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What Does the SAT Test You On? Format, Questions, and Useful Tips

A student shading in bubbles while taking the SAT test.

If you’re getting ready to head off to college or are a parent supporting your student as they look forward to the next educational chapter, standardized tests can be a daunting part of the process. Tests like the SAT and ACT are a factor in whether or not your child gets into their dream school.

While test day can be intimidating, preparing beforehand will allow you walk into the testing center with confidence, ready to tackle the job at hand. Part of preparation is knowing what to expect on the test. That means knowing what topics are on the SAT test, how much time you’ll have for each section, and what you can expect on test day.

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “What does the SAT test you on?,” you’ve come to the right place. We’ll go over the basics of the SAT, cover the kinds of questions you’ll find on the test, and give you a few tips for success.

What Is the SAT?

Student using an eraser when wondering, "What does the SAT test you on?"

The SAT is an exam that assesses a student's college readiness. The test is administered by the College Board. It measures your skills on topics you learned in high school and concepts that you need to understand to do well in college.

The SAT is a key component of getting into college. College admissions officers in the United States look at test scores from this college entrance exam — as well as other exams like the ACT test — to gauge your academic performance. They combine it with your personal story, educational experience, and community involvement when deciding whether you’re a good fit for the college or university.

High school students take the SAT test in the spring of their junior year or in the fall of their senior year. The exam has three main test sections and addresses your knowledge of concepts in reading, math, and writing. Read on to learn more about the topics covered in the SAT and what kinds of questions you can expect to solve.

What Does the SAT Test You On?

Student taking the SAT wonders, "What does the SAT test you on?"

The SAT is broken down into three sections covering three topics: math, reading, and writing. The test is timed and takes 180 minutes, or three hours, to complete. There is an optional SAT essay section, which takes an additional 50 minutes. The new SAT test also has a no-calculator section, which is different from the old SAT test. Here’s an in-depth breakdown of what’s on the SAT test.

Reading Section

The SAT critical reading section consists of 52 multiple choice questions and has a time limit of 65 minutes. The section requires you to read and interpret graphics to answer the questions. The goal is to see how well you can read and process information, two key skills you’ll need to succeed in college.

The reading test follows this format:

  • One passage based on classic or modern texts or world literature

  • Two science-based passages that cover essential discoveries and theories in biology, chemistry, Earth science, or physics.

  • One passage on social studies topics, including economics and psychology

  • One passage from a United States founding document, like the Bill of Rights, or a famous global event, like a speech from Mary Wollstonecraft or Frederick Douglass

After reading each passage, you’ll need to answer a set of questions based on the content in the passage. These questions assess your reading comprehension skills and your ability to draw conclusions based on evidence.

SAT reading questions may ask about the goal of the narrative or the meaning of a specific phrase within the passage. Questions may also ask you to support a statement using text from the passage. You may be asked to examine why certain language is used, to determine the values of the passage, or to choose which claims are backed by evidence in accompanying graphics. You can find sample reading questions on the College Board website to prepare before the test.

Writing and Language Section

What does the SAT test you on? Student taking test discovers.

The SAT writing section contains 44 multiple choice questions and has a time limit of 35 minutes. This portion of the test is designed to assess your knowledge of grammar and proper usage. It assesses how well you can read passages, identify mistakes, and make the proper corrections.

The SAT writing and language test contains these five types of questions:

  • Standard English Conventions: These questions examine your ability to use basic writing skills. You’ll be asked to change or identify word choice, clauses, punctuation, and grammar. This also includes testing your knowledge of commas, verb tenses, and subject-verb agreement.

  • Command of Evidence: These questions offer different ways to support evidence or concepts in a passage. You’ll need to pick the best supporting evidence based on the argument and narrative of the passage.

  • Expression of Ideas: You’ll be asked to identify the elements of word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph structure that make the passage effective.

  • Words in Context: For these questions, you’ll choose the best word from the list of multiple-choice options based on the context of the passage. The goal is to choose the best word to improve the meaning, tone, or style of the passage.

  • History, Science, and Social Studies Analysis: You’ll read the passage and use editing skills to make them stronger and more effective.

Most of the writing section questions will underline a sentence or set of words and pose questions directly related to that information. You’ll be asked to choose better words to make an argument or identify a grammar issue in the underlined text. Again, you can find practice questions on the College Board website.

Math Section

Student uses a protractor while taking the math section of the SAT.

The math section of the SAT is the longest section and takes 80 minutes. It’s divided into two parts: a 55-minute calculator section and a 25-minute no-calculator section. In this section, there are a total of 58 questions, 45 of which are multiple-choice with five possible answers. The other 13 questions are grid-in questions where test-takers must write in the answers and then fill out the corresponding bubbles.

The SAT math test covers four topic areas including algebra, geometry, data analysis, and operations. The no-calculator section has 15 multiple choice questions and five grid-in questions. The calculator portion has 30 multiple choice questions and eight grid-in questions.

