What is the SAT?

The SAT is one of the oldest and best-known college admissions tests. Here's how your decisions about the SAT may shape your educational path and opportunities.

If you're in high school and considering college, you'll probably decide about taking the SAT. Most people who take the exam — formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Test —  are high school-aged students considering or preparing for higher education.

Many higher education institutions consider SAT scores as part of their admissions process.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some schools decided to waive or end the requirement to submit SAT scores. And some schools have moved a step further. They've shifted to a test-blind policy. That means SAT scores aren't even considered in admission decisions.

As these changes unfold, the independent nonprofit organization that runs the test also recently announced some major changes to the SAT. The changes go into effect in 2023 or 2024, depending on where you live.

Keep reading to learn more about the changes and what value the SAT might have for you.

Key highlights about the SAT

Used for

Undergraduate college admissions

Cost

$55, but additional fees may apply 

Duration

About three hours, including breaks

Skills tested

Reading, math, and writing and language

Computer-adaptive?

Starting in 2024, the test will include computer adaptive sections

Scores

400 to 1600

Average score

1051

Available online?

No

When to take it

In the fall of your senior year of high school

Can you retake it?

Yes

Are there subject-specific tests?

No, not anymore. Subject-specific tests were discontinued in January 2021.


Upcoming changes to the SAT

In early 2022, the College Board — the nonprofit organization that oversees the test — announced several major changes. The most significant is that the SAT will be fully digital. In other words, everyone will take the test on a digital device rather than with a pencil and paper.

International students will see these changes in 2023. U.S.-based students will take the updated test starting in 2024. Other changes include:

  • A shorter overall test. It'll take about two hours to complete instead of three.

  • Shorter reading passages, with one question tied to each passage.

  • Calculators will be allowed for the entire math section.

  • Students can use their own devices. If you don't have one, you'll be provided one to use.

  • If you get disconnected from the internet or experience a power outage while taking the test, you won't lose your work or be penalized for lost time while you reconnect.

  • Scores will be returned in days instead of weeks.

What skills does the SAT test for? 

The SAT is intended to assess your knowledge and ability in three areas: Reading, math, and writing and language. Here's a more detailed look at the current content of each section of the exam.

The reading section includes fictional and non-fiction works and may feature passages about economics, psychology, sociology, or Earth sciences.

Reading

You will read passages of text. Then, you'll respond to multiple-choice questions about each passage. 

Reading passages may include fiction and non-fiction works. The test may also feature reading passages about economics, psychology, sociology, or Earth sciences. To answer the questions in this section, you'll:

  • Identify evidence used in the passage to support a claim.

  • Use the context of the text to identify the meaning of words.

  • Interpret data and reach conclusions based on the information provided.

Writing and language 

This section has four reading passages and 44 questions. In this section, you'll be asked to:

  • Identify and correct sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation errors.

  • Use standard language rules to improve the substance and flow of a piece of text.

  • Apply standard English language rules to correct passages of written text. For example, you may correct punctuation or sentence structure errors.

Math

The SAT's math test is in two parts. At the time of this guide's publication, calculator use was allowed on one part of the test but not the other. 

Most of the math section is multiple choice. However, you'll also have to write in your answers to some math questions. The math section focuses on four areas:

  • Algebra — such as creating and solving equations

  • Problem solving and data analysis — like ratios and percentages

  • Advanced math — such as using quadratic equations

  • Additional math topics — including geometry and trigonometry

A sample SAT math question reading: If 2x+4y=38 and 9x-2y=31, what is the value of 12+2x?

Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

How do I take the SAT?

You must register in advance to take the SAT. Regular registration closes about 30 days before the test date. 

You can still register if you miss that deadline, though you'll pay an extra fee. Late registration closes about a week and a half before the test date. That's also the deadline for changes and regular cancellations. Different deadlines apply for people outside the U.S. 

Can I take the SAT online?

Once the SAT goes digital, you'll still have to take it in person, in school, or at a test center. 

In April 2020, at the height of pandemic-driven lockdowns and closures, the College Board said it was developing an at-home SAT if schools could not reopen that fall. But they canceled that plan. 

Test officials were concerned that not all students have access to three hours of uninterrupted internet and power. 

Can I take the SAT more than once?

Yes, you can take the SAT more than once. In fact, the College Board recommends taking the test at least twice. They claim more than half of students — 63% — score higher the second time around.

You may take the SAT as many times as you want, though you'll have to pay for it each time.

