Astronomy buffs, dust off your telescopes. Insect inspectors, have those microscopes at the ready. Let’s zoom in and look closely at what is on the SAT.
How Is The SAT Structured?
The SAT is composed of two main sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing - which I will henceforth refer to as the Verbal section - and Math.
The SAT is comprised of four individual tests: the first two determine your Verbal section score and the final two determine your Math section score.
Each section (Verbal and Math) is scored on a scale of 200 to 800.
These two section scores are added together to get your total SAT score, which will be in the range of 400 to 1600.
A Closer Look at What is on the SAT: SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section
The Verbal section of the SAT is 96 questions, separated into two individual tests: Reading Test, then the Writing and Language Test.
Test #1: Reading Test
In the SAT Reading Test, there are 52 questions drawn from 5 passages.
You will have 65 minutes to complete this test.
The goal of this section is to see how well you glean information from what you read, how deeply you comprehend it, and how adeptly you can incorporate it.
It will consist of passages from varied sources and subjects. You will encounter literature, history, social studies and natural science, though you’re not expected to have specific knowledge of all those topics at your fingertips. All information will be provided in the passages.
Some selections will stand alone for you to answer questions about, some passages will be paired for you to compare or contrast, some questions will ask you to interpret graphs or determine vocabulary based on context.
Test #2: Writing and Language Test
There are 44 questions in the SAT Writing and Language Test.
You will have 35 minutes to complete it.
The purpose of this test is to examine your understanding of editing and grammar, as well as your ability to spot writing mistakes and improve clarity. (If you're familiar with the ACT, the SAT Writing and Language Test mirrors the ACT English test very closely.)
The passages used to test your editing chops will explore the humanities, science and history; writing styles will range from persuasive argument to non-fictional narrative.
The lion's share of the questions will focus on fixing punctuation and grammar errors within individual sentences or addressing issues with the logical flow of information within a passage as a whole, including tidying up transitions and choosing to include or omit information presented.
Similar to the SAT Reading Test, this test may require you to switch mental gears and address data driven questions drawn from charts and graphs.
If task shifting concerns you or you prefer an exam with more unified sections, you may want to consider taking the ACT. This short video will walk you through how to choose between the ACT or SAT.
A Closer Look: SAT Math Section
There are 58 math questions that determine your SAT Math score. These questions are presented in two different tests: the No Calculator Test and the With Calculator Test.
Test #3: Math Test - No Calculator
The No Calculator portion of the SAT contains 20 questions, 5 of which are so-called Grid-In questions (i.e. free response questions). You'll be allotted 25 minutes to complete all 20 questions.
For both of the two Math sections, the SAT is examining your skills in algebra, geometry, a bit of trigonometry, and your overall ability to interact with mathematical systems.
This test aims to discern familiarity with important math concepts and techniques as well as your number sense with heavy emphasis placed on algebraic manipulation.
If the idea of not using a calculator seems scary to you, I invite you to make like Harry Potter, wave your #2 pencil, say, “Riddikulus!” and turn each no calculator question into something completely manageable.
Your mindset here is critical.
The questions on this test are not meant to trip you up by taking away your computing tool. They're designed for you to not need a calculator to complete them.
Expect simpler computations on this test. College Board will save the more complex problems for last.
(And if a no calculator section is a no-fly zone for you, check out this video to see if the ACT is a better fit for you.)
Test #4: Math Test - With Calculator
For the final individual test of the SAT, you can finally break out the calculator. This test consists of 38 questions, 8 of which are of the Grid-In (i.e. free response) variety. You'll have 55 minutes to complete it.
Again, College Board is looking for general computational understanding and asking you to work from the evidence provided; you are not expected to have memorized every complex math formula ever created. In fact, some everyday geometry formulas are even included in the test for your use.
Notice also that you'll have 1.45 minutes per question in this With Calculator test as compared to 1.25 minutes per question in the previous No Calculator test.
The time difference may seem slight at first glance; however, providing extra time when you have the time-saving tool of a calculator at your disposal is a nod from College Board to the increased level of complexity in this test.
The SAT Math With Calculator test is designed to see how well you can wield the calculator to wrestle with complex problems and analyze, solve, or connect mathematical principles.
But, as College Board so charmingly states on its website, "However, the calculator is, like any tool, only as smart as the person using it."
< Major side eye to the person who wrote that horrific sentence. >
Nice Person Translation: if you don't feel cozy doing SAT math, the calculator won't serve as a life preserver. Addressing any math deficits you can identify is imperative.
You have to draw from a deep well of knowledge to tackle SAT Math.
For many students, the tools they pull out of that well are a bit rusty. If you'd like some help getting polished up for test day, I teach two unique online SAT prep courses to help you make sure you show up shiny and bright on your next exam. One can be completed in as few as four hours!
The Evolution of the SAT
When the SAT was first created, it was named the SAT to stand for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” then later it was changed to the “Scholastic Achievement Test.”
Originally it was adapted from a military IQ test and used as a means to measure the intellectual skills of college applicants, but it has been adjusted over time. In fact, it's undergone two major redesigns in recent memory - one in 2005 and one in 2016.
Now, College Board still calls it the SAT but those letters no longer stand for anything specific.
The reason this matters to you is that in the years since the SAT's 1926 debut, the College Board has searched for ways to make the test more fair and more standardized, looking as much at how you learn as what you’ve learned.
They want to see how prepared you are to keep learning in college and the real-world beyond it. As such, the entire SAT is designed to be evidence-based, rather than expecting expertise in any one subject.
If you're curious, you can click here to read more about what College Board, the creator of the SAT, has to say about its current state.
What To Do With This Knowledge
Knowing what's on the SAT can help you stay grounded on test day. But, in order to do your best work, you'll also need to understand why the SAT is important.
The SAT is important because it helps you verify your GPA and showcase your current level of knowledge to a prospective college.
Keep in mind that, while your SAT scores are important, they are not the whole story of you. They are one data point. You bring so much more to a prospective college than your test scores.
But your SAT score gives you data to back your case for admission. Therefore, you'll want your SAT score to be as strong as possible.
You might be curious about what colleges are specifically looking for in an SAT score. Obviously you want to aim your arrow to shoot toward the highest possible mark, but even Robin Hood didn’t shoot the bulls-eye every time.
So we may need to adjust our expectations: we can hope for 1600, but what other scores are (literally) acceptable?
As you’re building your college admissions target scores, this article will help you identify evidence-based SAT score goals that tip the odds of admissions in your favor.
You may also want to download this free eBook - The Insider’s Guide to the ACT & SAT - to make sure you’re getting geared up with the best testing tips for success.
Or you may be thinking “enough talk — I want to get right to it!” In which case you can jump straight into a free full-length practice SAT here.