SAT Sections: A Full Breakdown of Each

Photo of a student using a pencil to take the Math section of an exam
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/30/22

Preparing for the SAT takes a great deal of effort and time. Most students spend several months preparing. There are three SAT sections that focus on math and English overall.

As part of many college applications, students must submit an SAT score that meets the school’s general requirements. The SAT is a three-part test administered by College Board that provides a benchmark for students and colleges to see how prepared they are for a secondary education. 

Each SAT section covers standard skills and knowledge that students should know by the end of high school. The SAT sections cover writing, reading, and math skills, each of which has a set number of questions and time allotted for them. The overall exam establishes what your strengths and weaknesses are as a student.

The SAT marks the jumping off point from high school to college. By taking the test, you are saying that as a student you are prepared for the challenges to come and are ready to begin preparing for your career. While the test may be daunting, many guides exist to tell you exactly what to expect on the exam. 

Preparation can only help you and can increase your score by a wide margin.

Sections on the SAT

Infographic outlining the SAT sections

The SAT Sections cover high school level reading, writing, and math skills. While the reading portion of the exam checks your comprehension abilities, as well as your basic historical and literary knowledge, the writing SAT section evaluates your grammar and communication skills. 

The math section of the SAT tests fundamental algebra and statistics, with some more advanced math.  

The SAT Reading Test

The SAT reading test consists of multiple choice questions that focus on history and literary knowledge. Your critical reading and comprehension skills cover the majority of the test material. The reading test also sprinkles in some material related to history and literature. 

Having prior knowledge of the content can be helpful with some of the passages in this SAT section. High school literature and history classes may help prepare you on top of grammar and language arts.

The reading portion wants you to focus on three specific skills. Your comprehension ability and critical reading skills should help you glean out the specific information you need from the passage. 

Testing techniques that help narrow down your choices will lead you to the correct answers and overall success. A useful tip is to read the questions before the passage can help make the test a bit easier and save time for review. 

Other questions in the SAT Reading test will require you to use rhetoric and synthesis based skills. These questions may ask you to come to specific conclusions about a passage in order to apply it to new information or other ideas. Some of these questions include graphs to interpret what you’ve just read. 

The SAT Math Test

When taking this SAT section, make sure to have everything you need! A calculator that fits the requirements set by College Board for the math section may be your lifeline. It’s the only other thing you need outside of your pencils. College Board recommends that you know your calculator and be comfortable with using it. 

The first of three topic sections on the SAT covers algebra. Expect to be solving basic functions, simplifying them and plugging answers into a multiple choice exam page. Although they will be provided within the exam booklet, make sure to be familiar with the geometric formulas you will need for this SAT section. 

The data analysis section of the SAT Math test checks your ability to read graphs and interpret the data to answer more multiple choice questions. You will need to know basic probability and other data based math skills. 

Finally, the hardest section of the math test is the advanced math section. Students may be least familiar with these sections, but doing test prep will make the world of a difference. Expect to see some higher level math questions. Some questions may even cover some calculus, so make sure you study this material as well. 

The SAT Writing and Language Test

The Writing and Language SAT section tests your grammar, vocabulary, and general English language arts skills. This is where all of the SAT vocabulary you have to spend time studying comes into play; the more you know the better. This multiple choice section asks you questions related to sections from academic papers. 

These questions will ask you the best way to improve a given sentence, correct errors with data from graphs and other figures, or speak to the writing style of a given passage. You should know the difference between informative and persuasive writing styles. Overall, expect this to be the easiest SAT section. 

The Optional SAT Essay

For most students, the optional SAT essay is no longer available to take as part of their overall exam. However, certain states may ask students to take the optional essay as part of state-provided SAT testing. The list of states includes:

  • Colorado 
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma

The essay is to be written in response to a short passage, within a range of 650 to 750 words total. By taking the essay, students get tested on their writing ability and persuasive abilities. 

