The 5 SAT Sections: What You Need to Know

The SAT has historically been a standard component of the college admissions process.

Every year, the College Board administers seven SATs. Most students take the SAT for the first time during their junior year, sometimes earlier.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to study for the SAT. In fact, in order to get that high score, you should.

What’s on the SAT? What content do you need to know to succeed on this college entrance exam?

Understanding the answers to these questions should be the first step of your test prep journey.

In this post, we’ll discuss the following:

The 5 SAT Sections: The Basics

There are five sections on the SAT:

  • SAT Evidence-Based Reading
  • SAT Writing & Language
  • SAT Math: No-Calculator
  • SAT Math: Calculator
  • SAT Essay (optional and to be discontinued after June 2021)

The SAT is a timed test, although testing accommodations are available for select students. 

Here’s the timing and question breakdown for each SAT section:

SAT Section Time / Questions
Evidence-Based Reading 65 minutes / 52 questions
Break 10 minutes
Writing & Language 35 minutes / 44 questions
Math: No Calculator 25 minutes / 20 questions
Break 5 minutes
Math: Calculator 55 minutes / 38 questions
SAT Essay (optional & to be discontinued soon) 50 minutes / 1 question

Your total SAT score will consist of a Verbal score (Evidence-Based Reading + Writing & Language) and a Math score (Calculator + No-Calculator).

We discuss this at greater length in our SAT Scoring Guide.

Section 1: SAT Evidence-Based Reading

The Evidence-Based Reading section is the first section of the SAT.

On SAT Evidence-Based Reading, students have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.

Those 52 questions are associated with 5 passages of varying length. Each passage comes with 9-10 questions. 

In general, students can expect to see passages from the following genres:

  • Literary narrative (1)
  • Science (2)
  • History / Social Studies (2)

One of these five passages will be a dual passage. This means that students will actually have to read and compare two shorter passages.

SAT Evidence-Based Reading: Dual Passage
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

It’s important to note that the literary narrative passage will always come first.

The other passages, however, can take any order.

SAT Evidence-Based Reading: Literary Narrative
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Question Types

The Evidence-Based Reading section will ask students questions that zero in on the most important aspects of each passage.

Of course, “most important” is a relative phrase! What does “important” mean in the eyes of the College Board?

In general, the most important aspects of each SAT passage will include:

  • Main ideas
  • Author’s purpose
  • Inferences
  • Literal comprehension

Students can, accordingly, expect to see the following question types:

Question Type Number of Questions
Function / Purpose 8-12 questions
Vocabulary in Context 6-8 questions
Command of Evidence 8-10 questions
Detail 5-8 questions
Charts & Graphs 2-4 questions
Main Idea 4-6 questions
Character Analysis 2-4 questions

This means that students should really work to find evidence for every answer they select. Remember that the Reading section of the SAT is called the Evidence-Based Reading section for a reason!

The College Board has even incorporated a question type–Command of Evidence–that reinforces this process:

Command of Evidence Question (SAT)
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

This also means that there is no outside content knowledge required for this section (unlike Math and Writing & Language). It is purely strategy-based. 

We’ve got some great easy tips for getting a perfect score on SAT Reading. You can find those right here.

Section 2: SAT Writing & Language

The Writing & Language section is the second section of the SAT.

On this section, students have 35 minutes to answer 44 questions.

This section consists of four passages of various topics. Unlike the Reading section, however, questions occur throughout each passage, rather than at the end.

Here’s what this looks like:

SAT Writing & Language: Format
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Question Types

The Writing & Language section does require content knowledge and understanding of effective writing principles. 

Students can thus expect half of those 44 questions to concern straight-up grammar and punctuation.

The other half will cover general writing strategies, such as writing effective introductions & conclusions, using appropriate transition words, and analyzing evidence.

Question Type Number of Questions
Punctuation 6-11 questions
Expression of Ideas 20-26 questions
Verbs 3-8 questions
Miscellaneous Grammar Topics 0-5 questions
Charts and Graphs 1-4 questions

Expression of Ideas questions include all of the following:

  • Ordering (sentences within a paragraph)
  • Words in Context
  • Introductions
  • Conclusions
  • Evidence/Examples
  • Transition Words
  • Concise Writing

Punctuation questions often test the effective use of:

  • Commas
  • Semicolons
  • Colons
  • Long Dashes
  • Apostrophes
  • Parentheses (rare)

Miscellaneous grammar topics include:

  • Prepositions
  • Idioms
  • Pronouns
  • Modifiers
  • Parallelism 

What’s the easiest way to tell the difference between an Expression of Ideas and Grammar question on SAT Writing and Language?

