15 Things You Don’t Know About the SAT
On June 23, it will be 90 years since the College Board tortured, er, tested the first group of high school students with the SAT. In honor of those stressed out teens who likely memorized endless vocabulary words they’ll never use, here are a few tidbits about one of the most widely used college admissions tests. Study up!
1. THE EXAM WAS HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY AN ARMY IQ TEST.
During World War I, future Princeton University professor Carl Brigham worked under Harvard University's Robert Yerkes to administer IQ tests to about 2 million army recruits. (The goal of the testing was to help choose officer candidates and build up statistical evidence about IQ testing.) Years later, in the early 1920s, Brigham, author of A Study of American Intelligence, administered his own version of the exam to freshmen at his alma mater. He was then tapped by the College Board to head a committee that would create a test for all incoming college students. In 1926, that exam was administered to high school kids for the first time.
2. THE SAT WAS ORIGINALLY USED AS A SCHOLARSHIP TEST FOR ALL IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS.
In 1934, Harvard president James Conant tasked two of his assistants with figuring out a way to select which public school students should be awarded a scholarship to the prestigious university. They landed on the SAT. The next year, the test was made a requirement for all Harvard scholarship hopefuls. And by 1939, the rest of the Ivies had followed suit.
3. MORE THAN HALF OF THE INITIAL TEST TAKERS WERE MEN.
Sixty percent of the 8040 candidates who took the 1926 exam were male. A quarter of those men applied to Yale University. In contrast, many of the female test takers were interested in attending Smith College.
4. THE FIRST TEST LOOKED A LOT DIFFERENT THAN IT DOES TODAY ...
Just a brief 97 minutes long, the first exam had 315 questions divided amongst nine sub-tests—definitions, arithmetical problems, classification, artificial language, antonyms, number series, analogies, logical inference, and paragraph reading. A sample question: "A man spent one-eighth of his spare change for a package of cigarettes, three times as much for a meal, and then had eighty cents left. How much money did he have at first?"
5. ... AND SINCE THEN IT'S COME A LONG WAY.
In addition to changes in format (an essay portion was added in 2005, but in 2016, they made that section optional) and scoring (point totals increased to 2400 in 2005, then back to 1600 in 2016), the name of the test has changed four times. While the moniker previously stood for "Scholastic Aptitude Test," the current version isn’t actually an acronym—it doesn’t stand for anything!
6. SOME VERSIONS OF THE EXAM ARE REUSED.
According to The Washington Post, seven tests are given each year. Four of them are made public afterward, but the other three could be used again. A spokesperson for the Educational Testing Service, which writes and administers the exam for the College Board, told the newspaper that it takes 18 months and roughly $350,000 to create an all-new test.
7. TEST SCORES WERE INCREASED IN 1995.
Between 1941 and 1994, the students taking the test expanded from just 10,000 students (40 percent from private schools) to 1.2 million (82 percent from public schools) which caused the scores to dip. So in 1995, the College Board decided to “recenter” them. By recalibrating the scoring, they made it easier for students to earn higher marks. (And harder for them to argue that they were smarter than their parents.)
8. THE TEST WAS ONCE CANCELED FOR AN ENTIRE COUNTRY.
When the Educational Testing Service discovered in 2013 that tutoring companies in South Korea had allegedly obtained and distributed a copy of the exam, they canceled the scheduled May 4 test date.
9. ONE MAN TOOK IT MORE THAN A DOZEN TIMES.
In 2011 Long Island, New York native Sam Eshaghoff was arrested for taking the test for desperate high school students. The Emory University college student admitted he sat for the exam at least 15 times in three years and pocketed up to $2500 each time. (He also consistently scored in the 97th percentile or higher.) He was arraigned on charges of scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation, and falsifying business records and ultimately sentenced to tutor underprivileged youth . . . for the SAT.
10. YOU WERE PENALIZED FOR GUESSING.
Up until 2016, testers earned one point for each question answered correctly, but lost a quarter of a point for getting an answer wrong. That meant, in some cases, it was better to skip a question (receiving zero points) than take a stab at it and risk losing points. The guessing penalty was eliminated with the 2016 version of the exam.
11. THERE'S A FAKE SECTION.
Another change with the 2016 version: a revamped experimental section. In the previous versions, one of the 10 sections of the exam didn’t actually count towards the final score. Unfortunately, there was no way to know which section you could skip. When the 2016 tests were first announced, there was no mention of an experimental section, so it was assumed that was dropped from the test. But the College Board later clarified that the students who opted out of the essay may still be given experimental questions. The College Board has been deliberately vague about what form this is currently taking, but there are still questions that don’t matter for many students.
12. STUDYING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE COULD GIVE YOU A SCORE BOOST.
Data from the 2011 tests showed that students who took more than four years of a language scored 180 points higher on the 2400-point exam. Those who studied Chinese, Latin, and Korean did the best.
13. THERE'S AN ENTIRE GENRE OF BOOKS DEVOTED TO UPPING STUDENTS' VERBAL SCORES...
Tomes like Test of Time, which investigates what would happen if Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn manuscript was swapped with a college student's laptop, and 2004’s Vampire Dreams were written to showcase upwards of 1000 vocabulary words commonly used on the exam.
14. . . . AND A PLAY ABOUT TAKING THE EXAM.
None of the Above, about a bratty, privileged teen and her SAT tutor, debuted off-Broadway in 2003. Newsroom actress Alison Pill played the lead.
15. YOU DON'T HAVE TO TAKE IT TO GO TO COLLEGE.
There are more than 850 colleges and universities that do not require all or many applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores before admissions decisions are made—and that number is growing. The list includes selective institutions such as Wake Forest University and American University.