SAT: Introduction to the Sections of the SAT

The SAT is used along with your high school record and other information to assess your competence for college work. The test lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes and consists of mostly multiple-choice type questions, with some grid-in questions and an essay. The critical reading sections test your ability to read critically, to comprehend what you read, and to understand words in context. The math sections test your ability to solve problems using mathematical reasoning and your skills in arithmetic, algebra I and II, and geometry. The writing ability sections test your ability to write a clear, precise essay and to find grammar and usage errors, to correct sentence errors, and to improve paragraphs.

Note: The order in which the sections appear, the question types within a section, and the number of questions may vary, and there may be many forms of the test. Only three of the critical reading sections and three of the math sections and the writing essay and multiple-choice sections actually count toward your SAT score.

One 25-minute section is a pretest, or experimental section, that does not count toward your score. The pretest or experimental section can be a critical reading, math, or writing multiple-choice section and can appear anywhere on your exam. It does not have to be Section 9. You should work all of the sections as though they count toward your score.

Writing Section

The writing section of the SAT requires every student to compose an essay on an assigned topic. This essay assignment will be the first section of the test. The prompt will contain a short paragraph featuring either a single quote or a pair of quotes about an issue that you are asked to discuss, supporting your ideas with an example or examples from your reading, personal experiences, or observations. The essay question generates a raw score that ranges from 2 to 12. (This raw score is the sum of the scores of two readers who each assign a score of 1-6.) You will have 25 minutes to complete the essay.

This essay section of the exam tests your ability to read a topic carefully, to organize your ideas before you write, and to write a clear, well-written essay. It requires good high school-level writing, reading, and reasoning skills.

Writing Section — Multiple Choice

There are three kinds of questions in the multiple-choice writing sections:

  • Identifying Sentence Errors (sometimes called Usage)

  • Improving Sentences (Sentence Correction)

  • Improving Paragraphs (also called Revision in Context)

A typical exam will have two multiple-choice sections — one 25 minutes long and one 10 minutes long. A total of approximately 18 Identifying Sentence Error questions, approximately 25 Improving Sentence questions, and approximately 6 Improving Paragraphs questions will be spread between the two multiple-choice sections. The exact number of questions of each type may vary slightly; the total number of questions is approximately 49.

Critical Reading Sections

The Critical Reading sections (formerly called "verbal reasoning" sections) of the SAT consist of two basic types of questions: sentence completions and critical reading (short and long passages).

Two Critical Reading sections are 25 minutes long and one is 20 minutes long. Since one section of the test is experimental (although you won't know which one), you could have an additional Critical Reading section.

Although the order of the sections and the number of questions may change, at this time, the three sections total about 65 to 70 questions that count toward your score. These three sections generate a scaled critical reading score that ranges from 200 to 800. About 50% right should generate an average score.

The sentence completion questions are generally arranged in a slight graduation of difficulty from easier to more difficult. Basically, the first few questions are the easiest, the middle few are of average difficulty, and the last few are difficult. There is no such pattern for the critical reading passages or questions.

Mathematical Sections

The Mathematical sections of the SAT consist of two basic types of questions: regular multiple-choice questions and student-produced responses, also known as grid-ins.

Two Math sections are 25 minutes long and one Math section is 20 minutes long. Since one section of the test is experimental (although you don't know which one), you could have an additional 25-minute Math section.

Although the order of the sections and the number of questions may change, at this time, the three sections total about 52 to 56 math questions that count toward your score. These three sections generate a scaled math score that ranges from 200 to 800. About 50% right should generate an average score.

The math sections are slightly graduated in difficulty. That is, the easiest questions are basically at the beginning, and the more difficult ones are at the end. If a section has two types of questions, usually each type starts with easier problems. For example, a section starts with easy multiple-choice questions, and the last few multiple-choice questions are more difficult before you start the grid-ins; the grid-ins start with easy questions and move toward the more difficult ones at the end.

You will be given reference information preceding each Mathematics section. You should be familiar with this information.

The SAT allows the use of approved calculators, and the College Board (the people who sponsor the exam) recommends that each test taker take a calculator to the test. Even though no question will require the use of a calculator-that is, each question can be answered without a calculator-in some instances, using a calculator will save you valuable time.