SAT Guide

The SAT is a standardized entrance exam used by universities and colleges to help make admissions decisions. Many bachelor’s programs require prospective students to submit their SAT (or ACT) scores. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers the SAT on behalf of the College Board. The test allows colleges to evaluate candidates using one standardized set of information.

The SAT measures knowledge learned in high school, determining which test takers demonstrate the skills needed to succeed in college.

The SAT measures knowledge learned in high school, determining which test takers demonstrate the skills needed to succeed in college. The exam includes sections on reading, writing and language, and math. Some colleges also require students to complete the optional SAT essay section. The SAT consists chiefly of multiple-choice questions, with most questions offering four possible answers. However, the optional essay section and some math questions do not feature multiple-choice questions. Students earn points for each correct answer, and the test does not penalize incorrect answers.

Although many universities and colleges require applicants to submit their SAT scores, the significance of these scores varies from college to college. Admissions officers may look at SAT scores in conjunction with an applicant’s GPA, extracurricular activities, personal essay, in-person interview, and/or letters of recommendation.

SAT Subject Tests

Undergraduate programs usually require applicants to submit scores from the general SAT exam, but some also require or recommend that applicants submit SAT subject test scores. SAT subject tests measure an individual’s knowledge related to specific subjects at the high school level. The College Board offers 20 subject tests in mathematics, science, English, history, and foreign languages. Scoring well on an SAT subject test can sometimes improve your chances of acceptance at a competitive school.

Each of these multiple-choice test lasts an hour and costs $22, plus a $26 registration fee. Students can take up to three SAT subject tests on the same day; if they take multiple tests, they only pay the registration fee once. Additionally, language tests with a listening component cost an extra $26 per test. Currently, test takers can only sit for paper-based SAT subject tests. Students cannot sit for subject tests and the general SAT exam on the same day.

What Does the SAT Look Like?

The structure of the SAT includes two main sections: an evidence-based reading and writing section and a math section. The SAT also includes an optional essay section. Only some colleges require students to take the SAT essay. The main sections of the SAT always appear in the same order, with reading and writing first followed by math. Students who opt to complete the essay portion do so last. The main sections of the SAT focus on skills related to college readiness.

The entire test takes three hours with an additional 50 minutes for the optional essay.

The entire test takes three hours with an additional 50 minutes for the optional essay. You have a set amount of time to finish each section, and you can go back and revisit questions you skipped in a section. However, once you move on to the next section, you cannot go back and make changes to any answers from a previous section. The SAT does not require you to answer every question, but because the test does not penalize incorrect answers you should leave time to submit an answer for every question.

The SAT Going Online

Until recently, all students took a paper-based SAT. However, the College Board now offers an online version of the test. Your school district determines which version of the test it offers. If your school chooses the online SAT, you can only opt to take the paper-based version by obtaining special accomodations for a disability.

Students taking the computer-based test can use electronic scratch paper, highlight passages online, and bookmark questions to return to later. In the future, more and more students will likely take the SAT online. Digital testing offers schools benefits such as increased scoring accuracy, the ability to generate results instantly, and the potential for lower exam-related costs. Students should prepare for the possibility of taking the test online.

How Does the Online SAT Work?

When you take the online SAT, the test includes the same sections in the same order as the paper-based version. The exam includes a reading and writing section and a math section. Students can then go on to take the optional essay exam. Individuals taking the online SAT can take approved breaks, just like with the paper-based test. They also have the option to virtually “cross off” answers.

The College Board takes test security and data protection seriously and has implemented a variety of new SAT security measures. You cannot take the online test on a personal laptop or use your cell phone during the test. The SAT is proctored in a designated, controlled setting. The College Board performs routine maintenance on its online testing platform to prevent technical problems and ensure data security. After submitting your answers, the College Board processing center receives the completed test. Its system determines your raw score and then converts it to a scaled percentile score. The online test is the same price as the original paper format: $47.50 without the essay and $64.50 with the essay.

The Evidence-Based Reading Section

Skill Areas

The reading test assesses many of the skills needed to participate in a thoughtful discussion based on written evidence. This section features multiple-choice questions. In some cases, test takers also need to consult informational graphics that accompany written passages. The reading section does not require pre-existing knowledge about the subject at hand.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students should read about the common mistakes made on this section before sitting for the exam. Time mismanagement represents one of the most frequently encountered issues on this section. You need to answer 52 questions (10-12 for each written passage) in 65 minutes, meaning you should aim to spend no more than 12 minutes on each passage. Other common mistakes include ignoring or misunderstanding the context or voice of a passage, incorrectly interpreting informational graphics, and failing to take advantage of the multiple-choice answer format. Use process of elimination to answer every question with your best guess.