The reading prompt will be unique to your testing day, but the prompt will always be the same to be responded to. After reading the prompt, you are to explain how the writer used evidence and reasoning to provide a persuasive argument. Make sure to include what type of argument they used, logos, pathos, ethos, etc. 

Time for Each SAT Section

Each section of the SAT has a unique number of questions and a set amount of allotted time. The test makers balance the questions and determine how much time students  should spend on each section. Some of the sections expect you to work relatively fast, so be diligent and quick without compromising answering correctly. 

Reading Section

Compared to the other sections, the reading test affords you the most time per question, given the fact that it accounts for the time you need to read the required passages. At a total of 65 minutes for 52 questions, prepare to work at a decent pace. The five total reading sections will amount to about 10 or 11 questions about each. 

When starting a new passage, read the questions first. In some cases, you may already know the answer off hand from your English and literature classes in high school. You can save some extra time for reading the passage by knocking these questions out of the way first. 

After, go back in for the questions that you debated between two answers on. However, don’t settle on the first piece of supporting evidence alone. The test makers may want you to pay close attention to their passage selection by including readings that recontextualize their topic with new information later on. 

Timing the Math Section

The longest portion of the test, the SAT math section is separated into two parts. The first part requires you to answer 38 questions in 55 minutes.

Your calculator is your best friend in this section. Make sure you know the ins and out of how it works and that your calculator is at least sophisticated enough to use trigonometric functions. A graphing calculator or scientific calculator works fine, but note that not all graphing calculators may be approved. Also, bring extra batteries if you can!

The second part of this SAT section is shorter at 25 minutes for 20 questions. Many students consider this part easier because it is to be answered without a calculator and  focuses more on mental math. Work diligently on this section and spend time with scratch paper if you have to for the more complicated functions. 

This is the portion that you should skip a question and come back to it if you are spending too much time on one. Some of the questions may be beyond what you’ve been taught in school. If you’re running out of time, don’t be afraid to guess the answer.  

Timing the Writing and Language Section

By far the shortest and easiest section of the SAT, the Writing and Language section consists of 44 questions over four reading passages. Students are given 35 minutes to complete the exam. The 11 questions per reading passage focus on grammar and vocabulary and less on the passage.

This portion of the SAT works well with the same strategy to focus on the question over the reading. More often than not, the reading has less to do with the writing and grammar questions and more to do with catching mistakes and making sure students know how to write clearly. 

How to Prepare for Each SAT Section

Infographic giving tips on how to prepare for each section of the SAT

When preparing for the exam, keep in mind that you should be using different study methods depending on the SAT section.

The best study method for your math skills is reviewing the concepts with examples, while the writing section takes rote memorization. A faster reading speed coupled with comprehension does wonders on the reading sections, so challenge yourself with tougher literature. 

Students can come up with their own strategies for this SAT section, as long as it works for them. Knowing the SAT time for each section can be a focal point for how you can study too! All of this information is provided and easily available online. 

To help you prepare for the SAT, you can explore preparation guides created by College Board, take advantage of the study classes and videos offered by Khan Academy, or seek the help of a professional tutor. Students that use them increase their scores by over 100 points on average.  

Preparing for the Reading Section

The best way to prepare for the reading section is to take practice questions and exams. There are tons of preparation guides to practice. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to do so. This section is relatively easy, and as long as you are an attentive reader, you should be fine. 

Don’t underestimate a multiple choice test. These types of questions can easily be made more difficult by including answers that are only slightly different or one is more correct. Make sure you answer things correctly and try not to lose your place on the exam booklet or bubble the wrong number. 

Another good method to prepare is to improve how fast you read. This can save time on the exam and give you more chances to think through your answers. However, try not to overthink and go with a wrong answer by second guessing yourself. Test taking skills are something you need to work on for the SAT. 

Preparing for the Math Section

By far the most difficult portion, the Math section of the SAT is where you should put most of your attention to studying. Given the advanced math section you may not be prepared for in high school, be sure to spend as much time as you can learning and practicing questions. A tutor can do wonders improving your score, so don’t be shy. 

