SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

SAT Syllabus: What’s on the Exam and How to Prep

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Dec 3, 2016 8:00:00 AM

SAT General Info



Are you taking the SAT soon but aren’t sure what to expect? Not to worry! This guide will give you an in-depth look at the SAT syllabus and what to expect on the exam.

For each section of the SAT, I’ll explain the format of the section, the types of questions you’ll see, and the skills it tests. At the end of this guide, I'll also go over the top tips you need to know when preparing for the SAT to help you achieve your highest score.


Overview of the SAT

Before we start looking in-depth at the SAT syllabus, let’s first get a broad overview of what the SAT covers. There are three main sections on the SAT: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. There is also an optional essay. More information about each section is available in the chart below.



Minutes Given

Number of Questions




Writing and Language






Essay (Optional)




3 hours, 50 minutes

(3 hours without the essay)

154 (+1 essay prompt)


The SAT sections will always go in this order, beginning with Reading and ending with (if you choose to take it), the SAT Essay. The Math section is divided into two groups, the first where you can’t use a calculator (25 minutes and 20 questions), and the second, where a calculator is allowed (55 minutes and 38 questions).

Below, for each section of the SAT, I’ll explain what subjects it covers.


SAT Reading

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question



75 seconds



The SAT Reading section consists of passages with 52 multiple-choice questions. In this section, there will be four individual passages and one passage pair, which means there will be about 10-12 questions for each passage/passage pair. At least one of the passages will have graphics, such as tables, graphs, and charts accompanying it. Each passage, or passage pair set, will be at about 500 to 750 words.

There will be at least one passage from each of the following topics:

  • U.S. or world literature
  • U.S. founding document or a text inspired by one
  • Social science (such as economics, psychology, sociology, etc.)
  • Science (Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics)


Types of Questions

All questions on SAT Reading are multiple choice with four answer choices. There are eight main different questions types you may see in this section.


Big Picture/Main Idea

These questions ask about the overall purpose of the passage, such as what is the passage about, what is it trying to accomplish, or what the point of it is.

The main purpose of each passage is to

A) compare brain function in those who play games on the Internet and those who browse on it.
B) report on the problem-solving skills of individuals with varying levels of Internet experience.
C) take a position on increasing financial support for studies related to technology and intelligence.
D) make an argument about the effects of electronic media use on the brain.


Little Picture/Detail

This type of question will usually refer to a specific line or phrase within a passage and ask you about a specific detail, such as what a particular phrase means or why the author chose to mention something.

In the context of the passage, the author’s use of the phrase “her light step flying to keep time with his long stride” (line 3) is primarily meant to convey the idea that

A) Ethan and Mattie share a powerful enthusiasm.
B) Mattie strives to match the speed at which Ethan works.
C) Mattie and Ethan playfully compete with each other.
D) Ethan walks at a pace that frustrates Mattie.



Inference questions will ask you to deduce the meaning of a line or phrase from the passage or the entire passage itself. Even though you’ll have to do some interpretation on these questions, they all have to have one objectively correct answer with evidence in the passage you can use to support your choice.

The passage most strongly suggests that Adelita used which of the following to navigate her 9,000-mile journey?

A) The current of the North Atlantic gyre.
B) Cues from electromagnetic coils designed by Putman and Lohmann.
C) The inclination and intensity of Earth's magnetic field.
D) A simulated "magnetic signature" configured by Lohmann.


Vocabulary in Context

For these questions, you’ll be asked to define a specific word in the question. Be careful, because sometimes common words are used in unusual ways and you have to correctly identify the definition used in the passage.

As used in line 38, “intense” most nearly means

A) emotional. 
B) concentrated.
C) brilliant. 
D) determined.





Function questions refer to how a phrase or sentence works within a passage and what effect it has on the passage.

The analogy in the final sentence of Passage 2 has primarily which effect?

A) It uses ornate language to illustrate a difficult concept.
B) It employs humor to soften a severe opinion of human behavior.
C) It alludes to the past to evoke a nostalgic response.
D) It criticizes the view of a particular group.