Helpful Tips

  • Beware of Extreme Statements: The SAT often includes controversial or extreme statements as a way to trick people into answering questions based on their personal biases rather than based on the evidence contained in a passage.
  • Eliminate Obviously Incorrect Answers: One of the four provided answers is correct. If you can eliminate any clearly wrong answers you increase your chances of picking the correct one.
  • Pace Yourself: Try not to spend too much time on any one question. You increase the likelihood of getting a higher score by giving yourself enough time to carefully consider each question.
  • Reconsider Obvious Answers: If an answer to a question seems too obvious, you might be falling for a trap. Take a second look to make sure another answer isn’t more appropriate.

The Evidence-Based Writing and Language Section

Skill Areas

The writing and language section tests your ability to clearly organize written ideas and information. It asks you to think like an editor and improve passages that include a variety of deliberate errors. All questions feature multiple-choice answers, and this section of the test does not require any prior knowledge about the topics in question.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Common mistakes in the writing and language section of the SAT relate to running out of time, misreading questions, being unfamiliar with grammar rules, and skimming passages without reading them carefully. To avoid running out of time and making sloppy mistakes, pace yourself. Carefully read each passage but don’t spend too much time on any one question.

Another common mistake is choosing the “no change” multiple-choice answer too frequently; this is the correct answer only ~20% of the time. Also, make sure to adequately prepare for this section by taking practice tests. Even though the test assesses skills developed over many years, reviewing rules of basic grammar and familiarizing yourself with the test format can help improve your score.

Helpful Tips

  • Read Carefully: Do not skim or rush through the reading passages. It is easy to make careless mistakes this way.
  • Distinguish Between Colloquial and Written English: The way that people speak in everyday life is oftentimes different from grammatically correct, written English. Sometimes the SAT includes colloquial English among the multiple-choice answers to try and trick test takers.
  • Limit the Amount of Time Spent on Each Question: Although you do not want to rush through questions, avoid spending too much time on any one question. Pace yourself.
  • Do Not Guess Blindly: Use process of elimination to get rid of obviously wrong answers. This increases your chances of selecting the correct answer.

The Math Section

Skill Areas

The math section of the SAT determines a test takers skills related to modeling, strategy, problem solving, and using algebraic structure. The exam asks practical questions relevant to everyday life, verifying that students have the knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level college math courses.

Question Types

The math section includes two parts: a “calculator” portion (20 questions) and a “no calculator” portion (30 questions). The test focuses on three main areas of math: linear equations and systems, problem solving and data analysis, and manipulation of complex equations. Most of the math questions feature multiple-choice answers, but 22% of the questions (called “grid-in” questions) require students to come up with an answer on their own. Test takers may find it useful to practice with sample math questions provided by the College Board.

Can You Use a Calculator on the SAT?

You can use a basic calculator on one portion of the math test. However, some questions that allow you to use a calculator can be solved more easily without it. Carefully consider how to make the best use of your calculator when necessary.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

One of the most common difficulties encountered by students on the math test is running out of time. To give yourself enough time to answer all of the questions, you should try and spend about one minute on each of the easier questions. This gives you more time to focus on the difficult questions, which come later in the exam. Some test takers panic when they read an unfamiliar question format. Fortunately, by taking practice tests, you can familiarize yourself with the way the SAT asks questions. Other common mistakes include using your calculator incorrectly, failing to write out all of the steps to your answer, forgetting formulas, not understanding functions, and solving for the wrong value.

Helpful Tips

  • Pace Yourself: Figure out how many questions you need to get right to achieve your target score and then calculate how much time you should spend on each question.
  • Use Your Calculator Carefully: Keep in mind that you can solve some questions more quickly without a calculator. Also, be careful when typing in numbers to avoid numerical errors.
  • Figure Out What the Question is Asking You: Some SAT math questions use convoluted language in an attempt to trip up test takers. Don’t let the letters and numbers distract you; identify what the question is asking and solve for the correct value.
  • Identify Your Weaknesses and Learn from Mistakes: Complete several practice tests to figure out your common mistakes. Determining whether your biggest challenge is related to time management, content, or something else can help you study more effectively.

The Essay Section

Should You Do the Essay Section?

The essay section of the SAT is optional, but some schools require or recommend that applicants take it. You can determine which schools require or recommend the essay portion of the SAT before you sign up. If you apply to any school that requires the essay portion, you should definitely take this section; you might not qualify for admission otherwise.

Alternatively, if you only apply to schools that do not require the essay, you probably don’t need to take it. However, completing the essay and earning a good score can sometimes increase your chances of acceptance at a school. Drawbacks of sitting for the essay portion include the extra cost, extra test time, and extra preparation/practice time. The score you get on the essay section is separate from your score on the rest of the test.

Skill Areas

The SAT essay section tests your writing, reading, and analysis skills, and verifies that you can write at the college level. Test takers read a passage, explain how the author created an argument, and use evidence from the passage to support their explanation. You have 50 minutes to complete your essay.

