How long is the SAT? Understanding the test's structure and duration is vital to getting a good SAT score. We provide a comprehensive guide on how long the SAT is, how its time is distributed across sections, and strategies for optimizing your speed and performance. Remember, achieving a top SAT score isn't just about studying hard; it's also about understanding the test's structure and planning your approach accordingly. And if you’re still wondering whether you should write the SAT or ACT, this article will help you make this decision.

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11 min read

How Long is the SAT? What Content is Covered? How to Work on Speed for the SAT? Strategies for Improving Passage Analysis in SAT Reading Section Strategies for Improving Your Speed in SAT Writing and Language Section Strategies for Improving Your Speed in the SAT Math Section Strategies for Improving Your Speed in the SAT Optional Essay Section How to Prepare for the Test Day? FAQs

How Long is the SAT? What Content is Covered?

While the SAT is slowly releasing its hold on post-secondary institutions (even the easiest Ivy League schools to get into made their admissions test-optional), it is still quite widely used in college admissions in the US. This standardized test claims to measure your literacy, numeracy, and writing skills — all of which are deemed essential for academic success in college.

The total duration of the SAT is 3 hours (180 minutes) for the main sections. However, if you choose to take the optional Essay section, the test lasts 3 hours and 50 minutes.

The main sections of the SAT are Evidence-Based SAT Reading, Writing and Language, and SAT Math, which is further split into sections with and without a calculator. The Essay section, if taken, is the last part of the test.

Want to know how to make your college essay stand out and what do you need to avoid? Watch this video:

SAT Sections

The SAT is composed of various sections, each with its unique set of guidelines, types of questions, and allotted time. Understanding these components is vital as it helps you devise a plan for each section and manage your time effectively during the test. Here, we will explore each section in detail, discussing the number of questions, the academic disciplines each covers, and what each section aims to assess.

Reading Section

The Reading Section of the SAT consists of 52 questions to be answered in 65 minutes. This section aims to test your reading comprehension skills. The questions are based on five passages, which include one literature passage, two science passages, one historical document, and two social science passages. Here's a closer look at what the Reading section comprises:

Academic Disciplines:

  • Literature
  • Social sciences (such as economics, psychology, and sociology)
  • Natural sciences (such as biology, chemistry, and physics)
  • U.S. and World Literature
  • U.S. Founding Documents or a text in the Great Global Conversation

The Reading section is claimed to test your ability to:

  • Understand words and phrases in context
  • Understand the purpose and main idea of a passage
  • Understand relationships between parts of a text
  • Identify the author's argument or claim
  • Interpret data and information presented in different formats, such as tables or graphs

Writing and Language Section

The Writing and Language Section consists of 44 questions, which need to be completed in 35 minutes. All questions in this section are multiple-choice and are based on passages.

Academic Disciplines:

  • Careers
  • Social studies
  • Humanities
  • Science

The Writing and Language section is claimed to test your ability to:

  • Understand grammar rules and conventions in English
  • Understand words in context
  • Analyze and edit passages at the sentence and paragraph level
  • Understand the development, organization, and effective language use in written English

Math Section

The Math Section is divided into two components: one that allows calculator use (38 questions, 55 minutes) and one that doesn’t (20 questions, 25 minutes). The questions in this section are both multiple-choice and grid-in types.

Academic Disciplines:

  • Algebra
  • Problem-solving and Data Analysis
  • Advanced Math
  • Additional Topics (geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers)

The Math section is claimed to test your ability to:

  • Understand mathematical concepts and apply mathematical principles to solve problems
  • Interpret and analyze data to solve problems
  • Understanding the structure of expressions and being able to analyze, manipulate, and rewrite these expressions

Essay (Optional)

The Essay section, though optional, is recommended for students applying to colleges that require an SAT essay score. You have 50 minutes to read a passage and analyze how the author built an argument in the provided text.

