Effective Strategies for the SAT Math Test

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

When you take on the SAT Math section, you can use general math strategies to help you get off on the right foot. Try these on for size:

  • Read the question and figure out what the SAT-makers want to know. Circle significant words, such as greater than, percentage, and so forth.
  • Use the test booklet as scrap paper. Write your calculations in the extra blank space, but take time to bubble in your answers. Even though the proctor collects the test booklet, the information in it doesn’t count toward your score.
  • Don’t overuse the calculator. Trust your ability to do simple math, like

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Also, see if a simple math approach to a complicated-appearing problem gets you to the right answer.

  • Keep an eye on the clock. You get as many points for each correct answer to an easy question as you do for a correct answer to a hard question. Don’t spend five minutes on one hard question and miss out on 11 easy questions because you run out of time.
  • Try out the multiple-choice answers and see which one works. With only four options, this can be fast. If the SAT-writers ask something like “Which number is divisible by both 13 and 14?” start plugging in the answers until one of them works. SAT multiple-choice answers are usually in order from smallest to largest. When you plug in, start with Choice (C), and check whether you end up above or below the target. Then try Choice (B) or (D), depending on the direction you need to go.
  • Think of realistic answers. The SAT Math section isn’t tied tightly to the real world, but it’s not from Mars, either. If you’re looking for a person’s weight, for example, don’t go with “5,098 pounds” unless you have a truck on the scale. Think about the range of human body sizes and concentrate on answers in that category. Similarly, if you’re looking for a discount and come up with a negative sale price, try again.
  • Don’t assume that the provided diagram will solve the problem. SAT figures aren’t created purposely to deceive you, but they may not be drawn to scale. They’re usually close enough to be useful, but if the notes say, “Not drawn to scale,” then they’re way off.
  • Use your own drawings to illustrate problems to help visualize them. For example, the classic “Evelyn was traveling east at 60 miles an hour and Robert was moving toward her at 30 miles an hour” sort of problem cries out for arrows and lines like the ones shown here.
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A diagram like this one may help you solve SAT math problems.
  • Plug in numbers for x. If the question says that x is even, don’t use x in the question; try an even number, like 2 or 4. Note: Plugging in 1 or 0 is a bad idea, because those numbers have unique properties.
  • Pay attention to what the question is asking. The question may ask for the value of 2x or x + y . A trap answer, of course, has the value of x, but you know better than to go for that answer.