General Test Pattern for SAT Exam

As we have discussed in the main article, the SAT exam comes in 2 avatars: General Test and Subject Test. Subject-based tests are administered to prove the prowess in a specific area of interest, and weightage accorded to the result is dependent on the target school. General SAT is far more common of the two (our focus in this article) and usually serves as the de-facto standard for undergraduate college admissions.

Effective March 2016, there has been a few changes in the exam pattern of SAT. It remains a test of a candidate’s reading, writing, and mathematical abilities. Individual sections, viz. English and Mathematics, are scored on a scale of 200-800, adding up to a total of 1600. 3 sub-scores are also given for reading, writing, and math on a scale of 10-40. Essays are scored on a scale of 2-8, and closely mimic the essence of academic texts.

The raw scores are scaled to the final scores based on the difficulty of the questions answered and other secret parameters (known as ‘equating’). The test comes in both formats: computerized and paper-based.

The test has three broad sections: Reading/Writing, Mathematics, and an optional Essay. The test is organized as follows:

SectionsComponentTime Allotted (min.)Number of Questions/Tasks
2Writing and Language3544
3Math (No Calculator)2520 (5 Grid-in)
4Math (Calculator)5538 (8 Grid-in)
5Essay (optional)501
 Total180 (230 with Essay)154 (155 with Essay)

The duration of the test is 3 hours and 50 minutes, excluding breaks. 2 breaks are allowed during the exam: one 10-minute long and another 5 minute long. The sequence of the sections can vary, and a candidate cannot jump across sections; a section needs to be completed fully before moving on. Candidates are not penalized for wrong responses.

SAT Syllabus


The reading section has questions related to reading passages, and each passage consists of 10-11 questions. There are 5 of them in total, and the length of the passages vary. The primary purpose of the section is to assess the candidate’s ability to understand and assimilate written text. The candidate is expected to know the meaning of words in context, along with associated variations in implied meanings and impact due to the exact word usage.

Candidates with long-standing reading habit usually perform well in this section, and getting the overall idea of the passage is paramount for scoring high. It is always a good idea to restate the whole idea of the passage in your own language/words, as it makes the elimination process easier. Answer choices can be confusing, and a candidate is expected to know why a particular answer is wrong among the choices given (not-stated assumption, opposite true, too specific/broad assertion etc.) It is generally a good idea to skim the passage once and get into the details only while answering a particular question as it might save some valuable time.


Writing section has 4 passages, with each passage associated with 10-11 questions. A candidate is expected to spot errors, rephrase marked/highlighted sentences with better alternatives etc. Main focal point revolves around the usage and understanding of grammar.

As in reading, smart work is required to ace the section, especially given the fact that the correct answer needs to be marked in less than a minute. It is a good idea to read only the relevant parts of the passage, rather than focusing on getting into the details. Smart eliminating of choices is also a good-to-have skill, and the right answer is usually the most relevant choice within the context. Brushing up on punctuation rules is also a good idea, as some questions can be eliminated purely on the basis of incorrect punctuation use. Understanding of connecting words can also come in handy, especially to delineate and establish relationships between ideas. ‘However’, ‘Therefore’, ‘Afterwards’ etc. have usage which varies and signals different transitions among sentences.


This section is 80 minutes long and has 58 questions. It has a couple of basic sub-sections: a 25-minute section (no calculator) and a 55-minute section (calculator allowed). Here is the link to the calculator policy for SAT, in case you were curious. Math questions involve knowledge of subject areas such as arithmetic, geometry, algebra, statistics and probability. It also involves data interpretation from tables/graphs and problem-solving.

For Mathematics, it is usually a good idea to identify your areas of improvement early on (insufficient grasp of fundamentals, or skewed time management etc). Once you zero-in on a deficiency, it is advisable to devise a laser-focused strategy to strengthen the deficiency.

Practice is of paramount importance, and a log of the mistakes can do wonders for your test score. If you want to score a perfect score (stereotypes of Indian nerdiness at Math notwithstanding), you should have a good grasp of all possible content along with good time-management skills. Moreover, many candidates make careless mistakes which drag down the overall score dramatically.

List of topics for Mathematics:

  • Solving linear equations and linear inequalities
  • Interpreting linear functions
  • Linear inequality and equation word problems
  • Graphing linear equations
  • Linear function word problems
  • Systems of linear inequalities word problems
  • Solving systems of linear equations
  • Solving quadratic equations
  • Interpreting nonlinear expressions
  • Quadratic and exponential word problems
  • Radicals and rational exponents
  • Operations with rational expressions and polynomials
  • Polynomial factors and graphs
  • Nonlinear equation graphs
  • Linear and quadratic systems
  • Structure in expressions
  • Isolating quantities
  • Functions
  • Ratios, rates, and proportions
  • Percents
  • Units
  • Table data
  • Scatterplots
  • Key features of graphs
  • Linear and exponential growth
  • Data inferences
  • Center, spread, and shape of distributions
  • Data collection and conclusions
  • Volume word problems
  • Right Triangle word problems
  • Congruence and similarity
  • Right triangle geometry
  • Angles, arc lengths, and trig functions
  • Circle: Equations and theorems
  • Complex numbers

Essay (Optional)

The time allotted for this task is 50 minutes, and it is meant to assess your understanding of the given data/case and the quality of your writing. 650-700 is the expected length of the essay, and the candidate should take a stance on the issue at hand. However, expounding on personal opinions is not expected and the purview is limited to the given data. Precise language in a logical and consistent manner fetches good marks.