SAT Sections, Sample Questions and Strategies

What to expect on every section of the SAT

What's a Good PSAT Score?
Getty Images | Peter Cade

The SAT consists of four required sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (No Calculator), Math (Calculator). There is also an optional fifth section: the essay.

The Reading section and the Writing and Language section are combined to calculate your Evidence-Based Reading/Writing score. The two math sections are combined to calculate your total Math score.

Before taking the test, familiarize yourself with the types of questions and time limits of each section of the SAT. This familiarity will help you feel confident and prepared on test day.

SAT Reading Test

The SAT Reading Test comes first, and all questions are based on passages that you'll read. You'll spend over an hour on this section.

  • Number of Questions: 52
  • Question Type: Multiple choice based on passages
  • Time: 65 minutes

The Reading Test measures your ability to read carefully, compare passages, understand how an author constructs an argument, and figure out what words mean from their context. Realize that this is not an English test—passages will come from not just literature, but also U.S. or world history, the social sciences, and the sciences. The Reading Test may also include info-graphics, graphs, and tables, although you will not need to use math skills to analyze these elements of the test.

Sample Questions

These sample questions refer to a specific passage.

1. As used in line 32, "horrid" most nearly means
A) shocking.
B) unpleasant.
C) extremely bad.
D) obnoxious.
2. What statement best characterizes the relationship between Dr. McAllister and Jane Lewis?
A) Dr. McAllister admires Jane's honesty.
B) Dr. McAllister pities Jane because of her low social status.
C) Dr. McAllister feels self conscious around Jane because she makes him aware of his failures.
D) Dr. McAllister is disgusted by Jane's lack of education and poor hygiene.

In general, the skills required for the Reading Test are those you've been learning at school and not ones you can cram in preparation for the exam. If you are good at reading a text closely and carefully, you should do well on this section. That said, you should definitely take practice tests to figure out how carefully you need to read the passages and what pace you need to set to ensure you finish in time. For many students, the Reading Test is the most challenging section when it comes to time management.

SAT Writing and Language Test

The Writing and Language Test also consists of questions based on passages, but the types of questions are different from those on the Reading Test. In addition, the passages are generally shorter, and you'll have less time to complete the section.

  • Number of Questions: 44
  • Type of Questions: Multiple choice based on passages
  • Time: 35 minutes

Like the Reading Test, some questions in the Writing and Language Test will include graphs, info-graphics, tables, and charts, but you won't need to use your math skills to arrive at an answer. Questions can ask you about the best word choice for a given context, proper grammar and word usage, organizational elements of a passage, and the best methods for presenting evidence and making an argument.

In the reading test, you'll be provided a passage that has sentences and locations within the text marked by numbers.

Sample Questions

These sample questions refer to a specific passage.

Which choice makes the most effective transition between the first and second paragraph?
A) NO CHANGE
B) Despite these dangers,
C) Because of this evidence,
D) Though the action would be unpopular,
To make the ideas in the passage flow logically, sentence 4 should be located
A) where it is now.
B) after sentence 1.
C) after sentence 4.
D) after sentence 6.

Familiarize yourself with this section by taking practice tests (like those from Khan Academy and the College Board). Another way to improve your score is to brush up on grammar rules. Be sure to study conjunction, commas, colon, and semi-colon usage as well as the rules for using commonly confused words, like "its" vs. "it's" and "that" vs. "which."

The score from this section is combined with the score from the Reading Test to arrive at the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score for the exam.

SAT Math Exam

The SAT Math Exam is comprised of two sections:

SAT Math Test—No Calculator

  • Number of Questions: 20
  • Type of Questions: 15 multiple choice; 5 grid-in
  • Time: 25 minutes

SAT Math Test—Calculator

  • Number of Questions: 38
  • Type of Questions: 30 multiple choice; 8 grid-in
  • Time: 55 minutes

The results from the calculator and no calculator sections are combined to arrive at your SAT math score.

The SAT Math Exam does not cover calculus. You'll need to know algebra and how to work with linear equations and systems. You'll also need to be able to interpret data represented in graphical forms, work with polynomial expressions, solve quadratic equations, and use function notation. Some questions will draw on geometry and trigonometry.

Sample Questions

5x + x - 2x + 3 = 10 + 2x + x -4
In the equation above, what is the value of x?
A) 3/4
B) 3
C) -2/5
D) -3
For the following question, you may use a calculator. Grid your answer into the answer sheet.
During rush hour traffic, Janet took 34 minutes to complete her 8 mile drive to work. What was her average speed during her drive. Round your answer to the nearest tenth of a mile per hour.

Chances are, you're better in some areas of math than others. Use the free math practice materials at Khan Academy to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then, rather than taking entire practice math tests, you can focus on the areas you find most difficult.

SAT Essay (Optional)

Most colleges and universities do not require the SAT Essay, but many schools recommend it. To write the essay, you'll need to sign up and pay an additional fee when you register for the SAT.

You will write the SAT Essay after all students have completed the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Tests. You will have 50 minutes to write the essay.

For the essay portion of the exam, you will be asked to read a passage, and then write an essay that responds to the following prompt. The passage changes for each exam, but the prompt is always the same:

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.

Your SAT Essay will be read and scored by two different people who will assign scores of 1 to 4 in three areas: reading, analysis, and writing. The two scores from each area are then be added together to create three scores ranging from 2 to 8.

To prepare for the SAT Essay, be sure to look over the sample essays on the College Board website. You'll also find some good sample essays and essay strategies at Khan Academy.