SAT Guide

The SAT is administered by the College Board to evaluate high school students’ college readiness, and test takers should prepare for the exam by taking advanced coursework, studying diligently, and asking plenty of questions. They should also review material that might appear on the exam. The SAT comprises two core sections: evidence-based reading and writing and math; the test includes an optional essay component.

Most colleges and universities require applicants to submit their SAT scores, which play a key component in the admissions process. The SAT costs $46 without the essay and $60 with the essay, and takes three hours to complete without the essay, or three hours and 50 minutes with the essay.

SAT Subject Tests

Some colleges ask applicants to submit SAT subject test scores in addition to their general test scores. Subject tests measure students’ skills in specific areas of study. The College Board offers 20 different SAT subject tests across five categories: English, history, mathematics, languages, and science. Each subject test takes one hour to complete, comprises multiple choice questions, and is scored on a 200 to 800 scale. Subject tests are usually offered on the same day as the general SAT, but students can’t take both on the same day.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

Every SAT exam follows the same general format: evidence-based reading and writing first, math second, and the optional essay third. The College Board does not penalize students for incorrect answers on the SAT, so it’s encouraged to answer every question, even if you have to guess.

Both the reading and writing and math sections are scored on a scale of 200 to 800, so overall exam scores range between 400 and 1600. Essay scores are reported separately. Evidence-based reading and writing splits into two subsections: reading, which gives students 65 minutes to answer 52 multiple-choice questions, and writing, which comprises 44 multiple-choice questions and gives students 35 minutes to complete them. Finally, the math section is made up of 58 questions and allots 80 minutes for test takers to complete their answers.

The SAT Going Online

The SAT is traditionally a paper exam, but some testing sites now offer it online. Online tests remove the need for No. 2 pencils and printed scratch paper, instead requiring school-administered computers and electronic scratch paper. The online test will become more common as time goes on, benefiting students in several ways, including accessibility and time conservation, especially on the essay portion, since most students type faster than they write.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

Students taking the online SAT do so on school-owned Chromebooks, laptops, or desktops. The online test provides students with electronic scratch paper and allows them to highlight within passages. Once test takers complete and submit their exams, the tests will be removed from the computers automatically. Each school district chooses whether to administer the online SAT, offer both paper and online exam options, or reject the online SAT entirely.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

The reading section of the SAT tests students on their reading comprehension and analysis skills. During this section, test takers must read provided passages, partake in evidence-based thought processes, and derive answers to questions about the passages they read.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students taking the reading test make the common mistake of mismanaging their time. This section allots 65 minutes for students to read about 3,000 words and answer 52 questions. Since each provided passage comes with 10 to 12 questions, students limit themselves to 12 minutes per passage, from start to finish. Students can skip over the more challenging questions and return to them later if time allows. Another common mistake students make is ignoring the passage’s overall context. Test takers should focus on the actual material of the text and the tone of the passage, which will help them choose the appropriate answer.

Helpful Tips

  • Don’t Spend too Much Time on Any One Question: On more difficult questions, students shouldn’t spend too much time trying to find an answer. Instead, they should circle the question and come back to it later.
  • Don’t Choose the Obvious Answer Immediately: Answers are often designed to deceive students who are rushing through the test. At first glance, an answer may seem correct, but test takers should slow down and read it carefully to make sure.
  • Read the Passage Carefully: Students should remember to take their time when reading passages so they don’t miss anything. Skimming may lead to incorrect answers.
  • Remember Not to Confuse Written and Colloquial Language: It is vital to remember that the way people speak is not always grammatically correct. Sometimes, answers appear in colloquial language to throw students off.

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

The evidence-based writing and language section of the SAT requires students to improve and edit passages that were written with intentional errors. Students must read the passages, identify their weaknesses and mistakes, and make the appropriate corrections. The questions in the test are all based on passages and are multiple choice.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

One common mistake for students taking the evidence-based writing and language section is choosing the “no change” answer option too frequently. Test takers should anticipate that the “no change” answer is only correct about 20% of the time. Another common mistake is skimming through the passages instead of reading them entirely. In order to effectively answer questions, students must have a solid understanding of the passage provided, meaning they should read it thoroughly.

