As you prepare for the SAT this year (in 2024, the Digital SAT will be very different), it’s helpful to understand how the test works so you can focus and improve your score (and scholarship opportunities). This blog is a deep dive into the SAT sections, questions, and timings.
What are the SAT Sections?
The SAT has four sections covering three different subjects, with 154 questions total. The entire test takes 3 hours, not including the ten-minute break after Reading or the five-minute break after the first Math section.
The Reading Comprehension section provides 65 minutes to answer 52 questions. That averages out to 75 seconds to answer each question.
This section includes five reading passages, each with 10 or 11 questions. According to the SAT, the passages include content from U.S. and world literature, history/social studies, and science. Students will also be asked “best-evidence” question pairs where you will find the sentence(s) in the passage that supports your answer to a previous question.
One of the passages on the Reading test includes a pair of related passages, with some questions comparing and contrasting the two. Two of the passages also include informational graphics that will be referenced in the questions.
Writing & Language Test
The Writing & Language test provides 35 minutes to answer 44 questions. That means students have roughly 48 seconds for each question.
This test includes four passages, each with 11 questions. The essays include nonfiction narratives, arguments, and informative/explanatory texts. These passages cover anything from career-related topics and humanities to history/social studies and science. Like the Reading test, typically two of these passages include informational graphics. While the Reading test focuses on analysis of the passage, the Writing & Language test focuses on the structure of the passage, grammar, and punctuation.
This section used to be infamous for the difficult vocabulary questions asked, but with the reformatting of the SAT in March 2016, the vocabulary tested is no longer as challenging as it was previously. There are still some questions that test students’ vocabulary knowledge, but the words are asked in the context of a passage, which tends to be more attainable for most test-takers.
The two Math sections on the SAT total to 80 minutes with 58 questions. Between the two tests, 45 of the questions are multiple choice and 13 are what the SAT calls “student-produced response.” The SAT gives you basic geometry formulas to use on both sections.
Because there are two math sections, math consists of 50% of the total score. Calculators are only allowed on the second math section
The two sections include content in four main areas:
- Heart of Algebra (19 questions)
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis (17 questions)
- Passport to Advanced Math (16 questions)
- Additional Topics in Math (6 questions)
The goal of the SAT test writers is to focus on the areas of math that you will encounter in a wide variety of college majors and careers.
Math without a calculator
This section contains 20 questions in 25 minutes, which gives you 75 seconds per question.
Math with a calculator
After a quick five minute break, you can break out the calculator for the final section of the SAT. This section includes 38 questions in the final, 55-minute stretch, which gives you about 87 seconds per question.
Remember, while there’s no Science section on the SAT, your ability to interpret charts, tables, and graphs will be tested in all of the test sections.
Take Practice Tests
The best way to get familiar with the sections and questions on the SAT is to take practice tests. Once you’re armed with the best strategies (by using OnToCollege SAT Prep), the best thing you can do is take multiple practice tests…and then take the actual test multiple times.
Think of your favorite sport or activity. Odds are, you weren’t amazing at it the first time you tried it. But over time, with practice, it becomes more natural. We learn by practice, and the same principles are true of the SAT. Knowing the format of the test and the types of questions you will encounter will help you score your best.