SAT Guide

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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.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

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.

The SAT Going Online

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.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

Included in the evidence-based reading and writing test, the reading test evaluates students’ core reading comprehension skills. This includes their ability to find evidence in a passage to support an author’s claims, and identify relationships between passage content and related graphs, tables, and charts. In this section, students must read passages and answer multiple-choice questions about them.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Time management is crucial for all sections of the SAT, but especially during the reading test. Test-takers should set a timer while practicing reading comprehension exercises, and make a realistic plan for how to pace themselves on test day. Many students only haphazardly read a passage before seeking out the correct answer among multiple-choice options. However, this section challenges your reading comprehension abilities, not simply your literacy skills, so it’s important to read the passage carefully before turning to the multiple choice answers.

Helpful Tips

  • Familiarize Yourself: It’s important to study the reading and writing section content, but it’s also important to learn how the exam is formatted before test day. Knowing the structure of the SAT is crucial, so you can simply focus on the question content while taking the exam.
  • Make Your Own Way: The questions in this section of the SAT are not presented in order of difficulty level, but you can choose to work through them in that order. Remember: You will not be penalized for guessing if you do not know the correct answer, so there’s no good reason to leave a question blank.
  • Back up Your Claims: Always stay focused on the evidence, not your personal opinion, to support your claims about the text. Subtle words in the question, like “infer” or “suggest,” can provide clues leading to the correct answer.
  • Go Back to the Big Picture: It’s important to read the passage in its entirety, but avoid getting stuck on small details right away. Instead, get the gist of the passage, then get to work on the questions, re-reading only what you need to as you go.

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

Beyond the reading test, the writing and language test comprises the remainder of the evidence-based reading and writing section of the SAT. This test requires students to read passages and select the correct answer from a series of multiple-choice options. While the reading test assesses reading comprehension, this section evaluates editing skills, requiring students to find and correct errors occuring within a given passage.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The SAT asks students to assume the role of editor when completing the writing and language test. While the test deceivingly offers “no change” as a multiple-choice option for each task in this section, it is safe to consider this answer to be a trap, in most cases. Prepare for test day by reviewing sample passages carefully, double- and even triple-checking for grammatical or structural changes you might have missed the first time. Additionally, make sure to focus on grammar during test prep for writing and language; many students overestimate their command over the English language and their use of linguistic conventions.

Helpful Tips

  • Stay Sharp Until the End: Keep in mind that some questions, especially nearing the end of the section, were designed to offer seemingly obvious answers. Test makers know you’re most likely to be rushing through the last set of questions, so dodge any answer that seems too easy to be true.
  • Think Elimination First: In any section, try using the process of elimination first, especially if you are stuck or in a crunch for time. If you can eliminate even one answer from the set of possibilities, you might be surprised at how easily the correct answer will eventually materialize.
  • Differentiate Speaking and Writing: Even the best writers sometimes forego proper grammar in a spoken conversation. Remember, test makers know that separating how we speak from how we write can prove challenging to many students, and will purposely try to trip you up.
  • Budget Your Time: Time is of the essence across all sections of the SAT. Avoid spending excess time stressing over one question if the answer simply will not come. Make an executive decision to guess and move on, or try again after answering the next question.

The Math Section

Skill Areas

Students complete two subsections of the SAT math test: One with a calculator, and one without. The math section integrates advanced skills in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry into practical scenarios, emphasizing problem-solving and data analysis for the real world. Overall, the test assesses students’ conceptual understanding of mathematical applications.

Question Types

The math section of the SAT primarily encompasses traditional multiple-choice questions, but also features “grid-ins,” which require students to provide their own answers to questions, rather than select from multiple options. Grid-ins account for roughly 22% of the math section. Students may encounter more than one question about a single collection of data or scenario.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

The SAT math test allows students to use a calculator for the subsection including more complex modeling and reasoning problems, but not when measuring basic fluency and number sense. Students may use calculators for this designated section of the SAT, but test-makers suggest not relying on the calculator too heavily for each and every question. Instead, students should consider using the calculator as a time-saving tool, for only the most basic computations.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Even the most experienced test-takers can encounter pitfalls on test day. They can only rely on the calculator for half of the math section, so for the other half, students should make sure to write out their work on scratch paper. This helps test-takers double-check their work more quickly. Many experts also suggest students should study for the SAT math portion by memorizing as many formulas and functions as possible.

