Welcome to TutorNerd's SAT Guide! — Updated for 2020

This guide is very comprehensive, but it’s just a brief overview of the SAT. We have many other articles on our blog that go into more detail about specific topics relating to the SAT, how to study for it, and how it fits into a student’s college application. You’ll find those articles linked throughout this guide.

COVID-19 UPDATE

With the uncertainties and health risks resulting from the coronavirus, the main priority for College Board is to ensure the health and safety of students and educators. Because of health guidelines and high demand, there will be limited seating capacity for students in many areas. If you are unable to find a seat in a test center near you, check other dates. Even if you manage to secure a seat at a test center, there is a high possibility for unexpected closures. Do not be surprised if College Board informs you that your test center will cancel the scheduled SAT exam due to health risks. Of course, any fees you have already paid will be refunded or can be applied to a future SAT test date.

Note: College Board is still in the process of checking with each test center to confirm they will be open. If a test center decides to close, students will receive a direct notification from College Board; however, we encourage students to check directly with the test center (via website or phone call). 

Upcoming SAT Exam Dates:

October 3, 2020

November 7, 2020

December 5, 2020

Earlier this year, College Board announced that they plan on administering digital (online) testing for the Fall if quarantine ensues and schools remain online. As of now, online testing for the SAT is not available, but we will update this post as soon as College Board announces any further information regarding online testing. 

How to use this guide

The best way to use this guide depends on what stage you or your child is in the process of taking the exam and applying to school. 

If you’re new to the SAT…

You’ll want to start by reading this guide in its entirety—it’s brief enough that you won’t get bogged down in the details. It will be good for you to get a sense of the overall landscape of the SAT and why it’s important for students. 

Then, you should dive into some of the specific articles for more actionable info. You’ll probably need to start with the articles linked earlier in this guide, as they correspond to the early stages of the SAT process.

If you’re familiar with the SAT but still need help preparing…

You should still go through this guide. You can skip over the more general sections, but this guide is designed to cover every aspect of the SAT. We provide all the necessary information and resources to develop an effective study plan. Then there are additional articles that cover every aspect of the SAT and you should review the ones most applicable to you. 

What is the SAT?

The SAT is an entrance exam created and administered by the College Board. It is used and accepted by all accredited colleges and universities in the United States as part of their assessment of a student’s application. The purpose of this exam is to measure a student’s readiness for college by testing key skills like reading comprehension, data analysis, problem solving, and clarity of expression. Students come from different backgrounds (different high schools, extracurriculars, courses), so a standardized test like the SAT is important because it provides a common data point from which admission officers can compare high school students. 

Consider a scenario where student A has a slightly lower GPA than student B, but student A attends a more competitive highschool. Admission officers cannot be sure if student B performed better than student A or if student B had a higher GPA because she or he attended an easier high school. The SAT gives admission officers a way to compare these two students through its standardized exam. 

SAT Length (with breaks)

3 hrs 15 min (4 hrs 5 min with essay)

Sections

Math (2 sections)

Evidence-based Reading & Writing (2 sections)

Essay (optional)

Cost

$46 ($60 with essay)

Highest SAT Score

1600

Lowest SAT Score

400

Average SAT Score

1060


Why is the SAT Important? 

All 4-year colleges accept the SAT, and most require the SAT (or ACT) in their applications. Recently, however, an increasing number of universities have removed the requirement for an SAT (or ACT) score, and have made these exams optional. 

To see how important the SAT is for you, ask yourself the following questions:

Are you going to a non-competitive state school?

If yes, a high SAT score is not very important. Most state schools have a minimum requirement for the SAT, and as long as you score above the minimum, you should be fine.

Are you going to a competitive state school? 

If yes, a high SAT score is very important, because it is one of the ways you can stand out from a massive pool of applicants.

Are you applying to a non-competitive private university?

If yes, the SAT is less important and only part of your application. The admission board will most likely want to know what makes you special. An essay that indicates you are a good “fit” with the college can be just as important.

Are you applying to a competitive private university?

If yes, the SAT will be a fairly important part of your application. Being special in some way—which can come across in letters of recommendation, essays, or talent—will also have a big impact on your application.

This assessment is definitely an oversimplification, but it provides a general understanding of how important the SAT is for you. Even if you only answered “yes” to #3, you should still take some time to familiarize yourself with the SAT. While you don’t need to perform exceptionally well, a low SAT score can still hurt your chances of acceptance. 

Should you take the SAT or ACT? 

The ACT and SAT do not seem to be so different at first glance. Both are standardized college entrance exams recognized by all accredited U.S. colleges and universities and test students on skills necessary for college and career success. 

