Digital SAT Math Prep For Dummies
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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 will be on the test (and what won't be) is key so you know what to brush up on.

Also, some basic strategy goes a long way toward helping you get the best score you can. Finally, mapping out a time-management plan to answer (and skip!) the right questions can really boost your score.

Overview of SAT math topics

The math covered on the SAT is very closely tracked to what’s covered in most U.S. high school math classes. So if you’re a current or recent U.S. high school student, you’re probably familiar with most of this curriculum.

The SAT breaks this down into four general areas of study: algebra, problem solving and data analysis, advanced math, and geometry and trigonometry. In this section, I give you an overview of each of these topics.

  • Algebra centers on the linear function and other information covered in a typical high school Algebra I class. To answer SAT math questions in this area, you’ll need to feel comfortable working with the following:
    • Evaluating, simplifying, and factoring algebra expressions
    • Solving algebraic equations and inequalities
    • Working with linear functions in four complementary ways: words, tables, graphs, and equations
    • Solving systems of equations (both linear and non-linear), and identifying when such systems have either no solution or infinitely many solutions
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis focuses on a relatively short list of problem-solving techniques:
    • Working with ratios, proportional equations, and percentages
    • Relying on a basic understanding of statistics and probability
    • Applying these techniques to information presented visually in tables and graphs
  • Advanced Math requires you to understand a core of information covered in high school Algebra II:
    • Working with functions using notation, and knowing how to graph a core of basic functions and their most elementary transformations
    • Understanding how to work with and graph polynomials, especially linear, quadratic, cubic, and quartic polynomials
    • Graphing quadratic functions using standard, vertex, and factored forms
    • Graphing exponential and radical equations
  • Geometry and Trigonometry covers math that focuses on shapes and solids in two and three dimensions:
    • Solving problems using basic geometry and circles on the xy-plane
    • Working in-depth with right triangles, the Pythagorean theorem, and trigonometric ratios such as sine, cosine, and tangent

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 the math skills that you don’t need for the SAT:

  • Doing big number-crunching — large numbers or endless calculations, such as standard deviations
  • Writing geometry proofs
  • The base e
  • Logarithms and the natural log ln
  • The complex plane and the irrational number i
  • Limits, derivatives, and integrals
  • Summations using sigma notation Σ

SAT math strategy Q&A

When it comes to doing well on the SAT, your test-taking strategy is a small but important piece of the puzzle. And this strategy also extends to knowing which questions to answer and which to skip, depending on the score you’re currently striving for.

These questions and answers will fill you in on this essential information.

Isn’t there some way to get a good SAT Math score without actually knowing math?

No. I’d love to tell you otherwise, but no.

If the key to getting a great score were, say, choosing Answer C on every question, the name of this article would be “Answer C Math For Dummies Cheat Sheet” and it would be a lot shorter.

While you fully absorb that difficult truth, I will add that there’s a reasonable amount of strategy you should absolutely know before taking your first SAT. And while you may think that lots of students already know this stuff, plenty of others don’t — yet.

I don’t want you to be one of them. So read on.

Is there a penalty for guessing?

If you have an older brother or sister who took the SAT before 2016, they may remember the old format, which had a penalty for filling in a wrong answer.

So please take note: The SAT in its current form has no penalty for filling in a wrong answer. This goes for all four sections, the Reading and Writing as well as the Math sections.

Obviously, then, you want to make sure that you fill in at least some answer for each multiple-choice question on the two math sections. That’s 33 questions, so by pure chance, you can expect to get about 8 of these questions right just by making wild guesses.

Let’s take that thinking a step further: If you don’t fill in guesses for all the questions you don’t have time to think about, you’ll be competing against a ton of other students who are guessing. So, bottom line, you can’t afford not to guess every multiple-choice question you don’t know the answer to.

What about the fill-in-the-blank questions? Well, because these questions are entirely open ended, you don’t have much chance of answering them correctly with a wild guess. But if you have any idea what the answer might be, go ahead and enter it. Worst case, doing this won’t lose you any points.

Are some questions harder than others?

Generally speaking, SAT Math questions fall into three categories of difficulty: easy, medium, and hard. Both sections of the new SAT are identical in this regard. The table below shows the rough breakdown of questions by difficulty levels.

Easy, Medium, and Hard Questions

Difficulty Level Question Number
Easy 1-7
Medium 8-16
Hard 16-22

Remember that every question counts for one point toward your raw score, which directly affects your scaled score (200–800). So, unlike the tests you take in school, the easiest and hardest questions on the SAT both have the same value.

Do I have to answer every question?