Helpful Tips

  • Notice What is Changing in the Answer Choices: Answer choices may have only slight differences, which can mislead students who aren’t paying close attention.
  • Find the Wrong Answers Before Choosing the Right Ones: Identifying the right answer is easier for students if they can eliminate the wrong ones first. This helps narrow down answer choices.
  • Come up With an SAT Prep Plan: Students should find the study methods that work best for them, and dedicate themselves to those methods.
  • Learn From the Answer Choices: Sometimes answer choices can reveal grammatical errors that students would not have otherwise noticed. It is important to watch out for these.

The Math Section

Skill Areas

The math section of the SAT test reviews several math topics that emphasize using tools strategically, problem solving, modeling, and using algebra structures. The math demonstrated in this section represents high-school level math that often appears in college courses and professional situations. The math test is divided into a calculator section and a no-calculator section.

Question Types

Most of the questions on the math section are multiple choice, but some require students to “grid in” their answer instead of choosing one from a list of options. Some parts of the section ask several questions about one specific scenario. The math questions focus on three main mathematical areas: problem solving and data analysis, passport to advanced math, and the heart of algebra.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

Students are allowed to use an approved calculator during some of the math section of the SAT. However, just because a calculator is permitted for a question doesn’t mean it’s necessary; using a calculator may end up slowing down the test taker. For these questions, students should do their best to provide answers without relying on a calculator.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

A mistake that many students make on the math section is failing to write out all of their problem-solving steps. The math problems on the SAT are very intricate, and students who skip steps may end up answering incorrectly. Completing all the steps helps students find the correct answers. Another common mistake in the math section is not memorizing formulas. The SAT math section does provide certain formulas for its test takers to use, but not all formulas are available, so students should research suggestions for which formulas to memorize before taking the exam.

Helpful Tips

  • Memorize Basic Formulas: Students can save a lot time by memorizing basic formulas, which allows them to worry about cracking the answer rather than whether they are setting up the equation correctly.
  • Plug in the Answer: For equation-based questions, test takers might find it easier to simply plug in all of the numbers provided in the answer options to see which one works.
  • Use Your Time Wisely: Skip questions that you know will take you a long time and come back to them at the end of the section, if time allows. In other words, prioritize the questions you can answer easily.
  • Re-Check Your Answers: If you have enough time at the end of the math portion, go back through and double check your answers. Do not waste one minute of your limited time.

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

The essay section of the SAT is not required, but some colleges and universities recommend their applicants take it. A good essay score can also boost your overall SAT score, making you more impressive to prospective schools. The College Board provides a list of all of schools that request SAT essay scores here. The essay adds $14 to the exam registration fee and 50 minutes to the total exam time.

Skill Areas

The essay section of the SAT reviews students’ writing, reading, and analysis skills. Students must read passages and explain how the author crafted his or her argument to persuade the audience. Test takers must also support their claims using evidence from the passage.

The Essay Prompt

The SAT uses a common essay prompt for this portion of the test, which asks students to read a passage and consider how the author is using facts and examples to support his or her argument. Students must explain their ideas, detail how their claims and evidence relate to one another, and discuss the author’s use of stylistic and persuasive elements.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

One of the most frequent mistakes on the SAT essay section is leaving too much blank space. Some students aim to be as concise as possible in their essays, but scorers typically dislike blank space. Students should be able to fill most of the space allotted for their essays without being redundant or overly wordy. Students also make the common mistake of using complex words incorrectly. If students are going to utilize complicated words, they should make sure they know their meaning.