Furthermore, with the massive changes made to the SAT in 2016, the two exams have a large number of similarities:

  1. Similar sections in a predetermined order
  2. Optional essay section (scored separately from total score)
  3. No penalty for guessing (4 multiple choice answers per question)
  4. Entirely passage-based Reading and Writing (English on ACT) questions

However, there are still key differences between the SAT & ACT:

SAT

ACT

Total Time

3 hr 15 min including breaks (no essay)

4 hr 5 min including breaks (w/ essay)

3 hr 5 min including breaks (no essay)

3 hr 50 min including breaks (w/ essay)

Exam Structure


Reading - 65 min

Break 1 - 10 min

Writing & Language - 35 min

Math (No Calculator) - 35 min

Break 2 - 5 min

Math (Calculator) - 55 min

Break 3 - 2 min

Essay - 50 min

English - 45 min

Math - 60 min

Break 1 - 10 min

Reading - 35 min

Science - 35 min

Break 2 - 5 min

Essay - 40 min

# of Questions

Reading - 52 questions

Writing & Language - 44 questions

Math (No Calculator) - 20 questions (MC & grid-in)

Math (Calculator) - 38 questions (MC & grid-in)

Essay - 1

English - 75

Math - 60 (MC only)

Reading - 40

Science - 40

Essay - 1

Average time per question

Reading - 75 seconds

Writing & Language - 48 seconds

Math (No Calculator) - 75 seconds

Math (Calculator) - 87 seconds

English - 36 seconds

Math - 36 seconds 

Reading - 52 seconds

Science - 52 seconds

Scoring

Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing are each scored on a scale of 200-800


Overall SAT Score is the sum of the two section scores (400-1600)

English, Math, Reading, and Science scores range from 1-36


Overall ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections (1-36)

Cost

$52 (no essay)

$68 (with essay)

$55 (no essay)

$70 (with essay)

Exam dates

7 times per year: March or April, May, June, August, October, November, December

7 times per year: February, April, June, July, September, October, December


**Offering additional test dates for 2020-2021 due to COVID-19

Registration deadlines

Typically 4 weeks before date of exam

Typically 5-6 weeks before date of exam


Deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT generally comes down to which exam structure and content better fits your individual strengths. For a more in-depth comparison of the SAT & ACT, we encourage you to read through our SAT vs. ACT guide.

How is the SAT scored?

The total score range for the SAT is 400-1600, which is calculated by adding your two “section scores”. One section score is Math, and the other is a combined score of Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. You earn a scaled score (between 200 and 800) on each section. 

Scored Section

“Section Score” range

Math

200 – 800

Evidence-Based Reading and Writing

200 – 800

Total Score

400 – 1600

Essay

2-8 for Reading, Analysis, & Writing


Scoring for the Optional Essay

The essay is scored separately from the normal, numerical score you're more familiar with. Here's how the essay section is scored:

  1. Two different people will read and score your essay.
  2. Each scorer awards 1–4 points for 3 components: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.
  3. The two scores for each component are added
  4. You’ll receive three scores for the SAT Essay (one for each component) ranging from 2–8 points.
  5. There is no composite SAT Essay score (the three scores are not added together) and there are no percentiles.

You can view our guide on SAT scores for a more detailed analysis of how each section is scored and sample score breakdowns.

What is a good score on the SAT?

This is a very common question with no simple answer. Obviously the higher your score, the better. But a “lower” score doesn’t necessarily mean no college will accept you. 

The most important thing to consider is what schools you are applying to, and what the average score of admitted students is for those schools.

Your total SAT score corresponds to a percentile ranking to show how you performed compared to other test-takers. However, how well you do compared to everyone else is not the most important thing for you. 

A 1340 is an 88th percentile score, which means you scored the same as or better than 88% of test takers. This would be a good score if you plan to apply to universities like Arizona State University (average SAT score: 1227) or the University of San Diego (average SAT score: 1274). 

However, it would be a low score for more competitive and selective universities like Harvard University (average SAT score: 1520) or Columbia University (average SAT score: 1505). 

Of course, not everyone is applying to highly selective schools. Therefore, an SAT score that is good for you is one that makes you competitive for the schools to which you are applying. Determine what a good score is for you in 5-steps.

Scholarships: It is always important to remember that the higher your test scores are, the more likely you are to receive merit-based scholarships from universities that offer them. For more information, you can check our guide to scholarships based on SAT (and ACT) scores. 

Low GPA: Another consideration is that a high SAT score on your college application can potentially make up for a below average GPA. 

