How Long Is the SAT? The Excellent Guide to Test Success

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The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is important for admission to college. It’s also notoriously challenging.

But it’s not just the content that makes the SAT tough. It’s also the fact that the test is 3-4 hours long and can be mentally draining.

  • Plus, you have to answer a lot of questions in that 3-4 hours, and many students have a hard time completing all of them.

In this article, we’ll talk about how long the SAT is, how to pace yourself, and how you can build the stamina you need to power through the test.

How long is each section of the SAT?

You can take the SAT either with or without the optional essay. In most cases, it’s best to sign up for the optional essay, since some schools do require it.

Without the essay, the SAT is three hours and 15 minutes long (including breaks).

With the optional essay, the SAT is four hours and five minutes long (including breaks).

Here’s the breakdown of each section:

  • Reading: 65 minutes, 52 questions
  • Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions
  • Math, No Calculator: 25 minutes, 20 questions
  • Math, Calculator: 55 minutes, 38 questions
  • Essay: 50 minutes, 1 question

Math is the only section that’s divided into two parts. For one portion, no calculators are allowed.

For the second part, you’re permitted to use an approved calculator.

How long are the SAT breaks?

If you sign up to write the essay, you’ll get three breaks. If not, you’ll have two breaks during the exam.

The breaks are:

  • A 10-minute break between the Reading section and the Writing and Language section
  • A five-minute break between the two Math sections
  • A two-minute break after Math, Calculator if you’re staying for the essay

What should I do during my breaks?

The breaks are your chance to catch your breath, rest your mind, and recharge.

None of the breaks are extremely long, but be sure to take advantage of them.

As tempting as it may be, don’t spend your breaks agonizing over any questions or trying to analyze how you’re doing so far.

  • You’re supposed to be taking a break!
  • The length of the test can be grueling, and you need these breaks to help you stay focused and refreshed throughout.

Remember that the breaks get shorter as the test goes on. During the two-minute break before the essay, you won’t be allowed to leave the room.

  • It’s a quick stretch break at your desk.
  • So, be sure to use the restroom during the five-minute break between Math sections.

Aside from using the restroom, you can use your breaks to drink water, eat a snack, and walk around a bit to stretch your legs and rest your mind.

  • Try to bring some brain-boosting snacks like fruits and/or nuts. Avoid sugary snacks that can set you up for a crash.

And remember to follow the rules during breaks: Don’t talk about the test, and don’t try to access any of your devices (e.g. cell phone).

Even though it’s a break, your test may be invalidated if you’re seen breaking the rules.

What time does the SAT start and end?

At all SAT test centers, doors open at 7:45 a.m. and close at 8:00 a.m., unless another time is noted on your admission ticket.

  • Once testing has started, you won’t be allowed in and will have to reschedule or re-register. (Rescheduling is much cheaper.)

Testing will start between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.

  • The test coordinator will read all testing instructions from a manual, answer any questions related to testing procedures, and then tell you when to start and stop working on each section.

There may be slight variations on when the test ends, depending on how long it takes to review instructions and other factors.

  • In general, you can expect to stay until around noon if you aren’t writing the essay and around 1:00 p.m. if you are completing the essay section.

So, the short answer:

  • The SAT starts between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and typically ends around 12:00 p.m. or 1:00 p.m., depending on whether you’re writing the essay.
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How much time should I spend on each SAT question?

You might think you can answer this question by dividing the number of questions per section by the amount of time you’ll have to answer them.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Let’s look at how you should pace yourself on each section of the SAT.

Reading

The Reading section is 65 minutes long and consists of 52 questions. More importantly, it contains five passages (each with associated questions).

  • On average, you should spend 13 minutes per passage.
  • This includes reading the passage and answering the questions that accompany it.
  • If you want a few minutes to review at the end, aim to spend about 12 minutes per passage.

It’s best to dedicate about five of those minutes to reading the passage. Passages are 500-750 words long.

  • Spend much more time, and you risk running out of time on the questions.

Spend fewer than five minutes reading, and you may overlook key information.

Writing and Language

The Writing and Language section is 35 minutes long and consists of 44 questions.

  • These questions are spread out over four passages.

The Writing and Language passages are shorter than the Reading passages (400-450 words).

Try to spend eight minutes per passage, allowing about three minutes for review at the end.

Math, No Calculator

The Math, No Calculator section consists of 15 multiple choice questions and five grid-in questions.

You have 25 minutes to answer these 20 questions.

  • An equal division of time would give you 75 seconds to answer each question.
  • However, it’s important to note that this section is arranged in order of difficulty, with the most challenging questions coming at the end of the section.

For that reason, it’s a good idea to spend 60 seconds on each question when possible, allowing slightly more time for the most difficult questions.

Math, Calculator

The Math, Calculator section is also arranged by order of difficulty, with the most challenging questions appearing at the end of the section.

  • You have 55 minutes to complete this section, and it consists of 30 multiple choice questions and eight grid-in questions.
  • An equal division of time would give you 80 seconds per question, with about four minutes to check over your answers at the end.

When possible, try to spend closer to 65-70 seconds on each question, so that you can devote more time to the more complex questions at the end.

How do I prepare for the length of the SAT?

The content of the SAT is difficult, but one of the most challenging aspects of the exam is the grueling length and the stamina required to complete it.

How can you increase your focus, concentration, and stamina for the four-hour exam?

Well, the process is similar to increasing your stamina for a sport. You’ll have to practice!

