SAT Guide

Most college-bound high school students in the United States who aspire to study criminal justice must take the SAT or the ACT, or both, as part of their college application process. These exams measure students’ college readiness and play a role in the admissions process. Still, students should remember that universities also consider grades, personal essays, recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, community service, and interviews. The SAT is not so significant that students should make themselves sick with stress about it, but college applicants should still feel prepared when they take the exam.

Most college-bound high school students in the United States who aspire to study criminal justice must take the SAT or the ACT, or both, as part of their college application process.

The College Board administers the SAT and provides all sorts of resources for test-takers on its website. The College Board has divided the SAT into three parts: evidence-based reading and writing, math, and the optional essay. The evidence-based reading and writing section is further broken down into a reading portion and a writing and language portion. The majority of the exam comprises multiple-choice questions, but the math portion includes several “grid-in” questions. And, of course, students write an essay if they’ve opted to take that part of the exam.

SAT Subject Tests

Students may also take optional SAT subject tests if their prospective colleges require or recommend them. Subject tests include two levels of math, plus biology, world history, U.S. history, English, physics, chemistry, and nine different languages. Some universities require applicants to take SAT subject tests, and others even offer college credit if students achieve a certain score on their subject tests. Subject tests may also help students impress prospective schools with their knowledge and talents in particular subjects.

Subject tests last one hour, and consist entirely of multiple-choice question. SAT subject test scores range from 200 to 800, and registration costs $26. Students must pay an additional $22 for each non-foreign language subject test they take, and $26 for each foreign language subject test.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

The SAT includes two main compulsory sections: evidence-based reading and writing and math. The essay section is optional. Evidence-based reading and writing comprises a reading section and a writing and language section. The SAT usually lasts three hours, but if test-takers choose to take the essay portion, as well, it lasts three hours and 50 minutes.

The SAT includes two main compulsory sections: evidence-based reading and writing and math.

Students do not need to answer every question on the exam, and they can skip around within each portion. However, students cannot skip between sections. Students should consider answering every question, even if they must guess, because the College Board does not penalize test-takers for wrong answers.

Most of the questions follow a multiple-choice format, but some math questions ask students to “grid in” answers, or fill in the answer instead of choosing it from a provided list. The reading test gives students 65 minutes to answer 52 questions based on five passages. Students have 35 minutes on the writing and language test to respond to 44 questions. Finally, the math portion gives students 80 minutes to answer 58 questions. Students also have 50 minutes to write an essay if they opt to take that part of the exam.

The SAT Going Online

The College Board recently introduced an online format of the SAT. This effort began in the spring of 2018, when 100 initial schools offered the online exam. The College Board has since slowly rolled out the online exam, allowing the organization to sort out technical difficulties on a smaller scale.

More school districts will likely adopt the online SAT in coming years, since online testing offers lower costs and instant, accurate scoring. It also reduces the potential for test theft and cheating. High school students should be prepared for the possibility of taking the SAT online.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

The online SAT is the same as the pencil-and-paper version in many respects. The exam’s sections remain the same, and test-takers still get scratch paper and breaks. Students must also still take the online exam in a controlled setting, under a proctor’s supervision. Test-takers are still prohibited from bringing personal electronics into the testing room, and they are required to take the test on school computers.

Students must also still take the online exam in a controlled setting, under a proctor’s supervision.

The online test also offers some new features, as well. Students can use electronic scratch paper if they like, and they can virtually highlight passages and bookmark questions as they go. Test-takers can also keep track of the time using an on-screen digital countdown clock, and their answers are protected by a virtual administrator, called AIR Assessment. This administrator uses a diagnostic tool to evaluate the “healthiness” of a school’s network system, saving students’ test progress on multiple servers in case an unexpected emergency occurs and the network crashes. This would allow students to pick up where they left off on their SAT, in case of an emergency. The administrator also assesses how many test-takers can take the SAT at one time, in order to avoid network crashes.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

The evidence-based reading test assess how well students can understand and analyze texts. In this portion, students read several passages and answer questions based on those passages. The test includes questions about how well the author supports his or her arguments, and how the author’s word choice shapes the meaning and tone of the passage.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students commonly overthink these questions, when they should answer them based solely on the evidence laid out in the text and the evidence’s context within the passage. If students bring in their own outside knowledge, assumptions, emotions, or political beliefs, they may find themselves agonizing over each question. Students ought to set aside their biases and opinions while taking the SAT. They should also prepare their time management skills, since SAT test-takers have very little time to digest passages and answer each question. It may be helpful to temporarily skip over the more challenging questions, and return to them at the end of the exam.