The short answer is, no, you don’t have to answer every SAT math question to get a good score. In fact, depending on your current performance level on practice tests, it may very well be to your benefit not to answer all of the questions.

This piece of strategy definitely goes against a lot of your training as a high school student. After all, in most of your classes, you can’t get an A or even a B on a test without answering just about all of the questions. If you only answer 75 percent and skip the rest, even if you answer perfectly, probably the best you can hope for is a C.

However, the situation with the SAT is entirely different. On the SAT, you can get a 500 math score by answering only about half of the questions on the test correctly. Think about it — a respectable score on the SAT would be a failing grade on a math test at school!

For now — and this goes double if you’re a perfectionist — simply let go of the compulsive need to answer all 44 math questions on the SAT. Until you’re already scoring 740+ on your practice tests, answering all of the questions would be a poor allocation of your time.

If you’re answering all of the questions, you’re probably rushing through questions that are within your reach, getting them wrong, and losing points you should be getting as a result.

When’s the latest I can take the SAT and still get into school?

Most students take the SAT with their class in May or June of their junior year. They may try it out before that, but somehow, it doesn’t feel real until their whole class is doing it, too.

But if that’s the beginning, it doesn’t have to be the end. Usually, December of your senior year is your last shot at the SAT if you want to start college the following fall. Unless you’re applying for early acceptance, most colleges don’t make their final decisions until after the December SAT scores have been posted.

How many SAT math questions should I answer?

The answer to this question depends on your current score, which I break down into three basic scenarios:

Clearing 500

Most schools prefer to enroll students who have an SAT composite score of at least 1,000, which is approximately 500 on both the Reading and Writing and the Math tests.

If your Reading and Writing score is 550 or higher, you may be able to get away with a Math score that’s slightly less than 500. Even so, a good first goal would be to break 500 on the Math test.

To get this score, you need to answer about 22 of the 44 SAT math questions correctly. To this end, refer to the table above and then plan to do the following:

  • Attempt to answer all 14 easy questions correctly.
  • Choose 8 out of 16 medium questions to answer correctly and guess the rest.
  • Guess on the 14 hard questions.

I know it seems weird to guess so many questions. But the SAT is different from the tests you take in school, where you need to get at least 80 percent right to get a decent grade.

Choosing 22 easy and medium questions to focus on gives you almost three minutes per question, which increases your changes of answering more questions correctly. And remember that you have a 25 percent chance of guessing each hard multiple-choice question correctly, which will give you some wiggle room to make a few mistakes along the way with the easier questions.

Believe me, in my experience working with hundreds of students, if you’re simply trying to break 500, you probably need to give yourself more time by answering fewer questions.

Breaking solidly beyond 600

At the next level are students applying for colleges that strongly encourage a composite SAT score of 1,200 or more. That means aiming for at least a 600 score in math, which requires approximately 30 correct answers.

Here’s what I recommend (again, referring to the table for question difficulty):

  • Attempt to answer all 14 easy questions correctly.
  • Attempt to answer all 16 medium questions correctly.
  • Guess on the 14 hard questions.

As when breaking 500, you still have a 25 percent shot at answering each hard multiple-choice question.

Reaching 700 and beyond

If you’re striving to break 1,400 or even 1,500 on your SAT composite score, you know that there’s no easy answer. You’ll want to get a math score of 700 or more, with a little wiggle room if you’re confident of scoring 750 or more on the Reading and Writing test. This means answering about 38 out of 44 math questions correctly.

  • Attempt to answer all 14 easy questions correctly.
  • Attempt to answer all 16 medium questions correctly.
  • Choose 8 of the 14 hard questions to attempt to answer and guess the rest.

OK, we both know that if you’re aiming to break 700, you may not feel comfortable strictly “guessing” 8 hard questions. But please, please, please don’t feel you have to answer every question! With limited time to allocate, almost every student will do better to focus on a subset of the hard questions and get them right rather than waste time on the two or three hardest questions they’ll probably get wrong anyway.

The good news is that you’re obviously a strong student with a well-practiced set of study skills. I recommend getting a private tutor if you don’t already have one (but you already have one, don’t you?.

Take as many practice tests as you can, and then comb through your wrong answers and do your best to figure out where you went wrong. If your math teacher is supportive, bring especially hard SAT problems to them — they’ll almost certainly be willing to help!

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Mark Zegarelli is an instructor and math and test prep tutor in New Jersey. He is the author of Basic Math & Pre-Algebra For Dummies, SAT Math For Dummies, ACT Math For Dummies, Logic For Dummies, and Calculus II For Dummies. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages.

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