Everything You Need to Know about SAT Math to Work Towards a Perfect Score: Format, Content, Strategies, and Master Tips

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What is SAT Math? Why does your score matter? What are the key differences between ACT Math and SAT Math, and how do you choose between them? What are key strategies and master tips to help you work towards a perfect score in SAT Math?

In this article, you will find the right answers to these questions as well as others. Let’s get started.

What is SAT Math?

SAT Math is a two-section math test offered by College Board to assess the student’s knowledge in 4 major math areas:

  1. Problem Solving and Data Analysis
  2. Heart of Algebra
  3. Passport to Advanced Math
  4. Additional Topics in Math

There are two sections in the SAT Math test: the no-calculator section and calculator section. Each section does evaluate problem solving and data analysis, heart of algebra, passport to advanced math, and additional topics in math. Furthermore, each section does contain grid-in questions. The point of the no-calculator section is to test your knowledge of basic math skills and that you can solve problems without using a calculator. The table below provides a full breakdown for what to expect on the SAT Math Test.

SAT Math Test
Format58 Questions (Multiple-choice and grid-ins) 2 Sections (1 section without calculator (20 questions) and 1 section with calculator (38 questions))
ContentProblem Solving and Data Analysis, Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Additional Topics in Math
ScoringMath score: 200 – 800
Time Per QuestionAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficulty
Equations ProvidedEquations and formulas are provided
Time80 minutes (25 minutes for no calculator section, 55 minutes for calculator section)

Why the SAT Math Score Matters

  1. The Truth: Your Test Prep Scores Matter for College Admissions: It’s one of the sure things in the college admissions process: your scores on the SAT and ACT do matter. All colleges in the country and abroad consider students’ ACT scores and GPA during the admissions process. Each college has a unique process and considers the two factors differently. To put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which school may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. So you are aware, with few exceptions, most colleges look for a minimum score on one of these two tests as part of their admissions requirements. This means that you need a high score to be classified with other top students and, therefore, to increase your chances of going to the college or university of your choice.
  2. You’re Investing in Your Future – Higher Test Prep Scores Equal More Merit Based Scholarships: More importantly, college is often the most expensive financial decision most families make. More points on either standardized test (SAT or ACT) will put you in the running for merit based scholarships and financial aid. While test prep resources may cost some time and money in the short term, merit aid saves you tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition in the long term
  3. Your Test Prep Scores Impact Your Future Major: A high score in the Math section can make up for less-than-perfect scores in other areas of the test. A high grade in the Math section can help you to compete effectively for a place at the colleges or universities to which you are applying. Moreover, if you expect to major in mathematics or science, your SAT Math score may have a significant impact on your overall application.

SAT Math Scores

Regardless of your top schools, to put yourself in the absolute best position to choose which schools may be the best fit for you, you want to do everything possible to prep and review for your ACT and SAT. Confidence matters and you need to believe that it’s possible for you to work towards a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score may be more likely than you think. By understanding the test and by knowing how to prepare for it, your chances of achieving a high score increase remarkably.

Once you believe that a high score is possible and commit yourself to studying, then you need to understand the test’s scoring method and structure.

There are two kinds of scores in the SAT Math test:

  • RAW SCORE: it’s the point for point score — you get a point for every correct answer and no points for incorrect or omitted answers.
  • SCALED SCORE: your raw score is converted to a scaled score out of 200 – 800. This scaled score is based upon the level of performance and data collected from all other test takers. Simply put, you want to do as best as possible by answering as many questions correct as you can.

SAT Math: Format and Structure

The major types of questions are the following:

  1. Problem Solving and Data Analysis – 19 questions

Topics include: averages, percent of a number, part/whole relationships, percents, ratios, rates, probability, proportions, dimensional analysis, median/mode/mean, strong/weak/positive/negative correlation, controlled experiments, studies, surveys, and data graphics.

  1. Heart of Algebra – 17 questions

Topics include: absolute value, simplifying, distributive property, equations, factoring, fractions, expressions, systems of equations, inequalities, elimination method, substitution method, slope, parallel lines, slope-intercept form, graphs of equations, graphs of inequalities, and linear models.

  1. Passport to Advanced Math – 16 questions

Topics include: equations with fractions, exponents, radicals, evaluating functions, compound functions, quadratic formulas, completing the square, polynomial solutions, and dividing polynomials.