SAT math questions are broken down into the following categories:

  • Heart of Algebra: These questions assess your knowledge of basic algebra concepts including interpreting and solving graphs, linear equations, functions, and inequalities. You’ll need to simplify equations, solve for variables, and match equations to graphs. There are 19 questions total — 11 in the calculator section and eight in the no-calculator section.

  • Passport to Advanced Math: These math questions focus on quadratic equations, exponents, and word problems. In this section, you’ll encounter radicals, polynomials, functions, and isolating quantities. There are 16 questions covering these topics with nine in the no-calculator section and seven in the calculator section.

  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: Questions in this section deal with data from graphs as well as rates, ratios, and percentages. These questions only appear in the calculator section. There are 17 questions and they examine your ability to solve equations and analyze graphs to support claims.

  • Additional Topics: Additional topics you’ll be tested on include concepts of basic trigonometry and geometry. There are six questions on additional topics, which are evenly spread between the two math sections.

Optional Essay Section

For the optional essay section, you’ll be given a passage and a brief summary describing the passage’s main argument. You’ll be asked to write an essay that analyzes how the passage develops its argument. The key is not to write about your opinion of the argument, but rather about to examine how the author developed the argument and analyze the evidence that was used. The portion requires you to write a 650-750 word essay, and it is all about being objective.

How Is the SAT Scored?

SAT scores are ranked on a scale between 400 and 1600 and are a key part of college applications. Students are given two section scores: one for the math section and a combined score for the reading and writing sections. The math and reading/writing sections are evenly weighted with a score range of 200 to 800. The optional essay portion is graded on a scale of one to eight and has three separate scores for reading, writing, and analysis. A perfect score on the essay portion is 8-8-8.

The essay score is not included in the total score that is sent to colleges. However, some colleges require applicants to take the essay portion of the SAT. Check with the schools you want to attend to determine if you need to take the SAT essay portion in order to apply. Each school has a different policy, so make sure to check with each one.

In addition to the main scores, you will receive subscores for different skills. While these numbers can help guide your study plan if you decide to take the test a second time, only the section scores are important for the college admissions process. In addition, you won’t be penalized for wrong answers, so try to answer all of the questions if time permits.

Tips for Doing Well on the SAT

Student studying for the SAT test wonders, "What does the SAT test you on?"

There are many things you can do to prepare for the SAT. The most valuable tip is to take practice tests or use an SAT prep book. You can find free SAT practice tests on the College Board site, which can help you get a feel for the actual test questions. You’ll also be able to see the types of skills they assess and identify any areas you may need extra help with. Here are some additional ways to prepare.

Take the PSAT

It’s a good idea to take the PSAT or the Preliminary SAT test. This test is also known as the NMSQT, which stands for the National Merit Scholarship test. Sophomores and juniors should take the test not only to get practice for the SAT, but to get scholarship money to help pay for university programs.

During the test, you’ll be asked to confirm that you’re a high school student and that you’re on track to graduate on time. After you take the test, you’ll be automatically entered into the scholarship contest. Contestants will be narrowed down based on highest scores and a population formula in each state. The test takers who receive the highest scores will be awarded scholarships. The test takes place in October, and you can talk to your school counselor to learn more about the test and the scholarship program.

Work With a Tutor

We all need a little help sometimes. If you know you struggle with a certain topic or want specific help when it comes to studying for the SAT, think about working with a tutor. An online tutor can help answer quick, last-minute questions and can go over topics you may struggle with.

You can find SAT tutors who specialize in test prep or focus on subject areas like math or languages if you’re also taking the SAT subject tests. SAT subject tests are optional, one-hour long exams, designed to show a student’s ability in a certain study area. Taking a subject matter test can strengthen your college application if you already know which major you want to pursue. There are highly-skilled tutors in all areas including physics, Spanish, and literature.

Get There Early

The last thing you want to do is wake up late and feel like you’re scrambling to get in your seat on time. Make sure to get a good night’s sleep before the test. Try to focus on what you know and build confidence rather than allowing yourself to feel frazzled or stressed out.

On test day, students need to arrive around 7:45 a.m. Doors to the testing center will close at 8:00 a.m. The test will generally begin between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Plan ahead and wake up early enough to eat a good breakfast and get to the testing site on time. Take into account any traffic that may delay your arrival.

Get Ready for the SAT With TutorMe

Student using online tutor to study for the SAT test.

Getting ready for your SAT test date doesn’t have to be fraught with anxiety. Preparing and taking the time to study beforehand can help build confidence and develop skills you’ll need to get a great score. Whether it’s your first time taking the test or you’re trying to improve your previous score, working with a tutor can help you reach your goal.

At TutorMe, we work with high-quality tutors who can help you prepare for the SAT. Tutors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week so you can get help whenever you need it. Work with an SAT test prep tutor to get specialized help preparing for exam day or look for math tutors, science tutors, or social studies tutors to practice skills and get help in areas you may have trouble in.