Junior year. You’ve made it through your first years of high school. College is still two full years away. You’ve got time… so you thought. Until your school counselor announced it’s time to register for the SAT.
What? Already? Do you need to study? What do you study? How do you study?… What subjects are even on the SAT?
Okay, don’t panic. We’ve got you covered.
What Subjects Are On the SAT?
There are three main subjects on the SAT—Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. There is also an optional essay.
Here’s the breakdown of the subjects on the SAT, how long you are allotted for each, and the number of questions in each section. They are administered in this order—beginning with reading and ending with the optional essay.
|Subject||Time Allotted||Total Questions|
|Reading||65 Minutes||52 Multiple Choice Questions|
|Writing and Language||35 Minutes||44 Multiple Choice Questions|
|Math—Calculator||55 Minutes||38 Multiple Choice & Grid-ins|
|Math—No Calculator||25 Minutes||20 Multiple Choice & Grid-ins|
|Optional Essay||50 Minutes||1 Essay|
|Totals:||3 Hours||154 Questions|
|3 Hours, 50 Minutes Including the Essay||154 Questions, +1 Essay|
The reading section is the first subject that is on the SAT. This section is all about understanding and interpreting what you’ve read. You will have 65 minutes to read select passages and answer 52 multiple choice questions.
There is one passage pulled from a work of fiction—either a short story or a novel. The remaining selections are informational texts from history, science, and social science. Some of the informational passages require comparisons to graphics or to a paired text.
Types of Questions
The questions fall under one of three categories:
- Information and Ideas—interpreting and understanding what a text is saying
- Rhetoric—showing how an author develops meaning or arguments in a text
- Synthesis—comparing texts or graphics and drawing logical conclusions
How To Prepare for This Subject
The good news is, you have been preparing for this test all your educational life. For the past 12 years, you have been asked to read and interpret texts, make connections, and draw conclusions. These skills are the core of the reading section. So no late-night cramming or memorizing tons of facts here. The best thing you can do right now to prepare for this test is to take courses that challenge you, do your homework, study, and participate in lively class discussions.
You should also check out sample questions on the College Board website.
Writing and Language Section
If you are required to write essays, find weaknesses in your writing and revise, look for mistakes and edit—please thank your English teachers. They are preparing you for this section of the test.
In this 35 minute section, there are 44 multiple choice questions. You are asked to look carefully at a single sentence, a passage, or a graphic, and make corrections or improvements.
Types of Questions
The questions ask you to do the following:
- Choose the best evidence to develop an idea, improve an argument, or support a claim.
- Improve word choice.
- Organize and improve clarity.
- Edit for correct usage in standard English conventions.
How To Prepare for This Subject
As I stated earlier, every time you go through the writing process and make careful decisions to improve your writing, you are practicing for this subject. Get feedback on your writing from teachers and from others. Pay attention to the types of improvements you are making. It is also a good idea to go through practice questions and to look for patterns in how the sample texts are revised or corrected.
The math section was designed to line up with what you learn in high school. So if you have been working hard in your math classes, you already have the foundation needed to succeed on this subject.
The math test is broken into two subsections. The first is a 55-minute, calculator permitted section with 38 questions. It contains complex calculations and multi-step problems, so a calculator may help you work more efficiently.
The second subsection is 25 minutes long with 20 concept-specific questions. No calculators are allowed.
A set of references are provided at the beginning of the test, so make sure you familiarize yourself with these and refer to them often. 80% of the questions will be multiple choice. 20% will be grid-ins—which means you come up with your own calculation, then use the provided spaces to “grid in” or bubble in your response.
Types of Questions
The questions fall under one of four categories:
- Heart of Algebra—Understanding and usage of algebraic equations.
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis—Using concepts like ratios, percentages, tables, and graphs to find answers to real-world situations.
- Passport to Advanced Math – Includes more complex equations or functions.
- Additional Topics in Math – This small portion of the test includes area, volume, coordinate geometry, and basic trigonometry.
How To Prepare for This Section
Learn your weaknesses in math and focus on those areas. There are a lot of free resources out there, but the best is from the official College Board site itself. You can actually take free SAT practice tests. This will help you identify what math concepts you need to practice.
Khan Academy works in partnership with the College Board—the organization behind the SAT— and is an excellent resource for targeted preparation.
And of course, pay attention and work hard in your high school math classes. Without this solid foundation, your test prep will not be nearly as effective.
Optional Essay Section
When you look at what subjects are on the SAT, you will notice that the essay section is optional. “Optional” is used pretty loosely here. College Board does not require you take the essay portion, but many colleges and universities do. So before you skip it, check what your desired school requires. And a little teacher-ly advice here—what I tell my own students—you probably should just take it. Leave your options open.
The essay portion always uses the same basic prompt. You are given a passage to read in which an author makes a claim and tries to persuade an audience to agree. You are asked to analyze how the author builds his or her argument using evidence, logic, and other stylistic or persuasive elements.
Keys to Writing the Essay
- Do not summarize the author’s argument.
- Do not give your opinion on the author’s argument.
- Analyze the argument by finding the point, or claim, the author is making. Then explain how he or she makes that point.
- Use examples only from the text itself. Look for the evidence the author uses, stylistic elements like word choice, and logic—generally understood truths—that help make the argument convincing.
- Use clear essay structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion.
How to Prepare for This Section
The best thing you can do to prepare for this section is to practice. Use the official SAT practice section. Read through the sample student essays and the feedback provided. You are not penalized for using a basic essay formula. So if writing is not your strong point, learn a formula for a 5-paragraph essay, and use it to help structure your ideas.
The subjects that are on the SAT are ultimately designed to show how well you are prepared for college. The foundation for everything is built in to your current academic classes. That doesn’t mean you can skip practicing and preparation.
Start by using the free practice SAT available through the College Board and Khan academy. Utilize prep courses and learn what subjects on the SAT are your academic weakness and focus your study there.
Don’t try to cram it all in. Make a daily habit of spending a small amount of time going through the practice lessons. Thirty-minutes a day, for example, is a small, reasonable amount that is going to add up to much more than a four-hour cram session the night before. And studies show that taking in smaller, more frequent “chunks” of information helps your brain learn and retain information.
Don’t stress. Just get to work. You can do this.