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The Comprehensive SAT Breakdown

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

So, you’re preparing for the SAT, and you’d like to prepare. But… what do you actually prepare? What shows up on the SAT? How frequently do those topics appear? Do they always show up that often? Jumping into the deep end is intimidating.

Well, if you’re in the mood for specifics, we’ve got them! Based on every single 2021 SAT, we’ve got the data on how frequently every single question type shows up-and we’ve conveniently bundled them into packets that share core skills, so you can get a sense of how many total points they might be worth. Buckle in for the long haul, or jump right to the part you’re most interested in right away!


Reading Section

The first section you’ll face is the Reading section. It’s comprised of five passages, 52 questions, and a 65-minute time limit. All told, the Reading section makes up 400 points of your final score. Two of the passages will include charts and graphs, and a third will be made of a set of paired passages. The first passage will almost always be prose fiction, and the subsequent passages will be some combination of science and sociology (historical or political) passages-make sure you’re prepared to dive into some specific jargon! About half of the time, one of the sociology passages will be pre-1900s. These are often some of the most challenging passages to make it through, due to how differently they use language compared to the current vernacular. There are two main categories for the Reading section questions. Fact-Finding questions take up about two thirds of the test, and the remaining third is made up of Analysis questions.

Fact-Finding Questions (~67% of the Reading section) All of the fact-finding questions test the most straightforward aspect of your Reading ability; the capacity to read the passage accurately and derive specific information from it. Among these, the most frequent question type is Citing Evidence, which shows up an average of 9.6 times per test: it’s a full 18% of the Reading section.

Citing Evidence questions require you to go back into the passage and find some evidence for a claim. This is the most frequent question type in the entire test, and doesn’t show up at all on the ACT-if you’re good at it, that might be a sign that the SAT is for you! Citing Evidence questions give you a huge amount of specific information, so elimination strategies tend to be very powerful.

Occasionally, Citing Information questions stand on their own. However, most frequently, you’re backing up a claim made in a previous Explicit or Implicit Information question, which show up 5.8 and 6.6 times per test, respectively. Together, they make up about 23% of the Reading section.

Both of these questions are straightforward fact-finding questions-but they differ in their specifics:

-Explicit Information questions are stated as if they were an objective fact. The answer to them is written right out in the passage.

-Implicit Information questions are asked with gentler language, like “implied,” “suggested,” or “infer.” The answer to them is strongly implied in the passage, but it isn’t said outright.

Elimination strategies are ineffective for both of these question types: it’s easier to just find the relevant portion of the passage at hand and just find the right answer. Don’t overthink Implicit Information questions-it’s tempting to double-guess yourself, but they usually aren’t trying to trick you!

Words in Context questions are similarly common, although their frequency fluctuates quite a bit more. They show up about 7 times per test.

While this question type seems like a vocabulary question at first glance, they’re actually much more dependent on your ability to interpret the author’s intent. The crux of the question is that it doesn’t actually matter what the word means in a vacuum-rather, the question is asking you “Which of these questions, if they replaced the word in question, would mean the same thing?” Even if your vocabulary is a weak spot, steady practice and elimination strategies can increase your accuracy on this question type dramatically.

Quantitative Information questions are one of the least frequent fact-finding question… but they’re still more than 10% of the Reading section! This question type shows up about 5.4 times per test, but on most SATs, you should expect to see exactly 6.

Quantitative information questions rely on your ability to accurately interpret charts and graphs that accompany Science or Sociology passages. If you’re especially skilled at this question type and flourish in tight timing, you should consider taking the ACT: the Science section on that test is a full quarter of your final score, and is very similar to these questions. Make sure you’re not assuming anything when you try out these questions; it’s easy to read something into the data that it’s not actually saying!

Analysis Questions (~33% of the Reading section)

Analysis questions test your ability to go above and beyond basic fact-finding. You’ll often be called to understand the author’s intent and understand abstract connections. It’s vital to note that these questions have high variance in frequency; on one test, a question type might be very infrequent, but it might be much more common on the next. Even though these question types have low average frequency, make sure you’re prepared for all of them, since at least one of them will likely be much more common than it looks!

Among the most consistent and common of these question types are Analyzing Purpose questions, which show up 5.4 times per test.

These questions ask you to understand why the author makes specific word choices, what they hope to achieve with certain phrases, and what rhetorical devices they’re applying in a given situation. If you’re skilled at understanding the structure of a text, you’re likely to excel at this question type; a trait they share with Text Structure questions, which show up 2.4 times per test.

Text Structure questions are very similar to Analyzing Purpose questions-the largest distinction between them is one of scale. While Analyzing Purpose questions care about what the author is achieving with a specific paragraph, Text Structure cares more about how entire paragraphs function within the passage as a whole. Occasionally, you’ll also have to make judgements about how the entire passage was constructed!

Those macroscopic decisions have a lot in common with Central Idea questions, which are surprisingly infrequent-they only show up 3.2 times per test.

These are your archetypical main idea questions! If you’re able to annotate quickly and concisely, these questions will give you no trouble; the skills required to annotate well are exactly the skills at play here. These questions can ask you about either the main idea of the entire passage or just a given paragraph.

Multiple Text questions are particularly easy to identify-they always show up in the Paired Passages section! They show up an average of 3 times per test, and almost always show up exactly that number of times.

Multiple Text questions require you to effectively understand the main ideas and perspectives of both passages in order to understand how their authors’ opinions would compare and contrast. If you’re finding yourself getting lost in this question type, practice annotation; it trains you to develop your understanding of main ideas much more effectively than simply reading through passages.

These questions occasionally have some small overlap with Reasoning questions, an uncommon question type that shows up about 1.8 times per test.

Reasoning questions are similar to the ACT’s Science section; they ask you to look at the information provided in the passage and use your basis of scientific knowledge to analyze the technical language contained therein. If you feel stuck, elimination strategies tend to be effective in these question types: you might be able to gain information from the answer choices about what you should be thinking about.

The final variety of question in the Reading section is the Relationship question type. These questions are uncommon, showing up only 1.8 times per test, and are largely contained in the Prose Fiction passages.

Since Relationship questions are confined in the Prose Fiction passages, your ability to understand more artistic writing styles is on full display. The question type is straightforward: it’s all about identifying the relationships between characters. In more straightforward passages, this usually isn’t a huge issue, but when faced with a pre-1900s passage or a more abstract author, it can become a real challenge.

Reading Breakdown

Writing Section

Writing Breakdown

Math Section

Math Breakdown


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