The Ins and Outs of SAT Mathematics

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

The redesigned SAT Mathematics questions are in two sections: one which allows a calculator and has 37 questions, and one which doesn’t allow a calculator and has 20 questions. Question 37 of the calculator section is a longer, trickier question and worth 4 points, for a total raw score value of 60 points for the math. You’ll do fine — excellent even — if you keep these points in mind:

  • Whether you’re in the calculator section or no-calculator section, the actual number-crunching task is simple. The questions are based on logic, so if you find yourself working a lot of math, stop what you’re doing and take another look. There is always a trick or a pattern that allows you to cut through the hassle and quickly find the answer. If you don’t see it, circle the question number and come back to it later.

  • Don’t ever get stuck on a question. This is a tendency that students carry over from working the question at home, with unlimited time and the determination to master the topic. At home, it’s okay. On the SAT, it’s a fatal mistake. On the exam, you get slightly over a minute per question (75 seconds to be exact, assuming the 4-point question takes longer). This means that if you spend five minutes on a question, you’re likely not to reach the five questions at the end. And those questions might be easy for you! Instead, take a guess, circle the sticky question in the test booklet, and come back to it at the end.

  • Unglue yourself from the calculator. You need to do this anyway for one of the math sections, but on the other section, don’t use the calculator for simple math. Not only is it easy to make a simple mistake, but also you don’t get a sense of the logic behind how the question works. The questions are based on logic, not math, and the calculator gets in the way of you finding the trick or pattern that helps you easily solve the problem.

  • Skim the page for the easiest question to work on. No one says you have to work the questions in order. With the test booklet open in front of you, you’re looking at either one or two full pages of math problems. Bounce around! Does the triangle question look easy? Work it first! Then cross off the question number in the exam booklet. Does the exponent question make sense? Work it next! Then cross off that question number, too. Does the square root question look like a challenge? Circle it and guess an answer. When all the question numbers are crossed off or circled, go on to the next page. When you reach the end of the section, go back and work all of the circled questions. You know enough to check the question number on the answer sheet, so bubbling in the wrong answer isn’t an issue (even though this can happen even when you work the questions in order).

  • Practice working under pressure. Time yourself and see if you can answer two pages (about eight questions) correctly in ten minutes. This way, on the day of the exam, the pressure isn’t such a new thing. Practice working the tricks to get through the questions. Make it a habit to circle a hard question instead of forcing yourself through it. Also, try out the strategies that you’re going to use on test day, including the bounce-around strategy discussed in the previous point. Make sure it works for you, and see if you can come up with your own twist on it to make it work better.

SAT math is designed to intimidate you, but there’s nothing in the exam that isn’t covered in basic high-school math.