by Qiu Kexin (16A13A)
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of RI’s academic management and should not be used as a substitute for formal academic counselling.
Editor’s Note (2/11/2015): The sections about the average scores of Ivy League institutions and advised timings for taking the SAT has been updated with more accurate information.
Chances are, if you’ve hung out in junior college long enough, you would have heard of the SAT exam sooner or later: perhaps from a conversation with peers planning to study overseas, or from surfing webpages about how to enter foreign colleges, or from advice given by well-meaning relatives. As the SAT is not compulsory for students under the Singaporean education system, many of us can go years without ever hearing about it — until the time comes for us to consider our options for post-tertiary level education.
Deciding whether or not to take the SATs can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, especially for those who have always been fixated on simply the GCE O and A Levels. This article aims to answer some of the most common questions local students have about this alternative mode of assessment.
What is the SAT?
The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is a series of university entrance examinations administered by the USA’s College Board. It may help one to think of it as a North American version of Singapore’s standardised tests.
An SAT score is required by nearly all US colleges when applying, which is why most people planning to study in the US will take this exam; it is essential for the admission process.
There are two types of SATs. The first is the General SAT (also known as SAT I), which tests candidates using three all-important sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. There are also Subject Tests that assess one’s proficiency in niche subjects such as Chemistry, Literature, or World History. The rest of this article will cover just the General SAT, but the Subject Tests will also be featured in their own article on Raffles Press in the near future.
What is the SAT test format and syllabus like? *
* The test format will be changing for tests taken after March 2016. Refer to “How will the SAT be changing after the March 2016 redesign?” below.
Much of the content tested in the General SAT is arguably similar to what students will learn in Singaporean schools at the upper secondary academic years, with some marked differences. One common comment is that the Math section is always a breeze for Singaporean students. However, some sections can also be more challenging for local students to make up for this, particularly the Writing section.
To break it down, the sections test on the following content:
- Critical Reading (67 multiple-choice questions)
- Consists of passage reading and sentence completion sections.
- Math (44 multiple-choice and 10 grid-in questions)
- Tests candidates on basic arithmetic, Algebra I and II, and geometry.
- Writing (49 multiple-choice questions, 1 essay question)
- Tests the ability to identify sentence errors, improve sentences, improve paragraphs within a specific narrative context, and write an essay in response to an abstract prompt.
The total test time is 3 hours and 45 minutes. Critical Reading is similar to the reading comprehension sections in the A Levels’ General Paper, or the O Levels’ English papers. As for Math, the content assessed will be familiar to anyone in Secondary 4 and above (though the questions tend to be more ‘creative’, so one must still prepare).
However, the content tested in the Writing section is likely to be unfamiliar: Singaporean candidates should study grammar rules, read up on vocabulary, and familiarise themselves with the argumentative style expected for the essay question so as to be better prepared.
How is the SAT graded, and what score should I aim for? *
*After the March 2016 redesign of the test, points will no longer be deducted for incorrect answers. Refer to “How will the SAT be changing after the March 2016 redesign?” below.
Most prospective candidates are familiar with the 2400-point grading system for the SAT, which combines the scaled scores from each of the SAT’s three sections (in turn, each section has a full possible score of 800). Fewer may know that one’s scaled score is not determined “bell-curve” style by comparing it to other candidates, but rather, by one’s own performance. As a guideline, the College Board has released a score conversion table illustrating the corresponding scaled scores candidates will earn for a certain given raw score (which usually remains consistent) — that has been pictured below.
Generally, renowned universities will expect at least a 2000 score on the SAT. The scores of applicants accepted into Ivy League institutions always range anywhere from 2100 – 2400 points. However, standards for international students will be higher than for domestic American applicants due to intensely selective admission processes, so aiming for higher scores will be a safer bet always. Raffles Institution candidates on average will score 2200 points.
When should I take the SAT?
It takes a month for SAT scores to be released online, so students planning to use their scores in university applications should take it at least two months before applications are due.
More crucial, however, would be the year you choose to take the SAT in. In the US, the SAT is most often taken by students in their Senior year (i.e. at the age of 17 or 18); but besides their grade, local students also need to take the validity period of SAT scores and the timing of early university admission procedures into account.
- For the former, Singaporean universities will consider your SAT score valid for five years, while US universities will consider it valid for two or three years.
- For the latter, early admission rounds begin as early as May or June annually. Thus, the rule of thumb goes that taking the SAT sooner is better. SAT candidates intending to secure a place in university as soon as possible will need to have a test score at the ready by May/June during their J2 year.
It is possible to take the SAT while you are in Secondary or Year 4, as long as you have sufficiently prepared for it. Though JAE students rarely choose this timing, as they need to prepare for the O Levels, many Integrated Programme students do take it in December after their Mother Tongue papers while they are still in Year 4.
On the other hand, it is more common for people to take the SAT in J1 or J2. However, J2 students will have to balance studying for A Levels, H3, scholarship applications, and early university applications on top of the SAT. The J1 year conversely may be lighter, but J1 students also have to contend with Project Work, Promotional Examinations, and CCA commitments.
