SAT Reasoning Syllabus and Pattern

The SAT Reasoning pattern includes many areas of academic skills of math, writing and reading. Your scores are made available to you for submission to the college or university of your choice.

How difficult is the SAT?

The SAT is developed to reflect accepted educational standards. The data show that the material on the SAT and the time allocated to each section are appropriate for the intended test-taking population:
  • On average, students answer 50 to 60 percent of questions correctly.
  • 80 percent of all test takers finish nearly the entire test.
  • Almost all students complete at least 75 percent of the questions.

SAT Structure

SAT consists of three major sections: Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing. Each section receives a score on the scale of 200–800. All scores are multiples of 10. Total scores are calculated by adding up scores of the three sections. Each major section is divided into three parts. There are 10 sub-sections, including an additional 25-minute experimental or "equating" section that may be in any of the three major sections. The experimental section is used to normalize questions for future administrations of the SAT and does not count toward the final score.
The SAT is offered seven times a year in the United States and six times at international sites. The test:
  • Takes three hours and 45 minutes
  • Consists of 10 separately timed sections:
    • Three sections test critical reading (70 minutes total)
    • Three sections test mathematics (70 minutes total)
    • Three sections test writing (60 minutes total)
    • One variable (un cored) section tests critical reading, mathematics, or writing (25 minutes total)
  • Assesses subject matter learned in high school and problem solving skills in three areas:
    • Critical reading
    • Mathematics
    • Writing
  • Includes three kinds of questions:
    • Multiple-choice questions
    • Student-produced responses (mathematics only)
    • Essay question
  • Is machine-scored, except for the essay

Critical Reading

The Critical Reading (formerly Verbal) section of the SAT is made up of three scored sections: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, with varying types of questions, including sentence completions and questions about short and long reading passages.
Critical Reading sections normally begin with 5 to 8 sentence completion questions; the remainder of the questions are focused on the reading passages.

Sentence completions:

Sentence completions generally test the student's vocabulary and understanding of sentence structure and organization by requiring the student to select one or two words that best complete a given sentence.

Critical Reading:

The bulk of the Critical Reading questions is made up of questions regarding reading passages, in which students read short excerpts on social sciences, humanities, physical sciences, or personal narratives and answer questions based on the passage. Certain sections contain passages asking the student to compare two related passages; generally, these consist of shorter reading passages. The number of questions about each passage is proportional to the length of the passage.
Questions in the Critical Reading section go in the order of the passage. Overall, question sets towards the beginning of the section are easier, and question sets towards the end of the section are harder.


The Mathematics section of the SAT is widely known as the Quantitative Section or Calculation Section. The mathematics section consists of three scored sections. There are two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, as follows:
  • One of the 25-minute sections is entirely multiple choice, with 20 questions.
  • The other 25-minute section contains 8 multiple choice questions and 10 grid-in questions. The 10 grid-in questions have no penalty for incorrect answers because the student guessing isn't limited.
  • The 20-minute section is all multiple choice, with 16 questions.
Notably, the SAT has done away with quantitative comparison questions on the math section, leaving only questions with symbolic or numerical answers.
* New topics include Algebra II and scatter plots. These recent changes have resulted in a shorter, more quantitative exam requiring higher level mathematics courses relative to the previous exam.

Use of Calculator

With the recent changes to the content of the SAT math section, the need to save time while maintaining accuracy of calculations has led some to use calculator programs during the test. These programs allow students to complete problems faster than would normally be possible when making calculations manually.
The use of a graphing calculator is sometimes preferred, especially for geometry problems and questions involving multiple calculations. According to research conducted by the College Board, performance on the math sections of the exam is associated with the extent of calculator use, with those using calculators on about a third to a half of the items averaging higher scores than those using calculators less frequently.


The writing section of the SAT, based on but not directly comparable to the old SAT II subject test in writing, includes multiple choice questions and a brief essay. The essay sub score contributes about 28% towards the total writing score, with the multiple choice questions contributing 70%. This section was implemented in March 2005 following complaints from colleges about the lack of uniform examples of a student's writing ability.
The essay section, which is always administered as the first section of the test, is 25 minutes long. All essays must be in response to a given prompt. The prompts are broad and often philosophical and are designed to be accessible to students regardless of their educational and social backgrounds. For instance, test takers may be asked to expound on such ideas as their opinion on the value of work in human life or whether technological change also carries negative consequences to those who benefit from it. No particular essay structure is required, and the College Board accepts examples "taken from [the student's] reading, studies, experience, or observations." Two trained readers assign each essay a score between 1 and 6, where a score of 0 is reserved for essays that are blank, off-topic, non-English, not written with a Number 2 pencil, or considered illegible after several attempts at reading. The scores are summed to produce a final score from 2 to 12 (or 0). If the two readers' scores differ by more than one point, then a senior third reader decides. The average time each reader/grader spends on each essay is less than 3 minutes.

Guessing on the SAT Questions

The questions are weighted equally. For each correct answer, one raw point is added. For each incorrect answer one-fourth of a point is deducted. No points are deducted for incorrect math grid-in questions. The final score is derived from the raw score; the precise conversion chart varies between test administrations.
The SAT therefore recommends only making educated guesses, that is, when the test taker can eliminate at least one answer he or she thinks is wrong. Without eliminating any answers one's probability of answering correctly is 20%. Eliminating one wrong answer increases this probability to 25%; two, a 33.3% probability; three, a 50% probability of choosing the correct answer and thus earning the full point for the question.
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