SAT Guide

Widely accepted in the U.S. and around the world, the SAT sets the standard for measuring college readiness among high school students. Nearly all colleges and universities accept SAT scores as part of an entrance application into an undergraduate program; many specify a preference for SAT over ACT scores. The College Board administers the SAT, which encompasses two primary sections in evidence-based reading and writing and in math. Students may also choose to complete the SAT essay -- optional since the test's 2016 redesign. At registration, students select up to four recipients to receive SAT scores, each submitted roughly one month after taking the test. If the student opts to add this section, schools receive essay scores separately.

Many undergraduate programs in almost any major require the SAT. Students meeting the minimum SAT scores needed for psychology programs, for example, demonstrate to schools that they hold strong potential in the field. Most test takers still complete the SAT on paper, though select districts now offer a computer-based test. Students answer primarily multiple-choice questions for the reading, writing, and language tests, with some "grid-ins" in the math section.

SAT Subject Tests

An undergraduate program may or may not require an SAT Subject Test in addition to general scores. Though the College Board does not offer an SAT Subject Test in psychology, options span 20 specific subjects, including math, English, languages, science, and history. The subject tests evaluate a student's highschool performance and college readiness in a particular area of study. Similar to the general SAT, subject tests consist of multiple-choice questions and assign points within a range of 200-800. The subject test only takes one hour to complete. Students can take subject tests approximately six times per year, but they should determine which subject tests they can take on which dates. Students take subject tests at the same location as the general SAT, but may not take both tests on the same day. Subject test registration costs $26 and includes up to three subject tests per test date.

Redesigned in 2016, the "new" SAT features streamlined timing and scoring systems, a focus on practical reasoning and skills, and an optional essay. The evidence-based reading and writing section encompasses two individual tests: a reading and a writing and language section. The math section incorporates both calculator and non-calculator questions. Test takers may decide their own order for answering questions within a section; however, they may not skip ahead to the next section or go back to a previously completed section. The new SAT also features "rights-only scoring," with no penalty for guessing the answer.

The main sections of the SAT always occur in the same order: reading, writing and language, and math without and math with an approved calculator. Students select from multiple-choice options for all of the above sections. The SAT comprises three hours, including 65 minutes for reading; 35 minutes for writing and language; 25 for math, no calculator; and 55 for math, with calculator. Test takers who write the essay must complete an additional 50-minute section.

Through a partnership with a research organization called AIR Assessment, the College Board began offering a digital version of the SAT in 2017, albeit in a very limited number of test districts. The College Board leaves the decision to individual school districts to choose whether or not to adopt the online SAT. As of this year, most students still take the test on paper, though the option to take the SAT online will undoubtedly grow to meet the demand. As students increasingly rely on the internet for many other standardized tests, test takers should prepare for the eventuality of the SAT going online. Among the College Board's preferred test-prep affiliates, Khan Academy now enables students to preview the digital SAT.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

The content and order of the test are the same whether a student takes the SAT online or on paper; the difference lies in how students transmit answers. The digital SAT submits answers through an exclusive software system designed and administered by AIR Assessment. Taking the SAT online requires that students use "virtual" scratch paper and offers them the option of digitally selecting answers instead of filling in a scantron sheet with a pencil. Both tests offer timed breaks.

On the online SAT, the AIR Assessment software encrypts a student's answers using a built-in proprietary browser and a unique diagnostic tool. Multiple servers manage data from test takers to prevent network overload. For added protection, responses go directly to scorers prior to removal from the servers. While convenient for students comfortable with online testing, most students must still take the SAT at a test site and not at home on their personal computer. The same fee applies to both the online and the paper SAT.

Skill Areas

The reading test comprises half of the evidence-based reading and writing section of the SAT. By reading passages and answering multiple-choice questions about them, students challenge their aptitude for critical reading comprehension. Test takers must find evidence within a passage to support the author's claims and explore relationships between passages, charts, tables, and graphs.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Preparing for the timed section should involve setting a timer for all of your practice reading tests. Many students mistakenly think skimming on the reading will save time; however, understanding the meaning of a passage enables students to quickly answer the questions. The reading test provides scorers with an accurate assessment of your ability to comprehend the content of the passage. Make use of the College Board's list of passages presented on the SAT to know what to expect when your test day arrives.

Helpful Tips

  • Every Part Counts
    Multi-part questions may purposely precede only partially correct answers. Both must fit in order for the pair to collectively constitute a "right" answer.
  • Don't Make it Personal
    Remember that the right answer should focus on evidence from the passage, not your personal opinion or outside knowledge. Answers that seem biased or controversial should raise a red flag.
  • Use Process of Elimination
    Exercising the process of elimination can make a world of difference. Eliminating two answers significantly increases your odds.
  • Beware of the Obvious
    Trust your instincts when it comes to what strikes you as an extreme point of view or answer out of context. Test makers may try to lure your personal opinion out when it should not come into play at all.

