• Jessica Robinson

SAT FAQ: Your Guide to the SAT Tests

2019 / 2020 School Year Version


After reading this article you will...

  • understand what the SAT tests are about, what colleges require, and which scores colleges will see

  • be able to form a test prep plan, using tips from a longtime tutor


What is the SAT?

“The SAT” means the SAT I & II exams. These are standardized tests administered by The College Entrance Examination Board to high school juniors and seniors. As part of the College Board’s “SAT Suite of Assessments,” the SATs are required for many college admission applications. Some colleges accept the ACT test instead; see below for how to choose which to take or both.


I encourage students to begin preparing for these exams outside of school as early as possible. The College Board offers formal preparatory practice tests (the PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, & PSAT NMSQT) to 8th-11th graders. (PSAT FAQ) Other practice tests are also available, and the SAT itself can be taken more than once.

  • The SAT I is a 3+ hour standardized test that assesses a student’s abilities to complete reading, writing, & math problems under timed circumstances. SAT I scores are required for most college applications.

  • The SAT II Subject Tests are subject-specific, hour-long exams. Students can take up to three in one sitting. SAT II scores are required by fewer colleges and universities but if a student can score well these tests will make a good impression. Practice tests can help with the decision of whether to take the SAT II tests.


Who takes the SAT?

11th & 12th grade high school students.


When do students take the SAT?

The SAT exams are offered seven times each year, in March, May, June, August, October, November, & December. Registration is required and can be completed at collegeboard.com. Students must bring a government-issued photo ID on test day. Students can take the test as many times as they like, but to improve control over which scores are submitted to colleges I recommend that students practice with full, timed tests administered at home or at a testing center.


Juniors have more opportunities to take their SAT tests than seniors do. Starting the college entrance exam process in junior year (or sooner) helps students pace their senior year more comfortably and reduces the stress of their college application season, and can help them score better.


When are the remaining SAT dates for 2019/2020?

  • 2019: October 5th, November 2nd, December 7th

  • 2020: March 14th, May 2nd, June 6th, August 29th, October 3rd, November 7th, December 5th

Note that registration windows close about 1 month before each test date. Some test centers fill up quickly. Be sure to register as soon as you know when you’ll be ready to take the real thing. If you’re not sure when the right time is, consulting a tutor can help. I offer brief phone consultations with no charge or obligation.


Why do students take the SAT?

SAT scores are required by most top-tier universities and colleges and are a key component of their application review processes.


When should students start preparing for the SAT?

With college admissions being so competitive starting formal test prep early is a good idea, especially if students are hoping to be accepted at a T20 or T50 school. Starting early they get more exposure to the question types, they develop test-taking endurance, they are able to practice strategies they can use on test day, and they feel calmer about the big test when it feels familiar.


Students can now begin taking the PSAT as early as 8th grade, with the addition of the PSAT 8/9 to the College Board’s “SAT Suite of Assessments.” The PSAT tests have the same types of questions as the SAT, which are different from normal schoolwork. Seeing these question styles earlier and more frequently helps to assure that students have solving systems in place early and aren’t scrambling to learn about them later.


If your child is in 10th or 11th grade, not to worry, you still have time to prepare with a more compressed approach.


How long is the SAT?

The SAT I is 3 hours long, plus 50 optional minutes for an essay. It is made up of these sections:


1. Reading Comprehension: 65 minutes (4 passages & 47 questions total)

2. Writing & Language: 35 minutes (4 passages & 44 questions total)

3 & 4. Mathematics: 80 minutes (2 sections & 63 questions total)

  • 55 minutes (calculator optional, 30 multiple choice & 8 fill-in-the-blank or “grid-in” questions)

  • 25 minutes (no calculator; 15 multiple choice & 5 grid-in questions)

  • The math sub-categories are Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Problem Solving & Data Analysis, and Additional Topics in Math.

5. Optional Essay: 50 minutes (option must be chosen at registration). Note that the SAT essay does not affect a students score out of 1600. It is graded separately by human readers on a scale out of 24. While the essay is recommended by many colleges and universities around the world, it is only required for a handful (drop me a note if you need to know the list).


The SAT II Subject Tests are one hour each.

Students can register for up to three subjects per test date. Unlike the essay option in the SAT I, students may change which subjects they take on the day of the test.


What does the SAT actually test?

It’s important to understand that the SAT exams are not based on any one school’s curriculum standards or teaching approaches; they’re designed to test your knowledge of what they test. Students must know how to deal with unique question types and time constraints, preferably well ahead of test day.


In a nutshell, the SAT I tests skills in 3 or 4 subject areas, depending on whether students opt for the essay portion.

  • Reading Comprehension: active reading, passage analysis & comparison, vocabulary, chart interpretation, & inference-making. Each of the 4 passages will be 700-900 words long,in History/Social Studies, Humanities, Careers, & Science.

  • Writing & Language: English grammar, usage rules, rhetoric style, idea expression & analysis, graph interpretation, & punctuation.

  • Mathematics: algebraic & geometric problem solving, data & diagram analysis, and as well as niche topics like trigonometry and pre-calculus, plus some elementary math concepts students that may not have used in a while (like calculating the mean, median, mode, & range of a data set).