The Essay Prompt

The SAT uses a nearly identical essay prompt for every test. The test taker is asked to read a passage and then “consider how [the author] uses evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.” Although the prompt is always the same, the passage varies. Your essay should not include any personal opinions about the author’s argument but should stick to information contained in the passage.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Common mistakes made in the essay section include not writing enough, using advanced vocabulary words incorrectly, writing without a clear structure, presenting too many arguments, and failing to include enough evidence from the passage. Try to fill at least two pages, without being redundant, and create a clear plan for your essay before you start writing. Include the most important pieces of evidence from the passage, but don’t feel like you need to write about everything. Also, try to make your point in the simplest, most clear language that you can.

Helpful Tips

  • Use the Five-Paragraph Format to Structure Your Essay: Include an introduction with a thesis statement, conclusion, and evidence. This helps ensure that your essay is organized, coherent, and easy to read.
  • Be Objective: Do not include any personal opinions or biases in your essay. Instead, focus on analyzing the passage using only the text provided.
  • Read the Prompt First: Because the prompt includes a summary of the author’s claims, reading the prompt before you read the passage can help you stay focused on analyzing the validity of the author’s claim.
  • Practice Writing Essays: Practice analyzing passages and writing this type of essay in the same sitting; this may be especially helpful for slower readers.

How is the SAT Scored?

For students interested in earning a degree in public health, average SAT scores can vary widely depending on the program. Therefore, you should set your target score as the average freshman SAT score at your top college. Also, remember that good SAT scores represent just one piece of a strong application.

There is no such thing as a “passing” score on the SAT, and each section of the SAT receives a separate score. The evidence-based reading and writing section and the math section scores each range from 200-800. The SAT combines the scores from these two sections for a total score between 400-1,600. Alternatively, the SAT essay score stands alone and ranges from 2-8.

To put your scores into perspective, your score report includes mean scores, percentiles, and benchmarks. It also includes subscores and cross-test scores to help you determine your strengths and weaknesses. If your first score falls short of your target, you can retake the SAT; most students do better the second time.

Score Ranges on the SAT
SAT SectionScore Range
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing200-800
Essay (Reading, Analysis, Writing)2-8

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

Your SAT score report provides a variety of useful — but sometimes confusing — data. In addition to raw test scores, your report contains score ranges, average scores, college readiness benchmarks, and percentile ranks. Score ranges demonstrate how much your score would likely fluctuate (usually 30-40 points in either direction) if you took the test numerous times with the same skill level.

Average scores represent those of typical American high school students. If your score is average or higher, you should hold the skills needed to succeed in college. Similarly, if you score at or above the college readiness benchmarks, schools typically consider you to be on track for college. Your percentile ranks indicate the percentage of test takers who recorded lower scores than you did.

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

How Do You Register for the SAT?

To register for the SAT, you must create a free College Board account. While creating your account, you need to provide your full, legal name, spelled exactly as it is spelled on your photo ID. You can also opt into the College Board’s Student Search Service, which makes it easier for colleges and scholarship organizations to find you. Most students register online, but you can also register by mail. Once registration is complete, you’ll receive your SAT admission ticket and can designate the colleges you want your scores sent to. You can reschedule your registration online for a $28 fee or cancel it for a partial refund.

When Should You Take the SAT?

The College Board offers the SAT seven times each year in the U.S. Most students take the SAT for the first time in the spring of their junior year of high school, and some learners retake the test in the fall of their senior year. It typically takes 1-2 weeks for schools to receive your test scores.

How Much Does the SAT Cost?

The SAT costs $47.50 without the essay section and $64.50 if you add the essay. Test takers pay additional fees to register by phone, change test dates or locations, and register after the deadline. Low-income students can apply for fee waivers.

How Many Times Can You Take the SAT?

You can take the SAT as many times as the College Board offers it each year. Most students who retake the SAT improve their score.

How Should You Prepare for the SAT?

At-Home Study Methods

Test takers can prepare for the SAT using a variety of at-home study methods, including the ones listed below.

Printed Study Guides

Students benefit from using the most up-to-date version of the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide. This guide includes practice tests created by the makers of the SAT.


SAT flashcards can help test takers memorize math formulas and vocabulary words. You can buy premade flashcards or create your own.

Private Tutoring

Private SAT tutors can help you determine your target SAT score and create a realistic study plan. Good tutors identify and address their students’ weaknesses.

Studying Apps

Mobile SAT prep apps can help you study on the go and at your convenience. Many of these apps offer realistic practice questions.

Online Practice Tests

Completing online practice tests is one of the best ways to prepare for the SAT. Many sites offer practice tests for free.