This section is claimed to test your ability to:

  • Comprehend a source text
  • Analyze how the author builds a persuasive argument
  • Write a clear and coherent essay that deconstructs an argument

How to Work on Speed for the SAT?

Time management plays a crucial role in achieving a high score on the SAT. With a limited timeframe to answer a vast array of questions, strategic planning is key. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your time during the test:

1. Practice in a Timed Environment

Familiarizing yourself with the SAT's timing structure can significantly reduce stress on the actual test day. Take several practice tests under the same time constraints you'll face during the SAT, in the same kind of environment. This will help you understand the pacing of the test and gauge how long you can spend on each question. By doing this regularly, you'll gradually increase your speed and efficiency.

2. Strategic Ordering

There's no rule stating you must answer the questions in the order they're presented. A strategic approach would be to first tackle the questions you find easy or are confident about, then move on to the more difficult ones. This method ensures you garner as many points as possible within a short time and prevents you from getting stuck on a challenging question early on.

3. Figure Out Your Answer Before Looking at the Multiple-Choice Options

For multiple-choice questions, try to come up with your answer before looking at the provided options. This strategy can prevent you from being swayed by incorrect answers that may appear plausible at first glance. Once you have your answer, you can look at the options and select the one that best matches. This way, you're relying on your knowledge rather than guesswork.

Strategies for Improving Passage Analysis in SAT Reading Section

Mastering the art of passage analysis is essential for performing well in the SAT Reading section. It involves understanding the main points, identifying significant details, interpreting the author's purpose, and making logical inferences. Below are three strategies that could enhance your passage analysis skills:

1. Highlighting

While going through a passage, it is beneficial to highlight or underline key phrases, arguments, or points of view. This strategy helps keep track of the central theme, main characters, or any shifts in tone or perspective throughout the passage. However, avoid over-highlighting. Try to mark only critical details that contribute directly to the main point or theme of the passage. This way, when you need to refer back to the passage for a question, you can quickly identify the relevant information.

2. Contextualizing the Information

When you read a passage, try to understand it within its broader context. This means considering who the author is, the potential audience, the historical or social setting, and the overall purpose of the text. Pay attention to any given information about the source of the passage. All these factors can influence the message, tone, and language of the passage. Moreover, understanding the context can also help you infer the meanings of unfamiliar words or phrases.

3. What Should I Do If I Don’t Understand the Passage?

It's possible that you'll encounter complex or challenging passages on the SAT. When this happens, don't panic or waste too much time trying to understand every detail. Start by identifying the main idea of the passage. If necessary, reread the first and last sentences of each paragraph, as these often contain the core arguments. Break down complex sentences into smaller parts, and try to understand each part. Then, move on to the questions. Many times, the questions will guide you back to the specific details or parts of the passage that are crucial for answering them. Lastly, practice reading a variety of texts, including historical documents, scientific reports, and literary pieces, to familiarize yourself with different writing styles and structures.

Strategies for Improving Your Speed in SAT Writing and Language Section

The SAT Writing and Language section demands a balance between speed and accuracy. It consists of 44 questions that must be answered within 35 minutes, which equates to less than a minute per question. Hence, improving your speed without sacrificing precision is crucial. Below are some strategies to help you boost your pace:

1. Familiarize Yourself with the Question Types

The SAT Writing and Language section primarily tests your understanding of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and argument development. By understanding the types of questions you'll face, you can quickly identify what each question is asking and avoid wasting time trying to figure it out. Practice frequently with sample questions to get the hang of each type.

2. Read Actively and Purposefully

Instead of reading the entire passage first, read the relevant sentence or surrounding sentences for each question. Look for grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, or inconsistencies in the information provided. Reading actively allows you to stay focused and pick up the needed information quickly.

3. Answer Questions in Order

The questions in the SAT Writing and Language section are generally in the order of the passage. Answering questions sequentially can save time since it enables a smooth, logical flow of reading without needing to jump back and forth in the passage.

