SAT Math: What You Need to Know

Your SAT math score is composed of two sections: a 25-minute no-calculator section with 20 questions and a 55-minute section with 38 questions that allows the use of approved calculators. Together, these two sections make up half of your overall SAT score. While SAT math certainly presents a few hurdles, in both content and structure, it may well be the portion of the test on which you can raise your score most quickly.

As it turns out, knowing math from your high school classes is necessary but not sufficient for succeeding on this section. Many students encountering the SAT math section for the first time are surprised to discover that it is as much a test of reading and of managing processes as it is of actual math content. Ultimately, you’ll raise your score by knowing the test well, setting priorities, and using a few efficiency tricks.

SAT Math vs. ACT Math

Before diving into how to improve your score, it may be worth your time to check out the ACT to see which test is a better fit for you. Many students find that SAT math questions seem like riddles compared to more straightforward math questions on the ACT. Furthermore, while your SAT score will be 50% math, ACT math accounts for only 25% of your composite score on that exam. The ACT math also allows calculators throughout the entire math section and has no student-produced response questions.

On the other hand, SAT math covers fewer total topics than does the ACT. The SAT emphasizes introductory algebra, and topics from late in Algebra II or Pre-Calculus are rare. Also, the SAT allows more time per question than does the ACT, so do some research and take a section of each test before you fully commit to one or the other.

SAT Math Content

If you’re going to take the SAT and want to get the best score you can, you should know what’s on it. If you had time to study only two topics before going into the test, I’d recommend knowing all there is to know about lines (including modeling linear function work problems, the y=mx+b slope form of a linear equation, perpendicular lines, and systems of equations) and quadratics (for example, standard form, factoring to find solutions, vertex form, and combining like terms). A quick look at recent SAT math sections shows that nearly half of the 58 questions involved one of these two topics.

Next, you’ll find an assortment of fairly common questions on exponents, percentages and ratios, and statistics, including probability, combinations, validity of sampling methods, and mean/median/mode. Questions involving geometry, trigonometry, complex numbers, or advanced functions are fair game but relatively uncommon.

Beyond the specific topics that should look familiar from math class, the SAT math commonly tests students on the quantitative skills needed for most if not all math subjects. These include:

Overall, both keeping track of lots of moving parts and reading slowly and carefully closely are essential to boosting your SAT math score.

Intentionally Approaching the SAT Math Section

SAT math isn’t nearly as time-pressured as ACT math, with 58 questions in 80 minutes rather than 60 questions in 60 minutes. Despite the friendlier pace, setting priorities is still necessary for improving your score. Pay close attention to where you can get the most points with the least effort. Working with a tutor who has a deep knowledge of the test and robust experience working with a broad range of students can make this process far more efficient, as you can benefit from your tutor’s experience to customize test prep for your particular strengths, needs, and learning style.

If you know what to do on a math question – great. Try to do it the easiest way possible to save time and energy and to minimize errors. The test often rewards taking the first step and getting something down on paper, so be wary of over-planning. Beyond that, there are general and topic-specific approaches that can help you find your way through the more irritating SAT questions.

General SAT Math Guidance

The biggest challenges, of course, are knowing what to do when you have only the slightest hint of what the question is asking. In these cases, it can help to have a plan to get questions right while thinking as little as possible.

Topic-Specific SAT Math Guidance

If you recognize a topic generally, but can’t take a strategy shortcut and aren’t sure how to begin, there are topic-specific rules of thumb that will often help you to quickly connect your knowledge to the question at hand:

SAT Question Type Guidance  

Calculator v. Non-Calculator

While prepping, be aware of those Section 3 types of questions on which you’re tempted to reach for a calculator: fractional exponent rules a bit hazy? Used to graphing functions to find solutions? Percentages a little rusty? Just be sure you have those locked down, so you can show what you know without arithmetic errors getting in your way.

On Section 4, make sure you rely on your calculator whenever useful. Calculators are great at speed and accuracy of arithmetic. Delegate! Just be aware of how it will parse fractions and exponents. When in doubt, add clarity on your calculator with more parentheses than you might think you need — your calculator can’t read your mind when it comes to order of operations.

Multiple-Choice v. Free-Response

Beyond knowing that you need to use all spaces to enter values as accurately as possible, there is only one key point here. In general, the difficulty increases as you work through a math section on the SAT. However, the difficulty resets once you get to free-response questions. To be sure that you don’t spend time getting difficult questions wrong when there are still easy questions left, skip the last 2-3 multiple choice questions the first time through a section, then return to them when you’ve answered any easier free-response questions.

Strategies for Your SAT Math Goals

Getting to a 500 on the SAT Math

Study linear equations and quadratics, and make sure you are comfortable working with the algebra you need. Slow down and double-check your arithmetic. Use a calculator on Section 4, and don’t worry about the hardest 5-8 questions on each section. If you get half of the questions right, you’ll be ok. Do what you know and do that well.

Getting to a 600 on the SAT Math

Make sure that you are locking down hasty errors. You may think you need to get to every single question right, but typically, students can get to 600 by correctly answering about 70% of the questions. Set priorities, being sure to save the hardest multiple-choice questions until you’ve done a few of the easier free-response questions.

Getting to a 700 on the SAT Math

It’s time to be serious about doing questions in the easiest way. Even here, you want to set priorities, but you’ll need to save time and brainpower to use on the more challenging questions. Nonetheless, make sure you’re not giving away points by working hastily. Increase your accuracy by reading slowly and working with a plan rather than “going back and checking your work.” Increase your speed by focusing on process: set priorities and identify the easiest approaches.

Getting to a 800 on the SAT Math

Honestly, I’m impressed. It is very, very challenging to get every single question correct, which is typically needed for an 800 on the SAT (sidenote: many of us often direct highly competitive students to the ACT because it is far easier to get a 36 than a 1600, and colleges often treat them the same). Paradoxically, cultivating a sense of ease about not getting to 800 may help form the mindset you need to have the flexibility and focus the test requires (in other words, if you don’t spend your time constantly worrying about getting a perfect 800, then you free yourself up to think more flexibly about the problems in front of you!) There’s no room for goofball errors here. Get a good night sleep. Eat protein for breakfast and maybe be a little lucky.