SAT Guide

A milestone for college-bound high school students, the SAT is one of the most common standardized tests in the world. Most colleges and universities accept SAT scores as a means of assessing applicants' potential to succeed in an undergraduate program in virtually any major. Administered by the College Board, the SAT comprises two sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. Students may also opt to complete an additional essay section. The College Board lets students select up to four schools to automatically receive their SAT. For students who opt to take the essay portion of the SAT, those scores are sent separately from other sections.

The College Board lets students select up to four schools to automatically receive their SAT

Many undergraduate programs require SAT scores as part of the application process. Schools may grant or deny admission based on an these scores along with other factors, including an applicants' high school GPA, prior coursework and experience, and letters of recommendation. Test-takers may complete the test on paper or on the computer, though the computer option is only available in select states. The SAT comprises multiple-choice questions for the math and reading and writing sections, ideal for aspiring teachers of all subjects and grade levels.

SAT Subject Tests

Undergraduate programs often require applicants to submit their general SAT scores, but some also require (or recommend) that applicants submit scores from SAT Subject Tests. Subject tests are available in 20 specific subjects across five primary categories: languages, math, science, English, and history. Subject tests evaluate students' aptitude in a particular discipline at the high school level, indicating their potential for higher learning in that area. Each subject test comprises multiple-choice questions, takes an hour to complete, and yields a score between 200 and 800 points. The College Board administers subject tests approximately six times per year, at the same dates and sites as the general SAT, though not all subject tests are available on each date. Students may not take the general SAT and a subject test on the same day. Registration costs $26 and includes one to three subject tests on the student's scheduled test date.

Since a comprehensive overhaul of its design in 2016, the "new" SAT incorporates several major changes to its structure, timing, and scoring process. The test includes two primary sections -- evidence-based reading and writing and math -- plus an optional essay section. The evidence-based reading and writing section includes two subsections: a reading test and a writing and language assessment. Test-takers may skip tougher questions in these subsections and come back to them later, and they will not be penalized for guessing if they do not know the correct answer.

The SAT always presents its main sections in the same order: reading, writing and language, math without a calculator, and math with a calculator. All questions are multiple-choice. Students have three hours to complete all four sections of the SAT. The exam's main sections go as follows: Reading takes 65 minutes; writing and language takes 35 minutes; math (no calculator) takes 25 minutes; and math (calculator) takes 55 minutes. Test-takers may add the optional essay section after completing the mandatory sections, adding an additional 50 minutes to respond to one writing prompt. Schools receive these essay scores separately from other section scores.

In 2017, the College Board partnered with AIR Assessment to begin rolling out a digital version of the SAT. This transition is still in its early stages, so the College Board allows each school district the choice of whether or not to adopt online delivery of the SAT. Most districts still offer the test in hard copy only, but taking the SAT online will most likely grow in popularity as technology continues to evolve and improve. For this reason, test-takers should prepare for SAT to go fully online. Many big names in SAT test prep, such as Khan Academy, offer online study guides and even allow students to test drive the digital SAT.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

Multiple servers protect test-takers from network overload, sending responses directly to scorers before removing them from the servers

Students taking the SAT online encounter the same sections and content as the paper-delivered test; they simply submit their answers and essays through a digital platform instead of with pencil and paper.

Administered by AIR Assessment, the online SAT incorporates customized software designed for security and accessibility in the virtual testing environment. The digital SAT provides students with "virtual scratch paper," the option to digitally "cross off" answers, and timed breaks, just like on the paper test.

Students' answers on the online SAT are encrypted using a built-in proprietary browsing feature and diagnostic tool, unique to the AIR Assessment software. Multiple servers protect test-takers from network overload, sending responses directly to scorers before removing them from the servers. Students must take the computerized test in a controlled setting, at an approved testing site in their area -- not at home on their personal computer. Test-takers pay the same fee for the online and paper SAT.

