Junior year rolls around, and with it comes excitement for the future—and standardized tests. Standardized tests like the Digital 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 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.

What is the SAT?

The Digital SAT is a standardized test created by the College Board and has been completely redesigned beginning with the March 2024 test. You’ll take the test on the SAT Bluebook™ app (unless you have paper-based accommodations) which you’ll want to download and practice with before test day. Typically, juniors and seniors take the test for college admissions, scholarship awards, and school assessments. The test takes about two and a half hours, including two short 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 Digital SAT includes two sections with two modules each, Reading & Writing and Math. Each section counts for 50% of your composite score. This newly adaptive test contains a mix of easy to difficult questions in the first module for each section, then offers an easier or tougher second module depending on how well you answer the questions in the first section. 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. The SAT provides 68% more time per question than the ACT, and there’s no penalty for guessing.

Reading & Writing

The Reading & Writing section includes short (25-150 words) reading passages (or passage pairs) on subjects from literature, history/social studies, the humanities, and science.  Each multiple-choice question that follows a passage covers one of four domains:

  • Information and Ideas. Measures comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills and knowledge and the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, and integrate information and ideas from texts and informational graphics (tables, bar graphs, and line graphs).
  • Craft and Structure. Measures the comprehension, vocabulary, analysis, synthesis, and reasoning skills and knowledge needed to understand and use high-utility words and phrases in context, evaluate texts rhetorically, and make connections between topically related texts.
  • Expression of Ideas. Measures the ability to revise texts to improve the effectiveness of written expression and to meet specific rhetorical goals.
  • Standard English Conventions. Measures the ability to edit text to conform to core conventions of Standard English sentence structure, usage, and punctuation.

Math

The Math section requires a deep understanding of algebra, but the test provides basic geometry formulas. The Bluebook app includes a built-in calculator, or you can still choose to bring your own from an approved list. Most (approximately 75%) questions are multiple-choice; but for some questions, you’ll need to provide a specific answer. These student-produced response (SPR) format questions may have multiple correct responses, but you’ll only provide one answer. Questions measure your ability to apply essential math concepts and about 30% of questions ask you to evaluate an in-context (worded) scenario and determine how to apply your math skills to find the answer. Each question covers one of four content areas:

  • Algebra. Algebra measures the ability to analyze, fluently solve, and create linear equations and inequalities as well as analyze and fluently solve equations and systems of equations using multiple techniques. (13-15 questions)
  • Advanced Math. The Advanced Math area measures skills and knowledge central for progression to more advanced math courses, including demonstrating an understanding of absolute value, quadratic, exponential, polynomial, rational, radical, and other nonlinear equations. (13-15 questions)
  • Problem-Solving and Data Analysis. Problem-Solving and Data Analysis measures the ability to apply quantitative reasoning about ratios, rates, and proportional relationships; understand and apply unit rate; and analyze and interpret one- and two-variable data. (5-7 questions)
  • Geometry and Trigonometry. Problems to solve include area and volume formulas; lines, angles, and triangles; right triangles and trigonometry, and circles. (5-7 questions)

How long is the SAT? 

Without breaks, the SAT takes 134 minutes (64 for Reading & Writing, 70 for Math) to complete, with two modules in each section. The test includes one break: ten minutes between the Reading & Writing and Math sections. How long is the SAT?

How many questions are on the SAT? 

The SAT includes 154 questions. 

  • Reading & Writing includes 54 questions in 64 minutes (average 71 seconds per question)
  • Math  has 44 questions in 70 minutes (average 95 seconds per question)

What are the SAT dates? 

The SAT 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. The Digital SAT (March 2024 onward) may be difficult to compare with the previous version of the SAT.

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. 

On test day, you are expected to bring your fully-charged device with the Bluebook testing app already loaded. You can also bring a pen/pencil and use the scratch paper provided at the test site.

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!