  1. Additional Topics in Math – 6 questions

Topics include: angles, lines, midpoints, right triangles, Pythagorean theorem, similar triangles, circles, area of sector, length of arc, center-radius equation, completing the square, SOHCAHTOA, complementary angle identities, and degrees and radians.

Mathematics Reference Information

The SAT Math Test includes reference information like the equations and formulas shown below. You may find these formulas and facts helpful as you answer some of the test questions. Remember that even though formulas are provided on the SAT Math Test, time is your greatest asset. As you’re practicing, you will need to become comfortable enough with the information to move strategically through each problem and anticipate the question being asked.

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Multiple-Choice and Gridded-Response Questions

About 80% of the questions on the SAT Math Test are multiple-choice. Each multiple-choice question consists of a question followed by four options.The remaining 20% of the questions are gridded-responses. Most importantly, the answer to each gridded-response question is a number (fraction, decimal, or positive integer) that you will enter on the answer sheet into a grid like the one shown below. Like all questions on the SAT, there is no penalty for answering a gridded-response question incorrectly.

sat-math-test-gridded-responses

Key Differences between SAT, ACT, and PSAT Math

During the college admission process, colleges do not usually prefer one test over the other (if they do, they will tell you). As a rule, the ACT and SAT tests are treated equally in the admission process. Both tests have points of similarity and points of difference. In our experience if the decision is difficult for you to make, practice both tests under real test conditions, score yourself, and pay attention to your strengths in each test as well as your rate of improvement as you continue to practice. In addition, consider carefully the difficulty of all the sections before making a final decision.

Given that both tests have slightly different questions with different nuances and timing, we strongly recommend for you to take practice tests under real test conditions to evaluate which test may be in your best interest.

SAT Math TestACT Math TestPSAT Math Test
Format58 questions (Multiple-choice and grid-ins) 2 Sections (1 section without calculator (20 questions), 1 section with calculator (38 questions)) 60 questions (Multiple-choice) 1 section (all calculator questions) 48 questions (Multiple-choice and grid-ins) 2 Sections (1 section without calculator (17 questions), 1 section with calculator (31 questions))
ContentProblem Solving and Data Analysis, Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Additional Topics in Math Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Additional Topics in Math
ScoringMath score: 200 – 800 Math score: 1 - 36Math score: 1 - 36
Time Per QuestionAverage of 45 secondsAverage of 25 secondsAverage of 45 seconds
Question DifficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficultyQuestions gradually increase in level of difficulty
Equations ProvidedEquations and formulas are providedEquations and formulas are NOT providedEquations and formulas are provided
Time80 minutes (25 minutes for no calculator section, 55 minutes for calculator section)60 minutes70 minutes (25 minutes for no calculator section, 45 minutes for calculator section)

Key Strategies For Preparing and Taking The SAT Math Test

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

 

STRATEGY #1: Understand the Overall Format of the SAT Math Section in Terms of Your Time

A few immediate need to knows – 1) the entire SAT Math Test is 58 multiple choice questions over 80 minutes and consists of two sections: SAT Math without a calculator and SAT Math with a calculator 2) math equations and formulas are provided and 3) the problems generally increase in level of difficulty and time as you advance through the test. The point being is that by understanding the format and types of questions, you’ll become more accustomed with an approach, pace, and style.

Understanding that the problems generally increase in level of difficulty and time as you advance through the test, be mindful that you will want to complete the first half of the questions in less than 25 minutes to allow you more time per problem to focus on the remaining more difficult problems. As a quick-tip, if you feel very confident in your math abilities, approach, and time, we would also recommend starting from the last question and working backwards. The last 20 – 25 questions are layered with multi-step problems and equations which you of course will use smaller pieces of to solve the initial questions.

 

STRATEGY #2: Memorize All Formulas and Common Math Facts Prior to Taking the Test

Even though formulas are provided on the SAT Math Test, time is your greatest asset. As you’re practicing, you will need to become comfortable enough with the information to move strategically through each problem and anticipate the question being asked.

 

STRATEGY #3: Plug in the Answers

A really helpful strategy that will help you to solve the problems faster or even evaluate if you have the correct answer on math problems is to plug in the answer choices. When plugging in the answer choices for x, you typically want to start with C which is the middle choice as the answer choices A – D are generally in order. This allows you to gauge if you should then evaluate A or B or D. If is C too big, then attempt A or B, whereas, if C is too small, then attempt D. By attempting only two choices, you’ve saved yourself more time. Do be aware, however, that this strategy comes with practice and anticipation for which types of questions work best for setting up algebraic expressions.