4. Use the Process of Elimination

Often, it's easier to identify the wrong answers than the correct one. Eliminate options that are clearly incorrect due to grammatical errors, redundancy, inconsistency with the passage, or other discernible reasons. This narrows down your choices and speeds up the decision-making process.

5. Trust Your Initial Judgment

Your first instinct is often correct, especially if you've prepared well. If an answer choice seems right immediately, it probably is. Don't waste time second-guessing yourself unless you have a good reason to do so.

6. Practice under Timed Conditions

Regular practice under timed conditions can significantly improve your speed. It can help you get used to the pace of the test, understand how much time you can afford for each question, and learn to make quicker decisions.

Strategies for Improving Your Speed in the SAT Math Section

The SAT Math section demands precision and speed. You need to answer 58 questions in 80 minutes, which equates to about 1.5 minutes per question. Here are some tips that can help you increase your pace without compromising accuracy:

1. Master Key Math Concepts

The SAT Math section tests specific math concepts, such as algebra, problem-solving and data analysis, geometry, and some trigonometry. Familiarize yourself with these topics. The better your understanding, the faster you will be able to identify and use the correct strategies to solve problems.

2. Know Your Formulas

While the SAT provides some formulas at the start of the Math section, it doesn't include all the formulas you might need. Memorize commonly used formulas that aren't provided so you won't waste time trying to recall them during the test.

3. Understand the Question

SAT Math questions often contain extra information or are worded in ways that make them seem more complex than they are. Take the time to understand what is being asked before jumping into calculations. This can save you from time-consuming mistakes.

4. Develop Mental Math Skills

Practice doing simple calculations in your head to save time. The less you rely on a calculator for basic operations, the faster you can solve problems.

5. Use Your Calculator Wisely

While a calculator is a useful tool, it can also be a time sink if not used strategically. Use your calculator for complex calculations but rely on your mental math skills for simpler ones.

6. Practice Grid-In Questions

The SAT includes "grid-in" questions where you calculate the answer and fill it in on a grid. These questions can be time-consuming because they require manual entry of answers. Practice these types of questions so you can do them more quickly on test day.

7. Skip Difficult Questions

Don't spend too much time on a single difficult question. Instead, skip it and move on to the next question. You can return to it later if you have time.

8. Regular Timed Practice

The more you practice under timed conditions, the better you'll get at managing your time. Use practice tests to gauge your speed and figure out where you need to improve.

Strategies for Improving Your Speed in the SAT Optional Essay Section

Writing the optional essay on the SAT can be a daunting task, especially with the time constraint. You have 50 minutes to read a 650-750 word passage, analyze the author's argument, and write an essay. Here are some strategies to help you improve your speed:

1. Understand the Task

You're not being asked to agree or disagree with the author's argument, but to analyze how they build their argument. Understanding this can save you time as you won't spend time crafting your own argument.

2. Read Actively

As you read the passage, underline or mentally note persuasive elements such as evidence, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive devices used by the author. This will save you time when you start writing your analysis.

3. Plan Your Essay

Spend some time planning your essay before you start writing. Identify your thesis statement and the examples you'll use to support it. A clear plan will make your writing more efficient.

4. Practice Writing by Hand

If you're not used to writing by hand, it can slow you down on test day. Practice writing essays by hand to improve your speed and ensure your hand doesn't get too tired during the actual test.

5. Be Concise

Avoid unnecessary verbosity. Being concise in your writing will help you cover more points in less time.

6. Practice Under Timed Conditions

Like with every other section of the SAT, practice makes perfect. Regularly practice writing SAT-style essays under timed conditions. Over time, this will help you get a sense of how much you can write within the allocated time and improve your writing speed.

7. Proofread, if Time Allows

If you have time, quickly read through your essay to correct any obvious mistakes. But don't spend too much time on this. It's better to have a fully developed, slightly flawed essay than an incomplete but flawless one.

How to Prepare for the Test Day?

