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The Beginner’s Guide to the SAT

March 21, 2019 :: Admissionado

Is there anything more anxiety-producing, stomach-churning, or sweaty-hands-inducing than the thought of taking a three-hour test, whose score has the power to make or break your chances of attending your dream college?

For those of you who answered, “no, you’re mistaken – that would be clowns,” then please feel free to continue on with your day. For those who answered, “I feel seen,” this post is for you!

Despite many colleges waiving the requirement for SAT scores this application season due to COVID-19, and murmurings of a large-scale shift away from standardized testing altogether, the SAT remains a critical part of the application process to U.S. colleges. If you’re just getting started looking into the SAT, it can definitely seem a bit overwhelming.

In this article, we will break the test down to its basic components, dig into the strategy behind achieving your best SAT score, and navigate the choppy waters of the 2020 testing landscape.


The SAT consists of three separate sections:

Evidence-Based Reading

The Evidence-Based Reading Test is half of your reading and writing score and consists of 52 questions on a series of passages. These passage topics range from literature to natural sciences, and test your ability to think and read critically. You will have 65 minutes to work through these 52 questions, so you must move pretty quickly. But don’t worry, that speed will come with practice.

Writing and Language

The other half of your reading and writing score on the SAT comes from the Writing and Language test. You will have 35 minutes for this section, which comprises 44 questions about grammar and writing style.


The Math section tests your knowledge of algebra, geometry, and a little trigonometry, too. While the Math section makes up half of your score, you don’t have the same amount of time for it; you only have 80 minutes to complete 58 questions for the Math section, compared to 100 minutes on the Reading and Writing section.

A few additional important notes about this section:

  • You won’t be able to use a calculator on the entire Math section. There is a 25-minute section where a calculator is not permitted.
  • Twenty two percent of the questions on the Math section require ‘grid-in’ answers, in which you have to supply your own answer to the problem. This is significant, as you can’t just take an educated/wild guess to the answer as you would a multiple choice question. (Well, you could, but instead of a 25% chance of being right, your chances are… well, a lot lower). This means that you will want to be familiar with how to format your answers, to ensure that your answer is not only correct, but counted as such.

Totaling 180 minutes (not including scheduled breaks – don’t worry, there are breaks), the SAT is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. While it probably sounds like a lot to learn—and it is a lot—you can totally do it. All you need is to stick to a personalized SAT study schedule. With a solid SAT study plan that outlines how long to study, what study materials to use, and what to study each day, you’ll be able to crush the SAT.


A perfect score on the SAT is a 1600. The Writing and Reading sections have a maximum score of 800, and the Math section has a maximum score of 800. The minimum score for a section is 200 points. Your raw score, (the total number of questions you answered correctly) is converted into a scaled score, which factors in the difficulty level of the test you took on a particular test date. The scaled score is reported to colleges.

Many competitive schools, such as Stanford, proudly state that they have no minimum SAT score required for admission. While this is technically true, the majority of the applicants to these selective colleges will still boast high SAT scores. And as long as the school continues to require test scores, they will remain a factor that can influence their decision. Let’s put it this way: An excellent score will never hurt your chances of admission, whereas a lower score could


The SAT Essay section was introduced in 2005, and had a brief stint as a mandatory portion of the SAT. As of 2016, it is now optional, though some colleges may still require it.

In this section (not to be confused with the Writing and Language section), you are asked to analyze a passage, and write one essay about how the passage’s author “builds an argument.” It tests your writing and analysis skills – not your general knowledge on a topic. It is scored on a scale of 2-8, and is evaluated by two scorers to compile the final score.

The benefit to taking the SAT Essay is that it is a chance to showcase your readiness to write at the college level. Developing and communicating clear written arguments, and supporting them with compelling evidence, is the linchpin of a liberal arts education.


There are 20 available SAT II subject tests that allow you to delve deeper into a particular subject. They test material outside the scope of the main SAT test (such as French), or more advanced material than what you will encounter (such as Math II).

So, how should you approach the SAT II subject test?

First, Figure Out Which Subjects Are Required

Certain colleges require you to take certain SAT II subject tests to gauge academic readiness. This is especially true for rigorous courses of study, such as pre-med programs. Search through the application, the college’s website, and double-check with admissions to make sure you aren’t missing any required SAT IIs.

Next, Play to your Strengths

Because you have a choice, pick the subjects that you feel strong in. It’s like picking someone to write you a recommendation letter: you pick the person who will make you look good. The same thing goes for the SAT II exams. If you know a ton about American history, you don’t need to take physics.

Finally, Which Subjects Will Help You DURING College?

Who says it’s all about the admissions committee? Sometimes colleges will use your SAT II scores to place you in higher course levels. Say you score over 750 in French – that score can count that towards your college language requirement at some schools, freeing up more credits in your schedule for electives.


The SAT test is offered seven times a year. (However, not all SAT II subject tests are offered during all dates and test centers, so that component requires some extra planning).

The first step is to create an account with College Board, the organization that develops the SAT. From there, you can register for the SAT on your preferred date and testing center. (The deadline for registration is one month in advance, so throw some reminders onto your phone to be sure you don’t accidentally miss your chance at your first choice date and location).

Once you’ve registered, it’s time to create a study plan.

● College Board recently partnered with Khan Academy to offer free resources to prepare for the SAT, including sample questions, tips and practice tests.

● Many students find it helpful to sign up for an SAT prep course or one-on-one tutoring to help them stay on track and to have someone who can answer questions.

● However, some students prefer to study on their own, so don’t rule that out if you’re a diligent student who prefers to work at their own pace.

Spending time up front deciding how you want to study will make your SAT study time that much more efficient—and leave some free time for episodes of The Great British Baking Show.


For the most recent updates about available testing sites, safety procedures during the test, and all things COVID-19-related, you will find the most recent and official info on the College Board website, here.

But your first stop should always be the admissions offices of your list of targeted colleges. Whether it’s on their website or you connect by phone or email, they will have information on extended deadlines for when you can submit SAT scores, whether they are waiving the SAT or SAT II subject tests (or both), and other essential info you need to plan your application process.

Yes, applying to college looks different this year. But while it may seem as though the entire admissions landscape has changed, much has stayed the same. Admissions committees are still looking for curious, passionate students. And the application process still favors those who stay organized, start early, do their research, and put in the work.

You got this.