Let's Succeed at the SAT (student version)

Let’s Succeed on the SAT!

Note: This is a modified version of the SAT guide Magoosh gives to its instructors and tutors.  There is a lot of information here that SAT students will find useful.
(Original guide written by Matthew Slayton)

Table of Contents


SAT: Background

Though the original test from 1926 was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, “SAT” is no longer an initialism (difference between acronym and initialism link :D). It’s just SAT, and doesn’t stand for anything. Have some time on your hands? You can see sample questions from the original SAT here. The SAT is one of two tests (the other is the ACT) that students take for admission to undergraduate programs at colleges and universities. The SAT is administered by The College Board, who run many different tests, including the PSAT and the SAT Subject Tests (formerly “SAT II”).



In recommending a resource to a student, your first stop should always be the Magoosh Free SAT Study Guide. (A direct link to the ebook pdf is here.) Other links will be included throughout the rest of the document in the following sections: All about SAT Reading, All about SAT Writing, All about SAT Math, All about SAT Essay, Khan Academy and College Board.



The SAT has four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math with calculator, and Math without calculator. There is an optional fifth essay section. Without the essay the test takes about 3 hours, and with the essay 3 hours and 50 minutes. The Reading and Writing sections combine for one score between 200-800, and the two Math sections combine for one score between 200-800. The total score is between 400-1600.


Old SAT vs. New SAT (2016)







600 - 2400

400 - 1600

Subscore and Cross-test Scores available


3 Hours 45 Minutes

3 Hours (+50 minute optional essay)


Critical Reading: 200-800

Writing: 200-800

Math: 200-800

Essay (included in Writing score)

Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 200-800

Math: 200-800

Optional Essay (separately scored)

Guessing Penalty

¼ point guessing penalty

no guessing penalty


Available in print

Available in print or on computer


New SAT Structure


Evidence-Based Reading and Writing



65-minute Reading section

35-minute Writing and Language section

25-minute No Calculator section

55-minute Calculator section


52 Questions (Reading)

44 Questions (Writing and Language)

20 Questions (No Calculator)

38 Questions (Calculator)

Score Range




Unlike the old test where the sections could occur in any order, Reading is always first, Writing is always second, Math with no calculator is always third, and Math with calculator is always fourth. There are no repeats.


SAT Scoring

The essay on the New SAT is more elaborate than it has been on previous tests, and the scoring is a little tricky. The essay has three scores out of 4 from two graders, so the highest possible essay score is 8, 8, 8, two 4’s for each of the three dimensions. There are various subscores too based on topics and skills. All scores and score types will be displayed on the score report. Here’s a link to a sample score report, and the details are summarized below:


Test Scores (10 to 40)

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Math

Area Scores (200 to 800)

  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
  • Math

Composite Score (400 to 1600)

  • Math (Area Score) + Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (Area Score)

Essay Scores (1 to 4)

  • Reading
  • Analysis
  • Writing

Cross-test Scores (10-40)

  • Analysis in Science
  • Analysis in History/Social Studies

Subscores (1 to 15)

  • Words in Context
  • Command of Evidence
  • Expression of Ideas
  • Standard English Conventions
  • Heart of Algebra
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  • Passport to Advanced Math


****Remember, there is no “guessing penalty” anymore. You get one point for every correct answer and zero points for every incorrect or blank answer. Previous iterations of the SAT had a -¼ point for wrong answers, but that is gone. So, students should answer every single question, even if it means filling in (B) all the way down the answer sheet (though it hopefully won’t come to that!)


Difference Between SAT and ACT

Differences between the SAT and ACT can be found here: ACT vs SAT: Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Test. Differences between the SAT and ACT can be found here: ACT vs. SAT: ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Test. One major difference is that the ACT is a faster-paced test. Approximately 50s per question compared with 1 minute 10 seconds per question on the SAT. Next it’s best to go section by section:


SAT Writing - range of passage difficulty, includes charts/figures

ACT English - easier passages, only text


SAT Math - includes some Algebra II and Trig as well, but less than the ACT. You can only use a calculator on the calculator section (which is one of two total math sections). There are plenty of multiple choice questions, and grid-ins (where you supply the answer) as well.

ACT Math - includes some Algebra II and Trig (details below in the ACT Math section. Don’t worry, they’re almost always basic!). You can use a calculator on the entire section. Finally, all questions are multiple choice.


SAT Reading - five long passages of varying difficulty from early high school to college. There is also a question type only seen on the SAT: Command of Evidence.

ACT Reading - four long passages of advanced high school difficulty.

*Both will have a set of paired passages that you’ll need to compare.


