SAT, SAT Subject & ACT

SAT, SAT Subject Test, PSAT, ACT, TOEFL — you’ve probably heard about these tests, and chances are you have questions about them. What kinds of questions will you find on these tests? What is an average score? What can you do to improve your score? How do you report your scores to colleges and universities? Read on for answers . . .


The SAT is the most common entrance examination. Colleges and universities use the scores to predict how well a prospective student will perform in college. Plus, the results give colleges a way to compare students from different backgrounds. The SAT consists of three parts — a critical reading (which tests skills such as vocabulary and reading comprehension), a mathematics section (which tests algebra, geometry, and other math concepts) and writing (grammar, usage, and word choice). Click here to find out more about the format of the SAT. You can learn about question types, too.

The SAT is offered many times throughout the year. Most students take the SAT in the spring of their junior year.

What is on the SAT?

The Critical Reading Section

  • Two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section
  • 48 reading comprehension questions
  • 19 sentence completion questions
  • Scored on a 200 to 800 point scale

Passage-Based reading
Students will be asked to read short and long passages followed by some multiple-choice questions.

Sentence Completion
Students will be presented with an incomplete sentence and be asked to finish it with the correct word or words.

The Mathematics Section

  • Two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section
  • 44 multiple-choice and 10 grid-ins
  • Worth 200 to 800 points

Intermediate Algebra
There are only a handful of Intermediate Algebra questions on the SAT. Even if you make a few mistakes, there are so few of them that your score will barely be affected. And by the way, there’s no Intermediate Algebra on the PSAT.

There are some triangle questions on the PSAT and SAT, but you will not have to know trig to solve them.

The Writing Section

  • 49 multiple-choice questions and 1 essay
  • 60 minutes, 25 of which will be spent on the essay
  • Worth 200 to 800 points

The Essay
The essay will require students to read an 80-word subject prompt that makes a statement or claim. Students then need to develop a position and back it up with examples from schoolwork, literature, history or their own experience. The essay doesn’t test writing ability, as much as it does other skills, such as organization, idea development, or supporting an argument. In fact, the average essay will be graded in just under 2 minutes.

Identifying Sentence Errors
You’ll be presented with a sentence that may or may not have a grammatical or syntactical error in it. You’ll be asked to identify the error, or indicate if there is no error. There are 18 “Error ID” questions.

Improving Sentences
Students will be asked to look at a sentence and try to improve it, without changing its meaning. There are 25 Improving Sentence questions.

Improving Paragraphs
These are just like the Improving Sentence questions except…you guessed it…you’ll be looking at and improving paragraphs. There are only 6 of these.

SAT scores are reported either separately (a perfect score for any section is 800 ) or combined (perfect score = 2400). It is your responsibility to have your scores forwarded to colleges — you can do this at the time you take the test or after you receive the results. Often, the cost of score reporting is included as an option when you register for the SAT. Find out more about scoring.

What else do I need to know?

A few things to study include: Sets, Absolute Value, Radical Equations, Exponents, and Functions.

Calculator use is allowed, but not required.

You may Register Online on the College Board Web site. You many also register by mail or by telephone/fax (in certain cases).

SAT Subject Tests
The SAT Subject tests are given to find out how much students know about a particular subject area, like literature, U.S. history, chemistry, or French. Colleges use the SAT Subject Test scores for several reasons, usually to place students in classes and/or as criteria for admissions. Some schools do not require students to take SAT Subject Tests at all. Check with the admissions office at the colleges you are considering finding out their requirements, or looking in the admissions section of their Web sites. Find out more here.

The ACT (American College Test) is another entrance examination used by schools throughout the country in addition to, or instead of, the SAT tests. Although the SAT is more common, many schools use the ACT, so make sure to double-check with the admissions office before you apply to a college.

While the SAT tests mathematic and verbal skills, the ACT examines students’ abilities in English, mathematics, natural sciences, and social studies.

Like the SAT, the ACT is offered several times throughout the year and is typically taken in the spring of the junior year. If a school you are interested in will accept either SAT or ACT scores, you may want to consider taking a practice test in each one and then take the one that you feel is best suited to your strengths.