How long is the SAT?

If you choose to take the SAT without the essay, the total exam length is 3 hours and 15 minutes (including breaks). The chart below shows the breakdown in time for each section. 

Exam length WITHOUT essay = 3 hours 15 minutes (including breaks)

Order 

Section

# of Questions

Time

1

Reading

52

65 min

2

Break 1

N/A

10 min 

3

Writing and Language

44

35 min

4

Math No Calculator

20

25 min

5

Break 2

N/A

5 min

6

Math Calculator

38

55 min


If you decide to take the optional essay, the total exam length is 4 hours and 5 minutes (including breaks). The chart below shows the breakdown in time for each section.

Exam length WITH essay = 4 hours 5 minutes (including breaks)

Order 

Section

# of Questions

Time

1

Reading

52

65 min

2

Break 1

N/A

10 min 

3

Writing and Language

44

35 min

4

Math No Calculator

20

25 min

5

Break 2

N/A

5 min

6

Math Calculator

38

55 min

7

Break 3

N/A

2 min

8

Essay (Optional)

1

50 min


What are the different sections of the SAT?

Section 1: Evidence-based Reading

Overview:

52 questions | 65 minutes | 4 passages + 1 pair of passages = 5 passages

Quick Facts:

  • All questions are multiple choice & based on passages
  • Some passages include informational graphics (e.g. charts, graphs, tables)
  • Prior topic-specific knowledge is NEVER tested → you don’t need any additional knowledge outside of the passage itself to answer any of the questions
  • No penalty for guessing

The passages in this section fall under two categories:

  1. Literary → primarily concerned with telling a story, recalling an event or experience, or reflecting on an idea/concept
    1. e.g. works of fiction
  2. Informational → primarily concerned with conveying ideas
    1. e.g. science, social science, historically/culturally important documents, speech/letter/essay

Passage subjects:

  • 1 U.S. and world literature passage
  • 2 history/social studies passage
  • 2 science passages

The questions on the reading test fall under three categories:

  1. Information and ideas → questions that focus on what the passage says
  2. Rhetoric → questions that ask how the author conveys meaning, tone, and style as well as considering the structure of the passage and the function of something like a paragraph
  3. Synthesis → questions that ask you to make conclusion and connections between two related passages or between passages and informational graphics

Section 2: Evidence-based Writing & Language

Overview:

52 questions | 65 minutes | 4 passages + 1 pair of passages = 5 passages

Quick Facts:

  • All questions are multiple choice & based on passages
  • Some passages include informational graphics (e.g. charts, graphs, tables)
  • Prior topic-specific knowledge is NEVER tested → you don’t need any additional knowledge outside of the passage itself to answer any of the questions
  • No penalty for guessing

The passages in the Writing section fall under 3 main categories:

  1. Argumentative
    1. Takes a strong position and uses evidence to support a claim
    2. 1-2 passages
  2. Narrative Nonfiction
    1. Tells a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end
    2. 1 passage
  3. Informative or Explanatory
    1. Aims to educate reader about a topic
    2. 1-2 passages

The questions in the Writing section fall under 2 main categories:

  1. Expression of Ideas: questions that ask you to improve the effectiveness of communication
  2. Standard English Conventions: questions that ask you to make sentences consistent with standard written English grammar, usage, punctuation, and another rules

For every question, you will be asked to fix errors in grammar, punctuation, and organization. Simply put, read the passage, identify mistakes or weaknesses, and fix them. 

Sections 3: Math (No-Calculator)

Overview:

15 MC + 5 grid-in = 20 question| 25 minutes

Quick Facts:

  • Questions are multiple choice and grid-in
  • Some parts of the test give you a scenario and ask multiple questions on it
  • No penalty for guessing
  • Reference section with formulas & facts

The questions in the Math - No Calculator section fall under 3 categories:

  1. Heart of Algebra
    1. Asks questions on linear equations, systems of linear equations, and the relationships between them
  2. Passport to Advanced Math
    1. Asks questions on more complex equations & functions
  3. Additional Topics in Math
    1. Asks questions on geometry, trigonometry, radian measures, and complex numbers

Section 4: Math (Calculator)

Overview:

30 MC + 8 grid-in = 38 questions | 55 minutes

Quick Facts:

  • Questions are multiple choice and grid-in
  • Some parts of the test give you a scenario and ask multiple questions on it
  • No penalty for guessing
  • Reference section with formulas & facts

The questions in the Math - Calculator section fall under 4 categories:

  1. Heart of Algebra
    1. Asks questions on linear equations, systems of linear equations, and the relationships between them
  2. Problem Solving & Data Analysis
    1. Asks questions on ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning as well as describing relationships shown on graphs and analyzing statistical data
  3. Passport to Advanced Math
    1. Asks questions on more complex equations & functions
  4. Additional Topics in Math
    1. Asks questions on geometry, trigonometry, radian measures, and complex numbers

Section 5: Essay (Optional)

Overview:

Optional, but required by some schools | 50 minutes | 1 essay

Quick Facts:

  • Students are provided a notes page (scratch paper) in their test booklets
  • The prompt is always the same & only the passage changes
  • Essay is scored on Reading, Analysis, and Writing (R.A.W. scoring)
  • You do not need prior knowledge about the topic in order to write your essay
  • Task: read a passage and explain how the author builds a persuasive argument
  • As mentioned earlier, the prompt is always the same. Even though the passage and author changes, the task you are given does not. This is the generic version of the prompt: 

As you read the passage, consider how [the author] uses:

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support [his/her claim]
  • Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence
  • Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade their audience of [his/her claim].”

SAT Logistics & Planning

When should you take the SAT?

Scheduling your SAT test dates in advance is crucial for your success in studying and performing well on exam day. If you plan on taking the SAT multiple times (which we highly recommend), you will need enough time to prepare between test dates to improve your score. 

Here are the currently available dates for the SAT during the 2020-21 academic year:

SAT Date

Registration Deadline

Late Registration Deadline

Deadline for Changes

August 29, 2020

July 31, 2020

August 11, 2020 (for mailed registrations)

August 18, 2020 (for registrations made online or by phone)

August 18, 2020

September 26, 2020

August 26, 2020

September 15, 2020 (for registrations made online or by phone)

September 15, 2020

October 3, 2020

September 4, 2020

September 15, 2020 (for mailed registrations)

September 22, 2020 (for registrations made online or by phone)

September 22, 2020

November 7, 2020

October 7, 2020

October 20, 2020 (for mailed registrations)

October 27, 2020 (for registrations made online or by phone)

October 27, 2020

December 5, 2020

November 5, 2020

November 17, 2020 (for mailed registrations)

November 24, 2020 (for registrations made online or by phone)

November 24, 2020

March 13, 2021

February 12, 2021

February 23, 2021 (for mailed registrations)

March 2, 2021 (for registrations made online or by phone)

March 2, 2021

May 8, 2021

April 8, 2021

April 20, 2021 (for mailed registrations)

April 27, 2021 (for registrations made online or by phone)

April 27, 2021

June 5, 2021

May 6, 2021

May 18, 2021 (for mailed registrations)

May 26, 2021 (for registrations made online or by phone)

May 26, 2021


Because of the current situation with COVID-19, many of the exam dates have been cancelled and future exam dates are also subject to cancellation. TutorNerd is closely monitoring all updates regarding the SAT (and ACT). To stay informed, visit our COVID-19 updates page for the most recent changes (updated daily). 

How to register for the SAT

  1. Go to www.collegeboard.org
  2. Sign up for a new account (or login if you already have one)
  3. Select “I’m a student”
  4. Enter general information
  5. Legal first name, legal last name, date of birth, email address, high school graduation, zip code, where you go to school, create username, create password, choose/answer security question, address
  6. If you are home-schooled, enter 970000 when asked for a high school code
  7. Confirm information & verify email address to complete account set up
  8. Once you have created an account, go to https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat to register for an SAT exam. Reminder: You will need to upload a photo ID and make a payment, so make sure you have these two items ready before you begin registering
  9. Select “Register Now”
  10. Optional: create student profile
  11. This takes additional time, but you should complete it if you want colleges and scholarship organizations to find you
  12. Select an available test date
  13. Answer questions about essay (optional), fee waiver, testing accommodations, student answer services
  14. If you are using a fee waiver, enter the ID number on your fee waiver card
  15. If you have been approved by the College Board for testing accommodations, enter the SSD # on your eligibility letter
  16. Choose test location → CollegeBoard will provide different test centers based on the country/region you select
  17. Upload photo ID
  18. Make payment
  19. CollegeBoard will email you confirmation of your registration as well as a copy of your Admission Ticket. This can also be accessed through your CollegeBoard account

How many times should you take the SAT?

Students can take the SAT as many times as they want, but we recommend students take the SAT at least two times between the spring semester of junior year and the fall semester of senior year. The average score improvement for retaking the SAT is 40 points, so it is statistically in your favor to take the SAT multiple times since most colleges consider your highest score when making admissions decisions. 