Skill Areas

After reading, students complete the writing and language test to conclude the evidence-based reading and writing section of the SAT. This test evaluates not only reading comprehension but also editing skills. Students must find and correct errors within a given passage and read passages in order to answer a series of multiple-choice questions.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students should assume an editor's role to complete the writing and language test. This section offers a seemingly innocent "no change" option among the multiple-choice answers for each question, though students should use caution when selecting this answer; in most cases, test makers include it as a decoy for the correct choice. Students should prepare by reading sample passages on CollegeBoard.org and by reviewing grammatical and structural errors they find during practice tests. Test takers should also review basic language and stylistic subtleties, as many students overestimate their English reading, writing, and editing skills.

Helpful Tips

  • Avoid the Rush
    Don't let the timing of this section get the better of you; remember that test makers often save the seemingly obvious questions for last, when you grow tired.
  • Spoken vs. Written Language
    Look out for any answer that sounds "right" when you say it to yourself but harbors grammatical issues. Test makers may test your ability to differentiate conversational and written language rules.
  • Eliminate First
    Always turn to the process of elimination when you feel rushed or start to panic. Narrowing down the possibilities will always yield better results than not trying at all.
  • Don't Get Stuck
    Spending too much time on any one question will harm you in the end. Assert yourself, when necessary, and move on to the next question to avoid a time suck.

Skill Areas

Students complete two subsections of the SAT math test, one with and one without a calculator. The math sections assesses advanced algebra, geometry, and trigonometry skills, emphasizing problem solving and relational concepts for practical, everyday life. Success in math test demonstrates a high fluency between math concepts and applications.

Question Types

The math section of the SAT comprises mostly traditional multiple-choice questions across three areas: algebra, advanced math, and problem solving and data analysis. Some questions require "grid-in" answers, in which students provide the answer independently. Grid-ins encompass only 22% of the section. Students may answer more than one question about a single concept, scenario, or collection of data.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

Students may use a calculator where indicated for a select subsection of the math test. Test makers allow students to use calculators for only the most difficult problems. While administrators allow students to use a calculator within the designated section, students should not rely on the calculator for complex functions. Test makers discourage students from spending too much time using the calculator, or using it at the expense of their common sense.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

For even the most masterful mathematicians, this section of the SAT can present challenges. While many students expect to save time using a calculator for simple math on the test, they should consider that test makers only allow calculators on some sections for a reason. Students should always write out problems and equations on scratch paper so that they can retrace their steps to double-check their work. As a general rule, memorize as many formulas and functions as possible during test prep, studying all types of math included on the test.

Helpful Tips

  • Practice Makes Perfect
    Practice tests serve an important role in preparing students for the SAT. Your performance may change slightly each time, so another practice test can only ever help your odds.
  • Get to Know Your Weakness
    Identify your test-taking weaknesses and try to address them during practice test. Most test takers find a flaw in either their math abilities or their time management skills.
  • Study All Types of Math
    The math test requires a lot of its test takers. Leave enough study time to not only master the four high-level math concepts included on the test, but also time to delve into advanced subjects like trigonometry and word problems.
  • Try it Twice
    If you make a mistake on a practice test, work the numbers once more before looking up the correct answer. Experts suggest that this technique inspires longer-lasting and more profound lesson-learning than simply "fixing" the problem right away.

Should You Do the Essay Section?

Many students take the essay section of the SAT because their school or program requires it. Others take the essay section confident that their writing ability will bolster their total SAT. On the other hand, writing the essay could present unnecessary challenges to some students, such as those not prepared to spend extra time studying, those unable to pay the additional fee, or those unable to stay 50 extra minutes to complete the test. Students should consult their school of choice to find out if it requires the SAT Essay. Test takers who opt in to this portion of the test can report their scores for up to five years.

Skill Areas

The SAT essay evaluates a student's collective reading comprehension, communication, and critical-thinking skills. Students must address a writing prompt, assessing an author's position on an issue presented in a passage. Essays feature the same prompt but a different passage, each designed to enhance reading, analysis, and writing aptitudes.

The Essay Prompt

Each student receives the same prompt on the SAT Essay. The College Board provides students with the prompt they can expect to see on the test, which solicits a thorough analysis of the author's claims. Students must use evidence (namely, reasoning and examples from the text) to support their words.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Planning and writing your essay within the 50-minute time limit may seem daunting; however, preparing for the essay will make it feasible. When preparing for this section, practice writing to the prompt with several different sample passages, each under the time constraints of the actual test. Many students make the mistake of trying too hard to impress the judges by using complicated words when, in fact, students score higher for direct, clearly stated, and evidence-supported composition.