SAT - there’s no science on the SAT, but there will be charts and figures throughout the test, so this type of reasoning isn’t completely avoidable :)

ACT Science - as you’ll see below, this section requires ‘almost’ no science knowledge (a handful of questions might rely on basic knowledge). It’s generally about interpreting tables, figures, and written scientific hypotheses.


SAT Essay - rather than making an argument yourself, you’ll need to analyze another argument, discussing what features make it successful.

ACT Essay - focused on debating/arguing for a position. You’ll need to evaluate perspectives (positions on the issue) in making your own argument, but the focus is on your thesis.


If you’re not sure which test to take, the number one way to choose one test over the other is to take one full-length practice test under realistic testing conditions each and see which is better for a particular student. (A conversion chart between Old SAT, New SAT, and ACT can be found here).


Below: Magoosh's SAT vs. ACT infographic, originally from Kristin's SAT vs. ACT blog post. Click the image below for a high-res version.



The SAT is offered seven times a year. For easy reference, the current dates are listed below (and will be updated annually). There are other dates available as well, administered by state or local school districts. With this in mind, Magoosh recommends that students check with their high school guidance counselors. Note: the ACT never occurs on the same Saturday as the SAT, but they do occur in the same month. There is no SAT in September, February, April, June, or July when there IS an ACT. Students who are taking both frequently take the ACT in those months. Students and/or parents can register online or by mail, and the test is usually offered at a local high school on a Saturday morning. You can locate test centers here. On test day, students need a calculator, pencils, admission ticket, and photo ID. (See other policies here). Students requiring accommodations (such as extra time) should go here. You can apply for a fee waiver as well. Here is a link for a list of test dates through 2020.


Future SAT Test Dates: 2019-2020

SAT Date Multiple-Choice Scores Release Date* Essay Score Release Date*
March 9, 2019 March 23-29, 2019 April 2, 2019
May 4, 2019 May 17-23, 2019 May 28, 2019
June 1, 2019 July 10, 2019 July 10, 2019
August 24, 2019 September 16, 2019 September 18, 2019
October 5, 2019 October 18-24, 2019 October 29, 2019
November 2, 2019 November 15-21, 2019 November 26, 2019
December 7, 2019 December 20-26, 2019 December 31, 2019
March 7, 2020 March 20-26, 2020 March 30, 2020
May 2, 2020 May 15-21, 2020 May 26, 2020
June 6, 2020 July 15, 2020 July 15, 2020

*Although the College Board has confirmed SAT test dates for 2019-20, it has yet to confirm SAT Score Release dates. The score release dates in the chart above are estimates based on our analysis of the patterns of previous testing years.


Rescheduling and Cancellation

It is possible to make changes to your profile, test date, etc. The policies regarding changes can be found here. Note that some changes are free and some changes have a fee. A list of those fees can be found here. Probably the most relevant is that there is a $29 fee to change test center or test date. There is also a $29 fee for late registration. It is possible to seek a refund if you need to cancel your registration, the details of which are here. There is no fee for switching from the SAT without essay to the SAT with essay, but you will have to pay the difference between the two prices ($46 without essay, $60 with essay). You can also take the test as many times as you like, which is different from many other standardized tests! (For example, you’re not allowed to take the ACT more than 12 times.)


Preparing for Test Day

The College Board has a handy checklist:

What to Bring

Nice to Have

  • A watch (without an audible alarm) *An audible alarm going off disqualifies your test, so be careful!
  • Extra batteries and backup equipment—you’ll have to ask for permission to access them. They cannot be on your desk during the test.
  • A bag or backpack
  • A drink or snacks (for your break)
  • Breakfast before you arrive

What Not to Bring

  • Any devices, including digital watches, that can be used to record, transmit, receive, or play back audio, photographic, text, or video content (with the exception of CD players used for Language with Listening Subject Tests only)
  • Audio players/recorders, tablets, laptops, notebooks, Google Glass, or any other personal computing devices
  • iPods or other MP3 players
  • iPads or other tablet devices
  • Laptops, notebooks, PDAs or any other personal computing devices
  • Any texting device
  • Cameras or any other photographic equipment
  • Separate timers of any type
  • Protractors, compasses, rulers
  • Highlighters, colored pens, colored pencils
  • Pamphlets or papers of any kind
  • Dictionaries or other books—there are no exceptions, even if English is not your first language
  • Food or drinks (except for during breaks), unless approved by the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities. Learn more about testing with accommodations.