Helpful Tips

  • Be Sure to Read Carefully: If students read too quickly, they might miss something important and answer incorrectly. Student should take their time to notice little details that will help them choose the right answer.
  • Eliminate Incorrect Answers: Rather than immediately choosing the answer that seems correct, students should try to identify questions that are incorrect first. That way, they can narrow down the possible correct answers to be sure they are accurate with their choice.
  • Pay Attention to What Changes in the Answer Choices: Sometimes answer choices can vary by just one word, and students who select their answer too quickly may pick the wrong one. It is important to pay attention to the slight changes.
  • Create a Prep Plan: One of the best things students can do to prepare for the SAT is create a study plan. They can choose the best study method for them, and use that to prepare for the test.

How is the SAT Scored?

SAT scores are intended to help colleges determine each applicant’s college readiness. Total exam scores range from 400 to 1600, combining the two section subscores, which range between 200 and 800. Students also receive percentile rankings with their scores, which compares their performance against that of other test takers. For example, if your score lands in the 51st percentile, you scored higher than 51% of students who took the SAT.

Score Ranges on the SAT

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?

Score ranges show how students’ scores might change with repeated testing, assuming the test takers’ skill levels remain the same. Average scores show the average or mean score earned by a standard student in each grade level. College and career readiness benchmarks measure how prepared test takers are to enter college based on their SAT performance. Students who score above the college readiness benchmark are generally considered ready for college.

What's an Average Score on the SAT?

SAT Section Average Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 533
Math 527
Essay 5,4,5

How Do You Register for the SAT?

The first step of the registration process is creating a College Board account, which is free. To create a College Board account, students must provide their full name, along with other identification information. Learners should make sure the name they use to register matches the name on their photo ID. The next step to register is determining whether you want to take the essay portion of the SAT, which might be worth it if your prospective schools recommend you take the essay portion, or if your essay performance is likely to boost your overall SAT score. Finally, students registering for the SAT must upload a picture and print off their admission ticket.

When Should You Take the SAT?

Students should take the SAT during high school before they begin applying to colleges; ideally in the spring of their junior year or fall of their senior year. Students should consider their schedules and how many times they plan on taking the test and register for the SAT accordingly.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

The fee for the SAT without the essay is $48. For students taking the essay, the fee is $65. Low-income students may qualify for a fee waiver to take the test. Waivers are delivered by school counselors who identify qualifying students.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

There is no limit on how many times a student can take the SAT, but the test is only offered seven times per year. However, it’s not recommended for students to take the SAT that many times. Some colleges require students to submit all their SAT scores, in which case too many test attempts may indicate a lack of preparedness.

Preparing for the SAT

At-Home Study Methods

The time it takes to prepare for the SAT largely depends on the study method you choose, and there are several methods available:

  • Printed Study Guides: Printed study guides are used in SAT prep by students who benefit from tangible resources. Students can go through these guides at their own pace, but they should pay extra attention to their weaker study subjects.
  • Flashcards: Flashcards are a quick and easy way for students to study SAT material. They can go through their flashcards at a quicker pace to get used to working under a fast timespan.
  • Private Tutoring: Private tutoring provides students with one-on-one assistance in preparing for the SAT. Tutors get to know their students’ study habits and can tailor sessions to meet each student’s individual learning needs.
  • Studying Apps: Studying apps are accessible on both phones and tablets and serve as a convenient, on-the-go study method.
  • Online Practice Tests: Online practice SAT tests simulate the actual exam and give students first-hand experience in preparing for the test. Students may time their practice SATs to become familiar with the real-life testing parameters.

SAT Prep Courses

SAT prep courses are available both online and in-person, and Kaplan is one of the most popular providers for both types of prep courses. Kaplan offers SAT courses that are accessible at any time of day, as well as live, scheduled channel sessions for students who need additional help. Both online and in-person prep courses cost $1,300 through Kaplan.

Studying Tips for the SAT

  • Practice With a Time Limit: The SAT operates under strict time limits. Because of this, it is a great idea for students to practice testing under a time limit at home, so they can learn to budget their time and perform under pressure.
  • Utilize Realistic Practice Tests: The College Board offers a wide variety of SAT practice tests, which are realistic and representative of the kinds of questions students will see on the actual SAT.
  • Make Note of Mistakes: It is important for students to notice their mistakes as they prepare for the SAT. This will help them reflect on what they might be doing wrong and come to conclusions about how to improve.
  • Create a Target Score and Aim For It: With a goal in mind, students can tailor their study plan to motivate and encourage them to reach their target score.
  • Choose the Best Study Method to Prepare: It’s important for students to test out different SAT study methods and stick with the ones that work best for them. Potential methods include private tutoring, prep courses, study guides, and practice tests.