Preparing for the SAT involves more than just studying the content; it also requires logistical and mental preparation. Here are some key tips:

  • Plan Your Test Day: Know the location of your test center, its distance from your home, and the time it takes to reach there. This planning can help prevent last-minute stress.
  • Get a Good Night's Sleep: It's essential to be well-rested for the test. A good night's sleep can significantly enhance your performance.
  • Pack Essential Items: Pack all necessary items, such as your admission ticket, photo ID, pencils, erasers, calculator, snacks, and a watch (without an audible alarm), the night before the test to avoid rushing on the morning of the test.
  • Stay Calm and Confident: Maintaining a positive mindset is critical. Even if you encounter challenging questions, stay calm, use your strategies, and do your best.

Knowing what to expect on the day of your SAT test can significantly reduce stress and enable you to perform at your best. In addition to the academic preparations, familiarize yourself with the procedures and regulations that will be enforced on test day.

Test Center Closings

Stay updated on any test center closings leading up to your test day. Check the center's website on the morning of your test to ensure it hasn't closed or relocated.

Arrival and Entry

Test centers open their doors at 7:45 a.m. Arrival after 8 a.m. will result in denial of entry. If you're late or absent, consider rescheduling instead of re-registering as it is often cheaper. Ensure you arrive prepared with all necessary items.

Testing Process

Testing begins between 8:30 and 9 a.m. The proctor will assign seats and read instructions from a manual. They can only answer procedural questions, not those about test content. Work within the time constraints for each section, without skipping ahead or returning to previous sections. Once the test is complete, wait for the proctor to collect and account for all test materials before you are dismissed. Remember, your test experience may differ from those around you due to variations in test book sections.


Usually, there are two breaks during the test: one for 10 minutes and another for 5 minutes. These are the only times you can consume food and drinks. Keep your ID and admission ticket with you at all times. All test materials must remain on your desk during breaks, and you cannot use break times to use electronic devices, as doing so could result in score cancellation.


Testing typically concludes around noon.

Electronic Devices

It's essential to respect rules around mobile phones and other electronic devices. Violation of these policies may result in immediate dismissal, score cancellation, or both.

Remember the following:

  • Test administrators may collect and hold prohibited devices during the test, including during breaks.
  • If your device makes noise, or if you are seen using it or attempting to access it at any time, you risk immediate dismissal, score cancellation, and the possible confiscation of your device.
  • The College Board is not liable for loss or damage to personal items, including electronic devices, at the test center.


1. How long does the SAT test last?

The SAT test lasts a total of 3 hours without the essay and 3 hours 50 minutes with the essay, including breaks.

2. How is the time divided for each SAT section?

The time allotted for each SAT section is 65 minutes for Reading, 35 minutes for Writing and Language, 25 minutes and 55 minutes for Math (with two separate sections), and 50 minutes for the optional Essay.

3. How can I improve my speed during the SAT?

Improving your speed during the SAT involves knowing the format of the test, practicing time management strategies, identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and completing practice questions under timed conditions.

4. How should I prepare for SAT test day?

Preparing for SAT test day involves familiarizing yourself with the format and timing of the SAT, practicing with sample tests, getting a good night's sleep, eating a healthy breakfast, and ensuring you arrive at the testing center with plenty of time to spare.

5. Can I take breaks during the SAT?

Yes, scheduled breaks are built into the SAT. There is one 10-minute and one 5-minute break during the test.

6. What happens if I don't finish a section in the given time?

If you don't finish a section in the given time, you will have to move on to the next one. Unanswered questions can negatively impact your score, so it's crucial to manage your time effectively.

7. Can I use a watch to track time during the SAT?

Yes, you are allowed to bring a watch to the test center. However, the watch cannot have a separate timing device, cannot make noise, and cannot be a smartwatch.

8. What strategies can I use to manage time effectively during the SAT?

Effective time management strategies include: understanding the test format, prioritizing questions, practicing pacing, using the process of elimination, and not spending too much time on a single question.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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