How the New SAT Math Section Works

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

The topics in the new SAT Mathematics section are remarkably similar to the old SAT math section, with brain-teaser questions on number properties, exponents, solving for x, coordinate geometry, three-dimensional shapes, and word problems. The new SAT Math section brings trigonometry to the table but only in a limited form.

The arrangement of the new SAT Math section is different from the organization of the old SAT math. Rather than force-feeding you three math sections that are pretty much the same, the new SAT force-feeds you two math sections that are different.

  • Calculator section: You work 37 questions in 55 minutes, and, yes, you get to use your calculator.

    • Thirty of these questions have multiple-choice answers, but unlike the old SAT with five answers to choose from, the new SAT has four answers to choose from. See? It’s already easier. These questions are worth one point each.

    • Six of these questions have grid-in answers, where you find a numeric answer and then bubble in the actual numbers in a grid. The old SAT had this type of grid-in, too. These questions are also worth one point each.

    • One math question is an Extended Thinking question, which is just like the other math questions only with a few more layers of complication. This question also has a grid-in answer, but unlike the other questions, this one is worth four points.

  • No-calculator section: You work 20 questions in 25 minutes, and, you guessed it, you can’t use a calculator. These questions are more concept-based than arithmetic-based but are no less challenging.

    • Fifteen of these questions have multiple-choice answers, with four answers to choose from, and are worth one point each.

    • Five of these questions have grid-in answers and are also worth one point each.

Unlike the old SAT, the new SAT doesn’t take away points for a wrong multiple-choice answer. (This is called a “penalty for guessing.”) If you have no idea how to answer a question, flip a mental coin and bubble in an answer. However, if you’re prepared for the test, this won’t really happen.

Spread across these two math sections are four primary categories of math questions.

  • Algebra: The SAT calls this category “Heart of Algebra.” These questions ask you to analyze and solve equations, create expressions to represent quantity relationships, and rearrange and interpret formulas.

  • Problem solving and data analysis: These questions examine whether you can analyze relationships by using ratios and proportions as well as interpret and summarize graphs.

  • Geometry: The SAT calls this category “Additional Topics in Math,” but the description reads like basic geometry: lines and angles, flat shapes, three-dimensional shapes, and trigonometry.

  • Advanced math: The SAT calls this “Passport to Advanced Math.” Questions here ask you to solve quadratic equations and rewrite expressions based on the math structure. It’s also a useful bucket for questions that don’t fall into the other three categories.