What Is the SAT? A Complete Overview of the Test

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  • The SAT evaluates prospective college students' math, reading, and writing skills.
  • The popular college entrance exam takes three hours and consists of over 150 questions.
  • Starting in 2024, the SAT will go digital, cut the number of questions, and take just two hours.

Arguably the most well-known standardized college entrance exam in the U.S., the SAT has been around for nearly 100 years. The three-hour exam covers math, reading, and writing, and gives admissions officers a tangible measure of students' college readiness.

SAT scores provide schools with a strong data point for comparing applicants. Since the 2010s, however, thousands of universities have dropped the exam requirement due to criticism that the SAT and ACT reward privileged students.

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The anti-standardized test trend dramatically accelerated when in-person tests were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, many universities have gone test-optional. Applicants may include scores if they wish, but are not penalized if they don't. Despite the controversy around both the SAT and ACT, scoring well on the SAT remains a strong determiner of college success, alongside high school GPA.

If you choose to submit SAT scores, you provide admissions officers with quantifiable proof of your scholastic chops and likelihood of success at their school.

But what is the SAT exactly? What is a good SAT score? And what's the best way to study for the SAT?

What Is the SAT?

The SAT is a three-hour multiple-choice test created and administered by the College Board. It covers reading, writing, and math, and is used to determine students' preparedness for college.

The SAT is held seven times a year, typically on the first Saturday of the month. The College Board also offers SAT School Day, a program that allows students to take the SAT at their own high schools during a school day in the fall or spring.

Students who want to send SAT scores to colleges must register for a test, which costs $60, about a month in advance. There's no limit to the number of times you can take the SAT. Most students take it once or twice.

What does SAT stand for? Originally, the SAT was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Born in the era of the IQ test, the SAT's earliest creators were interested in measuring innate intellectual ability. Later, as interest in innate intelligence waned and interest in potential grew, the test was renamed the Scholastic Assessment Test.

The College Board cycled through two more name changes — the SAT I: Reasoning Test and the SAT Reasoning Test — before finally sticking with the letters alone: the SAT.

While the SAT has long been a paper test, the College Board recently announced that the SAT will go digital starting in 2024.

Spokespeople for the SAT bill its digital recreation as a "lower-stakes test" for a "largely test-optional world." Pending changes include:

  • Shortening the test length from three hours to two
  • Providing more time per question
  • Allowing calculators for the entire Math section

What Is on the SAT?

There are two main SAT sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW).

EBRW comprises a Reading test and a Writing and Language test. SAT Math is split into two subsections: a no-calculator test (on which you may not use a calculator) and a calculator test (on which you may use a calculator).

SAT Sections
Section Number of Questions Time Time per Question
1. Reading 52 65 minutes 75 seconds
2. Writing and Language 44 35 minutes 48 seconds
3. Math — No Calculator 20 25 minutes 75 seconds
4. Math — Calculator 38 55 minutes 87 seconds
Total 154 3 hours N/A

While the upcoming digital SAT promises fewer questions, the current test's 154 questions are more or less evenly divided between Reading, Writing, and Math.

Reading

  • Questions: 52
  • Time: 65 minutes
  • Subscores: Command of Evidence, Words in Context

The Reading section contains five passages (up to two of which may be a pair of smaller passages) and asks 10-11 questions per passage or passage pair.

Reading passages are broadly drawn from the fields of history, social studies, science, and literature. You can generally expect to encounter at least one passage written in the early 20th century or earlier.

Writing and Language

  • Questions: 44
  • Time: 35 minutes
  • Subscores: Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Command of Evidence, Words in Context

The Writing portion asks for suggestions to correct or improve different parts of passages. Passages are pulled from a variety of sources and include arguments and nonfiction narratives.

You may be required to clarify arguments; select more appropriate words; and make grammatical, organizational, or stylistic changes.

Math — No Calculator

  • Questions: 20
  • Time: 25 minutes
  • Subscores: Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math

The shortest section of the SAT, Math — No Calculator consists of around 15 multiple-choice questions and five grid-in questions. For grid-ins, you must supply the answer yourself by filling in numbered bubbles.

The Math — No Calculator section tests an array of concepts, such as linear equations, linear inequalities, functions, quadratic equations, graphs, geometry, and complex numbers, as well as topics that inform more advanced math, such as nonlinear expressions, radicals, and exponentials.

Math — Calculator

  • Questions: 38
  • Time: 55 minutes
  • Subscores: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math

On the Math — Calculator section, test-takers aren't so much challenged on their ability to do math without mechanical errors as they are on their understanding of math concepts and their problem-solving skills.

