SAT Guide

SAT scores make up only a small part of a prospective student’s application, but admissions officers use those scores to determine an applicant’s college readiness. The College Board creates and administers the SAT, providing information and study resources for students preparing to take the exam. The SAT comprises three parts: an evidence-based reading and writing section, a math section, and an optional essay. The evidence-based reading and writing section is divided further into two subsections: a writing portion and a reading portion. Most questions on the SAT are multiple-choice, but the math section also includes some write-in problems, and the essay is entirely free-response. Prospective social work majors who are preparing for the SAT should read on for more information on getting ready for the exam.

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SAT Subject Tests

In addition to the general exam, students may take SAT subject tests as well. Available subjects include two levels of math, biology, chemistry, physics, English, U.S. history, and world history. Students can also register for subject tests in several different foreign languages, including Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian, German, modern Hebrew, Latin, Japanese, and Korean. The SAT subject tests comprise multiple choice questions and take one hour to complete. Subject test scores range from 200 to 800, and registration costs $26. Test-takers also pay an additional $22 for each subject test (or $26 for foreign language subject tests) they take. Students must take subject tests in paper format.

SAT subject tests are not always necessary, but some colleges do require them, or offer credit to students who achieve a certain score. Otherwise, subject tests are a great way for students to showcase their academic interests to prospective colleges, and demonstrate that they can go the extra mile.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

The SAT includes three main components: evidence-based reading and writing, math, and an essay. The evidence-based reading and writing portion consists of a reading test and a writing and language test. Students can decide whether or not they want to write the optional essay, which adds 50 minutes to the three hour exam.

The SAT includes three main components: evidence-based reading and writing, math, and an essay.

During the reading test, students have 65 minutes to read five passages and answer 52 questions. The writing and language test asks students to answer 44 questions in 35 minutes. The math test lasts 80 minutes, and includes 58 questions. Except for the math portion, each section is entirely multiple-choice. During the math test, students must answer 45 multiple-choice questions and 13 “student-produced,” or grid-in, questions. For the grid-in questions, students must fill in the right answer instead of choosing one from multiple-choice options.

Students can skip around within each section, but they cannot skip between sections. They are not permitted to jump ahead to the next section if they finish the prior section early. Students do not necessarily have to answer every question, but they should try to, even if they don’t know the answers. The SAT does not penalize wrong answers, so there’s no reason to leave questions blank.

The SAT Going Online

The College Board recently rolled out an online version of the SAT, in which students take their tests on school-owned computers or Chromebooks instead of with pencil and paper. The online SAT is not yet widespread: in 2018, only about 100 schools in the United States offered the online exam. More school districts may adopt this version of the exam in the future, but the College Board must first work out the kinks, because technical difficulties are still cropping up with the online SAT, and not all school districts have computer access. Even so, the online SAT will probably become more popular moving forward.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

Like the paper version of the SAT, students take the online exam in a controlled setting. They use school-sponsored computers (students may not use their personal laptops), and proctors supervise the exam. All of the SAT sections remain the same.

Online test-takers still have access to physical scratch paper, and they may also virtually highlight passages and use electronic scratch paper, if they want to. The online exam allows students to bookmark questions they might want to revisit, and a countdown clock on the screen tracks the time for each section.

Like the paper version of the SAT, students take the online exam in a controlled setting.

Some students may prefer to test on paper rather than online. Schools must provide paper testing options for students with disabilities. Some schools offer mixed testing, in which students may choose to take either the online version or the paper version.

The online SAT uses an administrator called AIR Assessment, which has a diagnostic tool that gauges the health of the school’s network. AIR Assessment determines how many students can take the SAT simultaneously so the school’s network doesn’t crash. However, if an emergency does occur, the system saves students’ responses on multiple servers, so they can later pick up where they left off.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

The SAT evidence-based reading section tests students’ abilities to understand and evaluate texts. Students must identify the purpose of each text, and use evidence from the author to support their thesis. They must also make connections between different passages, determine central themes, interpret words in-context, and analyze text structure and point of view. This section consists entirely of multiple-choice questions based on reading passages.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

In the evidence-based reading section, students often make the mistake of using outside knowledge their answers. They should instead base their responses wholly on evidence from the reading passage. In a similar vein, test-takers should set aside their opinions and biases, and make sure to consider context within the given passage, including who wrote it and for whom they wrote it.

