Helen Donohoe: Considering the SAT During The COVID-19 Crisis

This year, for the first time ever, some countries, where standardized “exit” exams (subject-specific), are mandatory for university acceptance, have cancelled the entire slate of exams, offered just once a year in the spring; the void is enormous, especially in countries like the UK, where the rigorous exam system is a way of life and a rite of passage.

Helen Donohoe is a tennis hacker, aficionado of the sport and a member of Cedar Springs Health Racquet & Sportsclub in Burlington, where she holds a weekly volunteer tutoring class for the SAT at Cedar Springs Club for student athletes (tennis and other disciplines) associated with the club.

Written by: Helen Donohoe

The events of the past few weeks have turned the world of post-secondary education upside down. The uncertainty of the entire college admissions process is extremely unsettling.

Traditionally, the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) has been mandatory for acceptance to most colleges in the USA but amid the current turmoil, many wonder about the future of the SAT itself.

In the absence of national standardized “exit” exams in the USA and in Canada too,  as the basis for college acceptance, the SAT was created decades ago to fill this gap. Six times a year ( seven in the USA), high school students in grade 11 and 12 – but can be taken earlier – write the SAT in hundreds of test centres around the world. It’s a paper/pencil exam, offered in English only and focuses on English and math. The main reason for taking the test is to attend college in the USA, but other reasons range from purely personal for those students who see it as a challenge, to some other institutions in different parts of the world who view it as a useful measure in addition to other requirements.

This year, for the first time ever, some countries, where standardized “exit” exams (subject-specific) are mandatory for university acceptance, have cancelled the entire slate of exams, offered just once a year in the spring; the void is enormous, especially in countries like the UK, where the rigorous exam system is a way of life and a rite of passage. If you have family members from Europe, they will be very familiar with names such as the “A” levels, the Highers, the Baccalaureat, the Abitur, the keys to post-secondary education. These exams are the great levellers: all students applying to university, whether from public or private/independent schools, must write these national exams.

The big advantage to the SAT is that it is available six times throughout the year and can be taken more than once. It is entirely possible that it could, for a time at least, partially compensate for the cancellation of other standardized exams so if you were planning on taking the SAT during the next school year or beyond, now is the time to get on track  to get ahead of the game. The ball is in your court; hit a winner.

Taking the SAT in gr. 11 is ideal. Students can take the test as many times as they wish to improve their score so gr. 11 still allows the three test dates in the fall of gr. 12 –  October, November, December (assuming these dates are up and running again this fall) – to try again. That will leave semester 2 to concentrate on doing really well in school subjects. There is no pass/fail rate for the SAT; colleges set their own threshold and of course in a broader, more global context, a high score could carry a lot of prestige.

There are three sections on the SAT – two English and one math. In a subsequent article I will outline the breakdown of the sections.

Ideally, students will be taking a math course during the semester they take the test. That does pose a problem for Ontario public school students on the semester system as it sometimes means an entire year between the end of one math course and the beginning of the next. Without regular practice many students get rusty in math, so again, planning well ahead will let you choose the best date for you.

All information about SAT is on the college board website:

Students, take the time now, while you have some time, to read everything on the Collegeboard website. Parents/families, you too should familiarize yourself with all aspects of the SAT. Preparation is a family affair; everyone can help and now is the time to do it. It often surprises me to learn that many of the students I encounter have parents who work in banking, accounting, finance etc. You can do the math – what are you waiting for – teach your child!

There are of course many free online resources. Just google SAT practice tests; you can create an account or just access free tests.

It definitely takes motivation and self-discipline to spend time alone doing practice tests. You can of course, work with a friend  (zoom is an excellent communications platform.) If you make the effort, you will see many gains not just in SAT readiness but also in school work in general. SAT definitely fosters higher-level thinking skills, very much part of the Ontario curriculum.

There’s another thing you can do to prepare yourself during this COVID hiatus – READ!! If you are taking English this semester you likely have plenty to read but if you’re not, try one of the following “old” but very short and always relevant classics, free online. Here are a few:

The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)

Animal Farm (George Orwell)

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) – often on school reading lists

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving)

Here’s a plan for easy reading:

Animal Farm has ten chapters. Try to read two chapters a day and you’ll be finished in a week. Keep an online dictionary/thesaurus on hand to check any unknown words. Simple.

You can of course check to see if there is a movie version of the novel but read the book first!

Of Mice and Men and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are American classics. If you do attend college in the USA, you will be very glad that you read them.

Lastly, I encourage all players to learn more about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge where students have the opportunity to win $250,000 scholarship.

Students ages 13  through 18 are invited to create a short — under three minutes— video explaining a challenging concept in physics, mathematics, or the life sciences in an engaging, illuminating, and creative way.

This is an opportunity for all players to engage in something related to going to college!  Read more here

To help you at this time, I will be happy to answer any questions you have about the SAT or these novels, or you can   send me your brief opinion/perspective and I will respond. If you have English coming up in a future semester you     may be able to use these novels if you have a choice.

To contact me, please email

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