Breaking Down the SAT

Meghna Chhabra, Senior, Prospect Hill Academy

What is the SAT?

The SAT is an entrance exam many colleges and universities use in the college admissions decision. The purpose of the SAT exam is to give colleges a better sense of how ready a student is for college and acts as a universal point of comparison when colleges are comparing applicants. It is important to keep in mind that not all schools weigh the SAT equally. Some schools may place more importance on the SAT than others and some schools might not even look at your SAT scores. Remember that the SAT does not determine how good of a student you are. 

When to take it

Many high school students take the SAT during the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. We recommend taking the SAT during your junior year because you have the ability to retake the test during your senior year if you are not happy with your score before you apply to college. Most local high schools schedule test dates every year in the months of August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. Visit this link to find specific dates:

SAT sections 

The SAT has three sections: math, evidence-based reading and writing, and an optional essay section. 

  • 1 hour, 20 minutes to complete the math section
  • 1 hour, 40 minutes to complete the reading and writing section
  • 50 minutes to complete the essay section (if you decide to take it)

You’ll get a 10-minute break after the reading section and a 5-minute break after the math without the calculator section. With these breaks, the exam time becomes 3 hours, 15 minutes long. 

If you choose to take the essay, your exam time will be 4 hours, 5 minutes long.

Math sections 

There is a calculator and a non-calculator part of the math section. 

In the non-calculator section, you have 25 minutes to answer 20 questions (87 seconds per question). There are 15 multiple choice questions and 5 grid-in questions. 

In the calculator section, you have 55 minutes to answer 38 questions (75 seconds per question). There are 31 multiple choice questions and 7 grid-in questions. 

The questions focus on algebra, problem-solving & data analysis, and some questions about the basics of higher math.

Reading and writing section 

In the reading section, there are 52 multiple choice questions and you have 65 minutes to answer all questions (75 seconds per question). The questions will focus on reading and vocabulary in context. 

In the writing section, there are 44 multiple choice questions and you have 35 minutes to answer all questions (48 seconds per question). The questions will focus on grammar and usage. 


The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600. Each section is worth a maximum of 800 points. 

Essay section

The SAT essay is optional because not all colleges factor in your essay score while looking at your application. You’ll have 50 minutes in total to complete your essay. 

Each SAT essay provides the student with one short persuasive passage that they will have to read and respond to. The essay prompt is the same on every test, but the passage you are given is not. Your response should discuss how the author of the passage assembles the argument using evidence, reasoning, and other persuasive elements rather than restate what the argument is. The purpose of this essay is to assess your ability to analyze an author’s argument. 

Your score on the essay is separate from your scores on the math and reading sections. Your essay is assessed by two scorers. Each grader will give you a score of 1-4 in 3 categories: 

  • Reading – How well your essay shows your understanding of the text. 
  • Analysis – How well you analyze the text and explain how the author builds their argument.
  • Writing – How well your response is written.

The scores from both graders will be added together to give you a score of 2-8 on each section. Each section score is added together to give you a final score of 6-24. 


To register for the SAT, sign up on the College Board website. The website will give you all of the possible SAT dates and will give you deadlines to sign up by. Check out the College Board SAT day checklist for more information about what to bring:

Remember that your SAT score is just one step of your college process. Your score does NOT determine who you are as a student. Some schools don’t even ask for the SAT, while others superscore. This means that if you take the test multiple times, they’ll take you best score from each section out of all the tests you’ve taken. It’s more important to always try your best despite any difficulties you might face. Make sure to set goals for yourself and take breaks!