Dozens of parents, after looking at their students’ SAT practice math materials, have expressed their alarm to me regarding the difficult wording and advanced concept combination skills required to answer each question in the allotted time, which is usually 1-2 minutes per question. They’re right, these tests are challenging, especially with respect to pacing. It’s helpful for students to learn when it’s strategic to speed up or slow down.


Test-taking endurance is an often-overlooked aspect of test prep. Students taking the SAT will be testing for over 3 hours; those with time extension accommodations may not finish their exams for well over 6 hours. It’s important to begin training for these mental marathons early and often so that students have the capacity to follow 2 and a half hours of reading and math with another 35 minutes of intense science Q&A and a 50 minute essay.


Taking full-length, timed practice SAT tests outside the house (in a library or at a testing center) and reviewing results with a tutor is an excellent way for students to get practice with SAT question styles in an authentic testing atmosphere. The scores from these practice tests are nearly as valuable as the test-taking time itself, as they yield a ton of data useful to savvy students or tutors, yet they are never sent to colleges.


Who gets a time extension?

Allowances of 1.5x time or 2x additional time are available for select students with proper documentation and pre-planning. To qualify a student typically must have a documented history of requiring individual time circumstances on assignments in school. Students with 504 plans or IEPs are more likely to be given a time extension, but it’s not guaranteed. A separate application through the College Board is necessary, and the review process can be lengthy.


How is the SAT scored?

The SAT reading and writing sections are scored together for a composite in the range of 200-800. The two SAT math sections are also scored together on a scale of 200-800. A combined perfect score is 800+800=1600.


If a student takes the SAT more than once, do colleges see all of their scores?

The answer depends on the school. Each college or university has its own policy regarding which SAT scores they review with a student’s application. Most fall into three categories:

  • All scores from all tests are required.

  • Only the highest-scoring sections among all of the tests a student has taken. This policy is called “superscoring”.

  • Only the highest-scoring total score among all the tests a student has taken.

Note that students can find information about a school’s SAT score submission preferences on their admissions web pages or by calling the admissions office. (Ideally this call will include a few other well-researched questions that aren’t answered on the website. Many schools’ admissions faculty keep track of how many times a student reaches out directly).


Do colleges see any PSAT scores?

Most commonly no, unless you do well enough to qualify for a scholarship (and at that point, you might want them to see). A few secondary schools routinely input PSAT results on student transcripts, but rest easy – a PSAT score is not an admissions criterion.


Is the Score Choice program the same thing as superscoring?

No. The Score Choice program is a College Board program that some colleges use. It allows students to choose which test dates to submit with their application. Under this plan if a student’s best section scores occur on separate test dates, the student have the option to submit their composite scores for both test dates in order for colleges to be able to see their highest section scores.


Note that while participation in the College Board’s Score Choice program is the student’s choice and not the school’s, some schools still require students to submit all of their SAT scores. If you see a school’s website using the term “Version 1” it means they accept the Score Choice program’s policies. If it says “Version 2” it means they will accept Score Choice but prefer to also see all of a student’s SAT scores. And they may simply require all scores.


What about the ACT? Do students have to take both the SAT & ACT? How do SAT scores compare to the ACT scoring scale?

Some schools accept the ACT instead of, or in addition to, the SAT. If your targeted schools are in this category, you have to decide which tests to take and submit.


The ACT is scored on a 1-36 scale. A perfect score is a composite score of 36.


Some students do well on both exams, while others show a performance preference on one or the other. Students’ PSAT, SAT, & ACT practice test scores can be helpful predictors when it comes time to decide whether to take both the SAT and ACT or commit to only one of them. Many factors play into the decision: diagnostic results (SAT vs ACT diagnostic and practice exams are available here) , schedule availability (juggling hectic junior/senior year workloads & extra-curriculars), and even finances (there’s a fee for each time a student takes the exam). An experienced tutor can aid this navigation.


How can I study for the SAT?

Start early, take practice tests, and work with a tutor! Even a single last-minute session can boost your score on test day.


What is the “fifth” section people keep talking about?

If a student’s SAT test includes a 20-minute fifth section, it’s simply a feature the College Board uses to screen potential future test questions and does not affect the student’s total score. If a student’s test includes this section, their release time will be correspondingly later.


How early in the morning is the SAT?

Test centers open at 7:45am and close their doors promptly at 8:00 am. I recommend that students prepare test materials and plan their outfit and breakfast the night before so that the morning of the test goes as smoothly as possible and arriving early doesn’t create stress. Many students are now choosing to meditate on the way to the test to help prepare their concentration for the marathon they’re about to run. The test itself will begin between 8:30-9:00 am, after the proctor gives out materials, checks calculators, and reads instructions.


Bonus: Who designs the SAT?

The College Board’s test-writing team includes psychologists. If the questions seem like they’re meant to get under your skin, they are!



Jessica Robinson is a test prep tutor in Manhattan. She has spent over a decade coaching students in standardized test-prep and anxiety-management.


Contact her: jessica@learncurious.com, facebook.com/curiouslearn/ or as u/battlesong on Reddit


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