This portion of the SAT, which includes around eight grid-in questions, covers concepts like linear inequalities, quadratic functions, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and graph and data interpretation.

Approved calculators include all scientific calculators and most graphing calculators. A basic on-screen calculator will be provided for the entire Math section as part of the digital SAT roll-out.

Does the SAT Have an Essay?

In 2021, the SAT dropped its optional essay component, as well as all SAT Subject Tests.

According to the College Board, "There are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing," such as through their performance on the SAT Reading and Writing sections.

During the 2021-22 school year, just a handful of states administered the SAT with the essay portion: Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma.

How Long Is the SAT?

The SAT lasts a total of three hours, excluding breaks. The longest section is Reading at 65 minutes, and the shortest is Math — No Calculator at just 25 minutes.

SAT Timing
Section Time Time per Question
1. Reading 65 minutes 75 seconds
Break 10 minutes N/A
2. Writing and Language 35 minutes 48 seconds
3. Math — No Calculator 25 minutes 75 seconds
Break 5 minutes N/A
4. Math — Calculator 55 minutes 87 seconds
Total (with breaks) 3 hours 15 minutes N/A

You'll get a 10-minute break between the Reading and Writing sections, followed by a shorter five-minute break between the Math — No Calculator and Math — Calculator tests.

Test-takers with documented disabilities may qualify for extended breaks, additional breaks, or other accommodations like extended time on the exam.

Some test-takers may have to take an experimental fifth section after a two-minute break following the Math — Calculator test. This section takes the form of an extra Reading, Writing, or Math test and lasts 20 minutes.

The College Board may include this section to test out new questions for future exams. Your answers in this section will not count toward your final SAT score.

The upcoming digital SAT will be much shorter than the current paper SAT, clocking in at just two hours.

When Do You Take the SAT?

The SAT is held seven times a year in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June, typically on the first Saturday of the month.

International test-takers based outside the U.S. can choose from among test dates in August, October, December, March, May, and June. Note that the new digital SAT will become available at international testing locations starting in 2023.

Here are the upcoming SAT test dates for 2022-23:

SAT Test Dates 2022-23
Test Date Registration Deadline Late Registration / Deadline for Changes
August 27, 2022 July 29, 2022 August 16, 2022
October 1, 2022 September 2, 2022 September 20, 2022
November 5, 2022 October 7, 2022 October 25, 2022
December 3, 2022 November 3, 2022 November 22, 2022
March 11, 2023 February 10, 2023 February 28, 2023
May 6, 2023 April 7, 2023 April 25, 2023
June 3, 2023 May 4, 2023 May 23, 2023

Source: College Board

What grade do you take the SAT? Most students take the SAT during the last two years of high school.

Many opt to take the test more than once to try to raise their scores. For this reason, it's a good idea to take the SAT early enough so you have time to retake it before college application deadlines.

It's common to take the SAT in the spring of 11th grade and again in the fall of 12th grade.

How Does SAT Scoring Work?

Both sections of the SAT — Math and EBRW — are scored on a scale of 200-800. Your total SAT score is the sum of your two section scores, making a perfect SAT score a 1600.

Because not all questions are equally difficult, not all questions receive the same weight when scored. The College Board converts your raw scores, which is equal to the number of questions you answered currently, into scaled scores. The equating process for this varies slightly depending on which SAT you took.

Since there's no penalty for incorrect or blank answers on the SAT, it's best to put down an answer for every question, even if you have to guess.

While SAT scoring has shifted over the years, the scoring structure will stay the same with the upcoming digital SAT.

What Is a Good SAT Score?

In general, anything above the median, or around 1050, can be considered a good SAT score, as this means you've scored better than half of all test-takers.

If possible, though, try to aim even higher — ideally around 1200, which would land you in the top 25% of test-takers and make you a competitive applicant for many schools.

If you've got your sights set on a top university, know that accepted students historically score high on the SAT. As of 2021, average Ivy League SAT scores sat around 1450-1550, or the top 1-4% of test-takers.

Ultimately, a good SAT score for you will depend on the expectations of the schools you're applying to.

How to Study for the SAT

The SAT is an opportunity to demonstrate both your skills and your readiness for college-level coursework.

It's important that you create an SAT study plan. Give yourself at least 2-3 months before your test date to drill practice questions, review content areas, take SAT practice tests, and acquaint yourself with the format and timing of the exam.

Make sure you use high-quality study materials, like top SAT prep books and free official SAT resources. You could also hire an SAT tutor or enroll in an SAT prep course.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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