to level the playing field - to predict the likelihood of academic success of students, regardless of family background, connections, and other privileges. The SAT has never actually succeeded in this lofty goal, and the college admissions playing field still resembles the Alps more than the Great Plains. However, the SAT does give colleges a number for each student that, theoretically at least, measures the ability of everyone who takes it without regard for the dollar value of trust funds sitting in the vault.
In this chapter - whether you have a trust fund or not - you can find the ABCs of the SATs.... why you need to take the exam; when, where, and how often to take it; where to send your scores; and how to deal with special needs.Chapter 1 also provides a peek into the structure of the exam itself.
Sitting for the SAT Instead of ACTing Up
Most college applicants pass through one of two giant gates on their way into U.S. colleges and some foreign schools. One is the ACT, and the other the SAT. Most colleges accept scores from either test; check with the admissions office of the colleges on your list to be sure you're taking the tests they prescribe. (Good general rule for college admissions: Give them what they want, when they want it.) The SAT and the ACT tests are roughly the same in terms of difficulty. Unless you're really obsessed, don't bother to take both.
The ACT, for reasons lost in the mists of time, has always had grammar questions. (If you're taking the ACT, don't forget to check out ACT For Dummies, 3rd Edition by Suzee Vlk [Wiley].) The SAT is the new kid on the grammar block. Because you're reading The SAT I For Dummies, 6th Edition, instead of downloading the latest rap song, presumably you're taking the SAT.
Don't confuse the SAT I with the SAT IIs. Both terms, by the way, are now officially obsolete (out-dated, so yesterday) because the company that makes them has renamed them the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests though the name SAT I remains in popular use. Whatever you call them, be sure you know the difference. The SAT Reasoning Test does the proverbial 3 R's - reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic (but clearly not spelling). The SAT Subject Tests cover biology, history, math, and a ton of other stuff. They're either not required or required in various combinations by many schools.
Many libraries and nearly all bookstores have college guides - 20-pound paperbacks describing each and every institution of higher learning you may apply to. Check out the colleges on your list to see which tests they accept or require. You may also visit individual college Web sites for the most up-to-date requirements. Because the SAT Reasoning Test has gone through major changes recently, older printed materials probably aren't accurate.
If college isn't in your immediate future, you may want to take the SAT just to see how you do. If your plans include a stint in the armed forces or hitchhiking through Borneo before hitting higher education, you can keep your options open by taking the SAT before you go. Also, if you take the SAT while formal "book-learning" is still fresh in your mind, you may do better. Then when you retire your thumb or trigger finger, you have some scores to send to the college of your choice, though if a long period of time has passed, the colleges may ask for an updated score. (How long is "a long period of time"? It depends on the college you're applying to. Some may ask for an updated SAT after only a couple of years; others are more lenient. Obviously, whether you took three years off to work on the world's deepest tan or ten years to decipher the meaning of an obscure archaeological site also influences the admissions office decision on SAT scores. Check with the college(s) you're interested in and explain your situation.)
Getting Set for the SAT: Registering for the Right Test at the Right Time
The SAT is given at select high schools throughout the United States and in English-speaking schools in many other countries. Even home-schoolers can take the SAT, though not in their own living rooms. To find the test center nearest you or to request a registration form, ask the college or guidance counselor at your high school. If you're home-schooled, call the nearest public or private high school. Or, you may register through the SAT Web site. If you have special needs, paper is your route. Get the forms at your school. You can also request a form via the plain, old-fashioned telephone; try 609-771-7600 for the general customer service center. (Also check out the "Meeting Special Needs" section later in this chapter.) If you're stranded on a desert island without phone, Internet, or school office (in which case the SAT is the least of your problems), try writing to the College Board SAT Program, Princeton, New Jersey 08541 for the forms you need. The SAT Reasoning Test costs about $41.50, though fee waivers are available for those in financial difficulties. (See "Meeting Special Needs" in this chapter for more information.)
In high-stress situations - Martian invasions, nuclear meltdowns, the cancellation of your favorite TV show - rumors abound (grow and thrive). So too with the SAT. You've probably heard that certain versions of the SAT - the ones given in October or November or the ones given in a particular state - are easier than others. Not so. The SAT contains one section that you must answer that counts for absolutely nothing ... for you. It's called the equating section. The test-makers use this section as a statistical tool to ensure that all the SAT tests, regardless of when or where they're given, are equal in difficulty. No matter how well you do on the equating section, or (in case you're having a bad day) how badly you blow it, the equating section won't affect your score.
The SAT pops up on the calendar seven times a year. You can take the exam as often as you want. If you're a masochist - you enjoy pain - you can take all seven tests, but most people stick to this schedule:
Autumn of junior year (about 13/4 years before college entrance): Time to take the PSAT/ NMSQT.
Spring of junior year (about 11/4 years before college entrance): Take the SAT strictly for practice, though you can send your scores in if you're pleased with them.
Autumn of senior year (a bit less than a year before entrance): The SAT strikes again. Early-decision candidates prefer taking the test in October or November; regular applicants may choose from any of the three autumn dates, including December.
Winter of senior year (half-year before entrance): Some SAT-lovers take the exam in autumn and again in the winter, hoping that practice will make perfect, at least in the eyes of the colleges. The high scores won't hurt (and you probably will improve, just because the whole routine will be familiar), but don't put a lot of energy into repeated bouts of SAT fever. Your grades and extracurriculars may suffer if you're too fixated on the SAT, and you may end up hurting your overall application.
If you're transferring or starting your college career mid-year, you may sit for the SAT in January, March, May, or June. Check with your counselor or with the college of your choice and go with that recommendation.