Author Technique

The questions will ask you to analyze the author’s tone, style, perspective and/or attitude. For paired passages, you may have to compare author techniques between the two passages.

During the course of the first paragraph, the narrator’s focus shifts from

A) recollection of past confidence to acknowledgment of present self-doubt.
B) reflection on his expectations of life as a tradesman to his desire for another job.
C) generalization about job dissatisfaction to the specifics of his own situation.
D) evaluation of factors making him unhappy to identification of alternatives.


Evidence Support

Evidence support questions refer back to a previous question and ask you to provide evidence for your answer. For example, if you were asked an author technique question, after it there may be an evidence support question asking you to identify which lines in the passage support your answer to the author technique question.

1. The description in the first paragraph indicates that what Ethan values most about Mattie is her

A) fitness for farm labor.
B) vivacious youth.
C) receptive nature.
D) freedom from worry.


2. Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

A) Lines 1-4 (“Mattie... farm”)
B) Lines 4-8 (“He had... anyhow”)
C) Lines 8-10 (“But it... hearth”)
D) Lines 11-13 (“She had... will”)


Data Interpretation

These questions refer to the diagrams, charts or graphs included with some of the passages. You’ll have to analyze the information the graphics present.



1. How does the graph support the author’s point that internal waves affect ocean water dynamics?

A) It demonstrates that wave movement forces warmer water down to depths that typically are colder.
B) It reveals the degree to which an internal wave affects the density of deep layers of cold water.
C) It illustrates the change in surface temperature that takes place during an isolated series of deep waves.
D) It shows that multiple waves rising near the surface of the ocean disrupt the flow of normal tides.



Skills Tested

There are three main skills tested in SAT Reading, all of which relate back to critical reading skills.


Command of Evidence

Being able to find evidence in a passage to support the answer to a question, understand how authors support their claims, and interpret diagrams.


Words in Context

Using clues from the passage to identify the meaning of a particular word and understanding how the word’s the author chooses affects tone, style, and meaning.


Analysis in History/Social Science and Science

Being able to examine hypotheses, interpret data, consider implications in passages that cover the subjects of history, social studies, and science.



SAT Writing and Language

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question



48 seconds



Like the Reading section, all questions in the SAT Writing and Language are based on passages. This section contains four passages with 11 questions following each passage.

Passages will cover either Careers, Social Studies, Humanities, or Science.

  • Careers passages could discuss trends or debates in major professional fields, such as medicine, technology, or business.
  • Social studies passages might focus on topics from history, anthropology, psychology, political science, or sociology.
  • Humanities passages could feature an author or explore trends in literature, drama, art, music, or dance.
  • Science passages will focus on Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics.

There is no fiction writing in this section, instead, passages will either be argument-based, explanatory, or nonfiction narrative, and at least one passage will be accompanied by a chart, graph, or table. For SAT Writing and Language, each of the passages will be filled with punctuation, word choice, sentence structure, and organization errors. Your job will be to identify and correct those errors in the questions.




Types of Questions

Like SAT Reading, all questions on SAT Writing and Language are multiple choice with four answer choices. Questions in this section will ask you about four main ideas. About 24 questions will focus on Command of Evidence, Words in Context, and Expression of Ideas, and about 20 questions will be on Standard English Conventions.


Command of Evidence

You’ll be asked to improve how the passages develop and present ideas and information to the reader. For example, when reading a passage you should understand how an argument could be strengthened or a detail added to improve clarity.



Words in Context

For some questions, you’ll need to improve the word choice used in the passage in order to improve tone, style, and/or clarity.



Expression of Ideas

You’ll need to be able to understand how a passage is structured and the point it is trying to make. Questions testing this skill may ask you to analyze how the passage’s message or organization could be improved.



Standard English Conventions

These questions test your grammar skills, such as sentence structure, usage, punctuation, verb tense, parallel construction, subject-verb agreement, and comma use.  



Skills Tested

Sixteen main skills are tested on this section, focusing on focusing on the development and organization of ideas and effective language use as well as grammar rules.