Helpful Tips

Plan Out Your Time

You have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions, so you should designate your time accordingly. Do not dwell on difficult questions: answer the questions you know first, then tackle the harder ones.

Use the Process of Elimination

If you find yourself struggling to answer a difficult question, cross out the outlandish answers to narrow your options. If you still feel uncertain about your answer, at least you have better chances of choosing correctly.

Watch Out for Extreme Answers

If an answer seems controversial, eliminate it. Those extreme responses often operate as ploys to play on test-takers’ personal biases.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time on One Passage

You may be tempted to read and re-read each passage to double check your answers, but there’s no time for that. Read only what’s necessary to answer the questions, then move on.

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

The writing and language subsection operates similarly to the reading subsection, also consisting of reading passages and multiple-choice questions. However, this portion of the exam tests different skills. It measures standard English conventions, such as grammar and sentence structure, and assesses whether students can identify effective uses of language and expressions of ideas.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Conversational passages are not necessarily grammatically correct. Read carefully to determine whether the grammar is sound in each sentence provided to you, and think twice before filling in the “NO CHANGE” bubble. Test-takers tend to choose “NO CHANGE” more often than they should. Finally, don’t spend too much time on each question. This section only lasts 35 minutes, so time management is key.

Helpful Tips

Know Your Grammar Rules

If you nail down your grammar knowledge before the exam, you can spend less time on those questions and more time on those requiring critical thinking or analysis.

Read the Whole Passage

This portion includes questions that test students’ command of evidence — a skill that requires test-takers to understand the content and structure of each passage as a whole.

Know How to Interpret Informational Graphics

The SAT language and writing portion may include charts, tables, figures, and maps. Practice with questions including informational graphics so you know how to interpret them on the real exam.

Know How to Match Up the Questions With the Passage

Each question is numbered. That number matches up with a section in the passage. If you can master this skill of identifying where to look in the passage quickly, you will manage your time more efficiently.

The Math Section

Skill Areas

The math portion of the exam tests different math subjects that students have learned through high school. Questions cover concepts like linear equations, ratios and proportions, and algebraic expressions. Students must also analyze quantitative data, find probabilities, create and graph functions, and solve geometry and trigonometry problems.

Question Types

Unlike other SAT sections, the math test includes both multiple-choice and grid-in questions. Grid-in questions require students to fill in a blank space with the correct answer. Still, multiple-choice questions are more common then grid-in ones on the math exam, which overall comprises 45 multiple-choice questions and 13 grid-in questions.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

The math test contains one calculator-friendly portion and one no-calculator portion. The no-calculator portion of the math exam tests students’ understanding and fluency of certain math concepts. During the portion which permits calculators, students should only use their calculators on problems involving complex mathematical modeling.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students often assume that the SAT provides a complete list of formulas for the exam — but this is a mistake. Make sure to memorize formulas and understand which questions require them. If you come across a question with a seemingly unfamiliar format, don’t panic. Instead, slow down and read the instructions carefully. The question probably seems much more complicated than it actually is. Finally, the SAT sometimes includes more than one equation in a single question, to trip up test-takers. Instead of solving the first problem you see, make sure to solve the one the question asks you to solve.

Helpful Tips

Do Not Excessively Rely on Your Calculator

You may use your calculator for part of the SAT, but you should not rely too heavily on it. Sometimes you can answer questions quickly and easily in your head.

Read Questions Carefully

Some questions have multiple parts, or involve multiple equations. Scan these questions thoroughly before answering them.

Plug In the Answer

If possible, plug in the answers for formula-based questions and see which one works out. Sometimes working backwards is the quickest way to find the answer.


If you finish early, do not immediately close your test booklet. Instead, make sure to double-check your answers, especially those you struggled to solve.

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

The essay is technically optional, but some colleges require or recommend that students submit SAT essay scores. You can find which colleges require essay scores here. Even if your prospective schools do not require essay scores, you may want to complete the essay section anyway, especially if writing is one of your strengths, since a good essay score may boost your overall SAT score.

Skill Areas

The essay evaluates three main skill areas: reading, analysis, and writing. Students demonstrate their reading skills in their essays by showing an understanding of the text’s central ideas. They show their analysis skills by evaluating the text’s reasoning and elements. Finally, they demonstrate their writing skills by showcasing a command of language, an ability to structure an essay, and an understanding of grammar and spelling.

