SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The 4 SAT Sections: What They Test and How to Do Well

Posted by Hannah Muniz | Jun 1, 2017 12:00:00 PM

SAT General Info

 

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Whether you're actively preparing for the SAT or simply want to learn more about the ubiquitous college entrance exam, it’s important you start with the basics: how many sections are on the SAT? What are the names of the SAT sections? And what kinds of skills does each section measure?

In this article, we answer all of your burning questions about the SAT sections. We'll begin by discussing how many sections are on the SAT as well as how these sections differ from one another. Then, we’ll go over the different skills on which you'll be tested, giving you our expert tips for combating each of the SAT test sections with confidence. Finally, we'll take a look at whether certain sections of the SAT are more important than others and what this means for you and your college applications.

 

What Are the SAT Sections?

The SAT (which was redesigned in 2016) consists of four sections: 

  • Reading
  • Writing and Language
  • Math (which consists of two subsections, No Calculator and Calculator)
  • Essay (optional)

As the College Board (the creator of the SAT) puts it, all sections of the SAT work together to test “what you learn in high school” and “what you need to succeed in college.” In other words, the goal of the SAT is to ensure you possess the appropriate reading, writing, and math skills deemed necessary for success as a college student.

Each of the SAT test sections appears only once on the exam and varies in the number of questions it contains as well as in how much time it allocates. The following table showcases some of the major features of the SAT test sections:

 

Reading

Writing and Language

Math

Essay (Optional)

Order on Test

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

# of Questions

52

44

58 (20 No Calculator, 38 Calculator)

1

Question Format

Multiple choice

Multiple choice

Multiple choice, grid-ins

Essay

Time

65 mins

35 mins

80 mins (25 mins No Calculator, 55 mins Calculator)

50 mins

Skills Tested

Command of Evidence

Words in Context

Command of Evidence

Words in Context

Expression of Ideas

Standard English Conventions

Heart of Algebra

Problem Solving and Data Analysis

Passport to Advanced Math

Additional Topics in Math

Reading

Analysis

Writing

Scoring

Combined with Writing and Language for a total Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score on a scale of 200-800

Combined with Reading for a total Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score on a scale of 200-800

No Calculator and Calculator subsections are combined for a total Math score on a scale of 200-800

Three separate scores (Reading, Analysis, Writing), each on a scale of 2-8

 

According to this table, the longest section (in terms of both time and number of questions) is the Math section. This is because the Math section is composed of two subsections: a No Calculator section (which always comes first) and a Calculator section. While the No Calculator section is fairly brief at only 25 minutes and 20 questions long, the Calculator section lasts for 55 minutes and contains a total of 38 questions.

You may also notice a few key similarities between the Reading and Writing and Language sections. These two sections were specifically designed to test a couple of the same skills — namely Command of Evidence and Words in Context — in different ways. The two sections also combine for an overall Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) score out of 800 points, so they clearly have a lot in common with each other!

Lastly, the above table highlights how all sections of the SAT (excluding the Essay) are predominantly multiple choice. Most questions on the SAT contain four answer choices from which you must select one answer. On the Math section, however, you will also face a handful of grid-in questions for which you must come up with your own answers and bubble them in using the numbers provided.

Now that we've covered all of the fundamentals, let’s take a closer look at each of the four sections of the SAT.

 

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The SAT Reading Section

The Reading section focuses on reading comprehension and understanding vocabulary in context. Each of the 52 questions in this section will be based on a passage. You'll be given five passages in total:

  • 1 passage on U.S. or world literature
  • 2 passages on history/social studies
  • 2 passages on science (which may include graphs and/or charts)

On some areas of the Reading section, you may be given a pair of related passages instead of a single passage. You may also encounter graphs, charts, or other forms of data representation. (Note that you will not have to use any math for these questions, though you will be expected to know how to interpret the data provided.)

As illuminated in the table above, the Reading section test two primary skills:

  • Command of Evidence: your ability to find concrete evidence within the passage to support the author’s claims or answers to specific questions
  • Words in Context: your ability to decipher the meanings of vocabulary words within the context of the passage, and your ability to understand how word choice influences the style and tone of a text
As you take the Reading section of the SAT, you'll answer the following types of Reading questions:
  • Big Picture
  • Little Picture/Function
  • Inference
  • Vocabulary in Context
  • Author Technique
  • Evidence Support
  • Data Interpretation

Below, I describe each of these question types and then provide you with our best tips for doing well on the SAT Reading section.