  • Agreement
  • Concision
  • Conventional expression
  • Logical sequence
  • Modifiers
  • Parallel Structure
  • Possessives
  • Precision
  • Pronouns
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence function
  • Sentence structure
  • Style and tone
  • Syntax
  • Transition
  • Verb Tense





Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

No Calculator



75 seconds




77 seconds



SAT Math is divided into two sections, depending on whether or not a calculator is allowed. During the first section, when you cannot use a calculator, you’ll have 25 minutes to answer 15 multiple-choice questions and 5 grid-in questions. For the second section, when you can use a calculator, you’ll have 55 minutes to answer 30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-ins, including an Extended Thinking problem.


Types of Questions



Multiple Choice

The majority of questions on SAT Math will be your standard multiple-choice questions where you’re presented with a problem and have to choose the best answer from four answer choices.

Aaron is staying at a hotel that charges $99.95 per night plus tax for a room. A tax of 8% is applied to the room rate, and an additional onetime untaxed fee of $5.00 is charged by the hotel. Which of the following represents Aaron’s total charge, in dollars, for staying x nights?

A) (99.5 + 0.08x) + 5
B) 1.08(99.5x) + 5
C) 1.08(99.5x + 5) 
D) 1.08(99.5 + 5)x


Grid In

On SAT Math, 22% of questions will be grid-ins. On these questions, instead of choosing the correct answer from a list of options, you’ll have to solve the problem and enter your own answer on the grid provided in the answer sheet.

If minus 9 over 5 less than minus 3 t plus 1 less than minus 7 over 4 comma what is one possible value of 9 t minus 3 ?


Extended Thinking

A few of your questions will be part of an Extended Thinking problem. The Extended Thinking problem will appear as part of the grid-ins, typically near the end of the section. You’ll see a graph, table, or word problem and have to answer several questions about it. Extended Thinking questions often focus on real-world situations.

An international bank issues its Traveler credit cards worldwide. When a customer makes a purchase using a Traveler card in a currency different from the customer’s home currency, the bank converts the purchase price at the daily foreign exchange rate and then charges a 4% fee on the converted cost.

Sara lives in the United States, but is on vacation in India. She used her Traveler card for a purchase that cost 602 rupees (Indian currency). The bank posted a charge of $9.88 to her account that included the 4% fee.

1. What foreign exchange rate, in Indian rupees per one U.S. dollar, did the bank use for Sara’s charge? Round your answer to the nearest whole number.

2. A bank in India sells a prepaid credit card worth 7,500 rupees. Sara can buy the prepaid card using dollars at the daily exchange rate with no fee, but she will lose any money left unspent on the prepaid card. What is the least number of the 7,500 rupees on the prepaid card Sara must spend for the prepaid card to be cheaper than charging all her purchases on the Traveler card? Round your answer to the nearest whole number of rupees.


Skills Tested

SAT Math covers 24 main topics, within four main subject areas. Over half of the questions will be on algebra, while a maximum of 10% of the questions will focus on Additional Topics such as geometry and trigonometry.


Basic Algebra

  • Linear functions
  • Single variable equations
  • Systems of linear equations
  • Absolute value


Advanced Algebra

  • Manipulating polynomials
  • Quadratic equations
  • Dividing polynomials
  • Exponential functions
  • Function notation
  • Solving exponential equations
  • Systems of equations with nonlinear equations


Problem Solving and Data Analysis

  • Ratios and proportions
  • Scatterplots and graphs
  • Categorical data and probabilities
  • Experimental interpretation
  • Median, median, mode, standard deviation


Additional Topics

  • Coordinate geometry - lines and slopes
  • Coordinate geometry - nonlinear functions
  • Geometry - circles
  • Geometry - lines and angles
  • Geometry - solid geometry
  • Geometry - triangles and polygons
  • Trigonometry
  • Complex numbers


SAT Essay

Number of Questions

Minutes Given

Time Per Question

1 essay


50 minutes



The SAT Essay is the only optional section of the exam. If you decide to take it, you’ll have 50 minutes to plan and write one complete essay.