  • Take full-length, timed practice SAT tests. Even practice taking breaks. You’ll get used to the structure and format, and you’ll get a feel for how to pace yourself on exam day.
  • Time yourself on individual sections too. This way, you can identify areas of weakness and brush up on the sections where you need the most practice. You can devise strategies to help you speed up (and maintain your accuracy) on the sections that give you the most trouble.
  • Have a plan. Make a plan for what you’ll do if you get stuck on a question or if you start to feel overwhelmed during the test. For example, you might take a few deep breaths. Remember that very few people will answer every question correctly. After more than a minute or so has passed, you’ll need to move on. Once you move on, don’t spend time dwelling on the last question. Focus on one question at a time.

By practicing taking a full-length test, getting your pacing right, and working on strategies to help you stay “in the zone,” you’ll build stamina and the ability to work under pressure.

How long are SAT II exams?

The SAT Subject Tests (SAT II) are all hour-long exams. All questions are multiple choice, but the number of questions varies.

  • For instance, the Literature exam is about 60 questions long, while the World History exam consists of 95 questions.

There are no breaks during an individual SAT Subject Test. However, you can take up to three Subject Tests during one testing session.

If you take multiple tests, you do get a five-minute break between each one.

What can I bring with me to the SAT and SAT II exams?

Whether you’re taking the SAT or an SAT II exam, you should bring:

  • Admission Ticket
  • Photo ID
  • Two No. 2 pencils with erasers
  • Approved calculator (if your test will include mathematics)
  • Water and snacks
  • A watch

If you’re taking an SAT II Language with Listening test, you may also be expected to bring an approved CD player.

Do not bring:

  • Your cell phone
  • Any recording device or personal computing device (e.g. tablet or laptop)
  • Cameras or other photographic equipment
  • A separate timer of any kind

If you absolutely must bring a cell phone (for instance, to contact a parent to pick you up when the test is finished), turn it off and leave it inside a bag, backpack, or purse until your test is complete.

Don’t check it, even during breaks. If it makes a noise during the test, your test could be invalidated.

How should I plan my day for the SAT test?

If you’re like most people, you’ll be feeling nervous the morning of the test. Planning ahead can help you reduce some of your test-day jitters.

The Day Before

Don’t study the day or night before the test. By now, you know what you’re going to know. Let your brain rest.

In addition:

  • Plan in advance for how you’ll get to the testing site. It’s even a good idea to drive to the site to see how long it’ll take you and to familiarize yourself with the route. If you’ll need to leave extra time to find parking or to locate your testing room in the building, plan for that as well.
  • Eat a healthy and filling dinner, like pasta, rice, vegetables, and potatoes. Drink lots of water too.
  • Organize your bag or backpack the day before the test with all the materials you’ll need. Double check that you’ve packed your Admission Ticket, your ID, some pencils, and a calculator if needed.
  • Set out your outfit the night before, giving you one less thing to worry about in the morning. It’s a good idea to bring a sweater in case the testing room is chilly.

The Day of the Test

  • Wake up early and give yourself time for a nutritious breakfast. Good options include eggs, toast, fruit, oatmeal, yogurt, and/or a bagel.
  • Get to the testing center early. Leave yourself time to settle in, instead of feeling like you’re scrambling all morning.
  • While you wait, take deep breaths and remember all the preparation you’ve put in. You’ve got this!
  • Plan to leave the testing center around 12:00 or 1:00, depending on whether you’re writing the essay. Don’t make solid after-test plans any time before 1:00-2:00, however, as some tests may run slightly later.

Advice From a College Expert

From Beth Daniel Lindsay, director of academic advising and accessibility services coordinator at Sweet Briar College:

As with many things in life, practice makes perfect. In this case, I’d change that to practice makes better…very few people score perfectly on the SAT!

Students preparing to take the SAT should take practice tests in realistic settings (i.e. at the same time as the SAT and with breaks at the same times).

The test starts early in the morning, so get used to that. For most students, there are two breaks: one for ten minutes and one for five. Don’t take extra breaks because you won’t be able to do that on test day. The College Board has eight practice tests available for free online.

Focus only on one section at a time, just like you will need to on test day. Students are not allowed to skip ahead if they finish early or to go back to earlier sections to recheck their work.

Put your phone and any other electronic device away, again, just like on test day. This means that ideally, you will need someone to time you, not your phone. Consider asking a parent, guardian or family friend to do this for you and for one or more friends at the same time. Most students take the SAT in a room with other students, so this is another good opportunity to practice.

During the exam, take deep breaths to calm your nerves. If you have a meditation practice, now is a good time to do some very brief meditation. Put aside other concerns and focus on the test.

Remember the hierarchy of needs, too: eat a healthy, filling dinner the night before and a healthy, filling breakfast the morning of the test. Bring snacks like a granola bar or nuts — relatively healthy and easy to pack.

Don’t assume there will be vending machines at the test center. Get plenty of sleep. Drink some water, but not so much that you’ll need extra breaks because they won’t be available. Try not to worry. If you’ve practiced, you’ve done all that you can and worrying excessively isn’t going to help.

When it comes to high-stakes tests like the SAT, I don’t believe in saying good luck. With the right preparation and mindset, you don’t need luck. So, I wish you success!

Conclusion: How Long Is the SAT?

The SAT can feel both too long and too short. It’s difficult to stay focused and high performing for several hours straight, but it can also be a struggle to get to every single question.

It’s helpful to:

  • Familiarize yourself with the length and ideal pacing of each section
  • Take full-length, timed practice tests
  • Time yourself on each individual section as well
  • Develop calming strategies to help you stay focused during the test
  • Plan ahead to make your test day run as smoothly as possible
  • Take full advantage of your breaks on test day

Follow these strategies, and you’ll maximize your ability to answer questions both correctly and efficiently.

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