An Overview of the SAT
The SAT tests skills that you are learning in high school—skills you’re likely to need in college and beyond. Here’s an overview of the content areas and question formats you can expect to see on the SAT:
Evidence-based reading and writing
Words in context – You will be tested on words that appear frequently in high-school-level and college-level texts.
Range of sources
You’ll be asked to analyze, synthesize, and interpret data from a range of sources, including tables, charts, and graphs, as well as multi-paragraph passages in the following areas:
- Literature and literary nonfiction
- The humanities
- History and social studies
- Work and career
Command of evidence
For every passage or pair of passages you’ll see during the Reading Test, at least one question will ask you to identify which part of the text best supports the answer to the previous question. In other instances, you’ll be asked to find the best answer to a question by pulling together information conveyed in words and graphics.
The Writing and Language Test also focuses on command of evidence. It will ask you to analyze a series of sentences or paragraphs and decide if they make sense. Other questions will ask you to interpret graphics and to edit a part of the accompanying passage so that it clearly and accurately communicates the information in the graphics.
The SAT essay also tests your command of evidence. After reading a passage, you’ll be asked to determine how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience through the use of evidence, reasoning, or stylistic and persuasive devices.
Essay analyzing a source
The SAT essay is optional—it asks you to analyze how an author uses evidence, reasoning, and other stylistic evidence to craft a persuasive argument.
The Math that matters most
The Math Test focuses in depth on three essential areas of math: Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Heart of Algebra, and Passport to Advanced Math.
- Questions from the Problem Solving and Data Analysisarea will require you to use ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts.
- Questions from the Heart of Algebraarea focus on the mastery of linear equations and systems, which help students develop key powers of abstraction.
- The Passport to Advanced Mathquestions focus on more complex equations and the manipulation they require.
Problems grounded in real-world contexts
Throughout the SAT—in the Math Test, the Reading Test, and the Writing and Language Test—you will be asked questions grounded in the real world, directly related to work performed in college and career.
Analysis in science and analysis in history/social studies
You will be asked to apply your knowledge in reading, writing, language, and math to answer questions in science and history/social studies contexts. Questions will require you to read and understand texts and to synthesize information presented through texts and graphics.
Founding documents and great global conversations
These reading passages focus on major founding political documents and the great global conversations they inspire.
Length of the SAT
The SAT is three hours long, not including short breaks. The optional Essay is an additional 50 minutes.
Here are the main components of the SAT:
Reading Test – 65 minutes, 52 questions
Writing and Language Test – 35 minutes, 44 questions
Math Test – two sections:
1) No calculator – 25 minutes, 20 questions
2) Calculator permitted – 55 minutes, 38 questions
Optional essay section (50 minutes)
The SAT is scored on a 400 to 1600 scale. You will also receive subscore reporting for every test—math, reading, and writing and language—plus additional subscores to provide added insight into your test performance.
No penalty for guessing
No points are deducted for wrong answers, so don’t leave anything blank!
SAT score components
Flow chart showing the sections of the SAT and cross-test and sub scores.
Composite score at the top, 400-1600, branches into two tests: Evidence-based Reading and Writing, and Math (200-800). Reading and Writing branches further into two sections: Reading and Writing and Language.
Below that are the cross-test scores: Analysis in Science and Analysis in History/Social Studies. Below that are the sub scores: Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Relevant Words in Context, and Command of Evidence for Reading and Writing. On the Math side, the subscores are Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Mathematics, and Problem Solving and Data Analysis.
On the far right is the score for the optional Essay, broken into 3 parts: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.
The SAT is scored out of 1600. Subscores and cross-section scores help you evaluate your performance.
- Your total scoreis your overall score and is a combination of your section scores (see below). The highest composite score for the SAT is 800+800, or 1600. The average score is 1000.
- Your section scoresare the individual scores for the two main sections of the SAT: reading/writing and math. Each of these sections is scored out of 800, and they are added together to get your overall score.
- The essay is optional and will not be factored into your overall SAT score. The essay scores will be shown separately on the report.