Students earn points within a set range for each section of the SAT, including additional points for the optional SAT essay. Once a student's scores for each section are added together, test-takers can earn a total score of between 400 and 1600 points. Evidence-based reading and writing and math each encompass 200 to 800 possible points. Students also receive three separate scores for each of the reading, writing and language, and math sections.

The SAT also includes "cross test" scores, which measure students' analysis and problem-solving skills in all multiple-choice sections, and "subscores," which measure proficiency in specific reading, writing, language, and math concepts.

Two scorers rate the optional essay, each assigning one to four points for each of the three dimensions of work: analysis, reading, and writing. The two scores for each dimension are then combined, totaling between two and eight points. The essay section alone does not yield a composite score or percentile rank.

Score Ranges on the SAT
Source: CollegeBoard
SAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 200-800
Math 200-800
Essay 2-8

What's the Difference Between Score Ranges, Average Scores, College Readiness Benchmarks, and Percentile Ranks?

Beyond simply assigning a score to represent test-takers' performance, the SAT measures how their scores compare to other test-takers'. First of all, scorers account for "wiggle room," assuming most test-takers' scores would vary slightly if they took the test again; this is why the SAT provides a score range. SAT scores also include students' percentile rank, which measures how their score compares to their counterparts in a controlled group.

While the College Board provides both your scores per section and your total SAT score, individual schools may choose which ones they prefer to give the most attention. The SAT also places your score in the context of average SAT scores and college readiness benchmarks, enabling students to check their performance against the average scores of their peers, and measure their aptitude for college-level coursework, respectively.

What's an Average Score on the SAT?

Average Scores on the SAT, 2016-17
Source: CollegeBoard
SAT Section Average Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 533
Math 527
Essay 5,4,5

The SAT registration process begins with creating a College Board profile, where students can designate university recipients, cancel or reschedule the test, and view their scores. Students must decide whether they will take the optional essay portion of the test at registration. They may also choose to answer additional questions about themselves to help colleges and potential fellowships find their profiles through the College Board's student search tool. Most students can register online, but some -- including those paying by check or money order, requesting a Sunday test date, or who are younger than 13 years old -- must complete their registration by mail. Start your online registration here.

At-Home Study Methods:

Students can access a myriad of at-home study methods to assist them in preparing for the SAT.

  • Printed Study Guides: Printed study guides prepare students to master the exam content, and familiarize students with the hard copy format.
  • Flashcards: Especially helpful for the math and reading tests, flashcards provide critical memory training for equations and formulas, grammar, and new vocabulary words.
  • Private Tutoring: For those seeking a fully customized study plan, personal tutors can advise students on prep materials and practice tests tailored to their needs.
  • Studying Apps: Suited to students with just a few minutes to study for the SAT here and there, studying apps allow students to choose when and which subject to study to meet their goals.
  • Online Practice Tests: Whatever your strengths and weaknesses at the onset of studying for the SAT, online practice tests can help you focus your attention in a particular section, and get to know the test format.

SAT Prep Courses

Each student may approach SAT study prep in their own way, but they should plan to begin study prep at least two months before test day. Ideally, a student would explore prep options including webinars and printable study guides, and begin taking practice tests, as early as possible. Well-known icons such as Princeton Review and Kaplan offer SAT guides for teaching majors to help prepare them for test day. These companies have something for every student, regardless of their budget or how much time they have to prepare. Students can opt for a free prep course, or pay as much as $125 per hour for private tutoring.

Studying Tips for the SAT

  • Set a Goal Score

    Experts recommend aiming for the 75th percentile of SAT scores, and knowing the averages of entrance SAT scores for students at the school(s) you plan to apply to, when preparing for the test.

  • Budget Your Study Time

    It goes without saying that you should begin studying months ahead of your test date, but you should account for even more study time if you are looking to dramatically improve your score by hundreds of points.