 

SAT Reading Question Types

Here are the different types of questions you'll encounter on the SAT Reading section.

 

#1: Big Picture and Little Picture/Function

These two Reading question types are opposites: Big Picture questions focus on the main point of a passage, whereas Little Picture (or Function) questions focus on the function of specific lines or sentences within a passage. Your job, then, is to use contextual evidence to decipher either the author’s overall message or the function of a selected area of the text.

Big Picture

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Little Picture/Function

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#2: Inference

For this Reading question type, you must correctly interpret the meaning of a sentence, a group of sentences, or the entire passage.

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#3: Vocabulary in Context

These Reading questions ask you about the meaning of a specific word or phrase within the passage. These words and phrases may not always appear to be difficult but will usually take on lesser-known alternative meanings.

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#4: Author Technique

This type of Reading question requires you to analyze the author’s stylistic choices in regards to tone, voice, perspective, etc.

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#5: Evidence Support

For Evidence Support questions, you must locate contextual evidence for an answer to a previous question. (In other words, these questions are directly related to the questions that precede them.) To answer these questions, you must identify a particular line or group of lines from which you found the answer to a question.

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#6: Data Interpretation

A Data Interpretation question requires you to interpret data (usually in the form of a table, chart, or graph) and understand how it relates to the passage.

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Top 3 SAT Reading Tips

Once you've familiarized yourself with all of the Reading question types, it's time for you to employ our top three tips for the SAT Reading section!

 

#1: Practice Reading Passages

Because the Reading section revolves solely around passages, it's critical you dedicate the bulk of your SAT Reading prep to working with SAT-esque passages.

The best resources for passages similar to those you’ll encounter on the SAT are official SAT practice tests. These mock SAT tests created by the College Board offer a plethora of realistic Reading passages that closely mimic the style and form of the passages you'll be given on test day.

In addition to official practice tests, you can also use unofficial SAT Reading materials — as long as they contain high-quality Reading passages similar to those on the SAT.

Finally, it's a smart idea to read real-life texts, such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Psychology Today, from which SAT passages are often borrowed. This way you can familiarize yourself with the type of materials you'll see on test day.

 

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#2: Use Process of Elimination

Process of elimination is an excellent strategy (and even one recommended by a perfect scorer!) that will aid you significantly on the Reading section.

As we already know, each Reading question offers four possible answer choices of which just one is correct. This means that the other three choices must contain clear signs indicating they’re incorrectSome of the most common reasons answer choices are eliminated are that they're:

  • Too specific
  • Too broad
  • Too loosely connected to the overall purpose or message of the passage

Remember, even a single word in an answer choice can make it incorrect, so look closely for any reason to eliminate a choice before deciding on the correct one. Be sure you avoid getting caught up in answer choices that sort of sound correct — if a choice doesn’t 100-percent answer the question or is ambiguous in any way, chances are it's wrong!

 

#3: Study Vocabulary Sparingly

Unlike the old (pre-2016) SAT, which often tested obscure vocabulary words in complete isolation, the new SAT only tests vocabulary knowledge within the context of passages. Additionally, current SAT vocabulary is only about medium difficulty, meaning many of the words tested are ones you've likely seen and may have even used before. (Woo hoo!)

The challenging part of SAT vocabulary, however, is being able to identify lesser-known tertiary meanings of common words. What this means is, while you no longer need to dedicate hours upon hours to memorizing thousands of vocabulary words, you do need to familiarize yourself with some of the rarer meanings of common words. Likewise, you should also know how to decipher a vocabulary word's meaning based on how it's being used in a passage. 

These days, many SAT vocabulary words are similar to those on the ACT; thus, we recommend studying vocabulary with either our ACT list of 150 medium-level vocabulary words or Scholastic’s 100-word list for the SAT/ACT.

 

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The SAT Writing and Language Section

The Writing and Language section (often referred to as simply the “Writing section”) may look similar to the Reading section, but instead of measuring your reading comprehension skills, this section measures your ability to identify and correct grammatical errors and stylistic weaknesses within passages. In other words, the Writing section is all about your proofreading and editing skills!

Like the Reading section, the Writing section revolves entirely around passages. These passages cover a wide array of topics, including careers, history/social studies, science, and the humanities. Unlike Reading passages, however, all Writing passages are nonfiction, taking the form of narratives, arguments, and explanatory texts.