Helpful Tips

  • Stick to the Facts
    Scorers love clear, direct statements in a student essay. Focus only on the evidence you can reference in the text and avoid getting tangled up in irrelevant speculations.
  • Use the Five-Paragraph Template
    Experts recommend formatting your essay to include an introduction, three evidence-based paragraphs, and a conclusion. This not only helps you organize your information, but also plays to the scorers' preferences.
  • Keep it Objective
    Asserting your personal opinion or letting your own bias cloud your analysis affects your score. Only make statements you can back up with evidence from the text.
  • Check for Legibility
    Many test takers forget that lack of readability can bring down their score. Avoid earning a low score for illegibility, despite a brilliant essay.

Students earn between 200 and 800 possible points in the evidence-based reading and writing and in the math section of the SAT. Adding the optional essay portion of the test, a student's total score can range from 400 to 1600 points.

Students also receive "cross test" scores, measuring their analysis skills across all sections, as well as "subscores" to provide feedback on a student's performance in categories like standard English conventions, expression of ideas, and problem-solving and data analysis.

The optional essay receives a total of three final scores, one for each of the analysis, reading, and writing dimensions of the work. Two scorers assign 1-4 points for each of the dimensions, which are then added together to create that dimension's final score (between two and eight). Students do not receive a composite score or percentile rank for the essay section.

Score Ranges on the SAT
SAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 200-800
Math 200-800
Essay 2-8

Source: College Board

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

The SAT measures both a student's individual and relative performance and potential. Students receive a score that reflects the number of questions answered correctly on the test. They also receive a placement among average scores and percentile ranks. Scorers know that the majority of test takers score slightly higher or lower each time they repeat the test, which accounts for the range of scores they provide. The SAT also ranks a student's score within a particular percentile, showing students how their score compares to other test takers.

While the College Board provides a school with all of your total and subsection scores, each school decides which scores to prioritize for admission. By showing a student their score among average SAT scores and college readiness benchmarks, the SAT provides test takers with valuable feedback for starting college -- or their next attempt to improve their scores by retaking the test.

What's an Average Score on the SAT?

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

Source: College Board

To begin the registration process, students must first create a College Board profile. This enables the student to view scores, manage recipients, and make changes to their test date, if necessary. Students may also opt into the essay portion of the test at registration. The SAT offers registrants the option to answer additional questions about themselves if they wish to participate in the Student Search feature, which enables colleges and fellowships to locate qualified students by their SAT scores on the College Board. The majority of test takers register online, though students paying by check or money order, students younger than 13, and students requesting a Sunday test date must complete their registration by mail. Learn more about registering for the SAT.

When Should You Take the SAT?

Students can take the SAT in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December of each year. The College Board posts scores roughly three weeks after students take the test. Remember: the general SAT and a subject test cannot occur on the same day, and not all sites offer all subject tests.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

Students who do not take the essay portion of the SAT must pay $47.50 for registration; adding the essay costs a total of $64.50. A student registering for the SAT a second time may do so by phone at a cost of $15. Students must pay an additional fee of $29 for changing their test date, changing the subject of their subject test, or for late registration. The College Board charges an additional fee to submit extra score reports and rush reports to schools. Low-income students may qualify for a waiver for the registration fee; school counselors and community representatives can help students pursue waiver benefits.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

The College Board allows unlimited retakes of the SAT, as experts argue that many students' scores improve with repetitive testing. While test takers may sit for the SAT up to seven times per year, many schools view the submission of more than six SAT scores as unnecessary.

At-Home Study Methods

Students may choose to vary their at-home study, with options ranging from DIY flashcards to private tutoring.

  • Printed Study Guides
    Hard-copy study guides offer students a tangible way to review test material and mark up the pages. This format also most closely resembles the actual test.
  • Flashcards
    Ideal for memorizing critical skills needed for the SAT, flashcards help students learn equations, formulas, grammar, and vocabulary words.
  • Private Tutoring
    Personal tutors can provide students with a customized study plan that suits their individual needs and targets their particular weaknesses in each section of the SAT.
  • Studying Apps
    Increasingly popular among students who prefer to study in shorter increments, studying apps provide modular options for test takers with limited time and budgets.
  • Online Practice Test
    Online practice tests should form the foundation of your SAT study prep, not only focusing attention in a particular area, but also familiarizing students with the real test format.

