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The SAT: What You Need to Know

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Your scores on the SAT help colleges judge how well you demonstrate critical reading, mathematical reasoning, and writing skills compared to other students. While important, it's just one factor in your admissions chances.

Learn how the SAT works and how your score might influence your college admission chances

Significant SAT Changes Coming March 2016

  • Major focus on interpreting information and supporting your conclusions

  • Vocabulary words more practical

  • Essay optional (some schools may require it)

  • Calculator not allowed for part of math test

  • No penalty for wrong answers

  • Maximum score is 1600 (without the essay)

  • Online SAT available

What's Tested on the SAT

The SAT tests the knowledge you've learned in high school and the critical thinking skills you need to apply that knowledge. It includes three sections: Math, Critical Reading, and Writing. Each section has a time limit of either 60 or 70 minutes. You will have three hours and 45 minutes to complete all three sections. (And yes, there are breaks.)

The SAT Math Section

This test covers math concepts through Algebra II, including arithmetic operations, algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability. It emphasizes linear functions, exponents, and tangent lines. You are allowed to use a four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator during the test.

The SAT Critical Reading Section

This test concentrates on sentence completion, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. It includes both long and short reading passages. For the short passages, you'll be asked to choose the most correct definition of a word, phrase, or idea.

The SAT Writing Section

This test focuses on writing mechanics and communicating clearly. It includes multiple-choice grammar and sentence construction questions and an original 25-minute essay that you write on the spot. Some colleges don't require the writing section.

How the SAT is Scored

Your SAT score report will show your Math, Critical Reading, and Writing scores, ranging from 200-800 per test. The highest combined score you can earn is 2400. The national average is about 1500.

  • For all tests, you earn one point for each correct answer; you lose a quarter-point for each incorrect answer. If you leave a question blank, no points are awarded or deducted.

  • The essay is scored by two readers on a scale of one to six points, six being best. If the readers' scores differ by more than a point, a third reader scores the essay. You could get zero points if you don't write on the assigned topic.

How to Prepare for the SAT

The best way to prepare is to take timed practice tests and study sample questions. The College Board offers testing tips and a free practice test on Many inexpensive or free online test prep resources are available, as well as books.

When to Take the SAT

It's a good idea to take the SAT for the first time in the spring of your junior year. This will give you time to take the test again in the fall of your senior year. Be sure to confirm the last possible date you can take the test with the colleges you are applying to.

Sending Your Scores to Colleges

When you register for the SAT, you can choose up to four colleges to receive your scores at no cost. For a fee, you can send scores to more colleges after you have taken the test. Fee waivers are available, based on income.

Make sure that you understand a college's score-use policies. Some require all your scores from every test. Others let you send only your best combined score from a single test date or your highest section scores from multiple tests. The easiest path is to send all of your scores to all of your colleges.

Some Colleges Don't Require Test Scores

An increasing number of colleges and universities do not require the SAT or ACT for admission. For a listing of these schools, visit


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