***All test centers follow the same procedures and rules, which you should get familiar with before test day (link).



SAT Essay

If you’re unsure about taking the SAT Essay, you may be able to remove or add it on test day with your supervisor's permission—if test materials, rooms, and staff are available. If you‘re able to switch on test day, there may be fees (or even a refund). Learn about Changing Your Registration Information.

Doors Open at 7:45 a.m.

All test centers open at 7:45 a.m. and doors close at 8 a.m., unless otherwise noted on your Admission Ticket. You cannot be admitted once testing has started. If you’re late or absent on test day, you can reschedule. We recommend rescheduling as opposed to re-registering—it will cost less. Find out more at Changing Your Registration Information.

Make sure you show up with everything you need.

Get the test day checklist.

Testing Starts Between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

Your seat is assigned, not chosen by you. Wait to be seated. Here’s what will happen next:

  • The test supervisor will read all instructions verbatim from a manual and can answer questions only about procedure, not about test questions or content.
  • The test supervisor will tell you when to start and stop working on each section.
  • You must work within each section of the test only for the time allotted.
  • You may not go back to a section once that section has ended.
  • You may not go ahead to a new section if you finish a section early.
  • Do not skip sections. Doing so may result in score cancellation, delays, or both.
  • After the test is finished, the test supervisor will collect and count the test books to make sure all materials have been turned in before dismissing you from the testing room. 


For most students, there is one 10-minute and one five-minute break during the test, the only times you can eat and drink.

  • Keep your ID and Admission Ticket with you at all times. They’ll be checked every time you enter the testing room.
  • Test books, answer sheets, and calculators must remain on your desk during breaks.
  • You can’t use this time to power up devices, like cell phones—if you do, your scores will be canceled.


We mention cell phones and electronics often, and for good reason. Your scores will be canceled if you don’t follow the rules around devices.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Test administration staff reserves the right to collect and hold cell phones and other prohibited electronic devices during the test administration, including during break periods.
  • If your device makes noise, or if you are seen using it, or if you attempt to access it at any time, including breaks, you will be dismissed immediately, your scores can be canceled, and the device may be confiscated.
  • The College Board is not responsible for loss or damage to personal items, including electronic devices, while you are in the test center.


Sending and Receiving Scores

To send scores you’ll need to log in to and select your schools as recipients. You can select four recipients for free each time you take the test, and pay $12 for each subsequent school. (Unless you qualify for a fee waiver). You can pay $31 to have your scores rushed to colleges in 2-4 business days excluding weekends and holidays. Where I (author of this document) used to work, it was a belief that the “rush” option was not actually any faster than the standard option, and we advised students never to use it.


Study Schedules

Don’t forget to direct students to our Magoosh SAT Study Schedules, and to remind them that’s it’s ok to customize them to fit their needs and personal schedules. :)


All about SAT Reading

52 questions 65 minutes, straight critical reading, so no sentence completions, analogies, or any other question type. Like on the rest of the test, it is multiple choice and there are four answer choices. The biggest difference between past SATs and the current one is the

following question pair:


Another new feature is that the Reading section will have tables, graphs, and figures. Not many,  but they will look like this:


Below are the question types found on the Critical Reading section:

Command of Evidence

Some questions ask you to:

  • Find evidence in a passage (or pair of passages) that best supports the answer to a previous question or serves as the basis for a reasonable conclusion.
  • Identify how authors use evidence to support their claims.
  • Find a relationship between an informational graphic and the passage it’s paired with.


Words in Context

Many questions focus on important, widely used words and phrases that you’ll find in texts in many different subjects. The words are ones that you’ll use in college and the workplace long after test day.

The new SAT focuses on your ability to:

  • Use context clues in a passage to figure out which meaning of a word or phrase is being used.
  • Decide how an author’s word choice shapes meaning, style, and tone.


Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

The Reading Test includes passages in the fields of history, social studies, and science. You’ll be asked questions that require you to draw on the reading skills needed most to succeed in those subjects. For instance, you might read about an experiment then see questions that ask you to:

  • Examine hypotheses.
  • Interpret data.
  • Consider implications.

Answers are based only on the content stated in or implied by the passage.


The test will ask questions in pairs where one is a standard critical reading question, and the other asks where in the text you got your answer. There is an overall push toward identifying and using evidence on this test. Because it’s 100% critical reading, vocabulary might be a little less important than it used to be, though it may actually be more important for English Language Learners. To get you started check out this post about New SAT Vocabulary, the Magoosh SAT Vocab App, and the 300 Most Difficult Words from The passages will fall into consistent categories as well:

  • One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature.
  • One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the Great Global Conversation they inspired. The U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela, for example.
  • A selection about economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science.
  • Two science passages (or one passage and one passage pair) that examine foundational concepts and developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.

