Understanding the SAT Test Sections and How to Prepare

February 20, 2024
4 min read

Navigating the SAT test sections requires a strategic approach. Keep reading to learn all about building one. 

Understanding the SAT test sections and how to prepare for them is key to succeeding on the exam. By knowing what to expect in each section and tailoring your study approach accordingly, you can boost your confidence and improve your scores. 

Plus, having a clear understanding of the test format allows you to make the most of your study time, focusing on the areas where you need the most improvement. This guide will provide you with valuable insights and practical SAT tips to help you navigate each section of the SAT with ease, ultimately increasing your chances of achieving your target score.

Overview of SAT Exam Sections

The SAT exam consists of three main sections: Evidence-Based Reading, Writing, and Math. Let's break down each section:

Evidence-Based Reading

This section evaluates a student's ability to comprehend and analyze written passages. It includes 52 multiple-choice questions and lasts for 65 minutes. The passages cover various topics such as literature, historical documents, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Writing and Language

In this section, students are tested on their grammar, vocabulary usage in context, and editing skills. It comprises 44 multiple-choice questions and has a duration of 35 minutes.


The Math section has two parts: a no-calculator section and a calculator-allowed section. It has 58 multiple-choice questions in total, with 20 in the no-calculator section and 38 in the calculator-allowed section.

The Math section is allotted 80 minutes in total, with 25 minutes for the no-calculator section and 55 minutes for the calculator-allowed section. Topics include Algebra I and II, geometry, and some trigonometry.

Overall, the SAT format encompasses 154 multiple-choice questions across these three sections. The exam aims to assess students' critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills across various subject areas.

Detailed Breakdown of SAT Sections

In this breakdown of SAT sections and times, we'll take a look at each part of the test, including how long you'll spend on each section. 

Reading Section

In the SAT Reading section, your skills in comprehending and analyzing written passages are put to the test. Here's a detailed breakdown of what to expect:

  • Questions: You'll encounter a total of 52 multiple-choice questions that assess your understanding of the passages.
  • Question Difficulty: The questions are strategically ordered from easiest to hardest, allowing you to gradually tackle more challenging questions as you progress through the section.
  • Time Limit: With a time limit of 65 minutes, you'll need to manage your time effectively to complete all the questions within the allotted period.
  • Passage Types: The passages cover a wide range of subjects, including literature, history, social sciences, and natural sciences. Some passages may even come in pairs, requiring you to compare and contrast two related texts.
  • Content Domains: The questions are grouped into four distinct content domains, each focusing on different aspects of reading comprehension:
  • Information and Ideas: This domain evaluates your ability to grasp and evaluate information presented in the passages, including textual details and information conveyed through graphics.
  • Craft and Structure: Here, you'll demonstrate your proficiency in understanding the nuances of language usage, identifying literary devices, and analyzing the structure of the passages.

Math Section

The SAT Math section is a crucial part of the exam that tests your math skills. Here's what you need to know:

  • Question Breakdown: You'll answer a total of 58 multiple-choice questions. These are divided into two sections: a 20-question no-calculator part and a 38-question calculator-allowed part.
  • Contextual Questions: Around 30% of the questions are set in real-world contexts, testing your ability to apply math to practical situations.
  • Question Types: Questions are divided into four main categories: Algebra (13–15 questions), Advanced Math (13–15 questions), Problem-Solving and Data Analysis (5–7 questions), and Geometry and Trigonometry (5–7 questions).
  • Question Difficulty: Questions in each category are arranged from easy to hard, giving you the chance to build up your skills as you progress through the section.
  • Time Allocation: You have 80 minutes for the Math section. Spend 25 minutes on the no-calculator section and 55 minutes on the calculator-allowed section.
  • Focus Areas: The Math section covers key math concepts, including Algebra, Advanced Math, Problem-Solving and Data Analysis, and Geometry and Trigonometry.

The Math section aims to assess your understanding of basic math principles and your ability to solve problems, skills that are important for college and beyond.

Writing and Language Section

Moving on to the SAT Writing section, your grammar, vocabulary, and editing skills take center stage. Here's a closer look at what this section entails:

  • Questions: With 44 multiple-choice questions in total, you'll be tasked with identifying errors and improving the clarity and effectiveness of written passages.
  • Question Difficulty: As with the Reading section, the questions in the Writing section are sequenced in a manner that allows for a gradual progression from simpler to more complex tasks, enabling you to manage your time efficiently while tackling the questions.
  • Time Limit: You'll have 35 minutes to navigate through the questions and make necessary revisions to the provided passages.
  • Passage Types: Similar to the Reading section, the passages in the Writing section cover diverse subject areas, ranging from literature and history to social sciences and science.
  • Content Domains: The questions in this section are categorized into four content domains, each focusing on specific aspects of writing proficiency:
  • Expression of Ideas: This domain assesses your ability to refine and enhance the expression of ideas within the passages, ensuring clarity and coherence in your writing.
  • Standard English Conventions: Here, you'll demonstrate your mastery of grammar, punctuation, and usage conventions, ensuring that the written passages adhere to the standards of formal English.