Your primary mission on the Writing section is to correct (or leave as is, if no errors are present) words and sentences within these passages. For science-based passages containing charts or graphs, you may be asked to replace an incorrect sentence with a new sentence that more accurately reflects the data provided.

The Writing and Language section measures the following skills:

  • Command of Evidence
  • Words in Context
  • Expression of Ideas
  • Standard English Conventions

Below, I discuss each of these four question types and what they measure on the SAT Writing section. I then provide you with our top three tips for getting a great score on SAT Writing.

 

SAT Writing and Language Question Types

In this section, we examine the SAT Writing question types and look at examples of how they'll appear on the SAT.

 

#1: Command of Evidence

These types of Writing questions focus primarily on the big picture of a passage and usually ask you to provide evidence for why you are making a particular change.

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#2: Words in Context

For these questions, you must replace a word or phrase with a more logical choice, or select “NO CHANGE” if the highlighted area is appropriate as is.

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#3: Expression of Ideas

These questions require you to think about the various ways ideas can be expressed in words. More specifically, you must rearrange, add, combine, or delete sentences to improve the overall flow of a passage.

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#4: Standard English Conventions

For Standard English Conventions questions, you must correct incorrect words or phrases, so that they adhere to the basic rules of English grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. If the highlighted word or phrase is grammatically sound, select “NO CHANGE.”

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Top 3 SAT Writing and Language Tips

Here are our top tips for getting the score you want on the SAT Writing section!

 

#1: Master Common SAT Grammar and Punctuation Rules

Nearly half of all SAT Writing questions focus on standard English conventions, so naturally you can’t expect to do well on SAT Writing if you haven’t mastered the basic rules of English grammar and usage!

This doesn't mean you must review every single grammar rule in existence — just the ones most commonly tested on the SAT. For more details on what these rules are and how you can master them, check out our in-depth guides to SAT grammar and SAT punctuation.

 

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#2: Read Articles and Essays

Because none of the Writing section's passages are works of fiction, your best bet is to read real-life newspaper and magazine articles, persuasive texts, and essays. As you study, you'll use these texts to hone your editorial eye, identifying transitional words and connections in thought.

You'll also want to examine how the author builds his or her argument or main point throughout the text. What evidence does he or she provide? Is it ultimately effective? Why or why not?

There will be a wide array of topics for Writing passages, so feel free to dig into a variety of texts. I recommend starting with major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, and Pyschology Today.

 

#3: Hone Your Writing Skills

To be a sharp editor, you must understand how to write well. And to write well, you must learn from the feedback on your own writing.

Begin by noting any red marks on essays you turn in at school, making yourself aware of any errors you continuously make on your writing. If you’re confused about a mistake you've made, ask your teacher to explain the mistake and give you tips on how you can avoid making it again.

As you write essays for school, make sure you're also paying attention to the structure of your arguments. Consider the simple "hamburger" structure of essays: you've got your introduction (top bun), your evidence and supporting details (lettuce, tomato, and meat), and your conclusion (bottom bun). Knowing how to effectively structure your own essays should over time allow you to develop a keener understanding of how SAT passages are organized.

 

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The SAT Math Section

Onto the world of numbers! Unlike the English-centered Reading and Writing sections, the SAT Math section consists of practical, real-world math and measures the problem-solving abilities most useful for college-level coursework and future employment.

The Math section comprises two subsections:

The Math section is the only section on the SAT (excluding the Essay) to contain a non-multiple-choice question format called the grid-in. 22 percent of Math questions are grid-ins, so although it’s not the main question format on SAT Math, it’s crucial you understand how it works.

The Math section tests you on the following concepts:

  • Heart of Algebra
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  • Passport to Advanced Math
  • Additional Topics in Math

Below, I describe each of these Math question types and give you expert tips for securing an excellent SAT Math score.

 

SAT Math Question Types

Here are the four types of Math questions you'll see on the SAT.

 

#1: Heart of Algebra

This content area constitutes the largest focus of the SAT Math section, accounting for approximately one-third of all Math questions. Heart of Algebra questions focus on (you guessed it!) algebra — primarily linear equations, systems of equations, inequalities, and absolute values.

