The SAT: What You Need to Know

Thinking of taking the SAT? Here's an overview of what to expect.

Your scores on the SAT help colleges evaluate your academic skills and your readiness for college-level instruction compared to other students. While important, your SAT score is just one factor that colleges consider.

What's Tested on the SAT

The SAT tests the knowledge and skills you've gained in high school as well as your ability to interpret information and support your conclusions. It includes three sections:

  • Math (required)
  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (required)
  • The SAT Essay (optional, but required by some colleges)

You will have three hours to complete the first two sections and 50 minutes to write the essay.

The SAT Math Section

The Math section tests your ability to apply math in different situations. It covers a range of math practices that students are most likely to encounter in college and in many careers. It's divided into three areas: "Heart of Algebra," which includes linear equations and systems; "Problem Solving and Data Analysis," which tests your quantitative skills; and "Passport to Advanced Math," which features complex equations. Most math questions will be multiple choice, but about 20 percent will require you to calculate your answer and write it on the answer sheet instead of selecting an answer from a list. A calculator is prohibited on one part of the test.

The SAT Reading and Writing Section

This section includes two tests: the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test. All questions are multiple choice and may include informational graphics, such as tables, graphs, and charts.

On the Reading Test, you will read and interpret long passages drawn from literary, historical, and scientific documents. You will be asked to support some of your answers by citing evidence from the passage.

On the Writing and Language Test, you will improve written passages using your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and punctuation. The passages will discuss a range of topics, including careers, history, social studies, and science. You'll be asked to better express the ideas and events in the passages and improve the way the information is developed and supported by evidence.

The Optional SAT Essay

If you choose to write the essay, you will read an opinion piece ranging from 600–700 words in length and write an essay analyzing how the author built his or her argument. You will be asked to identify the techniques the author used to write persuasively, develop ideas, and support claims with evidence.

How the SAT Is Scored

You will earn points for each correct answer; there is no penalty for incorrect or blank answers. The highest total score possible is 1600. Your Total Score is the sum of your scores on the Math and Evidence Based Reading and Writing sections. But more scores will appear on your score report—subscores and cross-test scores—that reveal your performance on different parts of the test and give colleges more insight into your academic strengths.

The SAT Essay has a separate score. Two readers will review your essay and score it on a scale from 1 to 4 in three areas: reading, analysis, and writing. If the two readers' scores differ by more than a point, a third reader will score the essay.

How to Prepare for the SAT

The best way to prepare is to take timed practice tests and study sample questions. The College Board offers testing tips and free practice tests on khanacademy.org. Many inexpensive or free online test prep resources are available, as well as books.

When to Take the SAT

It's a good idea to take the SAT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This will give you time to take it again in the fall of your senior year. Be sure to confirm the last possible date you can take the test with the colleges you are applying to.

Sending Your Scores to Colleges

When you register for the SAT, you can choose up to four colleges to receive your scores at no cost. After you have taken the test, you can send scores to more colleges for a fee. Fee waivers are available, based on income.

Make sure that you understand a college's score-use policies. Some require all your scores from every test. Others will accept only your best combined score from a single test date. The easiest path is to send all of your scores to all of your colleges.

Some Colleges Don't Require Test Scores

An increasing number of colleges and universities do not require the SAT or ACT for admission. For a listing of these schools, visit fairtest.org.

What's Next?

  • See how important test scores are to different colleges by looking up their College Profiles with College Match. You can also see whether test scores are required and the average scores of recently enrolled freshmen.
  • Use the Admissions Tracker to see the SAT scores of students recently admitted to your target colleges.
  • Find out upcoming SAT registration deadlines and test dates here.