Myths about the SAT

There are a lot of myths about the SAT. My goal here is to provide a general overview of the exam (its structure, the kind of material that is tested, what you can do to prepare for it, etc.) and perhaps dispel some of those myths.


Since 2005, the SAT has been comprised of three components: Writing, Critical Reading, and Mathematics The full test consists of 3:45 minutes of actual test material (only 3:20 of which is graded) and is broken down as follows:

1) Writing: 3 Sections

* 1 Essay: 25 minutes (always the first section)
* 25 Fixing Sentence questions; 18 Error-Identification questions; 6 Fixing Paragraphs questions
* 1 25-minute section
* 1 15-minute section (always the last section)

2) Critical Reading: 3 Sections

* 2 25-minute sections: 5-8 sentence completions, 19 passage-based questions each
* 1 20-minute section: 6 sentence completions, 13 passage-based questions

3) Mathematical Reasoning

* 2 25-minute sections, 20 questions and 18 questions respectively. The section with 18 questions contains 10 multiple choice and 8 grid-ins
* 1 20-minute section, 16 questions.

4) Experimental Section

In addition, there is one experimental section that is used for research purposes only by the College Board and that is not graded. This section can be Critical Reading, Writing, or Math, and will last 25 minutes. Although you will not be told which section is experimental, it is relatively easy to figure out whether it is Critical Reading, Writing, or Math since there will be extra material covering that subject. It is likely, however, that you will not be able to determine which section contained extra material until you have completed virtually the entire test.

Do not ever assume that a section is experimental simply because you find it more difficult. If you skip questions or do not try as hard and the section is not, in fact, experimental, you could end up losing a significant number of points.

General Content

Contrary to common belief, the skills that the SAT tests are not particularly exotic. In fact, the SAT is primarily a test of fundamental mathematical, reasoning, and grammar and composition skills. Let me reiterate this: the SAT tests only Math and English skills for which no specialized knowledge is required beyond what students can be reasonably expected to have gained from high school Math and English class. Most of the Critical Reading Passages are at a reading level similar to that of the New York Times, and Math only tests through Algebra II.

The SAT tests these skills in such a way, however, that makes it insufficient to study by simply memorizing information -- you must understand not only rules, but also their underlying principles and how to apply them to material that you have never seen before. Beyond simply familiarizing yourself with the test, then, studying for the SAT requires that you solidify these underlying skill-sets.

As I am entirely unqualified to discuss the math section, I will cease to mention it further. As for the rest...

Critical Reading

Sentence Completions

Most test-prep guides assume that the Sentence Completion section is a vocabulary test. While this is mostly true, it is also true that this section exists to test your ability to infer the meanings of words from their context, and to spontaneously use the “clues” given in the sentence to figure out the correct answer, even if you are completely unfamiliar with some of the words given as possible answer choices.

What this means: Of course it is in your best interest to learn as many vocabulary words as possible. Make lists, flashcards, whatever helps you to memorize words. When you read for English class, keep a dictionary nearby and look up every word you don’t already know, even if the meaning seems clear given the context. If you encounter it on the SAT, in a situation where the meaning isn’t quite so clear, you risk losing valuable points. For a list of the top SAT that you are less likely to encounter in everyday life, please refer to the entry entitled "Top SAT Words" (March 2009,

While a good vocabulary will certainly help you, however, it’s not enough on its own. In order to be successful here, you have to be a flexible thinker, capable of applying your grammatical knowledge and sense of logic to sentences designed to confuse you. To outsmart the test, you need to be able to recognize the key phrases included in the sentence in addition to the literal meaning of the words.

Passage-Based Questions

Critical Reading passages come in five lengths and formats:

* Single Short Passage (10-20 lines, 2 questions)
* Single Medium Passage (50-60 lines, 5-7 questions)
* Single Long Passage (65-90 lines, 9-12 questions)
* Short Passage 1/Passage 2 Comparison (5-7 questions)
* Long Passage 1/Passage 2 Comparison (10-12 questions)

Critical Reading passages can also generally be sorted into the following categories:

* Minority/Female Experience
* Science
* Social Science
* Humanities
* Autobiography
* Prose Fiction

And Critical Reading Questions generally fall into the following categories:

* Literal comprehension
* Vocabulary in context
* Main point
* Tone and Style
* Inference
* Underlying Assumption
* Relationships between ideas (Passage 1/Passage 2)

For more information, see the Critical Reading Overview:


The Writing section tests your ability to compose persuasive prose, and to recognize and fix common grammatical errors. It is divided into a twenty-five minute essay and three kinds of multiple choice questions: Error-Identification, Fixing Sentences, and Fixing Paragraphs.

Multiple Choice

The multiple-choice questions Writing questions comprise what is probably the most straightforward section of the test. Even if you have not studied grammar extensively in school, the SAT tests a fixed number of rules that, once mastered, are quite easy to recognize. The principle areas tested are as follows:

* Pronoun Usage
* Sentence Fragments
* Subject-Verb Agreement
* Diction (Correct Word Usage)
* Verb Tense
* Parallel Structure
* Comparisons
* Prepositions
* Comma/Semicolon Usage
* Conjunctions

For the full list including the exact rules tested on each section, please see the posts "Writing, Error-Identification" and "Rules for Fixing Sentences."

For more information about the essay, please see the posting entitled, "Writing the SAT Essay."


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