Types of Questions

You’ll be given a passage by an author who has taken a stance on a particular issue, and you’ll need to analyze how the author builds her argument, what the strengths and weaknesses of the argument are, and how the argument could be improved. You won’t be taking your own stance on the issue.




Skills Tested

The major skill you are graded on for the essay is your ability to analyze an argument and understand how evidence and rhetorical devices contribute to an argument. While you’ll want your essay to be clear and easy to understand, a few minor spelling and grammar errors won’t lose you points, so you don’t have to worry about your essay being technically perfect.


How to Use This SAT Syllabus

Now you're an expert on the SAT syllabus, but how does this information help you? First, knowing what's on the SAT will make you feel more comfortable on exam day. You'll know the format, content, and types of questions you'll be asked. This can help you feel more prepared and help reduce test anxiety.

Second, understanding the SAT syllabus can significantly help with your SAT studying. When you know what subjects are tested on the SAT, you'll know what to focus on during your preparation, and you're less likely to skip material you should know or study material that won't be on the test.

Additionally, when you take practice tests and are looking to see where you got most of your answers wrong, you can easily pinpoint which area(s) you should work on. Maybe your SAT Math score was lower than you wanted it to be, but where exactly were you making mistakes? Did you get all the algebra questions correct but struggled with geometry? Then you can focus primarily on studying geometry questions. Knowing what's tested on the SAT will help you pinpoint the areas where you need to improve and increase the effectiveness of your studying.


How to Prepare for the SAT

Knowing the SAT syllabus will help you become more comfortable and familiar with the exam, which will likely help your score. Follow these three additional tips to be sure you’re getting the most out of your SAT prep.


Create a Study Plan

Before you begin in-depth preparation for the SAT, you’ll want to create a study plan. A study schedule can help you know when you’re supposed to be studying and can keep you on track. Setting aside a regular time to study each day or week, such as weekdays from 8:00-9:30 or Sundays from 12:00-4:00, will make it easier to study because you’ll know ahead of time when you should be studying and can fit the rest of your schedule around it.

You should include regular goals in your study schedule that you hope to meet, such as, “I want to understand how to answer geometry questions by the end of the weekend,” or “I want to raise my math score ten points by the end of the month.” Setting these goals can help encourage you to study and ensure you are on track to meet your goal scores.


Use High-Quality Study Materials

Your studying is only going to be as effective as the prep materials you use, so be sure to use the right materials for you. A high-quality prep book can be one of the best resources you use. Check out some of the best SAT prep books here. A good prep book will effectively explain the content tested on the exam, have high-quality practice questions similar to those on the real SAT, and include full-length practice exams (discussed more below).


Take Complete Practice Exams

During your studying, you’ll want to take at least one (and ideally at least three to four) complete practice SATs. Taking complete practice SATs is important because it gives you the most realistic idea of what the real SAT will be like.

You’ll learn how taking a test for several hours affects you and if you get tired and distracted towards the later sections. Also, after you score your exam, you’ll have a good idea of how well you’d do on the actual SAT, and you can use this information to identify which areas you should focus on for future studying.

Be sure to take your SAT under realistic testing conditions. That means take the test all in one sitting, timed, and with minimal distractions. Try to use official practice tests since they’ll be the closest to the real SAT. We have links to several free and official SAT practice tests you can use.



Knowing the SAT syllabus will help you know what to expect for the test and how to prepare. Each of the three main sections of the SAT covers multiple subject areas and contains several question types. There is also an optional essay at the end of the test.

To prepare for the SAT, be sure to create a study plan early on, use high-quality study materials, and take full-length practice tests to get a good idea of the progress you’ve made.


What's Next?

Wondering what a good SAT score is? Learn how to set a score goal based on the schools you want to get into.

Thinking about using Khan Academy for SAT prep? Khan Academy can be a great resource if you know how to use it correctly. Read our guide to learn how to make the best use of Khan Academy!

Want to learn more about the new SAT? We have a complete guide to the revised SAT that goes over exactly what changed, what stayed the same, and how it affects you.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.

Check out our 5-day free trial today:

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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