Helpful Resources

Students planning to take the SAT have many preparation resources at their fingertips, including the following:

College Board Practice Tests: These practice tests are created by the same organization that writes the SAT, and many practice tests even pull questions from former versions of the SAT. Each College Board practice test uses the same types of questions you can expect to see on a real-life exam.

Khan Academy: Khan Academy is an online tool that provides students with access to full-length practice tests, along with other types of study materials.

Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel: The Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube channel has videos covering a variety of SAT-related topics, including tips for specific exam sections and advice on how to improve scores. The channel is free to access.

Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel: The Supertutor TV SAT YouTube channel provides students with videos on a variety of SAT topics, including what to bring to the test, subject test tips, and how to improve scores.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

In most cases, SAT testing centers open their doors at 7:45 a.m. on test day and close them at 8 a.m. Students can not be admitted after testing begins, which is usually between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. If students are absent or late on test day, they can reschedule for another time, but must pay a fee. During the test, proctors will instruct students on when to begin and end each section. When the test finishes, test coordinators will collect and count test booklets to ensure all of the materials have been returned prior to dismissing the students.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID: On test day, students need to bring their photo ID with them. ID information will be compared to information on the testing roster and admissions ticket to verify each student's identification.
  • Admission Ticket: During registration, students will be issued an admission ticket. Tickets will need to be printed off from the students’ College Board accounts and brought to the testing center. If students do not bring their admission ticket, they will be denied entry.
  • No. 2 Pencils: Students should bring two No. 2 pencils with erasers.
  • Approved Calculator: SAT test takers may bring a College Board-approved calculator with them on test day. Students may not share their calculators with other test takers and are encouraged to bring a calculator they are comfortable with instead of buying a new one for the test.
  • Watch: It is suggested that students bring a watch without an audible alarm on test day. Watches help students keep track of how much time they have spent and how much time they have remaining during each test section.
  • Layers of Clothing: Students should dress in layers on test day to prepare for any room temperature. This will help students maintain comfort, regardless of whether the room is warm or cool.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Math Tools: Compasses, protractors, and unapproved calculators must stay at home on test day. Students must demonstrate their knowledge without the help of these tools.
  • Unapproved Electronics: Students must leave all electronics at home except for a watch with no alarm and an approved calculator. College Board provides a list of approved calculators online to help students prepare.
  • Books: Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and study materials are prohibited on test day.

Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

Accommodations during the SAT test are available to students with documented disabilities. Available accommodations include longer or more frequent breaks, hearing and sight accommodations for those who are hearing- or vision-impaired, and extra time to finish the test. All accommodations must be approved by the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities before test day. Any students who complete the test with unapproved accommodations will have their scores voided.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Students typically receive their scores within a couple weeks of test day. When scores become available online, students receive an email detailing how they can access their scores through their College Board portal. Paper score reports can be requested upon exam registration, and scores are also available for free by phone.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

Most colleges and universities require potential students to send their official SAT scores directly from College Board. Many colleges do not accept copies of students’ online score reports or score report labels on transcripts. Students designate colleges to receive their exam scores either at registration or after their test date.

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

Score Choice is available for students who would like to decide which scores to send to colleges. Students may only select scores from tests that have already been scored. Score Choice does not incur an additional fee. Students should keep in mind that each college has its own SAT score policies, but most schools only consider applicants’ highest exam scores.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

When students graduate high school and a year has passed since testing, their scores will be archived, but they are still accessible. If you send your scores to a school more than five years after taking the SAT, the college will receive your score report along with a note saying your scores may no longer be a valid predictor of academic performance. However, the College Board never tosses SAT scores.