However, before you think about re-taking the SAT over and over again until you get a desired score, you should know that some schools require you to send all of your scores. A high score looks less favorable if you have taken the SAT too many times. Two or three attempts should be plenty for most students. Of course there are exceptions: for example, if your SAT scores increase on each attempt, college admissions officers can take that as a sign of growth.

Another reason you may want to take the SAT multiple times is that many universities use a process called "superscoring", where colleges combine your highest Math section score with your highest Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score (even if they are from different test dates). 

We definitely encourage students to take the SAT multiple times, so read through the sections on content and preparation. You should also read our content about how and why the SAT matters in a college application.

Look over our in-depth guide to determine what dates you should take the SAT and how many times you should take it: When Should I Take the SAT & How Many Times Should I Take It?

How to Prepare for the SAT

How Long Should I Study for the SAT?

The answer to this question really depends on 2 things: your personal goals and where you currently are with SAT prep. We firmly believe that any student can reach the score that he or she wants; however, the amount of time it will take to do so will depend on the student’s baseline level and his or her commitment to an effective prep schedule.

No matter what your current level or ideal score may be, we advise all students to:

  1. Take a diagnostic test early on: diagnosing your skills early on is important to determine how much study and practice will be required to reach your goal score
  2. Familiarize yourself with the structure, instructions, and question types of each section
  3. Identify your weaknesses (e.x. Certain sections, types of questions, timing, etc.) and go over guides or work with a tutor to improve these areas. Generally, your weak areas have more room for improvement and can boost your SAT score the most.
  4. Take at least 3 full practice tests → at least 1 practice test on paper with a scantron, which is how the actual SAT is administered

We have developed a sample study plan for students to download or share via Google Doc. Of course, you should make changes to the daily tasks or length of the overall plan to fit your needs, but this template should help you get started and organize your goals! For a more in-depth guide with tips on how to study and how to plan your SAT practice read over our “How to Study for the SAT” guide.

Should I hire an SAT tutor?

It is a good idea to hire an SAT tutor. Every student can improve their score if they put in the necessary work and having a tutor simply makes that process easier and more efficient.

The right SAT tutor will be able to identify your weaknesses and develop a strategic plan that optimizes your study time to improve your score effectively. Most high school students taking the SAT are in the busiest times of their high school journey. Balancing your classes, extracurriculars, and a standardized exam is extremely stressful. 

Furthermore, getting some kind of one-on-one SAT prep help is becoming the norm rather than the exception. And since the SAT is a “standardized” test, and used in the competitive college admissions process, it’s not just your score that matters—it’s how well you scored compared to other students at the same time. In short, since so many students are getting SAT tutors, you probably should too, in order to be competitive. 

Every student has individual strengths and weaknesses. Even if two students are struggling in the same section, the reasons for their problems are likely different. There are countless strategies and approaches to the SAT, but ultimately it comes down to your individual needs and determining what works best for you. There is a positive correlation between time spent studying and increase in SAT score. However, oftentimes, students reach a plateau and realize that simply spending more time studying does not necessarily lead to a higher SAT score. How much you study is important, but how you study is just as, if not more, important. 

Identifying your weaknesses and determining the right study plan to correct your problems is challenging. Our goal is to equip you with the necessary knowledge and resources to help you succeed. We recommend every student to go through our guides and take practice tests to assess themselves. Even with the amount of available SAT prep, the SAT can be overwhelming. With so much information to process, it is not uncommon for students to feel lost or demotivated by their lack of progress. In these situations, having an SAT tutor can dramatically help you study and improve your score more effectively. 

Conclusion

While the SAT might be an intimidating part of the high schooler's journey, it does not have to be stressful. The fact is: the SAT assesses a student's ability to take a test efficiently (quickly). Being able to work efficiently is a big part of being a college student, and that's why the SAT is used as part of the application process. Take it from us, though: There's no reason you or your student can't "ace" the SAT (and what that looks like for you will depend on your goals—as we mentioned earlier in this guide, not everyone needs a perfect score on the SAT!). You just need the right help, the right preparation, and the right support. And your SAT prep should focus largely on how to take the test itself—not purely on the academic "content".

If you want expert help on the SAT, look no further than TutorNerd. Our tutoring is different because we take the time to assess your unique needs and tailor our tutoring accordingly. Our SAT tutoring focusses on your weak areas of the exam, so it's much more personal and effective.


John Marh is a native of Fullerton in Orange County, CA. He has degrees in political science and business finance from USC. John is currently an online tutor for the SAT, ACT, LSAT, and other topics with TutorNerd.com.