What Is The SAT? From The Basics to Getting The Perfect Score

16/06/202418 minute read
What Is The SAT? From The Basics to Getting The Perfect Score
  • The SAT is a standardized test used by universities to evaluate college readiness in reading, writing, and math.
  • Some universities have adopted test-optional policies, while others are returning to requiring SAT scores.
  • The test includes sections on reading/writing and math, with scores ranging from 400 to 1600.
  • To maximize your score, preparing correctly is crucial!

What is the SAT?

The SAT, short for the Scholastic Assessment Test, is a standardized test widely used in the United States to evaluate a high school student's readiness for college.

Students typically take this test in high school and submit their scores to universities as part of their college application.

It's been a critical component of the college admissions process, and it’s used as a measure to compare the academic preparedness of applicants from various educational backgrounds.

The SATs are one of the two most popular standardized tests accepted by US colleges, the other being the ACT

How is The SAT Used by Colleges?

The SAT provides colleges with a standardized metric to gauge your academic potential in higher education as a student.  

The primary purpose of the SAT when it comes to college applications is to assess your academic skills in critical areas: reading, writing, and mathematics.

These core skills are essential for success in college, and the SAT is used to measure each student’s aptitude in these areas.

The SAT aims to offer a uniform benchmark to compare different applicants fairly given the diversity of high school curricula. However, many consider it an unfair assessment that gives an advantage to wealthier students, while others argue that it helps schools find kids with high potential in underprivileged areas.

Throughout the admission process, colleges use SAT scores to determine a number of things:

  • Initial Screening: Many colleges use SAT scores as an initial filter in the admissions process. High scores can help your application stand out in the first round of reviews. This doesn't mean lower scores automatically disqualify you, but higher scores can definitely put you in a more favorable position early on.
  • Contextual Evaluation: Admissions officers often look at SAT scores in conjunction with your high school GPA, course rigor, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation. A strong SAT score can compensate for a slightly lower GPA or less rigorous coursework, demonstrating your academic potential and readiness for college-level work.
  • Merit-Based Scholarships: High SAT scores can also open doors to merit-based scholarships. Many colleges and universities offer substantial financial aid to students who achieve top scores, making a significant impact on the overall cost of your education.

The preliminary SAT, known as PSAT, is also used as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program. By scoring exceptionally well on the PSAT, students may become eligible for recognition as National Merit Semifinalists, Finalists, or Scholars. 

This scholarship program awards financial aid and recognition to students who demonstrate outstanding academic performance, placing them in a favorable position for college admissions.

SAT vs ACT: What’s the Difference? 

Both tests serve as college readiness assessments, with similar structures, lengths, and timing for high school juniors and seniors. Moreover, both offer superscoring, allowing colleges to consider your best section scores across multiple test dates. 

With that said, key differences exist in scoring systems, with the SAT ranging from 400 to 1600 and the ACT from 1 to 36. Additionally, the ACT includes a dedicated Science section, while the SAT incorporates science-like analysis throughout its sections.

The ACT's quick-paced, curriculum-based approach might favor those comfortable with rapid problem-solving, while the SAT's emphasis on reasoning and analysis could suit students who excel in complex reading and math concepts. 

The SAT and ACT also differ in their approaches to math assessment. While both cover core high school math concepts, the SAT includes a dedicated section without a calculator, emphasizing mental math and problem-solving skills.

Conversely, the ACT's math section permits calculator use throughout, focusing on visual problem-solving and including more geometry and trigonometry questions.

What’s on the SAT? 

The SAT is composed of two different sections of equal length: the first section is Reading and Writing, and the second is Math.

What is on the SAT?
Duration Content
Reading and Writing 1st Module 32 minutesBoth modules: Short reading passages followed by 54 multiple-choice questions
Reading and Writing 2nd Module32 minutesBoth modules: Short reading passages followed by 54 multiple-choice questions
Break10 minutes-
Math 1st Module35 minutes75% multiple-choice questions, 25% free-response questions
Math 2nd Module35 minutes75% multiple-choice questions, 25% free-response questions

Section 1: Reading and Writing

This section consists of short reading passages in different subject areas including history, the humanities, and science. These passages are usually about 25-150 words long, and they’re followed by 54 single multiple-choice questions.