In general, most Expression of Ideas questions will have a question in front of them:

SAT Writing and Language: Example Question
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

  Most grammar questions do not have a question in front of them:

Example Grammar Question: SAT Writing & Language
Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Section 3: SAT Math (No Calculator)

There are two math sections on the SAT:

  • Section 1: No Calculator Permitted
  • Section 2: Calculator Permitted

SAT Math – No-Calculator is shorter, with only 20 questions to be completed in 25 minutes

The first 15 questions are standard multiple-choice. The final 5 questions, however, are grid-in questions.

For these questions, students must supply their own answers in the provided grid:

Grid-In questions on SAT Math

Questions on SAT Math always go in order of increasing difficulty. The savvy SAT test taker can use this structure to her advantage, prioritizing those easier (i.e., earlier) questions first!

Yes, you can complete all questions on the No-Calculator section without a calculator–as daunting as that sounds.

What content can you expect to see in this section?

In general, students can expect to see questions from the following four content areas:

Content Area Number of Questions
Algebra 8-10 questions
Trigonometry 0-2 questions
Geometry 2-4 questions
Advanced Math 6-10 questions

Common algebra topics include:

  • Fractions
  • Single Equations
  • Simplification
  • Substitution
  • Percentages
  • Inequalities

Common geometry questions include:

  • Triangles
  • Circles
  • Volume / Area

“Advanced Math” on the SAT is not necessarily the same as “Advanced Math” in high school.

In fact, the College Board calls these questions “Passport to Advanced Math” questions. Many of these can be classified as advanced algebra questions.

SAT Advanced Math topics include:

  • Factoring
  • Polynomials
  • Systems of Equations
  • Translating Words into Math
  • Fractions 
  • Ratios 
  • Functions
  • Substitution
  • Imaginary Numbers
  • Square Roots

SAT Math: Calculator

The second math section of the SAT is longer. It permits students to use a calculator to complete its 38 questions in 55 minutes.

Just like the No-Calculator Math section, the questions here are arranged in order of increasing difficulty.

The first 30 questions are multiple-choice. Questions 31-38 are grid-in questions.

Content on the Calculator section will be largely similar to what students see on the No-Calculator section. The primary difference lies in how frequently certain content areas are tested.

Check out this chart as an example:

Content Area Number of Questions
Geometry 3-6 questions
Data Analysis & Problem Solving  16-18 questions
Algebra 10-13 questions
Advanced Math 5-8 questions

Notice how the Calculator section is particularly heavy with respect to data analysis, often in the form of Charts and Graphs questions. It also still contains quite a lot of algebra.

Students rarely encounter extensive geometry or trigonometry questions here. Indeed, many students realize that SAT Math can be pretty wordy, requiring some active translation and complex problem-solving. 

This is all part of the College Board’s attempt to give students “real-world math” on the SAT!

Section 5: The Essay (Optional)

The fifth and final section of the SAT is the essay. It is optional, which means that students do not have to take it. After the June 2021 SAT administration, the CollegeBoard will actually be discontinuing this section.

If you do take the SAT essay, your performance will not impact your SAT Verbal score. Your SAT Essay score will appear in a separate section of your score report and stands alone.

In this section, students have 50 minutes to respond to the essay task.

The Essay Task

The SAT Essay task is always the same. The only thing that changes is the author’s name: SAT Essay Reading Prompt

After students read and analyze a passage, they must write a response that discusses how the author formulates a persuasive argument.

Here’s the specific prompt:

SAT Essay Instructions

We discuss how to maximize your SAT Essay score in a separate post.

Next Steps: The 5 SAT Sections

The SAT is a critical component of the college admissions process. While the content of the 5 SAT Sections discussed in this post may seem familiar to students, it is often tested in unfamiliar ways. 

For this reason, preparing for the SAT is vital! It takes time to learn the language of the SAT, and it takes even more time to get closer to that high score.

What can you do to begin your test prep? We strongly recommend signing up for one of our state-of-the-art SAT programs. Working with professionals as you study for the SAT is the surest way to guarantee excellent results.

Learn more about our programs here!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.