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College Preparation: The SAT

  • Dr. James Stobaugh
  • Published May 16, 2002
College Preparation: The SAT

What subjects are included in the SAT I (Scholastic Aptitude Test)?

The SAT I is an aptitude test, not an achievement test (like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement Test). It is taken during the second semester of the junior year or during the first semester of the senior year. It measures a student’s potential success in college; it does not necessarily measure his information acquisition and assimilation skills.

It most certainly is not an intelligence test! And it has absolutely nothing at all to do with a student’s worth or esteem in God's eyes. A student’s worth as a person is not measured by a high or low SAT score. On the contrary, we are of priceless value to Him (see Psalm 139). But that is not to lessen the SAT’s importance. For home schoolers in particular - who do not have diplomas from an accredited school - the SAT is extremely important. While most students can get into college even with low SAT scores, financial aid will be more available for those students with higher SAT scores. So, while the SAT is admittedly a flawed exam, it is still the most frequent resource colleges - both secular and Christian - utilize to offer admission and financial aid.

The SAT is comprised of two thirty-minute sections, plus one 15-minute section on the Verbal portion in 2001. There is a strong emphasis on critical reading and vocabulary. Virtually all the questions are related to cognitive developmental thinking (based on Blooms Taxonomy); I counted 71 out of 78 questions as reasoning questions. (After all the SAT I is a called a Reasoning Test.)

Most of the vocabulary is based on context, so reading a lot, learning vocabulary, and thinking well are obviously the key. The Verbal portion has three types of questions: critical reading (majority), analogies, and sentence completion. The Mathematic section includes two thirty-minute sections, plus one 15-minute section. The emphasis is on data interpretation and applied math questions. Ten questions require students to produce their own answers. What is interesting, though, is that all of the questions are based on critical thinking! So, I think it would be safe to argue that the SAT is a reasoning, thinking test.

The SAT lasts 150 minutes or 2.5 hours. It takes about three or three-and-a-half hours if one includes the registration time. This would mean it starts around 8 o'clock and goes to a little after 12 o'clock.

In summary, the two sections - Math and Verbal - are scored separately on a scale of 200 to 800. Currently the nation's three hundred most selective colleges seek a combined score of higher than 1200. Fewer than 10 percent of students score above 1300. Most Christian colleges will accept a score that is around 1000, but financial aid is awarded to students with 1100-1150. I don't know about you, but for my children admission to college without financial aid is an oxymoron!

How does the SAT differ from the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the SAT II?

The PSAT is much shorter, and in my opinion, more difficult. I am not persuaded that it is good practice for the SAT I. I think a better idea is to take real SAT practice tests. Personally, I think The PSAT is a bit of marketing genius. Millions of American students take this test every October thinking it will help them on their SAT. It does not, in my opinion. Low test scores on the PSAT can hurt feelings and thereby jeapordize students' chances of performing up to their potential on the SAT.

But isn't the National Merit Scholarship Program based on the PSAT?  If a person does well on the PSAT, and very few do, he/she has a chance to qualify for the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) competition. But let me tell you my concern as a father of four teenagers: I do not want to damage my children's self-esteem and their chances to do well on the SAT, just in the interest of doing something that "everyone else is doing." You can find out if your student is  a bonafide National Merit contender by taking an SAT practice test and obtaining a score well above 1300.  Thousands of students who do poorly on the PSAT do well on the SAT and obtain all sorts of scholarships.

The SAT II exam is given on selected Saturday afternoons after the SAT I. SAT II Subject Tests measure the student's knowledge and skills in a particular subject and his ability to apply that knowledge. All subject tests, except the writing test, are one hour, multiple-choice exams. The writing test has a 20-minute writing sample and a 40-minute multiple-choice section. Many competitive colleges require the SAT II - especially from home schoolers. Like the PSAT, the SAT II is scored from 20 to 80.

How do I obtain information on the SAT I & II?