Optional Essay

The SAT used to include an essay section, but the College Board decided to make it optional starting in 2021. Here's what you need to know in simpler terms:

  • No Longer Mandatory: You don't have to write the SAT essay anymore unless your school chooses it as part of special testing days.
  • Why It Matters: Since colleges no longer require the essay, it might not be as important for your applications.
  • What It Was Like: Before, you had 50 minutes to write an essay analyzing an author's argument. Your essay was scored separately from the rest of your SAT.
  • Deciding Whether to Take It: Some colleges might still want to see the essay, but it's up to each school. Even top schools have different rules about it. So, you'll need to check the requirements for the colleges you're interested in.
  • Making the Choice: Think about whether the schools you're applying to want the essay. If they do, you might want to take it. But if not, you can save time and energy by skipping it.

In short, the SAT essay used to be a must-do, but now it's your choice. Just make sure you know what each college you're applying to wants.

female student working on laptop in school hallway

Preparing for Each SAT Section

Preparing for the SAT can seem daunting, but with the right strategies, you can tackle each section with confidence. Here's how:

1. Get Ready the Night Before

Take some time the evening prior to your SAT to gather everything you'll need for the test. From your admission ticket and photo ID to sharpened #2 pencils and a calculator, make sure you're well-equipped. Don't forget to pack snacks, water, and a watch to help you manage your time effectively.

2. Skip Hard Questions

During the SAT, you may run into challenging questions that could take up valuable time. Instead of getting stuck, skip them and move on to easier ones. Circle these tough questions so you can revisit them later if you have time.

3. Fill in Answers Later

Save time by holding off on transferring your answers to the answer sheet until the end of each section. Circle your choices in your test booklet as you go along, then transfer them to the answer sheet when you're finished to avoid unnecessary back-and-forth.

4. Check Your Work

If you finish a section before time is up, use that extra time to review your answers. Start by revisiting any questions you were unsure about, then consider reviewing all your answers if time allows. Every point counts, so ensure your answers are as accurate as possible.

5. Stay Calm

Keep a cool head throughout the test, even when faced with challenging questions. Take deep breaths, skip difficult questions for later, and maintain a positive attitude. Approach each section with confidence, and trust in your preparation leading up to the SAT.

6. Get a Tutor

Looking to ace the SAT? Foundation Learning offers personalized 1:1 tutoring to help students ace the SAT. Our expert tutors, boasting the country's leading 99th percentile SAT scores, put together tailored lesson plans focused on your strengths. 

Strategies for SAT Section Preparation

Preparing for the SAT involves tackling three main sections: Reading, Math, and Writing). Here are some practical tips for getting ready:

Reading Section Preparation

  • Get Active with Reading: Instead of passively skimming, engage with the passages by taking notes, underlining key points, and summarizing main ideas. It helps you understand the text better and answer questions more accurately.
  • Expand Your Vocabulary: The Reading section loves throwing tricky words at you, so enhance your vocabulary by reading a variety of literature and using word-building tools. Understanding what unfamiliar words mean in context can really boost comprehension.
  • Time Yourself: Practice managing your time during practice tests to ensure you can finish all the passages within the time limit. Start with the easier passages first and save the tougher ones for later.
  • Know Your Questions: Understand the different types of questions in the Reading section, like main idea, inference, and evidence-based questions. Knowing what each question wants from you can speed up your answering process.

Math Section Preparation

  • Nail the Basics: Brush up on the basic math concepts tested on the SAT, like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis. A solid understanding of these fundamentals is key.
  • Focus on Problem-Solving: Practice solving different types of math problems from official SAT materials. Focus on understanding the strategies behind solving them, so you can apply them to any question.
  • Forgo your Calculator: While you can use a calculator for some math problems, don't rely on it too much. Practice solving problems both with and without it to sharpen your mental math skills.
  • Learn from Mistakes: Pay attention to the mistakes you make on practice tests. Figure out what went wrong and focus on improving those areas.

Writing Section Preparation

  • Grammar: Review grammar rules tested on the SAT Writing section, like sentence structure, punctuation, and agreement. Knowing these rules will help you spot errors more easily.
  • Essay Practice: If you're taking the SAT Essay, practice writing well-structured essays with clear arguments and supporting evidence. Make sure your essay flows logically and persuasively.
  • Check Out Sample Essays: Look at sample essays provided by the College Board to understand what makes a strong essay. Pay attention to how they're organized and how evidence is used.
  • Manage Your Time: Have a study plan that dictates how you'll use your time during the Writing section. Aim to spend a certain amount of time planning, writing, and revising your essay.

By following these tips and putting in consistent effort, you'll be better prepared to tackle the SAT and hopefully achieve the scores you're aiming for. Don't forget to use official SAT materials and seek help if you need it!


Understanding the SAT test sections is essential for effective preparation, ensuring you're ready to tackle each part of the exam with confidence.

1. Does the SAT Have Four Sections?

The SAT typically consists of three main sections: Math, Evidence-Based Reading, and Writing. 

2. What Is the Hardest Section of the SAT?

The math section is often seen as the toughest part of the SAT. It requires sharp critical thinking, strong problem-solving skills, and quick mental math abilities. With limited time and some complex topics, it can be quite challenging for many test-takers.

Final Thoughts

In short, acing the SAT requires mastering each test section and preparing wisely. By knowing the ins and outs of the format, content, and timing for each part, you can develop smart strategies to boost your performance. 

Whether you're hitting the books solo or getting some expert help, like Foundation Learning's personalized tutoring, focused prep is the key to nailing your SAT score.

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