Yet another palatable option — but only for those taking gap years or those not participating in early university admissions — would be a date after the GCE A Levels in November. Though the suggestion would likely prompt heated protests from students, at the prospect of having to continue studying after the As, this could be a welcome choice for those who wish to focus on one large examination at a time. Besides, after surviving the momentous A Levels, we’re sure taking the SAT would seem manageable in comparison.
Last but not least, students who have to enter National Service commonly delay taking the SAT until the end of their first year in National Service.
How do I apply for the SAT?
Application and test payment is done online through the College Board website. A step-by-step guide for applying for Singaporean students can be found here.
What resources can I use to prepare for the SAT?
The College Board offers many free online resources. Among other things, you can answer sample questions, do up a study plan, and check the minimum SAT score required by various colleges on their website.
Admittedly however, online practices from the College Board will be insufficient for most students. Students can buy the Official SAT Study Guide (which has 10 practice tests) from Kinokuniya, or look to other websites such as Major Tests, Khan Academy, and Princeton Review for even more practice. As for free-of-charge textbooks, SparkNotes has a nifty online study guide, and even more guidebooks can be borrowed from public or junior college libraries.
Other options out there include prep courses or tutoring services offered by some organisations, but these are costly; fees range from the lower end of $1,000, to as high as $5,000. More information can be found here.
At the end of the day, the main recommendation is simply for candidates to do a mock SAT sitting at least once, so they can familiarise themselves with the timings for each section.
The Million Dollar Question: Do I need to take the SAT?
The SAT is only most useful in certain situations, so you can ask yourself a central question to make a firm decision: is there any chance of you studying in the US?
If not at all, the SAT will likely be unnecessary. Globally, the SAT is usually required by only American institutes. Singaporean and British universities will assess applicants based on their GCE A Levels performance instead.
Nevertheless, taking the SAT won’t hurt, especially for those who have not decided where they wish to study. The SAT can be a safety net for applying to local universities, as a replacement or supplement for your performance at the A Levels.
- National University of Singapore allows candidates applying for Law-related courses, who did not obtain the minimum B for General Paper or B in Knowledge & Inquiry required, to submit their subject’s result (must be at least an E) together with a score of 700 or more for the SAT’s Critical Reading section to satisfy the requirement.
- Nanyang Technological University requires a minimum score of 1,900 for the SAT (and a score of 680 or better in each of three required SAT Subject Tests.).
- Singapore Management University requires a minimum total score of 1,900, with 600 each for both Critical Reading and Writing (for non-Law programmes) or a combined score of 1,400 for Critical reading and Writing (for Law programmes)
Considering all these, taking the SAT may sound like a good idea right about now. However, there is one final hurdle in making a decision: the SAT has an exorbitant application fee. It usually costs Singaporean students about US$100 to apply for one sitting (for an explanation of the costs, click here).
That said, an SAT score is not necessary except for those seriously considering applying to American institutions, so students should not be pressured to take it just because ‘everyone else is too’ if the cost doesn’t seem to be worth it. Additionally, changes are always happening in the American education system; recently, 800 US colleges made a switch to text-flexible admission processes that would no longer mandate SAT score submissions, including renowned institutions such as New York University and Middlebury College. Students can use their A Levels scores for admission to these colleges instead. The moral of the story behind all this is that students should always check the minimum admission criteria of their prospective colleges.
To arrive at a definite decision, students will have to weigh the pros and cons of taking the SAT by conducting a plethora of research. Besides just checking the minimum admission requirements and the date that admissions will be open for potential colleges, they need to decide whether they plan to take a gap year, or are willing to bear the opportunity costs of such a test as these will affect either the timing they choose or the very decision to go for the SAT.
Those fortunate enough to be able to bear the costs of multiple sittings (the SAT can be taken an unlimited number of times) can have a first sitting as early as possible in case they need to retake it. Otherwise, sitting for a mock ‘diagnostic’ SAT before you do anything to find out if you have the aptitude for it will also help you make a firm choice.
Last but not least, if the SAT doesn’t seem to be their cup of tea, students can always explore other options such as applying for other institutions, or taking the ACT instead (another standardised test that is widely accepted by US colleges). Planning will go a long way into aiding students in making the best decision, as will discussing post-tertiary education options with adults and friends. At the end of the day, students should mainly take the SAT because they need to, or because they will appreciate it as an opportunity to gauge their academic proficiency.
* How will the SAT be changing after the March 2016 redesign?
The SAT redesign only applies to tests taken on or after 1 March 2016. The most major changes that will happen are the following:
- The Essay-Writing section will be optional.
- The new score scale will be 1600 with a separate score for Essay-Writing.
- Points are no longer deducted for incorrect answers.
- The new test time will be 3 hours, or 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay
The gist of the SAT sections will be the same, but the content tested in Math and Critical Reading will bank on application and data-response skills more greatly than on memory work. A detailed rundown of the changes can be found here.