A Brief Introduction to the SAT


The SAT is an exam run by the College Board and taken by students everywhere for U.S. college admissions. It is used to assess student competence and college readiness in critical reading, writing, and math.

It is offered 7 times a year and is usually administered on the first Saturday, at 8:00 AM of each month it is offered (except the August test date).

The SAT with the optional essay takes 3 hours and 50 minutes to complete. Without the essay, it's 3 hours. You should only take the SAT with the essay if you're applying to colleges that require it. Otherwise, sign up for the SAT without the essay.

Students typically take the test during their junior year of high school and may retake it senior year. To sign up and check test dates, go to the College Board website. When you sign up, you will be able to choose a local testing center to show up to on test day.

The best way to familiarize yourself with the SAT exam itself is to look through a practice exam.


The format of the test goes like this:

  1. Reading (65 minutes for 52 questions)
  2. Writing and Language (35 minutes for 44 questions)
  3. Math—No Calculator (25 minutes for 20 questions)
  4. Math—Calculator (55 minutes for 38 questions)


Your SAT score consists of two components: 1) Math and 2) Evidence-based Reading and Writing (ERW). Each component is scored from 200 to 800 points, 800 being a full score on the component. So the best possible score on the exam as a whole is 1600. Now you might be wondering what a great score is. Here are some general guidelines in terms of college admissions statistics:

  • Ivy League: 1500+ (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford,...)
  • Top Tier: 1400+ (UCLA, Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, Carnegie Mellon, USC, Tufts, UNC, Duke)
  • Second Tier: 1300+ (Penn State, BU, UT Austin, Fordham, UMaryland, GWU)
  • Third Tier: 1200+ (Hofstra, DePaul, lesser state universities)
  • Fourth Tier: Below 1200

The national average SAT score in 2017 was 1060. And the national averages for each section:

  • Evidence-based Reading and Writing: 533
  • Math: 527

So how are the scores calculated? First, your must calculate your raw score for each section (math, reading, writing).

Here are the total question counts for each section:

  • Math: 58
  • Reading: 52
  • Writing: 44

For each section, your raw score is the total number of questions you got correct.

So let's say that you got 25 questions wrong across the math sections. Your raw score would be a 58 - 25 = 33.

Now with your raw score of 33, you would look up your final score on the curve that pertains to the test.

SAT Curve

Under this curve, a raw score of 33 gives a final score of 580. That would be your Math score.

For your Evidence-based Reading and Writing Score, there's an extra step. Once you get your final Reading and Writing scores from the curve, add them together and multiply the result by 10. For example, let's say I have raw scores of 30 on Reading and 35 on Writing. These raw scores translate to final scores of 26 on Reading and 32 on Writing. The sum of these scores is 26 + 32 = 58. Now multiply by 10 and we arrive at 580. This would be our Evidence-based Reading and Writing Score.

Each exam has a different curve, which is used to calibrate against the slight changes in difficulty across each exam. Examples of curves from past test dates can be found here.

What's tested?

So we know that the test covers reading, math, and writing, but what specifically is tested in each of those sections?

Here's a concise breakdown:

  • Reading
    • Reading comprehension — read multiple passages from literature, history, social studies, and science and answer multiple choice questions about them (main idea, tone, evidence, inferences, vocabulary, data, ...)
  • Math
    • Heart of Algebra — manipulating and solving equations, systems of equations, inequalities, interpreting linear models, constructing models
    • Problem Solving and Data Analysis — rates, percent, exponential vs linear growth, reading data, probability, statistics, word problems
    • Passport to Advanced Math — exponents and radicals, expressions, functions, lines, quadratics, synthetic division
    • Additional Topics in Math — volume, angles, triangles, circles, trigonometry, complex numbers
  • Writing
    • Punctuation — commas, dashes, colons, apostrophes, semicolons
    • Grammar Rules — fragments, subject-verb agreement, modifiers, run-on sentences, pronoun reference, tenses
    • Sentence and Paragraph Structure — combining sentences, sentence placement, transitions, paragraph transitions, supporting evidence, relevance and purpose
    • Choosing the right word
    • Understanding Data
  • Essay (optional)
    • Read and understand an opinionated article or speech.
    • Write an essay analyzing how the author makes the article persuasive in terms of his or her use of evidence, reasoning, and stylistic/rhetorical elements.

Again, the best way to familiarize yourself with the SAT is to actually do a practice exam.

How to Improve

Don't ever think that the SAT is a test that cannot be studied for. The truth is that preparing for the test helps a lot, just like any test you might study for in school. Thousands of students every year read through test prep books and attend classes to improve by as much as 200-300 points, depending on the quality of the instruction.

There are many options you have to prep yourself, and there is no one "best way." Many have found success with a test prep course or private tutor. Others prefer to self study with various books and review practice questions.

Despite the various paths you can take, there ARE common denominators among students who improve by a lot:

  • They take lots of practice tests.
  • They review those practice tests and learn from their mistakes.
  • They practice with real questions.

Consider the list above as MUST-DOs. For resources with REAL SAT questions, go here.

And no matter how you plan on improving, I highly recommend you take advantage of the resources on this blog. The posts here have proven to be invaluable in helping students improve on the test.

Best of luck.