The questions in this section represent one of four content domains the test aims to assess:

  • Craft and Structure: Measures comprehension, analysis, and reasoning skills and knowledge and the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, and integrate information and ideas from texts and informational graphics (tables, bar graphs, and line graphs).
  • Information and Ideas: Measures the comprehension, vocabulary, analysis, synthesis, and reasoning skills and knowledge needed to understand and use high-utility words and phrases in context, evaluate texts rhetorically, and make connections between topically related texts.
  • Standard English Conventions: Measures the ability to revise texts to improve the effectiveness of written expression and to meet specific rhetorical goals.
  • Expression of Ideas: Measures the ability to edit text to conform to core conventions of Standard English sentence structure, usage, and punctuation.

Reading and Writing is further split into different halves called modules. The first module consists of questions of varying difficulties. Based on how well you do in this first module, the second module will either be more or less difficult.

Section 2: Math

The math section consists of both multiple-choice questions, as well as free response questions to test your fluency and ability to apply math concepts, skills and practices. About 75% of all questions are multiple choice, while the rest are student-produced free response questions.

The math section tests your understanding of different areas of mathematics:

  • Algebra: measures the ability to analyze, solve, and create linear equations and inequalities as well as analyze and solve equations and systems of equations using multiple techniques.
  • Advanced Math: measures skills and knowledge central for progression to more advanced math courses, including demonstrating an understanding of absolute value, quadratic, exponential, polynomial, rational, radical, and other nonlinear equations.
  • Problem-Solving and Data Analysis: measures the ability to apply quantitative reasoning about ratios, rates, and proportional relationships; understand and apply unit rate; and analyze and interpret variable data.
  • Geometry and Trigonometry: measure the ability to solve problems related to area and volume formulas, circles, lines, angles, and more.

Similar to the Reading and Writing section, Math is split into two separate modules, and your performance in the first module determines the difficulty of the second one. In each module, the questions are arranged from easiest to hardest.

In the past, using a calculator was only allowed in one of the two modules of math, not both. However, the College Board has recently changed this, and you’re now able to use a College Board-approved calculator in both modules.

What’s New on the SAT in 2024?

Recently, the College Board introduced a Digital SAT, a test that is taken in-person, but entirely on a computer. As of May 2024, the Digital SAT has fully replaced the paper version - and it has a few differences:

  • Streamlined Experience: The digital format simplifies test administration, with registration, sign-in, and testing all on the same platform.
  • Faster Scores: Scores are posted within two weeks, often faster, and can be rush-reported to institutions within 1 to 4 business days.
  • Shorter Test Time: The digital SAT is 2 hours and 14 minutes, compared to the 3-hour paper test.
  • Shorter Passages: The Reading section features 54 short passages, instead of 4 long ones.
  • Calculator for both Math modules: You can use an approved calculator for both math sections.
  • Adaptive Sections: The difficulty of the second section of reading and math adjusts based on your performance in the first section.
  • Read more about the recent changes to the SATs
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How is the SAT scored?

Your total SAT score is a number between 400 and 1600 - this score is the total of your scores in both sections and in all 4 modules. Each section has a possible score range of 200-800 points. 

The way the College Board scores your SAT is by first adding up the total number of questions you answered correctly (each question is worth 1 point), then converting your raw score from a 1-40 scale to section scores on a 200-800 range per section.

The College Board does this conversion using specific equating formulas that take into account the difficulty of the version of the SAT exams you took. 

The SAT employs a ‘rights-only’ scoring approach, meaning there are no deductions for incorrect answers, and there is no penalty for guessing the answer in multiple choice questions! 

When you receive your scores, you’ll be given a percentile rank - a number between 1 and 99 that tells you the percentage of students who got an equal or lower score than yours.

Percentiles give you an idea as to how your score ranks among SAT takers in general. For example, if your percentile rank is 57th, that means 57% of students scored the same or lower than you. The higher your percentile rank, the better it looks on college applications.


Superscoring is a practice used by many colleges and universities in the United States to consider a student's highest section scores across multiple SAT test dates. Instead of looking at your highest total SAT score from a single test date, superscoring involves combining your highest section scores from different test dates to create a new, higher total score.

For example, let's say you took the SAT twice. On your first attempt, you scored 600 in the Math section and 700 in the Reading and Writing section. On your second attempt, you improved your Math score to 650 but your Reading and Writing section score dropped to 680.

With superscoring, colleges would take your highest Math score (650) from the second test and your highest Reading and Writing score (700) from the first test, resulting in a superscore of 1350 (650 + 700).