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#2: Problem Solving and Data Analysis

There are 17 Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions on the SAT. All of these questions are on the Math Calculator subsection (meaning you'll see none of these on the No Calculator subsection). These questions focus on data interpretation (i.e., how to read charts, graphs, tables, etc.) as well as rates, ratios, percentages, linear and exponential relationships, and probability.

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#3: Passport to Advanced Math

There are 16 Passport to Advanced Math questions on the SAT. These advanced questions test your understanding of the structure of equations and expressions, including your ability to rearrange and rewrite them. For these questions, you may be asked to solve a quadratic equation, create an exponential function, or manipulate polynomials.

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#4: Additional Topics in Math

While 90 percent of the Math section deals with the three topics listed above, the last 10 percent targets what the College Board calls "Additional Topics in Math." This question type is basically a catch-all for any math concept that doesn’t fit neatly into the other three categories. Such topics predominantly deal with geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers.

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Top 3 SAT Math Tips

Use our top tips below to get your best score ever on SAT Math!

 

#1: Review Basic Math Concepts

You can’t expect to score highly on the Math section if you’re not familiar with most or all of the basic math concepts being tested on the SAT.

To get started, take a look at our giant stockpile of SAT Math resources you can use (for free!). This guide contains links to several Math guides offering a solid overview of critical math concepts you should know for the SAT, including algebra, numbers, coordinate geometry, and plane and solid geometry.

You can also check out our guide to the best SAT Math prep books and browse your options for high-quality Math content review and practice.

 

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#2: Memorize Common Formulas

Another tip is to memorize all critical SAT Math formulas you’ll need for test day. Doing this will allow you to solve many math problems that you can't solve without knowledge of a particular formula.

But what about the reference diagram on the test? Do you really need to memorize formulas if you'll be given a list of them on the SAT? Although you may think memorizing these formulas is a waste of time, in reality memorizing them will actually save you time on test day. Here are the formulas exactly as you'll see them on the SAT:

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By memorizing the formulas above, you won't need to constantly flip back to the diagram and will therefore be able to solve math problems more quickly. This will effectively give you more time to put toward other math problems that are more challenging.

However, there is one caveat: the 12 formulas on this reference diagram deal specifically with geometry, a topic which makes up a significantly small portion of the new SAT. So while it’s crucial you memorize these formulas, it’ll be far more advantageous for you to prioritize other major laws and formulas that will not be given to you on test day and are more likely to come up on the SAT.

 

#3: Plug In Answers and Numbers

Our final tip for SAT Math is a popular test-taking strategy: plugging in answers and numbers. In this strategy, if you’re faced with a math problem you’re unsure how to solve, you can attempt to solve it by either plugging in random numbers or plugging in answer choices one by one. Doing this will reveal which answer choice yields the correct result.

Use the plug-in answer strategy for multiple-choice math questions that ask you to solve for a specific value. Always start with answer choice B or C, so you can determine whether to work your way up or down to get a higher or lower answer.

For multiple-choice and grid-in questions you don’t understand, try plugging in your own numbers (or sets of numbers) to see whether equations and inequalities hold true for various values.

Note that these strategies, though helpful, should generally only be used if you’re unsure how to solve a math problem using other methods, such as simplification and algebra. Ultimately, though, the SAT doesn’t care how you get an answer — just that it’s the correct one! So if you don't know what to do, get in there and plug away.

 

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The SAT Essay (Optional)

The SAT Essay is an entirely writing-based section for which you must read a 650-750-word passage and then write an essay analyzing how the author constructs his or her argument as well as how persuasive the argument is.

Note that you are not being asked whether you agree or disagree with the argument. You are also not expected to write about your personal experiences (like how test takers were prompted to do on the old SAT).

Unlike the other three SAT sections, the Essay is entirely optional. Whether you should take it depends on where you apply, as some colleges may require the Essay for admission.

The Essay also uses a unique scoring system compared to those of the other SAT test sections. There are three components to the SAT Essay grade:

  • Reading
  • Analysis
  • Writing

For each of these components, two graders will assign you a score on a scale of 1-4. These two scores are then added together to give you total scores for each component (on a scale of 2-8). Thus, a perfect SAT Essay grade would be 8|8|8 (4s from both graders for each of the three rubrics).

But what exactly do these three components measure? Below, I describe each of the SAT Essay grades and introduce to you our top three tips for ensuring a high Essay score on test day.

