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SAT Math Tips: How To Study for and Pass the Test

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SAT math tips: a stack of books, school supplies, and a blackboard covered in math problems

One of the final hurdles standing between high school and your college education is standardized tests. While these tests can be overwhelming, you can conquer them with the right tools and strategies. If you’re getting geared up to take the SAT Math test, you may have questions on what you can do to practice effectively and perform well come test day.

Here, we’ve put together a handy guide of SAT Math tips and strategies you can use as part of your test prep. We’ll show you how you can manage your time, minimize mistakes, and tackle those pesky word problems. First, we’ll go over the format of the SAT Math test and what you should expect on exam day.

What To Expect on the SAT Math Test

SAT math tips: A student working on math homework

The SAT Math test is a comprehensive examination that tests your ability to perform math in a variety of content areas including trigonometry and algebra. It’s a key component of college applications, and getting a good SAT score can help you get into your dream college. While an important standardized test like the SAT can seem daunting, knowing what to expect can make things a little less intimidating.

The new SAT Math examination is made up of 58 questions, 20 of which you must solve without a calculator. You can use a calculator for the other 30 questions which are a combination of grid-ins and multiple-choice questions. Grid-in questions feature an answer box that has four boxes and answer bubbles below. For these, you’ll have to come up with an answer, write the answer correctly in the boxes, and fill out the bubbles. You can see an example of grid-in questions here. You'll have a total of 80 minutes to complete the test — 25 minutes for the no calculator section and 55 minutes for the calculator section.

The SAT Math test focuses on three subject areas including Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, and Problem Solving and Data Analysis. In the Heart of Algebra section — which also makes up the largest portion of test questions — you’ll be tested on your knowledge of math concepts, including linear equations, absolute value, graphing, and linear inequalities.

The Passport to Advanced Math section consists of 16 questions that examine your ability to model data and manipulate equations. The Problem Solving and Data Analysis portion of the exam tests your ability to understand mathematical models and basic concepts like ratios, percentages, and real-world applications of math topics.

Now that you know what’s on the test, we’ll give you a few SAT math tips you can use to prepare for the test.

The Top SAT Math Tips To Help You Study

SAT math tips: A student and tutor review math homework with a calculator

The key to getting a great score on the SAT Math test is to study, study, study. With so much information to learn and process, you may feel a little lost on where to start or how to prepare. Here, we’ve put together some of our best SAT math tips to guide your study program.

Take a Practice Test

A practice test like the PSAT can help you get a feel for what taking the test will actually be like. Use a timer to time yourself on each section and don’t work over the allotted amount of time. Give yourself around a minute to a minute and a half for each question. During the practice test, mark any questions you had trouble with so you can review them later.

Once you finish the test, go back through it using the answer sheet and identify any problems you got wrong. Go over the explanations or look through your math book and notes to find out how to solve the problem correctly. Work out any problems you got wrong to make sure you understand the correct methods for finding the solution.

Try to highlight which types of questions you are missing or struggling with and focus your study sessions on those topics. By identifying where you need to improve, you can focus your studying where you need it most instead of using valuable time working on the things you already know well.

Get a Tutor

Hiring a tutor is a great way to get extra help on math topics and problems that you struggle with. The best part about working with a math tutor is that you’ll work one-on-one with a tutor so you can focus on the subjects and concepts that you need the most practice with. That’s different from a typical classroom setting where you also have to go over topics other people have a hard time with but you have already mastered.

An SAT tutor can also show you strategies and techniques to work out problems. There are often multiple ways to get to the correct answer, and a tutor can show you different methods so you can pick the one that makes the most sense to you. You can also find tutors to help with the SAT II subject tests including mathematics level one and mathematics level two.

Memorize Basic Math Facts and Formulas

To be successful when it comes to the SAT Math test, you’ll need to be able to use basic math formulas and understand the fundamentals. Things like multiplication, division, and order of operations are all fundamental skills you’ll need to understand well. There is a no-calculator section of the test so work on memorizing formulas. Here are some common formulas that you'll need to solve questions on the SAT Math test:

  • Linear equations
  • Area and circumference of different shapes
  • Volume for different shapes
  • The Pythagorean Theorem
  • Properties of special triangles
  • Quadratic equations
  • Exponential functions

Strategize

Oftentimes, students find themselves stuck on SAT math problems that they know how to solve, but they just can’t remember the formula or a step in the process. This is where SAT math strategies come in handy. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, you can use the backsolving strategy to find the right answer, particularly on multiple-choice sections where you can use the answer choices to work out the problem.

