Junior year rolls around, and with it comes excitement for the future—and 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? Learn the basics of the SAT, how SAT scores work, and ways to increase your scores.

NOTE: International students are already taking the Digital SAT while U.S. students will begin taking the new test in Spring 2024. So, if you will graduate in 2025, you’ll take the new Digital SAT

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized test created by the College Board. Typically, juniors and seniors take the test for college admissions, scholarship awards, and school assessments. It includes four sections: Reading, Writing & Language (English), and two Math sections. The test takes approximately three hours, not including breaks. For some students in particular states, an optional Essay portion adds an extra fifty minutes at the end.

What are the sections of the SAT? 

The first SAT section is Reading which includes complex reading passages to test 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 questions focus on grammar and punctuation. The rest of the questions focus on content and vocabulary. The SAT was reformatted in 2016, and the vocabulary tested is no longer as challenging. In spring 2024, the SAT will be reformatted again and shifted to a digital platform.

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

No Science section exists on the SAT as on the ACT, but knowledge of interpreting charts, tables, and graphs is assessed throughout all test sections.

How long is the SAT? 

Without breaks, the SAT takes 180 minutes or three hours to complete. The test includes two breaks: ten minutes before the Writing & Language section and five minutes 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, and 55 minutes but has 215 questions to answer. 

How many questions are on the SAT? 

The SAT includes 154 questions. 

  • 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 offered seven times each year in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. This provides 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, 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?

SAT scores range from 400 to 1600. The average SAT score for the class of 2023 was 1028, down 22 points from 2022. (Curious what that would be on the ACT?) According to the College Board’s latest score report, only 7% of all test-takers scored higher than 1400. No one scored below 590, and 12% of test-takers scored between 600 and 790.

How do you register for the SAT?

Register for the SAT at www.collegeboard.org. Test centers can be found on the SAT website, where you can search by state and test date. Bring a photo ID with your admission ticket on test day. You can use a driver’s license, passport, or other government-issued photo ID. If you don’t have any of these IDs, the SAT offers alternative methods to prove your identity. When you register, you can choose to include information to allow colleges and scholarship organizations to contact you. 

How much does the SAT cost? 

For 2023, taking the SAT costs $60. Add $30 if you register late, after the regular deadline. You can send up to four free score reports up to nine days after the test date. Additional score reports or reports ordered after you take the test are $14 per report. The SAT offers fee waivers to eligible test-takers (free & reduced lunch, receiving public assistance, etc.). Students can use the waivers to take two free SATs (with or without the essay) and send unlimited score reports. If you think you may be eligible, work with your school counselor to submit your request. 

When should you take the SAT?

Taking the PSAT is a good introduction to the format and content of the SAT, during the sophomore or junior year of high school. You may only qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program by testing during your junior year. Register for the PSAT through your school. After taking the PSAT, consider taking the SAT at least four times. No one gets their best score the first (or even second) time. Try taking the test twice in your junior year and twice in your senior fall. This increases the chances of scoring your best and boosting potential scholarships and financial aid! 

Should you take the SAT or ACT? 

All colleges accept both the ACT and SAT, so try both, 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. The most important thing is to take either test multiple times. Improve your scores through practice.

How long does it take to get SAT scores? 

SAT multiple-choice scores are usually reported within 2-3 weeks of your test date. A schedule for individual test dates is available. The College Board sends all score reports 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 take the test. Not all test prep is created equal, so research, read reviews, and look past flashy guarantees. OnToCollege offers an effective video course that not only gives you strategies but also practice tests and solution videos to help you learn from your mistakes. Use actual SAT practice tests as you study, (three are included in our course) to learn the format of the test. Then take the actual SAT multiple times, ideally twice your junior year and twice your senior year. 

Register for an OnToCollege SAT free trial to start test prep for free!