Part of the strategy in preparing for a standardized test like the SAT is to understand exactly how the test is organized. Knowing the format of the test will eliminate surprises and allow students to prepare accordingly, which is especially important since the SAT is a timed exam.  The test consists of 4 sections: 

  1. Reading – 65 minutes in length
  2. Writing – 35 minutes in length
  3. Math without Calculator – 25 minutes in length
  4. Math with Calculator - 55 minutes in length
    Note: The SAT also currently offers an optional essay section; however, this section has been discontinued and will no longer be offered following after June 2021.

The test is scored on a scale of 400-1600 points, evenly weighted between an Evidence-based Reading and Writing score (based on the Reading section and the Writing and Language section) and a Math Score (based on the No-Calculator and Calculator sections). Here’s a full breakdown of the SAT format with breaks:

Reading

The reading section consists of 5 passages that include fictional works, scientific research, and historical excerpts. It looks like a typical reading comprehension exercise that students may see in school, except for the fact that the SAT provides students with only 65 minutes to read 5 difficult passages and answer 10-11 questions for each one.  This means students have roughly 13 minutes for each passage, leaving little or no time to go back and check over responses.  A typical student may take 3-5 minutes to read the passage, leaving about 45 seconds to answer each question. This may seem adequate; however, keep in mind that much of the time is spent shifting focus between questions and the text, which eats away at that precious time.  It is often the case that students are forced to guess on a handful of questions as time runs out. There is also paired passage, involving 2 short readings which are related in some way.  Many students choose to treat these as separate passages, saving them for last, so as to maximize their time and limit the number of questions they need to guess on.

Break # 1

Once the reading section is complete, students are given a 10 minute break.  The other break is only 5 minutes so it is a good idea to leave the room and take a walk if allowed.  I strongly recommend that students eat during this break to help maintain their stamina for the remainder of the test.

Writing and Language

The writing section is essentially a grammar test whereby students are asked to correct mistakes in 4 short reading passages.  This section contains 44 questions (11 each passage) and must be completed in 35 minutes.  This leaves about 45 seconds per question, and students must multitask as they answer 2 types of questions: grammar and ideas (aka “rhetoric”).  Based on student feedback, these passages tend to be easier to read which allows for more focus on the questions themselves.  The best strategy is to answer the questions as they come up in the reading since most involve grammar rules (punctuation, verb agreement, pronoun usage) and don’t depend on previous sentences.  While reading, keep track of main ideas and any important sequences in order to effectively answer idea/rhetoric questions without having to take time to re-read.

No-Calculator Math

The first math section is only 25 minutes and 20 questions long, but students are not allowed to use a calculator.  The time crunch seems to give students trouble at first; however, I find that this section also accounts for the biggest improvement after several tutoring sessions and practice exams.  Within the section, there are 15 multiple choice questions and 5 student-produced response questions where students must bubble in answers digit by digit into a grid (max 4 digits).  There may be decimals and fractions entered.  One possible strategy might be to spend less than 1 minute per question on the multiple choice questions so that students have about 2 minutes per grid question.  Since guessing is less of an option for these questions, students might need that extra time to check their work and confirm their answers. As a general rule: if a question looks like you need a calculator, chances are there is a very simple way to solve it.  

Break #2

Enjoy the 5 minute break by making sure your calculator is set to degrees and doing some last minute mental review!

Calculator Math

Finally, the 2nd math section consists of 38 questions over 55 minutes.  Students may use a calculator on this section; however using a calculator for every question is not a good strategy, as it may take longer than solving some questions by hand.  Students should plan to see some complex questions requiring more involved solutions, hence the additional time.  Like the No-Calculator section, there is a mix of multiple choice and grid questions (30 multiple choice and 8 grid-in).  In order to dedicate enough time to grid questions, students may end up skipping some of the longer multiple choice questions at first so that they can limit the need to rush through the grid-in questions.  It is always better to complete the grid carefully and, if necessary, guess on a couple of multiple choice questions where there is a 1 in 4 chance of getting it correct.


Conclusion

To summarize:  The SAT tests evidence-based reading and writing as well as mathematics. Here is a breakdown of the questions and time allotted for each section.

Reading

5 passages with 52 total multiple choice questions

65 minutes

13 minutes per passage 

(about 4 minutes to read and 9 minutes to answer questions)

Writing

4 passages with 44 total multiple choice

35 minutes

8 ¾ minutes per passage (about 45 seconds per question)

Break # 1

 

10 minutes

 

No calculator Math

20 total questions

  • 15 multiple choice
  • 5 student-produced response

25 minutes

1 minute 15 seconds per question

(about 1 minute per multiple choice and 2 minutes per grid question)

Break # 2

 

5 minutes

 

Calculator Math

38 total questions

  • 30 multiple choice
  • 8 student-produced response

55 minutes

A little less than a minute and half per question

(about 1 minute per multiple choice and 2 ½ minutes per grid question)