This practice allows you to showcase your best performances in each section across multiple test dates, potentially improving your overall SAT score and increasing your chances of admission to your dream college.

When Should You Take the SAT?

To maximize your chances of getting a high score, we recommend you take the SAT exam twice. The best time to take your SATs would be once in the fall or spring of your junior year, and again in the fall of your senior year.

While there’s no specific month of the year we recommend, you should ask yourself a few questions before scheduling your exam:

  • Will I have my SAT results before my college application deadline? (results take 2-4 weeks)
  • Will I have at least 2-3 months to prepare and study before my SATs?
  • Do I have outside commitments during the period I want to schedule my SATs, like school finals or midterms?

Preparing for the SAT

1. Create A Study Plan

Start by taking a practice test to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Use this information to create a personalized study plan, setting specific study times and sticking to them.

Make sure your plan includes time for practice tests, reviewing mistakes, and focusing on challenging areas. Multiple timed practice tests will help you get comfortable with the test format.

2. Practice Makes Perfect

Taking practice tests is one of the best ways to prepare for the SAT. Aim for at least one practice test per week using materials that closely mirror the actual test. The College Board offers excellent resources, including official practice tests.

“Understanding the content is always better than learning quick tips and tricks. Tips and tricks only work on a couple questions that are phrased and written similarly. Learning the actual subject matter prepares you for every question.”

- Emre Turkolmez, Senior Strategist at Crimson

3. Focus on Vocabulary & Grammar

Building a strong vocabulary and understanding grammar rules are crucial for the Reading and Writing sections. This takes time and consistent effort. Read widely, learn new words daily, and review grammar rules.

Consider borrowing or buying grammar books, or consult with an English tutor. Increasing your reading habits with articles and books can significantly improve your grasp of vocabulary and grammar.

4. Work on Time Management

Effective time management is crucial for the SAT. Calculate the maximum time you can spend on each question and practice sticking to these limits.

Keep the duration of each module in mind and make sure you’re able to finish the practice tests with the time limit.

“If a question doesn’t make sense to you in the first 30 seconds, trying to solve it with brute force never helps. Take a deep breath, move on to the next one, and then come back with fresh eyes to avoid wasting excessive time on one question.”

- Emre Turkolmez, Senior Strategist at Crimson

  • Get the perfect score with the help of expert tutors. Some of the best teachers in the world tutor at Crimson. 

5. Don’t Forget Your Mental Health

Your mental state on test day is as important as your preparation. Simulate the test environment during practice and use calming strategies like deep breathing.

Ensure you get plenty of rest before the test day. Avoid cramming, as lack of sleep can heighten anxiety and impair cognitive function. Arrive early at the test center, and use positive affirmations to boost your confidence.

Test-Optional Policies

In response to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult for many students to take standardized tests, many colleges adopted a test-optional policy when it comes to the SATs.

Test-optional policies allow you to decide whether to submit your SAT scores as part of your college application. 

Sending your SAT/ACT scores to a test-optional university can have several advantages, especially if you're aiming for Ivy League schools and other prestigious institutions.

Deciding whether to send your SAT/ACT scores to a test-optional university depends on your individual circumstances and goals. Consider these factors:

  • Your Scores: Submit your scores if they are well above the university's average. If they are average or below, it might be wise to reconsider.
  • Academic Profile: A strong GPA and rigorous course selection can offset the absence of test scores.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Highlight leadership roles and community service, which are crucial when test scores are not submitted.
  • Recommendations and Essays: Strong letters of recommendation and well-crafted essays can make a compelling case for your admission, even without high test scores.
  • Financial Aid: If you’re applying to merit-based scholarships that consider test scores, submitting them would definitely be a wise choice.

Read our guide on test-optional policies to determine if you should submit your SAT scores when applying for colleges

With all of that said, many colleges reinstated SAT scores as a requirement for their application process, and there’s a noticeable trend in more colleges returning to test-required admissions policies. 

Final Thoughts

While the SAT remains a pivotal component of the college admissions process, its role continues to evolve amidst ongoing debates about fairness and efficacy.

As you prepare for it, understanding its structure, scoring, and the impact of recent changes such as digital testing and test-optional policies is crucial. Planning and informed decision-making can significantly increase your chances of achieving your best score.

If you're looking to maximize your chances of getting the perfect (or close to perfect) score, our expert tutors can help! Some of the best teachers in the world tutor at Crimson!

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