SAT General Overview

Here is an overview of what is on the SAT Reasoning Test (borrowed from the College Board’s website):

  • Critical Reading

The Critical Reading (often abbreviated as CR) section of the SAT totals 70 minutes in length and comprises 67 questions, of which 48 are passage-based (they test your ability to read effectively) and 19 are sentence-completion questions (these test your applied vocabulary and ability to recognize words’ relationships within a sentence). The CR section breaks these questions into three sections: one of 20 minutes and two of 25 minutes.

  • Math

The Math section of the SAT is also 70 minutes long and spread out over three sections; likewise, two of these are 25-minutes sections, and one is 20 minutes long. There are 54 questions: 44 multiple-choice questions and 10 free-response (i.e., grid-in) questions.

  • Writing

The SAT Writing section, added in 2005, is a slightly shorter 60 minutes, which is broken into three sections (one 25-minute essay section to commence the test, a 25-minute section, and a refreshingly brief 10-minute section to round out the SAT). There are 25 Improving Sentences questions, 18 Identifying Errors questions, 6 Improving Paragraphs questions, and the essay.

Including an unscored experimental section of any subject, the SAT totals three hours and 45 minutes in length (plus a couple breaks); part of the test’s difficulty comes from the endurance required to maintain focus for this long.

What Does the SAT Test?

In contrast to the ACT’s achievement focus, the SAT is foremost an aptitude test. Although there is certainly some overlap, the ACT functions primarily to indicate what has been learned, whereas the SAT serves as an indicator of the test-taker’s capacity to learn.

However, there are some aspects of the SAT that are indisputably dependent on a student’s previous exposure to material, such as the Sentence Completion questions (which usually require that one be familiar with the words being tested) and a few of the Math questions. Even these exceptions, however, are not purely knowledge-based: one’s ability to learn and apply vocabulary is influenced by his or her intelligence, and almost every Math question on the SAT can be solved logically or by smartly applying the given equations.

In general, very little previous knowledge is actually required for success on the SAT. (Knowing grammar rules for the Writing section is incredibly helpful and we will discuss this later).

How Do you Prepare for an Aptitude Test?

Some may think that the SAT is an IQ test, but it’s really not. The SAT can be a proxy for intelligence, but the sheer fact that there is a massive preparation industry indicates that you can actually improve your score on the test. To quote from CC’er UT84321 from Silverturtle’s guide:

“I have come to think of the SAT I as analogous to specialized drills that a concert pianist might use. The SAT I tests very specialized skills that can be mastered through a combination of talent and effort. They are merely indicators/correlates for the ultimate performance someone is capable of achieving.

So you master the drills by rote repetition and focused practice, with great attention to developing good technique. Some people are able to master the drills on their own, yet others hire teachers to push, correct, and direct them. Some master the drills after 10 practice sessions, others might take dozens.

When people say “I don’t test well” they are saying they haven’t figured out their path to mastering the drills.

Someone could master the drills and never really be a creative and expressive performer. But the majority of the top quality performers are capable of the discipline that both allows and comes from mastering the drills. Hopefully the drills have been designed so that the techniques they demand are foundational to creative performance.

And schools base their admission evaluations on applicants’ mastery of these drills because they believe–rightly or wrongly–that it is part of the data that helps them identify students with the potential to perform.

They are drills, and nothing more. They are neither your identity nor your future. And they are certainly not a measure of your self worth.”

Good Habits of Mind

  • It’s just you and the test.

    Try to zone out everything around you, realizing that for the four hours that you take the SAT, the test booklet in front of you is the only thing that matters.

  • Ignore the consequences.

    If you’re preoccupied with what might happen if you miss a question, it drastically reduces your ability to focus and successfully answer the question. Put all future consequences out of your mind and try to treat each problem as a fun challenge.

  • The answers have already been determined.

    Maybe this is a mere idiosyncrasy, but realizing that the answers are sitting somewhere at the College Board has always helped. It’s your job to find them. Remember that every question can only have one right answer, and every other answer must be wrong. In a court of law, the College Board would have to prove that there can only be one right answer. This alone took me from the 2200’s to getting nearly perfect scores on practice tests.

  • Visualization

    Visualizing your taking the test beforehand is quite helpful in facilitating focus and equanimity.

Find the appropriate balance between calmness and arousal. Of course, you do not want to be panicked during the SAT. But this should not be taken too far: a moderate level of arousal is necessary to keep your concentration and pace. There is no general rule here;

  • Don’t harbor negative feelings toward the test.

    Such an attitude makes you do badly.


Don’t oversleep, don’t do anything too different. See Test Day Checklist from the College Board for what to bring. You should not do anything stressful or intense in the days leading up to the exam. Be confident in the knowledge that you’ve prepped the right way and will crush this exam.

Omitting Questions

One thing that comes up often is whether or not to omit questions or guess. Our goal is to answer every questions correctly (and be confident it’s correct), so this discussion is mostly irrelevant.

If you are doggedly aiming for a perfect score on Math, answer every question (missing one almost never results in 800), even if you have to blindly guess.

Similarly, if you are looking for a perfect score on Critical Reading, answer every question; there are no exceptions to this rule. Why? On almost every testing administration, -2 raw points was the cutoff for 800 on CR. Because it takes three incorrect guesses to result in an actual loss of a raw point (the College Board rounds .5 in your favor and only works in integers), there is no difference between two incorrect responses and two omissions.

The College Board is going to remove the guessing penalty in the next version of the SAT, so of course this discussion will be irrelevant then.

The Game Plan

So what we’re getting at here is that there are a set of drills that you can master to excel on this exam. It starts with base building - you must know the content on the exam. After that though, it’s about understanding the test and specifically the intentions of the test makers.

Basically, once you have the basic skills, you can game the SAT to consistently score very high.

In the next section we will discuss preparation materials.