[Video Post] A History of the SAT

There are few three-letter combinations that evoke such a potent mix of fear and disgust,  (or, in SAT-speak, trepidation and revulsion). First off, the SAT has a troubled history, one that reaches as far back as the 19th century—depending on whom you ask. Then there is the unavoidable reality of the SAT: if you want to do anything big with your life, you are probably going to have to go to college (or come up with the next Facebook). Standing in front of you and those pearly collegiate gates is this one test that, even if you are stellar in just about every other area, threatens to sabotage your college dreams.

A General Intro to the SAT

So why does test even exist, and what do you have to know about it, so you can cast of the metaphorical shackles (and just about any other metaphor that implies a large, nasty burden) and actually do well test day?

SAT and the IQ

As for two-letter combinations this one is probably near the top of the revulsion pile. The notion of IQ first came along in the 19th century when Sir Francis Galton discovered a relationship in nature that fell into a pattern: the bell curve. In other words, he realized that when you measure something, the results tend to fall along a curve shaped like a bell.

Take height. You probably know somebody who is over six feet tall. In fact, you probably know quite a few people who fall into this category. But how many people do you know who are over six and a half feet tall? Maybe one or two. As for seeing a 7-footer in the flesh, you’d have to sit courtside at an NBA game.  The same goes for the other extreme. How many males under five feet do you know?

So what Galton observed was that there are many who are average, and very few who fall under either extreme.

He applied this logic to intelligence and came up with an idea that to this day remains highly controversial: eugenics. Galton, who is much reviled today, believed that we should devise intelligence tests to figure out who the smart people were and make sure only they have babies.

While there are very few disciples of Galton today, there has been a lingering stigma around intelligence testing. This wasn’t helped by the fact that in the early part of the 20th century, a Stanford psychologist named Lewis Terman devised an intelligence test, the Standford-Binet Intelligence test, which is essentially what we today call the IQ test. Giving the procedure a creepy sci-fi twist, Terman used the test to determine the smartest of the smartest (a cohort that would affectionately be dubbed the “termites”), and rounded them into one group, hoping to cultivate their intelligence and create bona fide geniuses who would go on to change the world (none actually did; though, Terman, perhaps did).

Don’t worry, Terman, nor for that matter any of his “termites”, did not go on to write the SAT. But what does the SAT have to do with an IQ test? Well, both test similar areas of knowledge—there are funky diagrams that you have to twist around in your head; there are tests of your knowledge base (such as vocabulary). There may not be  any lengthy reading passages, essay, or grammar section, but the IQ test as we know it today is a “cousin”, as one Blogger put it, of the Stanford-Binet IQ test.

Can I actually increase my SAT score?

At this point you may want to throw up your hands in defeat, thinking, an IQ score is based on one’s heredity and can’t be changed. So if the SAT is a cousin of the IQ test…well, I don’t want to be invited to the family reunion.  

But I’m here to tell you that the SAT (and even the IQ test) is learnable and your score is not something etched in stone (like the color of your eyes).

To debunk the myth that SAT scores don’t change, I have ample experience from over the years. Just in my latest “crop” of summer SAT students (of which there are only a dozen in my class), one went up by over 200 points, placing him into the 2300 territory. Another increased a total of 480 points. That’s like going from a pretty strong student to a “termite”—something Terman thought impossible.

Since I hovered over these students for hours each day during the summer (oh poor hapless souls!), I can tell you that their success was not derived from some pact they made with a hooved gentleman or that they have this rarefied—and unattainable—quality called genius. They simply paid attention in class, did all (or at least most) of the homework, and asked useful questions throughout the process. And they sat for an SAT each week, much as an Olympic runner leading up to the big day will run a race each week. Basically, they worked hard.

So if someone tells you the SAT is a glorified IQ test that can’t be gamed, give them a little historical recap of Galton and Terman. And, if you really knock the test out of the park, which I know you can with hard work, tell them you are living proof that the SAT is very learnable.



  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!


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