 

STRATEGY #4: Provide Real Numbers in Place of Variables

The basic idea is to provide real numbers in place of variables in an attempt to work through the problem backwards.

  1. Identify that variables exist within the problem or answer choices and that plugging in numbers is a possible problem solving method
  2. Choose a number such as 1, 2, or 3 to represent each variable and use those numbers to solve the original equation
  3. Use the number you chose for your original variable to replace that same variable in your answer choices. By doing this, you can test your answer choices and see which answer matches your result.

 

STRATEGY #5: Translate Your Word Problems Into Math Equations That You Can Readily Solve

Within the SAT Math Section, word problems are based mostly on written description and do not always provide you with an equation. Using your critical reading skills as well as your understanding of mathematical terminology, you are able to translate the description into a workable math problem.

For key terms such as “Sum, increased by, added to, total of” a plus sign is typically used. For “Difference, decreased by, or subtracted from” a minus sign is used. The key words product or times represent multiplication while the key words divided by or quotient represent division. The key terms “equals, is, are, equivalent, and same” are represented by an equals sign. You must also be familiar with the “is less than or equal to” and “is greater than or equal to” symbols shown here.

 

STRATEGY #6: Review Your Calculator Functions

Remember that the SAT Math Section does provide given formulas or equations, but you will need to be as effective with your time as possible. Outside of memorizing the most useful equations, you will also need to be extremely well versed in several “quick-tip” calculator functions to plug in and answer the problems. Because you are only going to be asked to perform basic calculations on the SAT math section, you do not need the most high-tech or advanced calculator, but it is in your best interest to 1) verify that your calculator is permitted on the SAT and 2) practice with the same calculator you intend to use on test day. Do everything possible to make sure you familiarize yourself with your calculator before test day. Some of the basic calculator functions include:

  • Finding the square root of a formula
  • Logarithms
  • Exponents
  • “Pi” Functions
  • Sin, Cos, Tan Functions
  • Taking a Decimal to Fraction or vice versa

For the SAT test, you should try and think of your calculator as a tool but not a crutch.  Remember, you do not technically need a calculator to solve the math problems on the SAT. Lastly, it is important for you to be aware that the real focus of your calculator comes with the last 18 – 20 math questions that cover more multi-step geometry and basic trigonometry problems. 

 

STRATEGY #7: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Practice deeply! This is not just taking random math practice problems and checking your score but digging deeper and categorizing each mistake until the answer is fully justified. Start by taking several authentic Math SAT diagnostics measuring your progress and identifying areas of weakness for you to go and review. Embracetutoring.com provides a number of free supplemental materials to get you started.

Work on your approach and your timing. When evaluating your practice tests, be absolutely brutal about understanding your mistakes. Deep practice is being your own toughest critic. More important than finding the mistake, is seriously understanding why you may have missed that question in the first place. You need to always be able to justify your answer earnestly. This process is important because it allows you to identify your high level weaknesses early on to manage your time more effectively. As you are studying, we would recommend keeping a log and categorizing your mistakes and questions you’re unsure of.

Write down 1) the general idea of the question 2) what you believed the question was asking and 3) the strategy you will use in the future to answer the question correctly.

 

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Use the Resources at Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services

  1. Embrace Tutoring and Educational Services has exceptional resources, many of them are custom-designed to help you review the content areas discussed in this article.
  2. Because our diagnostic tests break out the precise types of questions on each test, you’ll be able to quickly identify those areas in which your skills are strong or those areas in which you need improvement.
  3. In addition to practice resources, we offer the best personal and online tutoring services to help you achieve to the best of your ability.

Test Day and Beyond

Readying Yourself The Day Before The Test

  • Plan how you will get to the test site. If it’s in a large school or office building, be sure to find out which door you should enter to register for the test. If you haven’t been in the building before, find out how to get to the room.
  • Set two alarms. Even though alarms rarely fail, it can happen. You always want to have a backup.
  • Pack your items the night before.
  • Review the test directions so you’re aware of what is expected on test day.

What To Pack

  • Photo admission ticket and valid photo ID: A valid driver’s license, school, or state-issued ID are acceptable. Remember that the photo must resemble you on the day of the exam and comply with the rules posted on www.collegeboard.org/sat.
  • Several number 2 pencils with soft erasers.
  • Approved calculator with fresh batteries.
  • Watch
  • Snacks
  • Water in a clear bottle, label removed.