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The Definitive Practice Test Guide for the SAT Exam

About the SAT Exam

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, is an entrance exam used by most colleges and universities when making decisions about admission. The exam was originally created at Columbia University in 1899 by a group represented by 12 universities and three secondary schools. It was first administered by the College Board in 1901, although the test wasn’t officially introduced until 1926.

Since its initial introduction, the exam has gone through many changes, most recently in 2016. It is designed to measure the readiness of junior and senior high school students for college. The changes in 2016 put more emphasis on reasoning skills, rather than the memorization of facts. It is also more closely aligned with the PSAT/NMSQT® exam that students may take earlier in their high school education.

The SAT is divided into two sections, Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, with an optional third section composed of an essay. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section is separated into two parts, the Reading portion and the Writing and Language Test. The scores from these sections are combined to form the total score for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section. The Math portion of the SAT exam is also divided into two separate sections that each cover four broad topics. You will be allowed to use a calculator for one of the sections, but the other section is deemed “no-calculator.” The essay portion of the SAT exam is optional, although most students take it at least once in the event that the college to which they are applying requires it.

The total time allowed to take the SAT exam is 180 minutes with the essay, 130 without it. A breakdown of the test sections includes:

Evidence Based Reading and Writing: 44 multiple-choice questions with 35 minutes to complete all of them Math: 58 questions with 80 minutes allowed to complete them. Twenty of these must be answered with no calculator. The questions are either multiple-choice or grid-in questions. Essay: One question with 50 minutes allowed to complete it.

Since the SAT, like the ACT®, provides a common data point that all colleges can use to compare applicants, a good score is desirable—especially if you are applying to a prestigious or rigorous college program. Obtaining a good score requires a ton of preparation across all of the content that will be found on the exam.

Sections of the SAT Exam

Math: Additional Topics

The math questions on the SAT exam cover multiple areas and six of them involve what the test company calls “Additional Topics in Math.” You will not receive a separate score for this type of question, but success on them will contribute to your total math score. You can hone your skills on these concepts in this section of practice questions. They include items on geometry and trigonometry that have been linked to success in college and careers.

Math: Heart of Algebra

A total of 19 of the SAT Math questions will concern concepts in algebra. The test company calls this the “Heart of Algebra” and this section of practice questions will help you prepare. You will practice concepts concerning linear equations and systems of these equations, as well as procedures to use with inequalities.

Math: Passport to Advanced Math

Sixteen of the total math items on the SAT involve working with complex equations and performing manipulations of them to arrive at an answer. The testing company calls this area “Passport to Advanced Math” and that is what this section of our practice questions involves.

Math: Problem Solving and Data Analysis

This particular set of questions covers concepts in the areas of problem solving and data analysis. Questions in this area all involve the skills a person needs to be literate about quantitative life situations. You will work with things like ratios, percentages, and proportions, as well as problem-solving techniques to use in real-world science, social science, and career situations.

Reading: History and Social Science

You will find a variety of reading passage types on the SAT exam. Different types of text require slightly different approaches and skill abilities, so we have three separate sections of Reading practice questions. In this section, we will only deal with passages from the areas of History and other Social Sciences, such as economics, sociology, and psychology. Literature and Science reading skills are covered in the other two Reading practice question sections.

The SAT Reading section will contain one history-related passage and one from the other social sciences. The first may come from a U.S. founding document or a conversation inspired by these documents. A passage may be a speech given by one of the founding fathers or that of a modern-day person involved in world affairs. A section of the U.S. Constitution may be presented, along with political commentary on it from any period in time. The other passage of this type could be related to any of the social sciences.

There is a heavy emphasis on analysis in the history/social sciences and science-related questions, as well as the ability to examine evidence and define words according to their use in context. There will probably be a related graphic used in some questions and you will need to compare data in the graphic with the author’s commentary in a passage.

Reading: Literature

During the SAT exam Reading portion, you will have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions about four passages or pairs of passages. Reading passage types will be mixed on the test, but we have divided them into types for the purpose of study. Different types of text require slightly different reading skills.

The practice questions in this section all reference a passage from classic or modern U.S. or world literature. Reading passages from other domains (science and social studies) are covered in the other two sections of reading practice questions on our site.

There will be one passage on the test from literature and 10–11 questions about it. Each passage is 500–700 words long and you may be asked to:

  • Show that you can use evidence presented by the author to answer questions about the text.
  • Determine a relationship between text and a graph or chart.
  • Analyze the meaning of words as they are used in a passage.
  • Explain how word choice affects the meaning, tone, and style of a passage.
  • Generally reason about the information presented in a passage, including making inferences.

Questions about the same passage are arranged in order from general to more specific. The literature passages won’t have any associated graphs and there will be only one passage to reference, as opposed to a pair of passages, which may be used for history or science passage questions.

Reading: Science

While all types of passages are mixed within the Reading section of the SAT exam, you will need to use a different approach for some of them. Reading and comprehending science text requires some specialized skills that you don’t need when dealing with literature and other types of content. You need to be able to think and reason in a scientific manner and we’ll practice that with these questions. Reading skills needed for literature and history-type reading are practiced in the other two Reading sections of practice questions.

There will be two science-related passages on the SAT exam and they may come from the areas of biology, physics, chemistry, or Earth science. You will be given all of the information you need to reason about the contents of the passages—it’s your scientific reasoning skill that’s being tested, not your memorization of scientific facts and terms. Passages will focus on basic scientific foundations and may require you to compare two passages on basically the same subject. Other questions may ask you to use the data in a graphic to reason about the contents of a related passage.

The scientific passage questions require you to use your knowledge of how scientific procedures work. This may include working with the concepts of hypotheses and conclusions and finding the implications of data.

