Junior year rolls around, and with it comes the excitement for the future—and the dread of standardized tests. Standardized tests like the SAT are important, not just for college admissions, but also to minimize future college debt by increasing the scholarships and financial aid you earn! But what is the SAT test and how can you prepare to increase your SAT scores? This blog walks you through the basics of the SAT, how SAT scores work, and ways to increase your scores.

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized test created by the College Board. It’s typically taken by juniors and seniors and used for college admissions, scholarship awards, and school assessments. It consists of four sections: a Reading section, a Writing & Language section (English) and two Math sections. The test takes approximately three hours, not including breaks. 

What are the sections of the SAT? 

The first section of the SAT is the Reading section. This section of the test includes complex reading passages to test students’ critical reading and thinking skills. It also asks “best-evidence” questions where students find the sentences in the passage that provide support for their answer to a previous question.

In the next section, Writing & Language, the majority of the questions focus on grammar and punctuation. The rest of the questions focus on content and vocabulary. The SAT was significantly reformatted in March 2016, and the vocabulary tested is no longer as challenging as it once was.

The Math sections on the SAT require a deep understanding of algebra, but the test provides basic geometry formulas. Calculators are only allowed on the second math section, and not all questions are multiple-choice. Because there are two math sections, math consists of 50% of the overall SAT score. 

There is no Science section on the SAT like there is on the ACT, but knowledge of interpreting charts, tables, and graphs is assessed throughout all of the sections of the test.

How long is the SAT? 

Without breaks, the SAT takes 180 minutes or three hours to complete (or almost four hours if you are doing the optional Essay). There is a ten-minute break before the Writing & Language section and a five-minute break after the first Math section.

How long is the SAT?

The timing is split between the four sections on the SAT:

  • Reading Comprehension (65 min)
  • Writing & Language (35 min)
  • Math without a calculator (25 min)
  • Math with a calculator (55 min)

Timing is an advantage on the SAT, especially compared to the ACT. The SAT gives you 3 hours (180 minutes) to answer a total of 154 questions. The ACT, however, is only 2 hours, 55 minutes but there are 215 questions to answer. 

How many questions are on the SAT? 

There are 154 questions on the SAT. 

  • The Reading section includes 52 questions in 65 minutes (75 seconds per question)
  • Writing & Language includes 44 questions in 35 minutes (about 48 seconds per question)
  • Math without a calculator is 20 questions in 25 minutes (75 seconds per question)
  • Math with a calculator is 38 questions in 55 minutes (about 87 seconds per question)

What are the SAT test dates? 

The SAT test is typically offered seven times each year in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. This means you have multiple opportunities to take the test and increase your scores. 

Many schools, especially in states where the SAT is mandated for all high school juniors, will also offer the test during the school day for students, generally in the spring. Check with your school to see if and when they offer the SAT. 

What is the average SAT score?

The SAT score range is from 400 to 1600. The average SAT score for the class of 2020 was 1051, down eight points compared with the class of 2019. (Curious what that would be on the ACT?)

Average SAT score in 2020

The highest SAT score is a 1600, and, according to the College Board’s latest score report, only 7% of all test-takers scored higher than a 1400. No one scored below a 590, and 12% of test-takers scored between 600 and 790.

How do I register for the SAT?

To register for the SAT, head to www.collegeboard.org. Test centers can be found on the SAT website, and you can search by state and test date.

Students need to bring a photo ID as well as their admission ticket on test day. You can use a driver’s license, passport, or other government-issued photo ID. If your student doesn’t have any of these IDs, the SAT offers alternative methods to prove their identity. 

When you register, you can also include information that allows colleges and scholarship organizations to find you. You also can send four free score reports to colleges when you register for the SAT. To send reports after you get your scores, there is an additional fee.

How much does the SAT cost? 

It costs $52 to take the SAT. There is a $30 late fee if you register outside of the regular registration deadline. You can send up to four score reports for free up to nine days after the test date. Additional score reports or reports ordered after you take the test are $12 per report. 

The SAT offers fee waivers to eligible test-takers (free & reduced lunch, receiving public assistance, etc). Those waivers allow students to take up to two free SATs (with or without the essay) and to send unlimited score reports. If you think you may be eligible for a fee waiver, work with your school counselor to submit the request. 

When should you take the SAT?

Taking the PSAT can be a good introduction to the format and content of the SAT. This test can be taken during sophomore or junior year of high school. Students may only qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program by testing during their junior year. Signup for the PSAT is done through your school.

After taking the PSAT, it’s best for students to take the SAT at least four times. No one gets their best score the first (or even second) time. This usually means taking the test twice junior year and twice senior fall. This increases the chances of a student scoring their best score and increasing potential scholarships and financial aid! 

Should I take the SAT or ACT? 

All colleges accept both the ACT and SAT, so it’s often best to try both and then decide where to focus your effort. The SAT has two Math sections compared to only one for the ACT. The ACT, however, has a Science and Data Interpretation section. 

In general, the content on the SAT is more challenging, but more time is given per question, compared to the ACT. 

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to take either test multiple times. Don’t stop after you take it once or twice! Improve your scores through practice! 

How long does it take to get SAT scores? 

SAT multiple-choice scores are usually returned within 2-3 weeks of your test date. The College Board has a schedule on their website that breaks it down by individual test date. 

If you took the SAT essay, those scores will typically arrive a week after your multiple-choice score. All your score reports are sent to your selected colleges within ten days. 

How do you improve your SAT scores?

Practice and preparation are two of the biggest ways you can improve your SAT score. Find SAT prep that’s fun and engaging but also gives you strategies to help you take the test. Not all test prep is created equal, so make sure you do your research, read reviews, and look past flashy guarantees. 

OnToCollege offers an effective video course that not only gives you the strategies you need, but offers practice tests and detailed solution videos to help you learn from your mistakes. 

Make sure you use actual SAT practice tests as you study, (we have three included in our course!) so you can learn the format of the test. Then make sure you take the actual SAT multiple times. We recommend you take it four times: twice your junior year and twice your senior year. 


Want to get started? Sign up for the OnToCollege SAT free trial to start your test prep for free!