Everyone takes the SAT on Saturday except for those students who can't for religious reasons. If you fall into that category, your SAT-day will be Sunday. Get a letter from your cleric (religious leader) on letterhead and mail it in with your registration form.
In terms of test sites, the early bird gets the worm. (Did you ever wonder why no one ever deals with the worm's fate? He got up early too, and look what happened to him.) When you register, you may request a test site, but if it's filled, you'll get an alternate. So don't delay; send in the form or register online as soon as you know when and where you want to take the exam.
Meeting Special Needs
If you have a learning disability, you may be allowed to take the SAT under special conditions. The first step is to get an Eligibility Form from your school counselor. (Home-schoolers, call the local high school.) You may also want to ask your college counseling office for a copy of the College Board Services for Students with Disabilities Brochure (pamphlet). If your school doesn't have one, contact the College Board directly. Send in the form well in advance of the time you expect to take the test. Generally, if you're entitled to extra test time in your high school, you'll be eligible for extra time on the SAT.
What does extra time really mean? Extra time equals 11/2 the usual amount for each section. In the past, the SAT simply added 50 percent more time to the entire test and allowed the student to work on any section for as long as he or she wanted, with the whole thing done in the "time and a half" allotted. The new SAT requires extended-time test-takers to stay on one section at a time, with time and a half allowed for each section. So if regular test-takers have 20 minutes for a section, extended-timers get 30 minutes.
The SAT also provides wheelchair accessibility, large-print tests, and other accommodations for students who need them. The key is to submit the Eligibility Form early so that the SAT-maker - the College Board - can ask for any extra documentation and set up appropriate test conditions for you.
If your special need resides in your wallet, you can apply for a fee waiver, which is available to low-income high school juniors and seniors who live in the United States, Puerto Rico, and other American territories. Ask your school counselor for an application. (As in everything to do with the SAT, if you're a home-schooler, call the local high school for a form.)
The SAT charges extra for more than four score reports to colleges, for late or changed registrations, and for "extras" like extra-quick reporting. It doesn't charge extra for special needs accommodations, such as large print or wheelchair accessible testing.
Measuring Your Mind: What the SAT Tests
Statistically, the SAT tests whether or not you'll be successful in your first year of college. Admissions officers keep track of their students' SAT scores and have a pretty good idea which scores signal trouble and which scores indicate clear sailing. Many college guides list the average SAT scores of entering freshmen.
That said, the picture gets complicated whenever the wide-angle lens narrows to focus on an individual, such as you, and admissions offices are well aware of this fact. How rigorous your high school is, whether you deal well with multiple-choice questions, and how you feel physically and mentally on SAT-day (Fight with Mom? Bad romance? Week-old sushi?) all influence your score. Bottom line: Stop obsessing about the SAT's unfairness (and it is unfair) and prepare.
The college admission essay is a great place to put your scores in perspective. If you face some special circumstances, such as a learning disability, a school that doesn't value academics, a family tragedy, and so on, you may want to explain your situation in an essay. No essay wipes out the bad impression created by an extremely low SAT score, but a good essay gives the college a way to interpret your achievement and to see you, the applicant, in more detail. For help with the college admission essay, take a look at College Admission Essays For Dummies, published by Wiley and written by yours truly.
The SAT doesn't test facts you studied in school; you don't need to know when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic or how to calculate the molecular weight of magnesium in order to answer an SAT Reasoning question. Instead, the SAT takes aim at your ability to follow a logical sequence, to comprehend what you've read, and to write clearly in standard English. The math portion checks whether you were paying attention or snoring when little details like algebra were taught. Check out the next sections for a bird's eye view of the three SAT topics.
This topic pops up three times per SAT, in terms of what counts toward your score. (All SATs include an extra section either in reading or math that the SAT-makers use for research only.) You face two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section of Critical Reading, a fancy term for reading comprehension. Each section may contain Sentence Completions and/or Reading Comprehension passages that are either short (about 100 words) or long (700 to 800 words). You also see a set of paired passages - a double take on one topic from two different points of view.
The Sentence Completions are just fill-ins. You may encounter one or two sets of nine or ten questions. Sentence Completions test vocabulary and your ability to decode the sentence structure, as in the following:
The SAT Sentence Completion section is guaranteed to give you a headache, so the testmakers thoughtfully provide __________ with each exam.
(C) answer keys
(E) scalp massage
Answer: (A). Given that the sentence specifies "headache," your best choice is "aspirin," at least in SAT world. In real life you may prefer a day at the spa, but the test-makers haven't included that option. (E) is a possibility too, but the SAT goes with the best answer, not the only answer.
Reading Comprehension questions are a mixture of literal (just-the-facts-ma'am) and interpretive/ analytical. You may be asked to choose the meaning of a word in context or to assess the author's tone or point of view. Passages may be drawn from the natural and social sciences, humanities, or fiction, as in the following:
Thanhowser was frantic to learn that the first GC-MP8 handheld was already in circulation. And here he was wasting his time in college! The degree that he had pursued so doggedly for the past three years now seemed nothing more than a gigantic waste of time. The business world, that's where he belonged, marketing someone else's technology with just enough of a twist to allow him to patent "his" idea.
In line 5 the word his is in quotation marks
(A) because it's a pronoun
(B) because the reader is supposed to hiss at Thanhowser, whom everyone hates
(C) to show that the idea really came from someone else
(D) to demonstrate that the idea really came from a female masquerading as a male
(E) because the typesetter had some extra quotation marks
Answer: (C). These quotation marks refer to Thanhowser's claim to "someone else's technology." Although he isn't quoted directly, the quotation marks around "his" imply that Thanhowser says that a particular invention is his, when in fact it isn't.
Excerpted from The *SAT I For Dummies by Geraldine Woods Excerpted by permission.
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