Helpful Tips

  • Time Your Practice Tests: Even if you feel totally confident in your computing skills, solving problems and working equations under strict time constraints can change the game on test day. Try to replicate the timed sections at home so you know what to expect.
  • Understand Your Mistakes: When studying, focus on your weaknesses instead of your strengths. When you make a mistake on a practice test, work through your mistake to understand it completely before moving on — you probably won’t make it again.
  • Thoroughly Read Each Question: Many math questions on the SAT contain multiple components, in long format. Be sure to carefully consider each part of a question before working on the numbers or browsing the answers.
  • Plug In Answers Before Working the Equation: Test-takers can save time on some questions by taking numbers from the multiple choice answers and plugging them into the provided equation to see which ones work. Remember: One of the options contains the correct answer, so test the answers before you start from scratch.

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

While students don’t necessarily have to take the essay section of the SAT, some schools recommend it as part of their entrance application. Each student should consider the pros and cons of completing the essay in relation to the schools they apply for. Opting for the essay can present drawbacks for some students, as it requires additional study prep time and an additional $14 registration fee, and extends the time it takes to complete the exam. On the other hand, once you complete the essay, your score is reportable for up to five years, and a high score can help increase your overall performance and percentile rank. Students should check here first, to find out if their prospective schools require SAT essay scores.

Skill Areas

The SAT essay synthesizes students’ reading comprehension, debate, and articulation skills. Essay writers must read a passage and explain the author’s position on a presented issue, supported by examples from the text. The prompts in the SAT essay section emphasize reading, writing, and analysis skills — especially analysis.

The Essay Prompt

The SAT essay prompt remains the same for every student taking the test, but the passage changes from one test to another. The prompt does not instruct students to explain whether or not they agree with the author’s statement, but rather to provide a thorough analysis of the author’s claim through reasoning, factual evidence, and examples from the text.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Understanding the passage, formulating a plan for writing your essay, and actually finishing it within the 50-minute time limit for this section may seem impossible, but practice makes perfect. Practice writing SAT essays repeatedly under time constraints, and avoid using overly complicated words in an effort to impress the judges.

Helpful Tips

  • Be Clear: In student essays, scorers look for direct, concise language and clear points. Without plagiarizing from the author, test-takers may reiterate the author’s primary statement in an effort to grab the scorers’ attention.
  • Introduce and Conclude Your Statement: Experts recommend essay writers start out with an introductory paragraph, including a thesis statement. Ideally, their essay should also include a concluding paragraph to summarize their main points.
  • Prioritize Command of Language: A perfect score on the SAT essay requires a cohesive argument and precise language. Scorers appreciate essays with a variety of sentence structures, an objective voice, and an authoritative choice of words.
  • Reference the Passage: Many test-takers default to expressing their own opinion when writing their essay, but writers should avoid incorporating any outside assumptions or inferences not available in the text provided. Scorers expect you to provide evidence for the author’s claims, not give your opinion.

How is the SAT Scored?

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 SectionScore Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing200-800
Math200-800
Essay2-8

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 SectionAverage Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing533
Math527
Essay5,4,5

How Do You Register for the SAT?

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.

When Should You Take the SAT?

The College Board offers the SAT seven times per year: in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. Students can expect to view their scores roughly three weeks post-exam. Those taking the SAT subject test should cannot take the general test on the same day. Remember to take the SAT far enough in advance to retake it, if necessary.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

Registration for the SAT, without the essay, costs $47.50; with the essay, the cost is $64.50. Students who previously registered for the SAT may do so by phone for a fee of $15. It costs an extra $29 to change your test date, switch your subject test, or register late. Students can also pay additional fees for services including extra score reports and rush reports. Low-income students may qualify for a fee waiver

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

The College Board does not limit the number of times a student can retake the SAT, and studies suggest that a student’s scores improve with consecutive testing. However, while test-takers could theoretically take the SAT as many as seven times per year, experts also discourage students from taking the test more than six times, as this could signify to schools that the student is unprepared for college material.

How to Prepare for the SAT

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).

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

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.

Accommodations for Test-Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

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.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Test-takers can view their score reports approximately three weeks after taking the SAT. Typically, students who take the essay can view scores for that section one to two days after other scores become available. Schools receive scores within 10 days of becoming available in a student’s College Board account.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

When registering for the GRE, students may choose up to four schools and/or fellowship sponsors to receive scores. ETS offers several options for the score-submission process, including submitting only the student’s most recent score, or all scores from the last five years, if multiples exist.

What Scores Will Schools See If You Take the Test More Than Once?

With Score Choice, a student can choose which scores to send to schools, if they have taken the SAT more than once. Students may choose to only send scores from a particular SAT test date, and they may also choose to send certain subject tests, and not others, to particular schools on their list. However, some schools require all SAT scores, from exam attempt.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

If a test-taker graduates from high school and doesn’t take the SAT for one year, the College Board archives their scores, but keeps them available to send to schools at the student’s request. Requests for scores more than five years old will be accommodated by the College Board, for a fee of $31, accompanied by a notice to recipients that the scores may not accurately capture the student’s most recent academic experience.