Helpful Tips

Get Familiar with Informational Graphics

The SAT reading exam usually includes informational graphics in addition to reading passages. Students should learn how to interpret different types of graphics so they know how to dig out the relevant information.

Be Careful with Multi-Part Questions

Some parts of the evidence-based reading test include questions that build onto one another — in other words, one question may depend on the answer to a previous question. Make sure you feel confident with your answer on the first question before tackling the second one.

Don’t Spend an Inordinate Amount of Time on One Passage

Don’t waste time tormenting yourself over a single challenging passage. Read through it once, then find out where the relevant information is in the passage to answer each question.

Know How to Eliminate Answers

If you feel uncertain about a question, check the answer options. If one of the responses seems outlandish or extreme, cross it out. You still may not know the answer, but your chances of guessing correctly increase if you pick from four options instead of five.

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

Much like the reading section, the evidence-based writing and language section includes passages and asks students questions based on those passages. The writing and language section contains different types of questions from the reading section, though. This portion of the exam assesses students writing skills, including grammar, sentence structure, use of language, and expression of ideas.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The writing and language section makes up the shortest part of the exam. It lasts only 35 minutes, so students ought to make every minute count. Test-takers often make the mistake of spending too long one passage, overthinking each question and mismanaging their time as a result. Another common pitfall is selecting the answers with the fanciest language, when the correct answers might actually be more informal-sounding. SAT test-makers know slang and colloquial language, and sometimes use it into this part of the exam. Students should be aware of this and read each answer option carefully before choosing.

Helpful Tips

Think Twice About That “NO CHANGE” Bubble

Often, the questions will give you a “NO CHANGE” option. It may seem tempting to fill in that bubble every time you are unsure of an answer. However, test-takers tend to choose that “NO CHANGE” option more often than they should.

Know Your Grammar

Refresh your basic understanding of grammar rules to answer the grammar-related questions more easily. Even if answers aren’t immediately obvious, you may be able to eliminate one, two, or even three responses based on grammatical errors.

Don’t Skip Around the Passage

Sometimes questions will ask test-takers about their command of evidence in the passage. You can answer these questions more accurately if you understand the content and structure of the entire passage.

Consider Context

Questions might ask you to substitute one word for another, or to improve the word choice in a passage. You need to understand the context of the sentence in order to determine the best answer.

The Math Section

Skill Areas

The math section of the SAT will not ask you to solve Ph.D.-level physics equations, but it will test your knowledge of high school-level math. You may see questions asking about probability, linear equations, geometry, algebraic expressions, and ratios and proportions, among other topics.

Question Types

The SAT math tests includes two types of questions: the classic multiple choice question, and the not-so-classic “grid-in,” or student-produced questions. “Grid-in” questions require students to fill in the bubbles with the correct answers, rather than choosing from a list of potential answers. Multiple-choice questions still make up the majority of the math portion, which consists of 45 multiple choice questions and 13 grid-in questions.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

The SAT math section is split into two parts: one that allows you to use your calculator, and one that prohibits calculator use. During the with-calculator portion of the math exam, your calculator can help you solve problems with difficult mathematical models. The no-calculator section assesses your fluency of math concepts.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students often go into the math portion of the SAT leaning too much on their calculators. You shouldn’t need to use your calculator on every question in this section — in fact, calculator use might slow you down here. Another common mistake is answering the wrong part of the question. Some questions include more than one formula, or a multi-part structure, so make sure you know what the question is before you begin solving. If you see a strange-looking question format, read the question carefully to find out which problem you need to solve. After you dig the core problem out of a paragraph-long math question, solving it will be much simpler.

Helpful Tips

Memorize Basic Formulas

You can save a lot time by memorizing basic formulas. That way, you can worry about cracking the answer instead of whether you’re setting up the equation correctly.

Plug in the Answer

For equation-based questions, you might find it easier to simply plug in all of the numbers provided in the answer options to see which one works.

Use Your Time Wisely

If geometry is your weakness and geometry-related questions will take you a long time, skip those problems and come back to them at the end. In other words, prioritize the questions you can answer easily.

Re-Check Your Answers

If you have enough time at the end of the math portion, go back through and double check your answers. Do not waste one minute of your limited time.

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

The essay section of the SAT is optional, but some colleges require students to complete it. The College Board offers a list of schools that require students to take the SAT’s essay portion here.

Even if your potential colleges do not mandate that you complete the essay section, it may benefit you to take it anyway. Receiving a solid essay score may boost your overall SAT score. However, if writing is not your strong suit, the essay portion may not be worth the stress of studying for an additional exam section.

Skill Areas

Put plainly, the essay section tests how well you can write. Essay graders examine several factors to determine your score, including essay structure; prompt and passage understanding; and command over language, grammar, and spelling. When graders evaluate the essay section, they divide the scores into three main skills areas: reading, analysis, and writing.

