SAT Math For Dummies
Although there's no shortcut to success on the math sections of the SAT, you can study and prepare in order to get the best SAT score you possibly can. Knowing what'll be on the test (and what won't be) is key so you know what to brush up on. You also need to be deft at using your calculator and be able to budget your time well.
Topics Covered in the Math Sections of the SAT
You have a much better chance of getting a good SAT math score if you know what to expect. Focusing your study time on what will be included in the math sections of the SAT (without wasting your time with things that definitely won't) is key to your success.
The SAT covers math up to and including the first semester of Algebra II. Here's how the College Board — the team of exalted creators of the SAT — describes the breakdown of the test:
Numbers and operations (20–25%)
Algebra and functions (35–40%)
Geometry and measurement (25–30%)
Data analysis, statistics, and probability (10–15%)
Almost as important as knowing which math topics are covered on the SAT is knowing the topics you can safely avoid. Here's a list of math skills that you don't need for the SAT:
Doing big number-crunching — large numbers or endless calculations
Writing geometry proofs
Using the quadratic formula (you can solve any quadratic equation on the SAT by factoring or plugging in numbers)
Working with imaginary numbers, the square roots of negative numbers
Doing trigonometry or calculus
Managing Time on the SAT Math Sections
Students often ask how to budget their time on the SAT. You have only a certain amount of time to complete any one SAT math section, and you need to make the best use of that time to optimize your score. Here are a few tips for pacing yourself:
Don't sacrifice accuracy for speed. This rule is all-important. Although speed is important, don't rush so fast that you start making mistakes that cost you points.
Be aware of the time. Remember that the three math sections of the SAT are timed as follows:
25 minutes for 20 multiple-choice questions
25 minutes for 18 questions: 8 multiple-choice questions and 10 grid-in questions (also called student-produced response questions), which require you to write your answers in a special grid
20 minutes for 16 multiple-choice questions
That works out to a little more than a minute to do each question.
Push yourself to work faster at the beginning to save time for the end. In each section, earlier questions tend to be easier and later questions tend to be tougher, so get a sense of flow going early in the test. Work through the early questions as quickly as you can. All questions are worth the same number of points, so make sure you get the early questions correct.
Here's an idea for pacing yourself while taking practice tests: See whether you can complete six early questions in four minutes. If four minutes seems impossible, set a goal of five minutes. And if four minutes starts to get easy — that is, if you get all six questions right in four minutes without trouble — see whether you can push it to three minutes without sacrificing accuracy. Every second you save on the easier questions early in a section may help you answer one of the tougher questions later on.
Skip over questions that don't make sense to you. Even though early questions tend to be easier, if you find an early question to be confusing or difficult, skip to the next question.
When the going gets tough, circle back to answer the questions you skipped. If you're skipping over more questions than you're answering, circle back to work on the early questions you skipped. You may find they're not as bad as you thought, and they're probably easier than the questions that await at the end of the section.
Using Calculators on the SAT
When taking the SAT, you're allowed to use a calculator. Calculators can save a lot of time on the SAT if you save them for when you can't quickly and easily do a calculation in your head. The more complicated a single calculation is, the more likely you are to enter it incorrectly, so if possible, break down complicated calculations into several steps before keying them in.
Make sure you know how to use your calculator to do the following (check out your calculator's manual or reference card if you're having trouble):
Perform basic numerical operations. Make sure you feel very comfortable doing basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division on your specific calculator.
Work with decimals. Locate the decimal point key and make sure you know how to use it.
Make numbers negative. On many calculators, the key for negating a number is distinct from the key for subtraction.
Find a square root. Locate the square root key and make sure you can find square roots.
Square a number. Your calculator probably has a key that looks something like x2, used for squaring a number.
Raise a number to the power of another number. Your calculator may have a key that looks something like ^ or xy, which allows you to raise a number to the power of another number.
Following are a few other skills that are likely to come in handy:
Fractions: Some calculators allow you to perform operations on fractions and specify that the answer be provided as a fraction. This feature can be useful when a multiple-choice question provides fractional answers.
Parentheses: Knowing how to group numbers using parentheses allows you to tell the calculator which operations to do first.
Higher-order roots (radicals): Some calculators have a key that allows you to find higher-order radicals such as cube roots, fourth roots, and so on. But many calculators require you to calculate higher-order roots as powers of a fraction. Find out how to do this so you can repeat it on the test if needed.
Solving equations: The equations that you need to solve on the SAT aren't designed to be too complex, but if your calculator allows you to solve an equation for a variable, you may find this feature useful.
Graphing functions: In some cases, you may find graphing a function helpful for answering a question. For example, graphing may save time solving a quadratic equation: Just graph the function and zoom in on the zeros to find x.
Using input-output tables: Graphing calculators usually have a feature allowing you to make an input-output table for a function. This feature may come in handy on the SAT, so check it out.