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Articles / Preparing for College / Strategies for the SAT Math Test

Strategies for the SAT Math Test

Kristen O'Toole
Written by Kristen O'Toole | May 24, 2018
Strategies for the SAT Math Test

The Math Test on the SAT is divided into two parts: 20 questions in 25 minutes on which you cannot use a calculator, and 38 questions in 50 minutes on which you may use a calculator. Both sections are comprised mostly of multiple choice questions, plus a few questions for which you will have to produce the response. These are called "Grid-Ins," and there will be 13 of them between both Math sections.

The SAT Math Test covers arithmetic, algebra and a little bit of geometry (six geometry questions, tops). The marketing wizards at the College Board have divided math concepts into four main content areas and named them as follows:

- Heart of Algebra

- Problem Solving and Data Analysis

- Passport to Advanced Math

- Additional Topics in Math

Pace Yourself

In general, questions are arranged from easier to more difficult in both sections. Students often rush through questions they think are easy to spend more time on challenging ones.

Chances are, this strategy has worked for you on a test in math class -- but it only makes sense if those hard questions are worth more points. On the SAT, all correct answers are worth the same amount, so this strategy can set you up to make careless errors on questions you can easily get right and waste time on questions you might have very little chance of answering correctly.

Unless you're aiming for, and have a realistic chance at, scoring 800 on the Math Test, you can skip a few of the really, really hard questions. It's more important that you slow down and focus on correctly answering all the questions that you find easy or moderately challenging.

Out of the Park

You can use the process of elimination on Math Test answer choices by crossing out answers that are way out of the ballpark. At The Princeton Review, we call this strategy “ballparking." For example, if the question asks you to calculate a percentage that is less than 100, you can cross out any answer choice that is greater than the integer provided in the question. If all the numbers in a question are odd, it's highly unlikely that the answer will be an even multiple of ten.

Mark It Up

You paid for that test booklet, so don't be afraid to write in it! Underline key words in the question and label any figures in geometry problems. Trying to do the work in your head can lead to mistakes or falling for almost-right “trick" answers.

Break It Down

Take complicated math problems one step at a time. Write down what you're doing after each step and check to see if you can eliminate any wrong answers before you've finished solving the problem. This is especially helpful on long algebra questions.

Calculate With Caution

You can use a calculator on one of the math sections, but that doesn't mean you have to do so on every problem. This section is intended in part to assess your “appropriate use of tools" and you will see questions on which a calculator may slow you down. Practicing in advance can help you identify when your calculator can help and when it won't. Always set up the problem on paper before using the calculator so you don't lose your place and can check your work later if you have time.

Your calculator will help with:

- Arithmetic

- Decimals

- Fractions

- Square roots

- Percentages

- Graphs (if it's a graphing calculator)

You will need to bring a calculator to your test center. Ideally it will be a scientific or graphing calculator that performs the order of operations correctly, but if you don't already have one, don't worry -- a regular calculator will suit you just fine. You may NOT use the calculator on your phone (which will be turned off and under your seat on test day), or a calculator with a QWERTY keyboard, like the TI-95. If your calculator takes batteries, change them the day before the test and bring extras, just in case you run out of juice.

Written by

Kristen O'Toole

Kristen O'Toole

Kristen O’Toole, director of online content for The Princeton Review, has been writing and editing books and digital materials on test prep and college admissions for 10 years. She has contributed to many annual editions of The Best Colleges, The Complete Book of Colleges and Colleges That Pay You Back. Prior to joining The Princeton Review, she worked in book publishing, taught creative writing for high school students and wrote a young adult thriller. She holds a BA in English from Bates College and an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University.

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