Backsolving involves taking an educated guess on the right answer, plugging in those numbers, and working the problem backward. You may need to go through a few numbers before you can work out the problem correctly. While these SAT strategies are effective, they also take time so only use them when you’re really stuck on a math problem.

Another useful strategy is known as picking numbers. It’s a useful tool not just for the SAT Math test, but also for the GRE and ACT. This strategy involves replacing unknown elements in equations with numbers.

Pick numbers that are simple, but not overly simple (for instance, don't pick the numbers one or zero). The idea is that by picking numbers and solving the equation, you should be able to eliminate all answers except for the right one. You may need to pick a few numbers before you get to the right answer, so again only use this strategy if you’re really stuck.

You can also use the process of elimination to get rid of answers that definitely aren’t right. Most of the time, you’ll be able to narrow down the multiple-choice questions to two possibilities. From here, you can make an educated guess or use backsolving to see which answer fits the equation.

Minimize Mistakes

It’s easy to get stressed out when taking important tests like the SAT. Stress can cause you to make silly mistakes or mix up formulas. Take your time and read through each prompt carefully. Try not to worry too much about the time. Instead, focus on the math problem, working quickly but carefully. If you have time left at the end of the test, you can go back and review any questions you had trouble with or go over your work and check for mistakes.

Tackle Word Problems

Word problems are particularly overwhelming. All the words blend together and by the end of the prompt, it can be hard to see what you’re expected to solve.

Replace words in the question with math terms whenever possible. For example, if the question includes words like equals, sum, or multiplied, replace those words with the symbols =, +, and ×. This can help you cut through the noise of the question and focus on what you’re trying to solve. You can also underline important parts of the question to hone in on what answer the examiners are looking for.

Know What You’re Allowed To Bring

Some sections of the SAT Math test allow you to use a calculator. However, only certain types of calculators are allowed. Check the College Board SAT website before your test day to make sure the calculator you want to use is approved for the test.

Take SAT practice tests and study using the calculator you will use on the test. While it’s tempting to just borrow a friend’s calculator, it may have different features or work differently than the one you’re used to. By using the exact calculator you will bring to the test, you can minimize tech complications that can slow you down.

Manage Your Time Wisely

Ask your friends what they’re most worried about on the SAT Math test, and they’ll tell you it's the time restrictions. Time management during the test is critical if you want to get a good SAT Math score. Don’t get hung up on one question for too long. If you find that you’ve spent more than a minute or two on a problem, skip it. Make a note so you can go back at the end if you have time to work out the problem.

Pay Close Attention to the Instructions

The SAT Math test and other standardized tests are famous for tricky answer options. The question may ask you to complete a two-part solution, but the multiple-choice answers will include an answer option from the first step in the equation. If you don’t read the question carefully, you may think you have the right answer but will get it wrong since you didn’t provide the information they were looking for.

For example, if a question asks you what the value of 4x is given that x is 2 more than 4, the multiple-choice answers may include the number 6. While 6 is the value of x, the question was asking what the value of 4x is. If you chose 6 as the answer, you’d be wrong since the value of 4x is actually 24.

As you can see, reading the instructions closely is vital. Work carefully to ensure you’re solving for the right variable. If you have time at the end of the test, go back and review your answers to make sure they match what the math question is asking.

Practice Makes Perfect: Plus, Other Test Tips

A math teacher talking in front of a high school class

These SAT prep tips and strategies can help you get a better score. Remember, the single most important thing you can do to prepare for the test is practice regularly. Solve practice questions and review topics that you tend to have a hard time with. Work with a subject matter or test prep tutor to fine-tune your knowledge and get learning advice for topics you need to practice. On test day, manage your time and use strategies to work out tricky problems.

Looking for more help on college-readiness tests? We’ve got you covered with our guides to mastering the SAT Test from the SAT essay to the SAT reading and SAT writing sections. You’ll also find tips on the best ACT prep books and preparation guides to help you get the perfect SAT score.

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