 

Skills Tested on the SAT Essay

The three components of the SAT Essay grading rubric each measure a different skill in regards to your writing ability.

 

Reading

The Reading score highlights your overall understanding of the passage and how well you use appropriate textual evidence from the passage to construct your essay.

 

Analysis

The Analysis score shows how well you understand the construction of the author's argument in terms of reasoning, style, and evidence. It also measures your ability to choose the most effective evidence from the passage to support your evaluation.

 

Writing

The Writing score revolves entirely around your ability to write. You will be given a grade based on the strength of your thesis and on your essay's organization, focus, tone, style, and adherence to standard written English conventions.

 

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Top 3 SAT Essay Tips

And now here are our expert SAT Essay tips to help you get the high score you deserve!

 

#1: Learn the Types of Examples to Look for in Passages

Before you take the exam, make sure you know all of the major types of examples you can look for in passages to use as support in your essay. The six types of evidence to be aware of are:

  • Facts and statistics
  • Anecdotes
  • Counterarguments and counterclaims
  • Explanation of evidence
  • Vivid language
  • Direct appeals to the reader

For more information, check out our detailed guide on how to look for and use these pieces of evidence. As you write, be sure you’re using the most relevant and effective support; you don’t need to use every example you find!

 

#2: Read the Prompt First

Although you'll likely be tempted to get through the passage before attacking the prompt, reading the prompt first can lend you a big hand as it directly states what the author’s central claim is. Once you know what kind of argument you'll be dealing with, you can then read the entire passage, keeping an eye out for any evidence that supports this central claim and thinking of ways you can effectively incorporate these pieces of evidence into your essay.

As a reminder, your essay should focus on what techniques and evidence the authors uses to set up his or her argument as well as how effective these techniques are.

 

#3: Write More Than 1 Page

Though not explicitly stated on the SAT Essay rubric, your essay must be of a reasonable length (1+ pages) in order to merit a high score. This means anything less than a page is bound to guarantee you a low essay score, as the essay will very likely lack sufficient detail, evidence, and analysis.

On test day, you’ll get four pages for writing (and one additional piece of scratch paper for planning and outlining your essay). Aim to use at least two pages for your essay. Anything longer is perfectly fine; however, just remember it's ultimately better to produce a succinct and focused essay instead of a verbose or tangential one.

 

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Are Certain SAT Sections More Important Than Others?

Because the SAT has several sections, you may be wondering which (if any) are the most important in regards to scores.

To start, the Essay is the least important of all SAT sections. This is because the essay is often optional for many colleges. Schools that don’t require the essay usually choose to do so because they feel other application factors, such as the personal statement, are better indicators of students’ writing abilities.

But what about the SAT Reading, Writing, and Math sections? Which of these is the most important? Or are they all equally important?

Generally speaking, the SAT Reading, Writing, and Math sections are all of fairly equal importance. Most schools report SAT scores using the total score (a combination of the EBRW and Math scores), implying there is equal consideration of the Reading, Writing, and Math sections. Furthermore, any school requiring the SAT will always require scores from the Reading, Writing, and Math sections, so all three of these sections are evidently essential for college admission (unlike the optional Essay).

In spite of these trends, there may be cases in which one of the two scores (EBRW or Math) will hold slightly more weight than the other. For example, if you are applying to an engineering school like MIT, admissions committees may pay a little extra attention to your SAT Math score — the more relevant score to your program — and less to your EBRW score.

In the end, it's best to think of both your EBRW and Math scores as being equally important, and your Essay score (if you took the essay) as being the least important.

 

Key Takeaways for the SAT Sections

The SAT is composed of four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and Essay (optional). These sections target an array of academic skills deemed necessary for college, from reading comprehension to proofreading to problem solving.

To ultimately do well on the SAT, you must understand what each of the SAT sections measures, what each sections tests you on, and what approaches you can use to get the scores you want.

Although the Essay isn’t a requirement for all colleges, those requiring SAT scores will often prefer applicants who have a strong set of EBRW (Reading and Writing) and Math scores, so always try to aim for a high total score!

 

What’s Next?

Want to learn more about the SAT? Take a look at our complete guide to what the SAT is and get tips on when to start studying and what resources you can use to get the scores you need for college!

Thinking of taking the ACT, too? Start with our introduction to the ACT sections (coming soon) and then check out our guide to what a good ACT score is to learn how you can get a great ACT score.

 

Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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