SAT Prep Courses

Students may pursue a variety of SAT prep courses straight from the College Board website. The most thorough study prep begins at least two months before you plan to take the SAT. Test takers can find all types of SAT guides for psychology students online through brands including Princeton Review and Kaplan -- with tools ranging from free practice tests to private tutoring. Prep courses accommodate both students on a budget and those with funding.

Studying Tips for the SAT

  • Timing is Everything
    The time you need to thoroughly prepare to take the SAT is commensurate to the increase in points you hope to achieve; generally, expect to spend 10 hours prep time for every 30-point improvement on the test.
  • Visualize Your Goal Score
    Figure out the required SAT score at your schools, then aim to earn that score on the test. At a minimum, aim to join the 75th percentile of scorers on the SAT.
  • Analyze Your Weaknesses
    Focus on your weaknesses during your practice time and avoid wasting time on areas you already score high in.
  • Celebrate Your Mistakes
    Mistakes make you human and can only help you during practice testing. Take the time to understand each mistake.
  • Get Real
    Focus only on practice tests that mimic the actual SAT. The more familiar with the format and content of the SAT the more success you will enjoy come test time.

Helpful Resources

The following resources can help students find their ideal method of studying for the SAT:

College Board Practice Tests: Students can print out eight free practice tests from the College Board website, four of which are actual retired SAT tests.

Khan Academy: An official partner of the College Board, Khan offers the same full-length practice tests in addition to personalized study options such as online and private tutoring.

Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel: Magoosh offers informative and engaging videos that approach SAT advice and study prep from a contemporary, tech-oriented perspective; students looking for more extensive tutoring can inquire about additional options.

Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel: Supertutor features free advice from an SAT expert and encourages unconventional, unique methods of incorporating study prep into daily life, such as referencing Twitter and social media as study tools.

The SAT test site opens its doors at 7:45 a.m. Students arriving after 8 a.m. may not enter the room, as the doors close promptly at that time. Test takers receive seating assignments from the administrator. The SAT begins between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and includes one, 10-minute break and one, five-minute break. Students may eat and drink only during breaks. Those who finish a section early may not move on or go back to other sections.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID
    Administrators must see a student's valid photo ID, along with a matching admission ticket. The student's name must match both their ID and their admission ticket.
  • Admission Ticket
    Students receive instructions to print their admission ticket immediately after registering for the SAT. Students without this documentation may not take the test.
  • No. 2 Pencils
    Administrators do not provide writing materials to students taking the SAT. Students must provide two of their own No.2 pencils to use on the test.
  • Approved Calculator
    Students must supply their own approved calculator for the designated section of the math test. Options include most graphic, all scientific, and all four-function calculators. See official College Board recommendations here.
  • Watch
    The College Board strongly recommends bringing a watch for managing your time while taking the SAT. Watches cannot include an audible alarm, calculator, or internet access.
  • Layers of Clothing
    Students should prepare for a range of temperatures in the testing room by wearing layers.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Math Tools
    Students may only bring an approved calculator, not a protractor, ruler, compass, or other unapproved math tool. Possession of such items may result in dismissal from the test site.
  • Unapproved Electronics
    Students may only use an approved calculator during the calculator section of the math test. Any other digital or electronic device, such as a PDA, recorder, iPod, camera, or smart watch, is prohibited in the testing room.
  • Books
    Test takers may not bring dictionaries (for non-native english speaking students), study guides, or other hard-copy books into the testing room, as these items provide an unfair advantage on the reading and writing tests.

Students in need of accommodations when taking the SAT for a documented learning disability, health condition, or short-term injury can make a request through the College Board. Accommodations include extra or extended breaks, four-function calculators and computers (for use during the essay section), reading and seeing assistive materials, and extra testing time. To approve a request for accommodations, the College Board requires documented diagnosis of the disability and its impact on a student's ability to take the SAT, including evidence of the student using special accommodations for previous school tests. Requests may take up to seven weeks for approval through the College Board's Services for Students with Disabilities division. Apply for accommodations here.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

A student's score report appears in their College Board account approximately three weeks after taking the SAT. Essay scores typically appear 1-2 days after the initial score report.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

Students select up to four schools or fellowship sponsors to receive scores. The College Board automatically submits your scores to designated recipients within 10 days of posting your score report to your account online.

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

By selecting the Score Choice option, students with more than one set of SAT scores from the last five years can choose which scores to send to recipients. A student can choose whether a school sees scores from one particular SAT test date, only certain subject tests, or all scores. Keep in mind that some schools require scores from each test.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

The College Board archives the scores of high school graduates who have not taken the SAT in more than one year; however, archived scores can still be sent to schools at the student's request. Requests for scores more than five years old cost $31 and include a notice to schools that the scores may not reflect the student's most recent academic performance.