The Essay Prompt

Nearly every version of the SAT prompts essay-writers with a similar question, demanding students to read a passage, identify the author’s argument, and analyze how the author builds a case in support of that argument. The passage accompanying the prompt is different for each version of the exam, but all have a few aspects in common: They concern some ideas or debates in civic, cultural, or political life, and they all come from currently published works.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The essay portion asks you to evaluate the author’s arguments. This does not mean writing about whether or not you personally agree with the author, but rather writing based on evidence provided in the passage. Avoid using big words simply because they sound smart, especially if you’re not 100% certain what that word means. Do not write one big paragraph with no spaces in between words or lines — remember, a human grades this essay, and they must be able to read it easily.

Helpful Tips

Have a Clear Structure

Follow the basic essay structure: an introduction with a thesis, three body paragraphs with supporting arguments, and a conclusion. You only have 50 minutes to write this essay — there’s no need to get fancy.

Write a Central Argument

Make sure your thesis statement is clear in the essay. The grader needs to be able to clearly understand what you are trying to say.

Stay On-Topic

Use only evidence that you can find in the original passage. Do not ramble, and do not include your own personal anecdotes.

Use Your Time Wisely

Do not spend so much time on the introduction that you do not have time to write substantial body paragraphs. And leave enough time for proofreading at the end. The fewer grammatical and spelling mistakes, the better.

How is the SAT Scored?

The total score for the SAT ranges from 400 to 1600. In addition, students receive scores for each section of the text. Scores for the evidence-based reading, writing, and math portions of the SAT exam span from 200 to 800. The scaled scores come from the raw score, or the number of questions students answer correctly. Wrong answers do not receive a point penalty — a departure from the past version of the SAT. Computers scan the answer sheets. Then, the SAT system electronically grades the exams and analyzes the results.

The essay operates by a different scale, with the scores ranging from two to eight. While a computer scores the reading/writing and math portions of the test, two people score each essay. Both scorers award one to four points for three different aspects of the essay: reading, analysis, and writing. Then, the graders add both of their scores together to come up with the final essay result.

Score Ranges on the SAT

SAT SectionScore Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing200-800
Source: College Board

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

Students may use several methods to interpret their SAT scores. These scores range from 200 to 800, or from two to eight, depending on the section. The average score for the evidence-based reading and writing section is 533, and the average for math is 527. For the essay, the average score for is five for reading, four for analysis, and five for writing. When schools receive your score report, they receive your overall score, plus your section-specific scores.

Percentile ranks range from 1 to 99, and indicate how your score relates to other test-takers’. You might score a 527 on the math portion, and fall in the 50th percentile — right in the middle of everyone who took the exam. Each score report includes a benchmark score for college readiness. If you score higher than the benchmark score, then you are theoretically ready for college.

What’s an Average Score on the SAT?

Average Scores on the SAT, 2016-17

SAT SectionAverage Score
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing533
Essay (Reading, Analysis, Writing)5,4,5
Source: College Board

How Do You Register for the SAT?

To register for the SAT, you must first register with the College Board. Start by creating a free College Board profile, which requires your full name and some other identifying information. Choose a date to take the SAT, decide whether you want write the essay, and register through the online College Board system. You must upload a photo and print out your admission ticket, as well. You may also opt to register by mail under certain conditions, as indicated here.

You can send your scores to up to four colleges for free, and you choose which colleges receive them through the College Board’s online system. You may also opt to use the Student Search Service, which allows scholarship programs and prospective colleges to find you and reach out.

When Should You Take the SAT?

The SAT is available seven times a year, in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. Schools recommend that students take the exam during their junior year — after they’ve studied enough to be prepared for the exam, but before they apply to college. Colleges receive exam scores one to two weeks after students take the exam.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

The SAT registration fee is $47.50. If students choose to add the essay portion, the exam costs $64.50. Low-income students may qualify for fee waivers; find more information here.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

Students often improve their scores if they take the SAT more than once. The College Board does not limit the number of times students may take the SAT, but the exam is only offered seven times per year.