- Your essay, should you choose to write one, will be scored on three measures: Reading, Analysis and Writing (a good way to remember it: RAW). You will receive a score of 2 to 8 in each of these areas.
SAT score breakdown
In addition to the “top-line” scores, you also receive additional sets of scores that contain additional detail about how you performed on specific skill or subject areas.
To view your full score breakdown, choose “Show score breakdown” on your practice test results page, right below your total and section scores:
Image of a practice test score breakdown. The total in this example is 1080, with a 520 in Math and a 560 in Reading and Writing.
- Your test scoresbreak out the reading/writing section into reading and writing and language and give you scores out of 40 points as well as a math test score out of 40 points. These are the basis for your section scores, and therefore your overall SAT score.
- Your two cross-test scores, each scored out of 40 points, are based on your performance answering questions that have science or history/social studies contexts. These subject-related questions appear both in Reading & Writing as well as Math.
- Your SAT sub scores how well you’re performing in different skill categories, to give you a clearer picture of where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Sub scores can be within reading and writing and language (Command of Evidence and Words in Context), writing and language alone (Expression of Ideas and Standard English Conventions), and math alone (Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math).
Glossary of SAT terms
One of the keys to success on the SAT — along with plenty of practice and keeping a clear head — is to understand exactly what the test is all about. Over the course of your SAT Prep experience here on Khan Academy, you may come across an unfamiliar term or two. We hope this glossary helps!
Is there something missing you’d like to have explained and added to this list? Let us know.
An adjustment in testing conditions to enable students with disabilities to take a standardized test. Examples: having the questions read out loud (for visually impaired students); use of a computer for the essay (dysgraphia), 50% or 100% extended time to complete the test (documented ADD/ADHD, executive function, working memory impairments). While the testing conditions for students taking the test with accommodations may be different, the test questions and scoring system are the same.
On a multiple-choice question, there will be four answer options lettered A, B, C, and D. Only one of these will be correct. The three incorrect answer choices may represent common errors and can be very tempting! In the Reading Test, and in many of the Writing & Language Test questions, the best choice is always the one that has the best textual support – that is, evidence!
A diagnostic is a brief test with a small number of questions intended to test your general level of mastery. For the SAT, the Khan Academy diagnostic tests aim to identify your current level of skills for Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing so the practice program can give you the most accurate recommendations for skills to work on. In this way, our system “diagnoses” your current state of knowledge, and that helps us make personalized practice recommendations just for you!
IQ test / intelligence test
An IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test is an exam or a set of exams intended to evaluate a person’s general intelligence based on a combination of question accuracy and age. The SAT is NOT an IQ test. It is important to remember this, because it can seem at times like your parents, peers, or the colleges to which you apply are judging how smart you are based on your score. The SAT measures college readiness, not intelligence or aptitude or persistence.
Multiple-choice questions provide a set of answer options from which the student must select the correct or the best-fit answer.
Percentile ranks provide a way for you to compare your scores to those of other students. SAT percentile ranks are reported based on the total group of SAT test-takers in the US. The number can range from 1 to 99, and indicates the percentage of test-takers who achieved an equal or lower score than yours. For instance, a percentile rank of 76 means that 76 percent of SAT-takers achieved a score at or below your score. A percentile rank of 43 means that 43 percent of SAT-takers attained scores at or below your score.
A proctor, also called a test room supervisor or a test center supervisor, is an adult who may be in your test room to help make sure that the administration goes well. The proctor helps hand out and collect materials, check admission tickets, and make sure the room is quiet. The proctor also helps monitor test-takers to ensure no one has an unfair advantage. You may also see proctors helping test-takers at check-in or in the hallways during testing and breaks, to make sure that everyone gets where they need to go and that these areas are quiet.
The prompt is what we call the question, sentences, image, or other content that you are required to analyze and address in order to respond to the assignment or solve the problem. The SAT essay assignment is sometimes called a prompt. Make sure you fully understand what the prompt is asking of you before you rush to solve it!
