Have you ever had that one student in your math class who should have probably just graduated from high school after sophomore year and just gone straight to college? For whatever reason, be it genetics, excessive studying or pagan witchcraft, this student always ruins the curve on the exams by getting an unusually high score, bringing everyone else’s grades down. Let’s call this hypothetical person, Steve.
Wouldn’t it be awful to take the SAT on a date when 1,000 Steves are also taking it? What if they all score perfect scores and ruin the curve on the SAT? Maybe it’s better to take the SAT during a month when there are far fewer Steves around so the curve is easier, right? Well, every year, we hear from students trying to decide whether to take the huge October SAT administration or defer it to smaller administrations in November, March and May when the curve might be easier.
However, this strategy is completely useless and simply does not make sense if you think about it. There is no such thing as an “SAT Curve” the way you might think about grading curves in your high school classes. An unusual spike in high-scorers will not tank the scores of average students and a slew of dunces will not boost others scores either.
Since the SAT is used as an objective admissions tool for colleges to evaluate applicants, it has to remain consistent between tests so that an SAT score from a test taken in May can be compared to one taken in October. The SAT would not be very useful if it had variation from the body of students who take the test on any given administration.
In order to account for the minor differences in test difficulty and ability levels of students, the SAT uses a sophisticated statistical process called “equating” in order to produce scaled scores that can be compared to SAT scores from any other test administration. If you’re curious about the details of the full process or simply enjoy reading technical whitepapers, a document on the process can be downloaded here: College Board – Ensuring Comparable Scores on the SAT. However, suffice it to say that the SAT is very careful about making sure that its tests are consistent and comparable between different versions of the test.
The SAT automatically adjusts scaled scores for the difficulty of the test. This is why you might see different scaled scores resulting from the same raw score. For example, the October 2012 SAT had an easier-than-normal Math section and getting 2 problems wrong resulted in a scaled score of 740, whereas the May 2009 test had more difficult questions so getting 2 wrong resulted in a scaled score of 770. The SAT is able to determine difficulty of a particular test by collecting a ton of data through the experimental section on the SAT that is not graded but is used for scaling and collecting data on experimental questions.
So now that we know that there is no advantage to taking the SAT in a particular month, how should you decide when to take the SAT? This is completely up to you and depends on your study and school schedule. You want to be able to commit a lot of time to studying for the SAT before the test. For most, this would be in October, January or June. You can study all summer for the October test, over winter break for the January test and after AP tests for the June tests. If you’re taking any AP tests or Subject tests, you’ll want to stagger your test dates so that you can focus on studying for a particular test without distractions from other tests. This will take a lot of pressure off you and give you the best chance of nailing a fantastic score!