  • Practice Real Sample Questions

    Students should forego any unofficial practice tests that do not replicate SAT questions exactly. Use practice tests straight from the College Board as your guide.

  • Use Your Mistakes

    Making mistakes on a practice test can provide valuable insight to test-takers, enabling them to correct their mistake and analyze it thoroughly before repeating it on test day.

  • Focus on Reinforcing Weaknesses

    Avoid wasting valuable time studying for areas you already feel strong in; put your energy into strengthening your weaknesses instead.

Helpful Resources

Available through a variety of organizations online, test-takers can access these and other free resources to study for the SAT.

  • College Board Practice Tests The College Board offers eight free SAT practice tests, online and in printable format, four of which were administered as actual tests in previous years.
  • Khan Academy Khan offers the same free practice tests as the College Board, plus personalized study options and full-length practice tests, focused on individual sections of the SAT.
  • Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel Magoosh specializes in creating casual, personalized videos providing direction, tips, and study prep tricks for internet-savvy students on the go.
  • Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel Supertutor provides free advice from an SAT expert, while also encouraging students to find ways to incorporate studying into everyday life (including examining the president's tweets for grammatical errors).

The doors of SAT testing sites open at 7:45 a.m., and close promptly at 8 a.m., after which students arriving late may not enter the test room. The test administrator provides seating assignments, and testing begins between 8:30 and 9 a.m. The SAT includes one 10-minute and one five-minute break; students may eat and drink only during the breaks. Test-takers who finish early may not move on to the next section, or go back to a previous one.

What Should You Bring with You?

Valid Photo ID

Test-takers must present their valid photo ID to administrators, with their admission ticket, on test day. The ID must match the name on the student's admission ticket, as this validates the student's registration for the SAT.

Admission Ticket

Upon successful registration for the SAT, students receive a prompt to access their printable admission ticket in their College Board account. The administrators will not admit entry to a student without an admission ticket matching their valid photo ID.

No. 2 Pencils

Students must come equipped with two No.2 pencils, with soft erasers, to use for all multiple choice questions on the test, and for writing the essay, if applicable. Administrators do not provide any test-taking materials to students at the test site.

Approved Calculator

Students may bring an approved calculator with them to the test site; approved calculators include most graphic calculators, all scientific calculators, and all four-function calculators (though these aren't recommended). Check the College Board for the official list here.

Watch

Though not required, the College Board recommends bringing a watch to test day to help keep track of time in each section of the SAT. Make sure the watch does not feature an audible alarm or any special features such as online access or a calculator.

Layers of Clothing

Students should prepare to be comfortable and free of unnecessary distractions on test day; this includes regulating their temperature, no matter how cold or hot the test room is. Students should wear several layers to prepare for any temperature when taking the test.

What Should You Leave at Home?

Math Tools (e.g., Protractors)

Students may not bring protractors, rulers, or compasses to the exam, since these devices could provide an unfair advantage to some students. Those who try to bring such tools into the test room will be dismissed from the test site.

Unapproved Electronics

An approved calculator is the only electronic device allowed into the test room, and may be used only during the calculator section. Other electronics, including digital watches, PDAs, recorders, iPods, and cameras, could be used to transmit information and are prohibited on test day.

Books (e.g., Dictionaries)

Students may not bring any books, such as study guides or dictionaries, into the test room, because they could provide an unfair advantage to students in the reading and writing section, and to students who speak English as a second language.

The College Board offers several types of accommodations to students with a documented learning disabilities, short-term injuries, or health conditions that affect their ability to take the SAT. Applicants may request accommodations such as extra/extended breaks, reading and seeing assistive materials, use of a four-function calculator or computer (for the essay only), and extra time for the test.

Students must provide documented diagnosis of the disability and its impact on their ability to take the SAT, and evidence of using special accommodations for previous school tests. The College Board may take up to seven weeks to review and approve or deny a request for accommodations through its Services for Students with Disabilities branch. Students can learn more about applying for accommodations here.