Your raw score is simply the number of questions you got correct out of the total number of questions. If there are 40 questions on a test and you got 28 correct, your raw score is 28. For the SAT, your raw score will be translated into a scaled score that takes into account things like the difficulty of the questions on this administration of the test versus another administration.
When you take a standardized test, there are two types of scores you may see: the raw score (number of questions you got correct out of the overall number of questions) and the converted score, which is the translation of your raw score into a different numerical format that takes into account the difficulty of the questions and the performance of your peers. For the SAT, your converted score will be 200-800 for each section.
Your SAT score report will include a number of scores, including test scores (for the Math, Reading, and Writing and Language Tests and the Essay), cross-test scores (like Analysis in Science, which is a skill covered across sections), and subscores (like Expression of Ideas, which is a skill tested within one section).
This is what we call the questions that require the student to provide the answer to a question rather than choose from a multiple-choice list of options. Student-produced responses occur on the Math section (in the form of a grid-in) and the Essay (the full essay is student-written). When completing a student-produced response question, don’t forget to read the instructions carefully to make sure you’re providing your answer in the requested format!
The specifications, or specs, of a test are the detailed descriptions of how the test is formatted (time, length, and sections), what content is covered (skills, subjects), and how the test is scored. It can be helpful to review test specifications to understand the full detail of the test you’ll be facing, but it can also be overwhelming and provide a lot of information that won’t be helpful to you. The redesigned SAT specs include a list of all Math and Reading and Writing and Language skills that the SAT covers
Your total score for the redesigned SAT is the combination of your scaled scores from the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections, which are each 200 to 800 points. Thus, your total score for the redesigned SAT will be between 400 and 1600 points.
Understanding your “Words in Context” sub score
What is the “Words in Context” sub score on the SAT?
Words in Context
Your “Words in Context” sub score measures your understanding of the meaning and use of words and phrases in the context of passages on the SAT Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test.
Total: 18 questions
Reading Test: 10 questions focusing on word/phrase meanings and the effect of word choice.
Writing and Language Test: 8 questions covering a variety of skills, from making text more precise to maintaining style and tone to combining two or more sentences into a smoother, more effective single sentence.
In order to answer these questions you will need to use context clues to determine a word’s meaning, figure out what a particular word or phrase is doing (i.e. analyze its effect or impact), or make choices about which word or phrase to use in a particular writing situation.
What is context?
We’re so glad you asked! To better understand the meaning of the word context, let’s look at the meaning of its parts: “con-” and “text.”
Con- This prefix means “with” or “together”
Text You might know that “text” means “reading material,” but did you know that the Latin root of this word, texere, means “to weave?”
When you put them together, con and text make a pretty important and powerful word that could be defined like this:
Context = the surrounding circumstances, ideas and words woven together to form the setting or background for an event, statement, or idea.
Context—the words or ideas expressed before and after— provides us with the information we need to fully understand, evaluate or interpret the ideas in the passage.
Example: “You misinterpreted my words because you took them out of context. I did say that I was hesitant to bake cookies for the fundraiser, but it’s not because I don’t want to participate, as you claim. I also told you I ran out of butter, and the last time I made cookies, nobody bought them.”
High-utility academic words and phrases
The SAT focuses on the type of vocabulary that you can find in a wide range of challenging reading across a range of subjects—it does not test you on obscure, seldom-used words and phrases presented with little context.
Okay—so where’s “The List?” There isn’t any official list. We do not recommend practicing by memorizing long lists of vocabulary!
Read with Purpose Since the SAT focuses on academic words and phrases commonly encountered in challenging texts, a good way to prepare is to read texts across a range of subjects and types. As you encounter unfamiliar words or phrases, practice using context clues to determine their meaning, and then look them up to check if you were right! Many students create word notebooks to keep track of all the new words they’re learning. Give it a try and let us know if it works for you!
Here are a few examples to show you how words can change depending on their context:
Depending on context, restrain can mean several things:
- To hold back physically: “His classmates had to restrain him from eating the last cupcake.”