Go to your local high school, phone 1-609-771-7600, or write SAT Program, PO Box 6200, Princeton, NJ 08541-4444. You can visit their Web site at

How often do you recommend students take the practice tests?

A student should take a practice test at the end of his sophomore year before the PSAT is taken in the fall of his junior year. Additionally, he should take practice tests at least once a month five months before taking the SAT in May of his junior year. Retakes of the SAT are helpful - but only with coaching between tests. The timeline to prepare for the SAT I is surprising. I think one needs to prepare from one to three years; the best score will occur during the junior year for most people. If the young person does not do well, he/she can take it again senior year.

How involved should parents be during this process? Can parental involvement hinder the child's progress in any way?

If one sees preparation as a spiritual enterprise, parental input is vital.

How do Christian students prepare for the SAT I? Don't they take the same college entrance exams as nonbelievers?

1. If one sees all endeavors in which Christians involve themselves as led by the Holy Spirit, and if one accepts that a high SAT score is desirable, and if one believes that one may have to spend a great deal of time preparing for the SAT, then it seems to me we should contextualize this event in Christian terms. If one is called to college, I see SAT preparation as a preparation for life, not merely for college. However, if Christians truly want to change their world for Christ, if they want to be world changers - and not merely successful students - they may need to do more than make a high score. That is easy - what is more difficult is to prepare in the spiritual area.

2. Next, many of the secular courses have real attitude problems. They show us how to "crack" the SAT. My children already have enough attitude! Avoid these strategies.

3. SAT preparation should be a long project. This would never work for most Americans - but it should and does for Christians (especially of the home-schooled variety!). Preparation best occurs over one, two, or, even better, three years.

4. Finally, when the Educational Testing Service changed the SAT in March, 1994, it did the Christian community - especially the Christian, home-school community - a great favor. The Christian home-school community is scoring almost 150 points above the national average. Additionally, I believe home schoolers will begin moving to the head of graduating classes of the most prestigious Christian and secular universities in America. I believe that they will become leaders in government and industry. The Christian community has not had such an opportunity to influence civil society since the time of Constantine. This is a great opportunity and challenge. The SAT I is the first challenge home schoolers must overcome.

Great revival

In closing, I would like to say that I think that this is the most strategic generation in the history of the world. Within their lifetime--those from age 10 to 20--will occur the greatest revival in human history. I tell you I am excited! That is the reason that my SAT prep course The SAT Preparation Course for the Christian Student is so important - not that it simply increases scores - but it is helping this generation grow in the Lord.

Os Guinness, Christian scholar and author, in his book Beyond the Culture Wars argues that America is in trouble. America's problem is much deeper than obvious problems such as family breakdown, the deficit, drugs, AIDS, discipline in the schools, or crime. There is a crisis of cultural authority which means that once inspired, disciplined, and restrained Americans have lost their binding addresses, their inner compelling power to shape culture. In short, Guinness argues that America is in danger of losing its soul.

The Good News is, I believe, that the Church of Jesus Christ will rise up and bring revival to our nation. It is my prayer that The SAT Preparation Course For the Christian Studen will be used by the Lord as one tool to bring this great revival. If even one of you is encouraged toward that goal then my prayers are answered.

Young people, work hard for such a time as this! My prayer for American Christian young people is Ephesians 3:14-21:

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

Dr. James Stobaugh  is the president of For Such a Time as This Ministries.  He received his B. A. cum laude from Vanderbilt University (1974), M.A., Rutgers University (1978), M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1983),  was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard University (1990, and obtained his D. Min. from Gordon Conwell Seminary (1997).   His dissertation topic was "Racial Anger as an Obstacle to Racial Reconciliation."   Jim  has also coached SAT prep for 20 years.  Jim and Karen Stobaugh have four home educated children.  Jim has written the well received SAT and College Preparation Course for the Christian Student (1998), as well as a 10 volume Critical Thinking Literary series.  Jim and Karen reside in Hollsopple, PA.

You can visit Jim's Web site at and e-mail him at