The Essay Prompt

The essay prompt includes a passage, which differs for every exam. The passage may cover a scientific, political, or cultural idea or debate, and always comes from a published work. Though each student taking the SAD reads a unique passage, the prompt is the same for everyone. The prompt asks students to read the passage, identify the author’s argument, and evaluate the author’s reasoning in support of his or her argument.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The most recent restructuring of the SAT doubled the essay section time allowance from 25 to 50 minutes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have plenty of time to finish it. Fifty minutes go by quickly, and it’s important to use every one of those minutes wisely. Divide your time so you can brainstorm, organize, write, and proofread. Avoid rambling while writing your essay by creating a brief outline before you begin writing. Make sure to stay on-topic in your writing.

Helpful Tips

Leave Your Personal Opinions at the Door

As tempting as it may seem to make arguments based on your own opinions, stick with the evidence in the passage. The prompt asks you to analyze the author’s argument, not soliquize on whether you agree with the author.

Write a Thesis Statement

Developing a central argument is key, as it determines the structure and flow for the rest of your essay. Make sure your thesis statement is clear in the introduction.

Come up with Three Supporting Arguments

Your essay does not need to be long, but it should follow the basic five-paragraph structure of a standard essay. Write an introduction, three supporting arguments, and a conclusion, and you cannot go wrong in organizing your essay.

Leave Enough Time to Proofread

Designate at least five minutes at the end of your essay to skim through and catch any glaring spelling or grammar mistakes.

How is the SAT Scored?

When you take the SAT, you will receive a composite score ranging between 400 and 1600, plus a subscore for each section of the exam. The math and evidence-based reading and writing sections ae each scored on a scale ranging from 200 to 800. Essay scores range between two and eight.

Computers scan the reading and writing and math answer sheets electronically, after which the SAT system analyzes the results. The system comes up with a scaled score (of between 200 and 800) based on the raw score, or the number of questions you answered correctly. The system does not penalize incorrect answers. Two human scorers grade the essay section. Each person scores three aspects of the essay — reading, analysis, and writing — and then awards one to four points for each section. The graders then add all their scores together to come up with a final score.

Score Ranges on the SAT

SAT SectionScore Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing200-800
Source: College Board

What’s the Difference Between Score Ranges, Average Scores, College Readiness Benchmarks, and Percentile Ranks?

Once students receive their scores, they can measure them again other students’ scores. Scores range from 200 to 800 for the reading and writing and math sections, but the average score is not 600. The average score for the evidence-based reading and writing section is 533, and for the math section, it’s 527. Essay scores range from two to eight, and are further broken down into three sub-scores: reading, analysis, and writing.

Percentile ranks range from 1% to 99%, and they identify how well you performed compared to everyone else’s scores. If you rank in the 68th percentile, you scored better than 68% of students who took the test. Each score report also includes a benchmark score for college readiness. You can compare your own score to the benchmark to see whether you are considered prepared for college.

What’s an Average Score on the SAT?

Average Scores on the SAT, 2016-17

SAT SectionAverage Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing533
Essay (Reading, Analysis, Writing)5,4,5
Source: College Board

What Is a Good SAT Score for a Criminal Justice Program?

There are no set-in-stone, standard guidelines on which SAT scores are “good” enough for criminal justice programs. SAT standards vary, depending on the school, but applicants should aim for a score of at least 1060, which is in the 51st percentile. In other words, if you score a 1060 on the SAT, you performed better than 51% of the people who took the test.

How Do You Register for the SAT?

To register for the SAT through the College Board website, you must first create a profile and choose an exam date. At the time of registration, you may designate four schools to receive your SAT score report for free. To send your scores to more than four colleges, you will have to pay an additional fee. If you want colleges and financial aid organizations to find you through the College Board website, you can sign up for the company’s student search service. You can also opt to register by mail.

When Should You Take the SAT?

You can sign up to take the exam on designated Saturdays in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. You may want to wait until your junior year of high school to take the SAT, at which point you’ve completed enough coursework to take the exam with confidence. The College Board takes one to two weeks to send test scores to schools.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

Registering for the SAT without the essay costs $47.50. If you choose to write the essay, the registration fee is $64.50. Low-income students may be eligible for a fee waiver.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

You can take the SAT as many times as you would like. The College Board offers it seven times a year, and you could theoretically sign up for every single date. However, it’s recommended to take the SAT only two or three times — enough times to improve your score, but not enough to drive yourself into a stress spiral.

Preparing for the SAT

At-Home Study Methods

If you want to study for the SAT on your own terms, you can find several different at-home study methods and tools to guide you.