How to Prepare for the SAT

At-Home Study Methods

The best way to prepare for the SAT depends on your own personal study preferences. Students can use several different at-home study methods, including:

Study Methods

Printed Study Guides You can find SAT study guides online. These guides give tips and tricks on how to approach the exams. Print them out and highlight the strategies that work for you.
Flashcards Flashcards work well for vocabulary words. You can find these online, or you can make them at home. Buy a pack of index cards and find a list of SAT vocabulary words online. Write the word on one side of the index card and its definition on the other side.
Private Tutoring If you need extra help, or if you study best with a real person’s guidance, you can hire a private tutor. Tutors create a study plan with you, and help you master SAT strategies. Private tutors tend to cost more than other study methods.
Studying Apps Search for SAT studying apps for your smartphone or tablet. Some apps charge a small fee, while others are free. Once you have downloaded them onto your device, you can sneak in a bit of studying wherever you go.
Online Practice Tests If you want to understand how the full test works — including the types of questions to expect, and how to manage your time — you can find several practice tests online.

SAT Prep Courses

Companies such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review offer SAT preparation courses, which can cost up to hundreds of dollars per course. These programs come in a variety of formats, including individual tutoring, group classes, and online options. SAT prep courses typically follow a set schedule, though some are self-paced. You may be able to find free SAT prep courses through your school or community, and several companies offer free SAT study resources online, even if they are not full-fledged courses.

Studying Tips for the SAT

Time Yourself

You have a limited amount of time to finish each portion of the exam. If you time yourself during practice exams, you will get used to answering questions in this short window.

Take full-length practice tests

The full SAT may seem intimidating, but if you practice with full-length tests, you’ll know what to expect on exam day. This will help reduce stress and potentially boost your performance.

Analyze your mistakes

As you go through your practice exams, keep track of which questions stump you, and which ones you answer incorrectly. Identify your shortcomings (as well as your strengths).

Spend more time studying your weak spots

Once you have identified the areas you find difficult, dedicate more time to those subjects. For example, if you struggle with trigonometry but do well on vocabulary, spend more time studying for the math section.

Do not procrastinate

Cramming all of your studying into one week will stress you out and likely be ineffective. Start studying a couple of months in advance, and stick to a consistent schedule.

Helpful Resources

Students can find several free resources to help them study for the exam before testing day:

  • College Board Practice Tests The College Board offers free practice tests, which students can either take online or print out and complete on paper.
  • Khan Academy The Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization, offers students online help in math, reading, and writing, plus general exam tips and strategies. Students can also take a full-length SAT test on the Khan Academy’s website.
  • Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel Magoosh helps students prepare for several different standardized tests, including the SAT. You can find SAT videos on the MagooshSAT YouTube Channel, plus last-minute study tips, practice math problems, and vocabulary lessons.
  • Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel Supertutor uploads SAT videos with exam advice and tips, including calculator hacks and tips on what to study the night before your exam.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

Testing center doors open at 7:45 a.m. and close at 8 a.m. Proctors guide students to their assigned seats, after which the exam starts between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Students have access to scratch paper along with their test booklets. Proctors read instructions out loud for each section before starting the clock. Students receive one 10-minute break and one five-minute break, and they must show their ID and admissions tickets each time they re-enter the room.

What Should You Bring with You?

What Should You Leave at Home?

Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

Students with documented disabilities or health-associated needs may be eligible for special accommodations during the SAT. They may receive extended time for each section of the exam, extra breaks, or braille, depending on their situation. However, students must request accommodation from the College Board, and they may have to wait up to seven weeks before gaining accommodations approval. If you want to apply for accommodations, do so as early as possible.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Students typically receive their reading, writing, and math scores a couple of weeks after they take the exam. If they wrote the essay, those scores are available two or three days after the other scores are. Students can find their scores on the online College Board portal.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

To send scores to colleges, you must go through the College Board. When you register for the SAT, you may choose four colleges to receive your scores for free through the College Board’s online portal. After you take the exam, the College Board sends your official score reports to those four schools. You may send scores to additional schools for a fee.

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

You can send in all of your SAT scores to colleges, and schools typically only consider students’ best scores as part of their applications. However, the College Board also offers a free service called Score Choice, which lets students choose which scores to send.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

You will always have access to your SAT scores, and they never expire. However, if your scores are five years old or older, then the score report includes a note stating that the score may no longer accurately predict your academic performance. You can request to send old score reports through phone or mail for a fee.