Sitting the SAT

Written by: Helen Donohoe


***Helen Donohoe, M.S.Ed., is a teacher of English and French in the Hamilton/Burlington area. She holds practice SAT sessions on Saturdays on an informal, drop-in basis at Cedar Springs Racquet Club where she is a member, long-time tennis hacker and aficionado.***


Taking the SAT – it’s a household expression in the USA, a rite of passage, but little known elsewhere in the world except where students are aiming for a spot at a university/college in the USA.

SAT – Scholastic Assessment Test (formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test), a standardized test in three sections that measures competence in verbal/reasoning skills, writing and math, is mandatory for all students applying to university/college in the USA, with or without an athletic scholarship. It’s an old-fashioned paper and pencil test – no computers yet.

If you (or your tennis-playing daughter or son) are considering an athletic scholarship, it’s never too early to begin preparing for the SAT. Most students take the test at some point during the first semester of grade 12. Those who are better prepared try the test towards the end of grade 11 – some even earlier – thus allowing time to concentrate on grade 12 subjects, to boost those marks. US college admissions take both SAT and secondary school credits into consideration.

Without a SAT score, any offer of an athletic scholarship will be conditional, so the earlier students take the test, the better position they will be in when it comes to comparing and choosing colleges. SAT can be taken more than once, although without intensive work, the difference between the first and subsequent scores will likely be small.

The test comprises three sections – verbal, written and math, each worth 800 marks, for a total of 2400. Scores are also converted to percentiles (rankings.) There is no pass/fail point. Colleges will let you know the score they will accept. With a score of 2000 – a very good score – the ball will be in your court! A score at the lower end will leave you scrambling and constantly retrieving!

In general, colleges demand a higher score from native English speakers than from ESL students, who may also have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language.) Some colleges – generally the more prestigious institutions – require applicants to take SAT subject tests too.

Get the ball in play – how to begin the SAT preparation process:

Check where you will find everything you need to know about the test, in a very user-friendly format. Waste no time in creating a free account to:

  • receive a question of the day – can be printed if you wish
  • check test dates/locations and register – most locations in Ontario fill up quickly
  • research hundreds of colleges to find out what SAT mark range is required –  a very useful tool
  • access free practice material
  • set up a personal study plan

Don’t forget the traditional print study guides available in bookstores – in use long before the age of the internet – these are great to take on the road with you to read.

Start rallying: There’s no substitute for reading!

The greatest asset/skill in SAT readiness is an enriched, wide-ranging vocabulary. This can only be acquired through reading. Watching a movie of play/novel or reading summaries online just won’t cut it! It’s the structure of the sentence and the meaning of words that are important. For those who have always been keen readers, just continue. You are already well on the way. The others are going to have play catch up. It’s like being on the court and doing nothing but scurrying from side to side to retrieve the ball and never managing to be on the offensive. Read everything you set eyes on. Bookmark a good quality online newspaper and make a point of reading one article a day. Start reading the classics. That doesn’t mean you have to wade through War and Peace or David Copperfield. Think smart! Choose something short and set a daily reading target.

Some suggestions:

Steinbeck – The Pearl, Of Mice and Men

Dickens – A Christmas Carol

Orwell – 1984, Animal Farm

Wells – The Time Machine

Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises

Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

Joyce – The Dubliners (short stories- just read a few)

SAT was designed decades ago by Americans, for Americans and is based on the classical/traditional Eurocentric culture of the time, with emphasis on American and British (often Victorian) literature. Although it is not essential to know the background to the questions and reading passages, it certainly helps and gives a feeling of confidence to be able to relate to the material. In general, the more you know, the better you will do on the SAT. Students who take French seriously are also at an advantage, as many of the higher level, abstract words in English have a French/Latin root.

The math sections too are language-based. Read carefully and make sure you know the basic math facts, including the multiplication tables. During study sessions I am always amazed at the number of students who reach for a calculator to work out something as simple as 5×12! It’s much easier to memorize! I have taught SAT prep classes in China, where the students memorize very effectively. Can you differentiate the between mean/median/mode? How many degrees are there in a straight line? When do you use  and C = 2r?

With the exception of the essay and a few math questions SAT is multiple choice: there is only one answer. Your personal input, opinions and interpretation are NOT required. SAT exists to check on your college readiness – your ability to concentrate, be decisive, work quickly and efficiently, focus intently, think logically, think on your feet, apply a set of solid skills to the task on hand…….. not unlike what you need to be successful on the court. Some things are universal!

Can you go the distance?

You all know the feeling of going on court, expecting a quick, easy win, only to find yourself facing a tough opponent who pushes everything back and seems to get all the lucky breaks. It’s the same with SAT. The test lasts four hours, unheard of anywhere else where even three hours is considered a very long exam. Start practising your timing/mental stamina skills by working uninterrupted on a practice test for one hour, then two hours and gradually increasing to four hours.

Strategy and avoiding unforced errors

Multiple choice tests require the acquisition and constant honing of specific strategies to avoid falling into traps. Finish off the point and move on to the next one!

Practice SATs are offered at some secondary schools in Ontario, throughout the year. Contact student services at your school for information. A practice SAT is usually offered in Halton (Oakville or Burlington) in late February/early March. Contact ACE Tennis Academy at Cedar Springs, Burlington, 905 632 9500 or  Classes during the summer and tutoring via Skype are also available. For more information, please contact Helen directly at

The article was first published in the OTA yearbook 2010-11.

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