Study Methods

Printed Study GuidesYou can easily find free study guides online. Print them out, mark them up, highlight useful tips, and learn about different SAT exam strategies.
FlashcardsYou can either buy flashcards or make your own with index cards. Flashcards can help you memorize vocabulary words, grammar rules, and math formulas.
Private TutoringFinancially able students should consider hiring a private tutor to help you identify your personal strengths and weaknesses. Tutors can also help you determine which strategies work best for you.
Studying AppsIf you download an SAT studying app for your smartphone or tablet, you will always have a study guide in your pocket, ready to use at your convenience.
Online Practice TestsIf you want to become familiar with the type of questions you will find on the SAT, online practice tests are an easy (and free) way to do so.

SAT Prep Courses

If you would rather have professional help, or if you study best in a group setting, consider enrolling in an SAT preparation course. Companies such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review offer these prep courses both in person and online. The courses typically cost money, an can range from $100 to hundreds of dollars. These classes usually run on set schedules, unless you opt to take a self-paced individual course.

Studying Tips for the SAT

Give Yourself Enough Time to Study

Start studying as early as possible. If you procrastinate and start studying just a week before the exam, you won’t have enough time to learn everything you need to know for the test.

Time Yourself While Taking Full-Length Practice Tests

The time limits for each section of the SAT might seem stressful, but getting used to the SAT format ahead of time can help take the pressure off. Get comfortable with the time limits by timing yourself while taking full-length practice exams.

Hide Your Phone

When you take your practice exam, imagine that you are actually in the test room. You might get distracted by your phone, TV, or whatever other device you have on hand. Put everything out of sight so you don’t cheat yourself.

Know Yourself

Analyze your strengths and weaknesses, and focus your energy on improving your weaker points.

Come up with a Target Score

If you have a goal score, then you have something to work toward. Look up the average scores of your dream college, and see if you can match (or beat) it.

Helpful Resources

Preparing for the SAT cost you a lot of stress, not to mention money. The online resources below are available for free:

  • College Board Practice Tests The College Board does not only administer the SAT; it provides study help as well. Students can either print out the College Board’s practice tests or fill them out online.
  • Khan Academy A nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students with SAT prep, the Khan Academy provides several articles outlining test-taking strategies, tricks, and tips.
  • Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel Magoosh helps people prepare for several different standardized tests. Its SAT prep YouTube channel guides students as they study specifically for the SAT, offering advice on math, vocabulary, and writing.
  • Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel Students who prefer to study by watching videos should check out the Supertutor TV SAT YouTube channel. It breaks down myths and facts about the exam and offers other general study tips as well.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

When you arrive at the testing center, you will have to show your photo ID and admission ticket to the exam proctor. The proctor will then guide you to your assigned seat. Do not be late — doors open at 7:45 a.m. and close at 8 a.m., on the dot. The exam starts between 8:30 and 9 a.m., at which point your proctor will read the instructions out loud for every section. You may use the scratch paper that comes along with the test booklet. If you need to use the restroom, you will need to wait for either the 10-minute or the five-minute break. You must show your ID and admissions ticket every time you re-enter the room.

What Should You Bring with You?

What Should You Leave at Home?


Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

If you have a disability or health-associated need, you may request appropriate accommodations from the College Board. You might be eligible for reading and seeing accommodation, like braille or an audio test format; extra time for each section; a private room; or more frequent or extended breaks, among other options. When applying, you must submit documentation proving you have a disability or health condition. You must request special accomodation at least seven weeks in advance.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Students typically receive their scores a couple weeks after they take the exam. If they choose to take the SAT with the essay portion, the essay score usually comes a few days after the reading and math scores. You can find more specific dates outlining score timelines here.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

Students submit their scores through the College Board. When you sign up to take the exam, you may designate four colleges to receive your scores for free. After you take the exam, the College Board system will send score reports to your chosen colleges. You may send your scores to additional colleges, for an additional fee. Scores that you have printed out or screenshotted are not valid — colleges only consider ones sent directly from the College Board.

What Scores Will Schools See If You Take the Test More Than Once?

If you opt to take the SAT multiple times, you can send in each of your SAT scores to your chosen colleges. Schools usually consider students’ best SAT scores if they receive multiple score reports for one student. However, you can also take advantage of the College Board’s Score Choice system, which lets students decide which SAT scores they want to send to colleges. The Score Choice service does not require extra fees, unless you want to send scores to more than four colleges.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

If you send your scores to a school more than five years after taking the SAT, the college will receive your score report along with a note saying your scores may not be a valid predictor of academic performance. However, the College Board never simply cancels your scores.