- To control emotions: “I wasn’t able to restrain my excitement upon winning the tournament – I threw my ping-pong paddle into the crowd and hit my poor brother on the forehead, knocking him out.”
- To limit: “The embargoes and tariffs were designed to restrain trade.”
- Example: “discriminate”
- Discriminate is often used in a negative way, but it also can be positive:
- To judge, or make an unfair distinction about people based on their race, age or gender: “Widespread racial discrimination led to the disenfranchisement of thousands.”
- To tell apart: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”
- To note subtle differences: “The dolphin’s electroreception enables it to better discriminate between shrimp and crayfish on the muddy river bottom.”
- Example: “compromise”
- As a verb, compromise has three distinct meanings:
- To settle a dispute by mutual agreement and concession: “My sister wanted to listen to hip-hop and my brother wanted to listen to bebop, so we compromised and put on some R&B.”
- To accept a standard that is below what is desirable: “I am willing to accept another motel room, but I’m not prepared to compromise on hygiene.”
- To endanger by foolish behavior: “When Skywalker went along, he compromised the entire mission because Vader could sense his proximity.”
As the above examples suggest, high-utility academic words and phrases are different from other kinds of vocabulary: The context of their use will tell you which meaning the author intends!
Academic These words may not be part of your everyday conversational language yet, but you will very likely run into them more regularly in academic and career settings.
Non-technical SAT doesn’t test technical terms; “Atomic mass,” “ductile,” and “isotope” may sound like high-utility academic words and phrases, but they’re generally only used in readings about and discussions of science. This doesn’t mean that these terms aren’t worth knowing—far from it!—but it does mean that their usefulness is more limited than that of words that you will encounter in a wider variety of texts and discussions.
Powerful! The College Board has chosen to focus on high-utility academic words and phrases because of their great power in unlocking the meaning of complex texts that you’re likely to encounter in high school and postsecondary courses.
Words in Context question types
Questions in the Words in Context category ask you to consider both the meanings and roles of words and phrases as they are used in particular passages. You’ll also be asked to think about how to make language use more effective. These questions focus on the following skills:
- Interpreting words and phrases in context (Reading Test only)
- Analyzing word choice rhetorically (Reading Test only)
- Making effective use of language (Writing and Language Test only)
Interpreting Words and Phrases in Context (Reading Test)
These questions require you to figure out the precise meaning of a given word or phrase based on how it’s used in a particular passage. Generally, these words or phrases have more than one dictionary definition, so the extended context will help you decide which of the choices makes the most sense.
Maybe you associate “intense” with emotion or attitude, as in “He’s an intense person,” or perhaps with determination, as in “She worked intensely for six hours to ace the quiz.” However, neither of these quite matches how “intense” is used in the following excerpt from a longer passage:
[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and cityregions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.
Question: As it is used in the passage, the word “intense” most nearly means…
In this case, “intense” is more about degree: the clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in the coming decades is likely to be denser—or more concentrated— in fewer large cities and city-regions, according to the author. While prior knowledge of what “intense” often means could be useful here, you also have to interpret the context to determine exactly how the word is being used in this case.
Top tip: Plug In! One good strategy here is to use context clues in the paragraph to come up with your own word that could replace “intense” while maintaining the intended meaning of the sentence. Then, cross out the choices that don’t match your word. Another effective strategy is to plug the choices into the passage and see which one sounds best.
Analyzing Word Choice Rhetorically (Reading Test)
These questions ask you to consider how an author’s choice of words and phrases helps shape meaning, tone, and style. Sometimes, these questions deal with the connotations, or associations, that certain words and phrases evoke.
The author uses the phrase “wait for it” throughout the passage primarily to
(A) Contrast Aaron’s personal style with that of his rival
(B) Emphasize Aaron’s lazy, passive attitude
(C) Summarize Aaron’s chosen approach to life
(D) Criticize Aaron’s failure to take action
This question is asking us to consider the context of the passage to arrive at a conclusion about the rhetorical effect of the repetition of a single brief phrase.
