One of the many challenges of raising a family in another country is getting used to an educational system that’s totally different from the one you grew up with. For me, pre-university testing was all about the subject-based A-level exams; most of mine were essay based. For my kids, it’s all about the standardized tests called the SAT and the ACT. My youngest, who is a junior in high school (i.e., one year away from high school graduation) is about to sit the SAT for the first time this Saturday.

The SAT — originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and now universally known just by its acronym — was introduced back in 1926. It’s run by a private, not-for-profit institution called the College Board. The original intent was to come up with a way of judging a student’s readiness for university study in a meritocratic way, irrespective of the student’s background or intended course of study. The reality, of course, is rather different.

The SAT has been revamped periodically, most recently in 2016. The latest version is broken down into two sections — mathematics, and critical reading and writing. Each section is scored out of 800 points, to give an overall score out of 1600. The timed test takes three hours to finish. Most of the questions are multiple choice, with the student using a #2 pencil to fill in the bubble for the appropriate answer. (You don’t lose points for a wrong answer.) There’s an optional additional SAT essay that you can take at the end of the basic test, which is also scored out of 800 and takes another 50 minutes to complete.

These next two pictures of sample answer sheets are from one of my son’s SAT test prep books. Just looking at these rows of a/b/c/d bubbles gives me a migraine. On the plus side, I guess you don’t get the epic hand-cramps I remember from frantically writing four essays in three hours for A-level history (lots of “Compare and contrast the causes and consequences….”)


The remaining pictures in this post are from the sample tests you can find on the College Board website:   I’ve shown the correct answers in these screenshots because, frankly, I’d have a bit of a hard time figuring them out otherwise.


Taking the SAT (or its competitor, the ACT, which is structured somewhat differently), is required for entry to most universities in the US. Many students intent on getting into university (widely called “college” over here) will take the SAT a couple of times, to try to get as high a score as possible. And college websites routinely tell prospective students the “average” SAT and ACT scores of successful applicants.

There are also a total of 20 separate SAT subject tests that a student can choose to take, in things like languages, maths, sciences and history. Many of the more academically challenging universities require a student to provide one or two SAT subject tests, in addition to the basic SAT.


None of this is free. Each sitting of the basic SAT costs $45 ($57 if you also do the essay), and a subject test costs $46. You can get these fees waived if your family is on public assistance or meets a low income means test — but of course that means more forms to fill out and more hoops for the student to jump through. The tests are offered about seven times a year, at thousands of locations across the USA.

Needless to say, SAT preparation classes are a highly lucrative business. So, of course, the kids from better off families who can afford such prep classes get a better shot at a higher score. With the revamped test, the College Board has partnered with the online Khan Academy, to provide students with tons of test prep advice and courses, all for free.


The College Board claims that the revamped test launched last year is “more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education.” They say it measures what students learn in high school as well as what they need to succeed in college. The emphasis is more on analysis and solving problems, and less on obscure vocabulary.

My older son took the previous version of the SAT, which had three sections and was scored out of 2400. It included a vocabulary testing section that was notorious for asking students to identify synonyms and antonyms of words that no-one was ever likely to encounter in the 21st century. This older son used a private tutor to prepare for the test: a former teacher with unruly grey hair and an impish smile, she cheerfully described the vocab section as ‘a piece of torture dreamed up by nazi war criminals hiding out in NJ.’

And, if you want to go on to any form of post-grad education, like a master’s or a doctorate, you’ll almost certainly have to take another standardized test, called the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). This has sections on verbal reasoning, analytic writing, and quantitative reasoning, i.e., maths. Because I wanted to go to graduate school in the States, I had to take the GRE at a London testing center back in 1984. As someone coming from a heavily essay-based educational background, I aced the verbal and writing sections. But I’d dropped maths once I got my O-level, which meant I walked into the GRE and found myself staring at the kinds of algebra and trigonometry questions I hadn’t seen in eight years. Needless to say, that section did not go well.

Hopefully, the 16-year old is better prepared for Saturday’s four-hour testing marathon.

About abroadintheusa

An expat Brit who's lived and worked in the USA for more than three decades.
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2 Responses to The SAT

  1. I took the GRE in London in 1984 too – I wonder if we were there the same day?! I remember I had to take a day off work to travel from Humberside on a Friday (sometime in the autumn) to take the test on a Saturday. It started at 8 am, so I had to be there for 7:30. I had to leave my hotel before they even started serving breakfast – fortunately, they took pity on me and let me eat in the kitchen!
    I aced the verbal and writing sections too, and surprised myself by scoring at the 50th percentile on the maths! I remember there was a logical reasoning section, which I think was new at the time. There was a question on it about a pyramid of acrobats (adults and children) something along the lines of “if child A stand here, and adult T stands here, what happens if adult K falls over?” At the breaktime everyone was talking about that question “Bloody effing acrobats – who cares?”
    My daughter took the SATs last year and did well. More and more colleges though are realizing that a better predictor of how someone will do in college is how they do in high school!


    • Wow, yes, we may well have been there on the same day! Small world! I remember the logical reasoning section too – think I did the best on that one. Something about people standing in line and wearing different colored hats? Mostly I just try to forget The whole thing 🙂


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