SAT Prep Courses

Enrolling in an SAT prep course, either online or in-person, is another good way to prepare for the test. Many companies offer SAT prep courses, including Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Khan Academy. However, prep courses can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Fortunately, some organizations, including Khan Academy, offer free prep courses. Common components of prep courses include practice tests, reviewing previously completed exams, and flashcards. Online prep courses typically use a self-paced format, while in-person courses follow a set schedule.

Studying Tips for the SAT

  • Use Realistic Practice Tests: The best way to practice is to answer questions most like those on the actual SAT. Use the eight official practice tests made available by the College Board.
  • Stick to a Study Plan: Decide what SAT study method works best for you and then commit to it. Think about your learning style and how much time and money you can spend on studying.
  • Choose a Target Score: Deciding what score you want to earn on the SAT can inform your plan of study and motivate you to keep going. Choose a target score based on the average scores of your top schools.
  • Analyze Your Weaknesses: Do not ignore your mistakes. Figure out areas of weakness and then spend extra time practicing those types of questions.
  • Determine How Long You Need to Study: You can estimate how long you need to study by determining the difference between your most recent practice exam (or a previous SAT score) and your target score. For example, a ~30 point improvement may require about 10 hours of study.

Helpful Resources

Test takers can take advantage of a variety of free sources to help them study for the SAT.

  • College Board Practice Tests: The creators of the SAT offer eight official SAT practice tests. Test takers find out which questions they got wrong once they finish an exam.
  • Khan Academy: Working with the College Board, Khan Academy offers practice tests, SAT tips, and strategies.
  • Magoosh SAT Prep YouTube Channel: Test takers can visit this YouTube channel to watch short SAT prep videos covering issues like grammar rules, improving your score, last minute tips and strategies, and math practice questions.
  • Supertutor TV SAT YouTube Channel: A Stanford graduate who earned a perfect SAT score offers test takers tips on topics like how to self-study, writing the perfect essay, and avoiding careless errors.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

All SAT testing centers follow the same procedure on test day, with doors opening at 7:45 a.m. and closing at 8 a.m. Once the test begins, no one is allowed to enter the test room. The test starts between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Test takers receive an assigned seat. Most students receive one 10-minute and one five-minute break. You can only eat, drink, or go to the restroom during these assigned breaks. The test center provides any needed scratch paper.

What Should You Bring with You?

Valid Photo ID

The SAT only accepts original, unexpired government- or school-issued IDs. Your ID must include your full, legal name and match the name on your admission ticket exactly.

Admission Ticket

Test takers must present their printed admission ticket to enter the testing center. You can access your ticket by signing into your College Board account.

No. 2 Pencils

You will need pencils to answer questions and work out some of the math problems by hand. You can also use pencils to make notes on the provided scratch paper.

Approved Calculator

Test takers may only use SAT-approved calculators. This includes all four-function and scientific calculators and most graphing calculators. Make sure you feel comfortable using your device for sitting for the exam.


Some test takers find it helpful to bring a watch to keep track of the time. However, the SAT does not allow watches with audible alarms or smartwatches.

Layers of Clothing

Being comfortable during the test can help you earn a better score. You can’t control the temperature of the testing center, but wearing layers of clothing enables you to adjust how warm or cold you feel.

What Should You Leave at Home?

Math Tools (e.g., Protractors)

Test takers should leave all math tools at home. You can answer all questions on the test without them.

Unapproved Electronics

Due to security concerns, test takers cannot bring personal laptops, cell phones, or any other unapproved electronics into the testing room.

Books (e.g., Dictionaries)

Books, including dictionaries and encyclopedias, cannot enter the testing room. SAT rules do not permit test takers to consult outside written materials during the exam.

Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

Students with documented disabilities may qualify for certain accommodations. These include extra or extended breaks; extended testing times; and accommodations for reading and seeing, such as large-print or Braille test booklets. You can learn more about applying for a testing accommodation at the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities webpage. Make sure to apply early for accommodations – it can take up to seven weeks to receive approval. If you plan to take the SAT in the fall, talk to your school counselor the spring before.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Test takers receive their scores online about 12 days after taking the exam. The SAT provides the exact dates test takers can access their scores based on their test date. If you take the SAT with the essay portion, you receive your essay score two days after your multiple-choice scores.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

When you register for the SAT, you can select up to four schools you want your scores sent to for free. Within 10 days of receiving your scores, the College Board automatically sends your scores to these designated colleges. You can pay a fee to send your SAT scores to additional schools, if needed.

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

The College Board’s Score Choice option lets test takers who take the test multiple times decide which scores they want sent to colleges. This lets you submit only your highest scores; however, you cannot send scores from separate test sections on different dates. For example, you cannot send your math score from April and your reading score from November. Instead, you must send the entire score report for a test. Note that some colleges require students to submit all of their SAT score reports.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

Although the College Board does not set a time limit on how long SAT scores remain valid, scores more than five years old come with a note explaining that they may be less valid predictors of college success than more recent scores.