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The SAT Test Structure: Sections, Question Types & Timing

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  • 0:04 SAT Overview
  • 0:39 Required Sections
  • 3:51 The Optional Essay
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Looking for an introduction to what you'll see on the SAT? Watch this lesson for a quick overview of the sections, question types, and timing of the test. Beginners will find this particularly useful, since it can help you avoid confusion later.

SAT Overview

Whether you're new to the SAT or a test-prep veteran, it's always useful to keep the big-picture overview of the test structure in mind. Get rock solid on the basic organization of sections, question types, and timing, and move on to the details later. This helps you avoid getting overwhelmed or missing the forest for the trees.

It can get impossibly confusing if you start trying to understand all the details at once. But if you start at the top with the big-picture, the small stuff can fall into place later. So with that in mind, take a look at how the SAT is organized, and what it means for you on test day.

Required Sections

The entire SAT is three hours if you don't take the optional essay or three hours and 50 minutes long if you do the optional essay. For scoring purposes, the test is divided into two required sections: math and evidence- based reading and writing. But when you sit down with your pencil on test day, you'll get three separate tests: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math, in that order.

The reading and writing and language tests combine to make up the evidence- based reading and writing section. On the reading test you'll answer multiple-choice questions about reading comprehension. The reading test is 65 minutes long with 52 multiple-choice questions. That's about 1 minute and 15 seconds per question. You'll read six passages in total; four long ones that are just single passages by themselves and two shorter passages that are grouped together as a pair.

Each passage or pair of passages will have 10-11 questions. Some of the passages are fiction and some are more informational, like the kind of writing you would see in a textbook. The topics of the informational passages cover literature, history and some science. For the paired passages, the two passages will be somehow related to each other.

For example, they may be two different points of view on the same topic. The questions will ask you to compare and contrast as well as answer questions on the individual passages. You'll also get graphics, like charts and tables attached to the passages. You'll have to be able to understand them and answer questions about them.

On the writing and language test you'll revise sentences in the context of short passages. The writing test is 35 minutes long with 44 multiple-choice questions. That's about 48 seconds per question. You'll read four passages with 11 questions each; each passage will have some parts underlined or certain places in the passage marked. You'll answer questions about the underlined words and the marked sections in the context of the passage.

The passages on the writing and language tests may also have graphics, like charts and tables. To answer some of the questions, you'll have to use information from the graphic.

On the math test, you'll answer multiple-choice and free response questions about topics including basic algebra, problem solving, statistics, and functions. The math test is 80 minutes long, with 58 questions. That's about one minute and 20 seconds per question. 45 of the 58 questions are multiple-choice and 13 are grid-in. On the grid-ins, you'll have to come up with the answer on your own and write it into a grid.

Questions on the math test will be divided in two groups; 20 no-calculator questions first followed by 38 calculator questions where you can use a calculator if you want too. Each of these two groups will have some multiple-choice and some free-response questions. In theory, you could solve every question without a calculator but it does help to speed things up and save you some number crunching.

If you took the old SAT, you might remember that the math, reading and writing sections were broken up into 10 smaller sections. That's no longer true on the new SAT. Now, each section is just one big chunk.

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