Writing and Language: Career and Humanities

The Writing and Language section is all about making decisions about what someone else has written. Most of the time, you will be asked to improve the writing in some way and will be given four choices of ways to do this.

Of the four passages you will see on the SAT exam in this section, one will be concerning careers and one will be about some aspect of the humanities. These are the two types of passages on which we will focus in this section of questions.

Writing and Language: History and Social Studies

In the Writing and Language section of the SAT exam, there will be four passages, each with related questions. Of these four passages, one of them will have been written on a topic falling in the area of history or social studies. In this section of practice questions, you will focus on the skills needed to edit and revise writing in these two topic areas so that it is clear to the reader and appropriately organized.

Writing and Language: Science

Passages about science sometimes require a different organization and style of writing. In this set of practice questions, you will try your hand at analyzing scientific passages and suggesting appropriate edits for them. This is one type of passage you will see on the SAT exam Writing and Language test. The other types are reviewed in our other practice question sections.

What to Expect on Test Day

Examinees may take the SAT either on a regular school day (for those schools that allow it) or register at a testing center independent of their school. In either instance, the school or the testing center will provide you with important information, such as when and where to arrive, what to bring, policies for allowable items, and any information you may need to successfully complete the test.

The SAT is a long and comprehensive exam, and you will likely focus better if you arrive well-rested and after eating. Doing this will prevent you from becoming distracted by hunger or drowsiness.

What to Bring

Prior to taking the exam, you will need to provide an acceptable form of photo identification. It must be either government-issued or issued by the school that you currently attend. It must also have a recognizable photo and bear your full, legal name exactly as it appears on your admission ticket. You will also need to provide your up-to-date admission ticket during registration.

Check with your exam center to find out which form you will be taking. One form of the SAT exam is a paper-and-pencil exam, meaning that you must also bring two No. 2 pencils with erasers. You should also bring an approved calculator. If you are uncertain whether your calculator is an approved model, you can check with the testing center or online. It is also recommended that you bring a watch (not one on a phone) and extra batteries or a backup calculator, although they will not be allowed on your desk during the exam. You must ask permission to access them, if necessary. You can also bring a bag or backpack with drinks and snacks that you can consume during your break time.

What Not to Bring

You should not bring any electronic devices with you on the day of the exam, including digital watches, items with cameras, or other wearable devices that can sync to another device to record, transmit, receive, or play back any content. Tablets, laptops, and other computer devices are also prohibited, along with cell phones and anything else that can be used for testing.

You also should not bring any study aids or reference materials as they are prohibited. This prohibition includes compasses, rulers, protractors, highlighters, colored or mechanical pencils, pamphlets, and dictionaries or reference books. ## Best Ways to Study for the SAT Exam

Take SAT Practice Tests

For many students, the SAT exam may be the most significant standardized exam that they take. And since the ability to get into a good college is largely based on SAT performance, there is a lot of pressure to do well on the exam. One of the best ways to ensure that you are prepared to succeed on this exam is by taking practice tests. The practices tests help you to become familiar with the format of the exam and the types of questions you will encounter. They can also help you to identify the areas in which you should spend the most time studying.

Use Alternative Study Methods

When preparing to take the SAT, many students find that alternative study methods, such as using flashcards for the SAT and study guides for the SAT, can provide a more well-rounded study experience. Incorporating additional study methods can also help improve retention of the information.

Simulate the SAT Testing Experience

The SAT exam is timed, so before taking the actual test, it can be very helpful to simulate the entire testing experience, including taking all sections within the allotted time requirements. Going through a simulation like this can help you to determine how to pace yourself so that you have time to answer all of the questions. It can also help you understand how well you perform over an extended period. If you know you may experience mental fatigue at a certain point in the exam, you can develop strategies to overcome this fatigue.

SAT Tips and Tricks

If You Don’t Know the Answer, Guess

Another one of the major changes to the SAT exam in 2016 included removing the penalty for guessing. This means that you are not penalized if you do not know the right answer, although you may score higher if you happen to guess it correctly. So, don’t leave any answers blank. Putting down any answer is better than no answer at all.

Complete the Questions You Know First

The SAT is administered via paper and pencil, meaning that you can go back and forth within each section. When starting a new section, it’s a good idea to read through all of the questions first, and answer the ones that you know. Then, with your remaining time, you can come back to the unanswered ones and spend a little extra time determining the correct answer (or the best guess).

Pace Yourself So You Can Complete the Entire Exam

Given the time restrictions for each section within the SAT, it’s crucial that you pace yourself so you can answer all questions. There is no penalty for guessing, so even if you must do that for your remaining incomplete questions, it’s still important that you have enough time to do so. Keep your eye on the clock throughout each section and when time is running low, take action to answer the remaining questions.


1. How much does it cost to take the SAT?

The cost for the basic SAT exam with two sections is $49.50. It is $64.50 if the essay portion is included. Some students may be eligible for a fee waiver. Students and families struggling with the exam fees should inquire with the school counselor to determine if they are eligible for the waiver.

2. Is there any recourse if I am unhappy with my performance on the SAT?

If you are unhappy with the test upon finishing it, you can cancel your scores by submitting a “Request to Cancel Test Scores” form, either immediately after finishing or within a few days by mailing the form to Educational Testing Services. They must receive this form by the Thursday after your exam date in order to process the cancellation.

3. When should I start preparing for the SAT?

How long you spend preparing for the SAT exam is entirely up to you and your educational goals after completing high school. As a general rule, most students begin preparing between five and 12 weeks before their scheduled exam date.

4. Can I retake the SAT?

Yes, you may take the SAT exam as many times as you would like. However, if your desired college requires you to send all copies of your score reports, you may want to minimize the amount of times you take the exam. The best strategy is to prepare adequately and ensure you are ready to achieve a great score either the first or second time you take the exam.

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