You can find information and links to a wide range of articles about the SAT Critical Reading on the Magoosh HS Blog. A few helpful links have been included here:


All about SAT Writing

Anyone who is familiar with the ACT English section will notice the similarities with the new SAT Writing. 44 questions in 35 minutes, all identifying grammar and style mistakes in context (i.e. in passages). There will be an underlined portion of text, and students must identify the mistake (or “no change”) from the four options.


Here are some useful links about the grammar needed for the SAT Writing:

-Top 10 New SAT Writing Tips

-5 New SAT Grammar Topics

-SAT Grammar Tips

-Top 3 Ways to Improve on the SAT Writing Section

-SAT Multiple Choice Strategies (part 1, part 2, part 3)

-What English Learners Can Do to Prepare for the SAT/ACT


The Magoosh High School Blog has tons of resources. Students might ask for a cheat sheet or reference for all the grammar they need to know, but Magoosh feels that it’s better to focus on individual grammar topics in depth. Here are some links to get you started:


-Subordination and Coordination Questions

-Shifts in Voice


-Modifier Placement

-Misplaced Modifiers

-Common SAT Mistakes: “and I” vs. “and me”

-Sentence Boundaries

-Sense of Grammar for Improving Sentences

-Grammar Fundamentals

-Verb Tenses

-Subject Verb Agreement


Also don’t forget that Khan Academy is now working with College Board, and their resources are freely available:

The SAT Writing and Language Test: Overview

Finally, here’s a video explaining the difference between the SAT Writing and the ACT English.


All about SAT Math

The third and fourth sections are Math and they are the most similar to previous SATs.

  • Most math questions will be multiple choice, but some—called grid-ins—ask you to come up with the answer rather than select the answer.
  • The Math Test is divided into two portions: Math Test–Calculator and Math Test–No Calculator.
  • Some parts of the test include several questions about a single scenario.

The Math Test will focus in depth on the three areas of math that play the biggest role in a wide range of college majors and careers:

The Math Test also draws on Additional Topics in Math, including the geometry and trigonometry most relevant to college and career readiness.

Here is an explanation of the calculator policy from collegeboard:

Calculator Use

Calculators are important tools, and to succeed after high school, you’ll need to know how—and when—to use them. In the Math Test–Calculator portion of the test, you’ll be able to focus on complex modeling and reasoning because your calculator can save you time.

However, the calculator is, like any tool, only as smart as the person using it. The Math Test includes some questions where it’s better not to use a calculator, even though you’re allowed to. In these cases, students who make use of structure or their ability to reason will probably finish before students who use a calculator.

The Math Test–No Calculator portion of the test makes it easier to assess your fluency in math and your understanding of some math concepts. It also tests well-learned technique and number sense.

Remember, many at Magoosh believe that it’s best when students can handle problems with pencil and paper only. It’s great to use the calculator too, but skills like arithmetic that are emphasized in working without a calculator are important to practice, and can lead to an improved score. :)

The Magoosh HS Blog has tons of useful articles about the SAT Math. Here are just a few:

All about the SAT Essay

This is perhaps the greatest departure from previous SATs. Rather than stating and defending a thesis in 25 minutes, students will have 50 minutes to analyze another argument and explain why and how it is successful as an argument. The prompt (question) shown below, or a nearly identical one, is used every time the new SAT is given:


As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

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.

Students will have to pay attention to each of the following three categories, which is how they are graded:

Reading: A successful essay shows that you understood the passage, including the interplay of central ideas and important details. It also shows an effective use of textual evidence.

Analysis: A successful essay shows your understanding of how the author builds an argument by:

  • Examining the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and other stylistic and persuasive techniques
  • Supporting and developing claims with well-chosen evidence from the passage

Writing: A successful essay is focused, organized, and precise, with an appropriate style and tone that varies sentence structure and follows the conventions of standard written English.

Useful Links

Don’t like reading? Here are links to The College Board’s short explanation videos for each section:






Here’s a link to a blog post with an example (with explanation) of an essay with a score of 8, and a link to The College Board’s explanation of essay scoring. Finally, here’s a video comparing the SAT Essay with the ACT Essay.


Khan Academy and The College Board

Among the many justifications for the New SAT was to make the SAT more inclusive to test takers who might not be able to prepare as extensively due to many factors, including cost. Therefore, Khan Academy has paired with The College Board to provide free test prep (including eight free practice tests):


-Khan Academy: SAT

-Full-length SAT

-SAT Math Practice

-SAT Reading and Writing Practice

-SAT Tips and Strategies



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