Top tip: Ask “What is it doing?” A good way to approach questions like these is to rephrase the question to make sure you understand it, and then predict your own answer—using your own words—before you look at the choices. The question is basically asking you what the phrase is doing. Go through the text and answer that question in your own words, and then use process of elimination to rule out the choices that don’t match. Trust yourself!
Consider how you (or an author) might describe someone who wasn’t accompanied by other people. Saying that person was “alone” is more or less just pointing out a fact. To say instead that that person was “solitary” offers a stronger sense of isolation. To instead call that person “forlorn” or even “abandoned” goes a step further in casting the person’s separateness in a particular, negative way.
Every word counts, and every word represents a choice. Deciding which word or phrase to use in a given context to offer just the right flavor is something that authors do all the time.
Making effective use of language (Writing and Language Test)
While the Reading Test asks you to interpret how authors use words and phrases, the Writing and Language Test asks you to make those kinds of decisions yourself as you revise passages.
Make it concise Some questions present language that’s wordy or redundant, and ask you to choose a more concise way of conveying the same idea without changing the meaning.
Make it precise Other questions may ask you to choose the most accurate or exact way to say something or the most appropriate way to express an idea in a given context.
Maintain style or tone Still other questions may have you pick out the word or phrase that does the best job of maintaining the style or tone of the passage, or of continuing a particular linguistic pattern, such as repetition for emphasis or cohesion. In these cases, you may have to replace informal language with a more formal expression (or vice versa, depending on the style and tone of the overall passage), or decide which option most effectively maintains a pattern.
Combine sentences Yet other questions may require you to combine whole sentences or parts of two or more sentences to make choppy or repetitive sentences flow more smoothly, or to accomplish some other goal (such as placing emphasis on an action rather than on the person performing the action).
These language use questions aren’t directly about grammar, usage, or mechanics. Instead, these questions try to get you to think about how language should be used to accomplish particular writerly aims, such as being clearer, more precise, or more economical.
We hope you found this article helpful!
Let us know if you have any questions in the comments section!
Understanding your “Command of Evidence” sub score
What does the SAT “Command of Evidence” sub score measure?
What is Command of Evidence?
Your “Command of Evidence” subscore on the SAT is based on your performance on specific questions from both the Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test.
A total of 18 questions — 10 from the Reading Test and 8 from the Writing and Language Test — contribute to the Command of Evidence sub score.
These questions are designed to see whether you understand how authors make use of evidence to develop and support their claims and points.
Why does evidence matter?
Command of Evidence questions on the SAT are designed to help you practice a critically important skill.
In college, in the workforce, and in life in general, you’ll find that you frequently need to use evidence to create or defend an argument, or to evaluate the validity of someone else’s argument.
Journalists, politicians, scientists, business leaders and other change-makers use evidence to make their ideas compelling, their points clear, and their claims convincing. Authors can change people’s minds about something or persuade them to take a particular action through the use of evidence.
Types of evidence:
- Facts, figures and statistics
- Direct quotations from experts
- Details and events
- Word choice to signal a point of view
One way to think about it: Evidence helps you defend the explanation you might give for how you reached a decision, or how you arrived at a particular interpretation of a situation or text.
Consider the following examples:
- “I think the author supports clearer labeling on food because …”
- “I support the use of smartphones in school because …”
- “The narrator seems to feel sympathy for the main character because …”
- “I decided to eat the last banana because …”
- “He stopped drinking soda because …”
What should follow “because” in each of these examples is evidence — the “how I know it” part of the statement. Your argument will be a lot more convincing if you can back up your claim with something more than a vague gut feeling!
Arguments are everywhere! That’s why the SAT puts so much emphasis on learning how authors back up their arguments with evidence.
Top tip: Think like an author! As you approach all of these questions and tasks, try to start thinking like an author. Answering such questions as “What information in the passage is being used to support the author’s interpretation?” and “How relevant is this information to the passage as a whole?” is critical to getting a good Command of Evidence sub score on the SAT.