A great resource for practicing math problems can be previous SAT exams. After exam scores are posted, College Board releases them with answers as a way to get around potential cheating. Use these to your heart’s content, as they are free and easily accessible. 

Preparing for the Writing Section

The SAT’s grammar section is meant to check how well you have learned to write and communicate correctly. With that in mind, the most important thing to learn is vocabulary. If you need to, flash cards can be a great method to learn all these obscure words and could improve your vocabulary. 

Don’t forget that high school is also preparing you for your SAT exam. All of your English and math classes are helping you practice and learn ahead of time. Keeping your grades up and studying for the SAT on the side is important. Don’t let your grades fall just because you’re worried about this exam. Make sure to relax and focus. 

SAT Sections FAQs

Have more questions about the SAT sections? Take a look at our answers to these frequently asked questions. 

1. How Much Does the SAT Cost to Take? 

The SAT has a fee of $55. There are a number of ways to pay this fee if you can’t afford it. For students from low income households, financial assistance can waive part of the cost. For students that can afford the cost, the less student debt you have the better

Depending on when and how you take the SAT, your school may have even set up a day for a group of seniors to take the test in school and may pay for the exam as an institution. In most cases, students should expect to take the test on their own and pay the fee.       

2. How Do I Balance All of My Work?

If you’re dealing with schedule issues and balancing your SAT and final exam study time, the best advice is to start early. Though most students take the SATs in their junior year, you can schedule your test date at any time. 

If you’re looking to squeeze it in somewhere convenient, a good suggestion would be to try to take the exam during the summer between your junior and senior year of high school. Since you’ve probably finished your busiest year of high school, it’s a good time to start preparing and knock it out for fall college application deadlines

3. How Long Does the SAT Take?

Not including the breaks between sections, the SAT should take somewhere over the range of three hours, not including breaks. The optional essay adds an extra hour to the total time. If you finish early, take the time to go back and rework some of the more difficult questions that you were more unsure about. 

Usually the exam instructor will write down start and stop time based off of a clock in the exam room. Instructors will not typically move on until the time has ran out or all students are finished and ready to move on. Testing usually starts around 9 am.

4. What Should I Bring to the SAT?

There are two distinct parts where you will need a specific checklist of items: check-in and the exam. For check-in, make sure to bring a valid photo ID and your exam ticket. Without them, you will not be allowed in and may miss your exam date. You may need to reschedule through College Board and potentially pay the exam fee again. 

For the exam itself, make sure you have good pencils, your approved calculator, and extra batteries. Outside of these basic supplies, you may also want to bring a water bottle and potentially a small snack to help keep you going throughout the exam. Just make sure you don’t spill anything on the test book!

5. Should I Retake the SAT?

There is nothing wrong with taking the SAT again, especially if you want to improve your score. If you scored a low or average score, it may be good for you to take the test again to better your chances at getting accepted in college. Ideally, you want to land at the score best for incoming freshmen at your school of choice. The higher the better.

Outside of taking the SAT in high school, it may be a good idea to take the SAT in college. If you’re planning on transfer schools or attempting to get into a specific major with unique qualifications at your college, it may end up being a benefit to you. 

6. Do Colleges Look at My SAT Score?

Yes! Colleges want you to take the test so they can see your score! The purpose of your score is to determine if you fit the college on an academic level. You want to send your scores to your college of choice so that they know you are interested and worth accepting. 

Final Thoughts

You now have a more in-depth understanding of each of the three SAT sections. While each section comes with its own unique challenges, following our tips for how to prepare for each SAT section will put you on the right path. If your strengths are in one subject over another, tailor your study time to what you need. 

Don’t be afraid of the SAT. The test does not determine your future. You do. You choose how much time you need to prepare, and you should have plenty of time to. If you need help, do not hesitate to reach out. 

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