When should I take the SAT?

High school students should consider taking the SAT exam for the first time during the spring of their junior year. Then, take it again during the fall of your final year of high school, ahead of college application deadlines. 

The SAT is usually offered seven times a year in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December.

How is the SAT scored? 

SAT total scores range from 400 to 1600. 

The reading and writing and language sections' scores combine for a maximum score of 800. That score is then added to your math section score. The math section also has a maximum score of 800.

Here's how your SAT score is calculated, according to the College Board:

  • Section scores, or raw scores, are based on the number of questions you got right.

  • This raw score is converted to a scaled score between 200 and 800. Doing this accounts for differences between versions of the test.

  • Your test score, a number between 10 and 40, is calculated by converting the raw number of questions answered correctly to a scaled score to account for differences in test versions.

  • Your reading and writing section score is calculated by multiplying your scores on the reading and writing and language sections by 10, then adding them together.

  • Your math section score is calculated by multiplying your score on that section by 20.

What's considered a good SAT score?

In 2021, the average SAT score increased slightly to 1060. That's up from 1051 in 2020. 

A score of 1200 will put you in the 75th percentile. That means that 75% of people who took the test scored equal to or lower than you. Successful Ivy League applicants typically have scores of at least 1450 — in the 96th percentile or higher.

Adaptive testing coming soon

When the updated, fully digital SAT debuts to American students in 2024, it'll be a section-adaptive test. 

Here's what that means. Each section of the SAT will be divided into two question sets. The computer will analyze your performance on the first set of questions. If you perform well on the first set of questions, the computer will choose a harder second set of questions. 

That means your initial performance in each section will influence your potential to earn a top score. 

However, your performance on the SAT's reading and writing section doesn't affect the difficulty or content of the math section and vice versa. The College Board says the digital, adaptive testing approach has several benefits. They include a shorter test, more secure testing, and questions that are more calibrated to individual test takers.

The upcoming adaptive SAT format is similar to tests like the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE. The GRE is also section-level computer adaptive. It's a popular exam used to assess students for admission to graduate-level academic programs.

How much does the SAT cost?

The SAT currently costs $55 in the United States. If cost is a concern, fee waivers are available.

The code also allows you to send an unlimited number of score reports to colleges. Students who receive a fee waiver code may also qualify to use it to eliminate college application fees at participating schools. 

But before you pay or seek a waiver, check with your school. Many schools offer an SAT Day. On SAT Day, schools may choose to offer the exam for free during regular school hours instead of on the weekend. 

In addition, some schools offer the exam for free to any registered student. Free practice tests are also available from the SAT website.

Additional fees apply to take the SAT outside the US. These costs range from about $43 to $53.

What's the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

The SAT isn't the only standardized test used to assess students for undergraduate college admissions. The ACT is another popular exam. It's created and managed by a totally separate organization from the SAT. American colleges accept scores from either test.

While both the ACT and the SAT largely cover the same topics, the ACT includes a science section. It asks questions about biology, chemistry, Earth sciences, and physics. 

The SAT previously had an optional essay section, which was discontinued in 2021. However, the ACT continues to offer an optional essay section. 

There are also some important differences in the tests' math sections:

  • The ACT includes math topics that aren't on the SAT, like trigonometry and logarithms.

  • You have to fill in your own answer for some SAT math questions.

  • ACT math questions have five multiple-choice answers. SAT multiple-choice math questions have four answers.

In short, if you're good at algebra, you might do better on the SAT. But if you're better at geometry and logarithms, you might perform better on the ACT.

Guidance counselors and education experts suggest taking both the SAT and the ACT. Doing so has several advantages. 

First, you can prepare efficiently since both tests cover similar topics. Next, you can provide schools with more information about your academic aptitude. Finally, you'll have more options in choosing test dates, seeking financial aid, and applying to schools.

This article was reviewed by Lonnie Woods III

A head-and-shoulders photo of a Black man wearing large glasses, a black turtleneck, and a gray vest.

Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development consultant whose work and research examine the career competencies of students interested in pursuing artistic careers or those studying arts-related majors in college. 

He has 10-plus years of experience working in education with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, Maryland Institute College of Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York University, The George Washington University, and The Whitney Museum of American Art. Woods holds a bachelor of science in fine art photography from Towson University and a master of arts in higher education and student affairs from New York University. Woods currently serves as a professor within the arts administration master's program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

Last reviewed April 8, 2022.