The Reading Test
There are three types of questions that address command of evidence on the SAT Reading Test:
Determine the best evidence:
- All-in-one variety:Determine which part of a passage offers the strongest support for a conclusion that the question provides
Example: “Which of the following provides the best support for the author’s conclusion that goldfish make better pets than do stick insects?”
- Paired variety:Command of Evidence questions are often connected to the previous question. The first question in the pair will ask you about a claim in the passage, and the second will ask you what text from the passage offers the strongest support for the answer to the previous question.
Example: “Which of the following provides the best support for the answer to the previous question?”
Interpret data presented in informational graphics:
- Locate particular information in tables, graphs, charts and infographics
- Draw conclusions from the data
- Make connections between the data and the information and ideas in a passage
Example: “Which of the following statements best describes the connection between the data in the table and the author’s conclusion about rainbows?”
Top tip: Identify “the story” Try to “read” graphics and draw conclusions just like you read and interpret written texts. Ask yourself: Is there a title? What is being measured? What do the x- and y-axes represent? What are the units? Is the data telling a story?
Top tip: Use your own words To ensure you’ve adequately understood the diagram, state in your own words what the graph is showing. This can prevent you from getting side-tracked by an answer choice that looks good, but isn’t actually supported by the graph.
Understand how an argument uses (or doesn’t use) evidence:
- Consider how an author makes (or fails to make) use of supporting information, such as facts, figures, and quotations, to develop claims
- Identify what type of evidence the author relies on most heavily (personal anecdotes or survey results, for example)
- Determine what evidence in the passage supports a particular claim
- Decide if a new piece of information (such as a research finding) would strengthen or weaken an author’s case
Example: “Which of the following findings, if discovered, would most strengthen the author’s argument in favor of net neutrality?”
Top tip: Make a prediction using your own words The first step on questions like these is to make sure that you know what the argument actually is. Say it in your own words just to be sure, then predict—in your own words—what sort of proof could make that argument stronger. If you have some idea of the kind of answer you’re looking for before you read the choices, then you’ll have an edge when you start ruling out bad choices using process of elimination.
The Writing and Language Test
You’ll find two types of questions on the Writing and Language Test that count towards your Command of Evidence sub score:
Interpreting data presented in informational graphics:
- Use data in infographics when you’re revising passages to make the passage more accurate, clear, precise, or convincing.
- Revise a passage to correct an error in the writer’s interpretation of a table
Example: “Which choice completes the sentence and accurately reflects the information from the graph?”
Top tip: Follow the instructions It can be helpful to make sure that you underline the part of the question that the answer needs to do—in this case, accurately reflect the info in the graph. The other choices might all sound fine grammatically, but the task here is not to select the choice that sounds best! Your job is to select the choice that tells the same story the graph is telling.
Improving a passage’s structure, support, and focus:
- Revise passages to make authors’ central ideas sharper
- Add or revise supporting information, such as facts, figures, and quotations
- Add accurate and relevant information in support of a claim
- Replace a general description with precise figures
- Eliminate information that’s irrelevant or that just doesn’t belong at a particular point in a passage.
Example: “Which choice most effectively sets up the information that follows?”
Top tip: Follow the instructions Don’t just read the choices and choose the one that sounds best!
- If the task is to set up information that follows, then your first step is to take a look at the information that follows, and select a choice that sets it up.
- If the question asks you to make a general description more precise, then the answer will be the choice that does exactly that!
- Don’t be distracted by choices that sound the smartest or the most well-written—every choice in questions like these is likely to be fine grammatically.
Command of Evidence and The SAT Essay
Although your score on the optional Essay does not contribute to your Command of Evidence sub score, the Essay’s Analysis score is based heavily on skills related to Command of Evidence questions.
The SAT Essay task is to analyze how an author builds an argument using evidence, reasoning, stylistic or persuasive elements, or other techniques to persuade readers. If, for example, you claim that the author relies heavily on appeals to emotion, you will have to use evidence from the passage to support that claim!
Top tip: Practice the Essay to improve your reading score! Another good reason to take the SAT Essay is that while you prepare, you’ll be practicing many of the skills you need to do well on multiple-choice Command of Evidence questions!