SAT Answer Plan: How to optimize your score – Math

This article will discuss tips and tricks for the math section of the SAT and is a continuation of the general SAT tips article.

The three SAT math sections will include everything you learned up to and including Algebra II and basic Geometry. You will also need to recall some basic statistics and probability, as well as simple operational math including sets, sequences, and properties of numbers. No amount of tricks will compensate for not knowing the material, so make sure to review all of the mathematics areas.

SAT Math - Multiple Choice

  • Answer the question they're asking
    A common SAT trick is to walk you through a long series of math steps, and then try to fool you into picking the wrong answer. The other four answers are not numbers that were randomly selected, but other possible half-right answers. Make sure to completely finish the work and then double check to make sure that the number you came up with is actually answering the question (for example, if a problem requires that you solve y before solving x, you can bet that the value of y is one of the answer choices).
  • There is a difference between 3a and 3A
    Would you think that there was a difference between, "3a = 36" and "3A = 36"? The first example, with the lowercase a, uses a variable. The correct answer is a = 12 (3 times 12 is 36). The second example, with the uppercase A, uses a digit. The correct answer is A = 6 (if 3_ is 36, the missing number is 6). The question will usually tell you whether you're dealing with a variable or a digit, but the SAT relies on you skipping over this information, seeing a letter, and going into Algebra mode. Don't fall for it.
  • There isn't a difference between 3a and 3φ
    Sometimes the SAT will throw a wacky Greek symbol at you to try to confuse you. Unless it's pi (π), it's probably just a variable. Replace it with 'x' or some other easier symbol and move on.
  • Formulas will be given to you
    You don't necessarily have to memorize formulas. Any that you need will either be provided at the start of the section or in the question itself. You should, however, be very familiar with all necessary formulas (area of a circle, for example) so that you don't waste time flipping back and forth.
  • Spend less time on early questions, more time on later ones
    There is an order of difficulty to the SAT math questions with the easier questions appearing in the first third and harder questions appearing in the final third. If you find yourself spending too much time on an early question, you may be over-thinking it. Likewise, if you find yourself simply glancing at a late question and feeling like you know the answer, you're probably under-thinking it and got tricked.
  • If you think a question will take a while to solve, skip it
    You earn just as many points answering easy, quick questions as hard, long questions and, in the long run, are better off focusing on maximizing the number of easy questions you answer. If a problem seems like it will take too long, skip it and return to it later. Even though 'harder' questions appear later in the test, depending on your comfort level with certain subjects, what the SAT considers hard, you may find easy.

    • Also, if you think a question will take a ridiculous amount of time to solve, you're probably doing it wrong. For instance, a question asking you to sum all numbers between 1 and 100 isn't really asking you to write them all down and add them up. There's always a trick to questions like this. But if it isn't immediately apparent to you, skip it and return to it later.
  • Always use the provided figures for guidance
    You don't receive any credit for anything you write in the test booklet, but doing your scratch work directly on the booklet is incredibly helpful. This is especially true when dealing with tables, graphs, or geometry. If there is a figure provided, mark it up. If there is no figure provided, draw one yourself. Also remember that unless the question says otherwise, all figures are drawn to scale. Use this to your advantage when making educated guesses.

SAT Math - Student Produced Response (Grid-in)

  • The order of difficulty resets
    The grid-in questions are not harder than the multiple choice questions just because they come later. The rule of thirds with regards to difficulty starts over again in this section. If you don't have time to complete all the questions in a math section, answer the easy multiple choice questions, and jump directly to the easy grid-in questions.
  • There is no penalty for guessing
    In all multiple choice questions in all sections, you receive 1/4 point penalty for incorrect answers. In the grid-in, however, there is no penalty for guessing. You should try to answer every one of these questions even if it's just a wild guess. Typically, 0 is good guess.
  • If you're answer doesn't fit, it's wrong
    There is no way to grid in a negative number. If you come up with a negative answer, it's wrong. Likewise, your answer is wrong if you can't fit your number into the four squares (i.e. five-digit numbers and fractions with more than 3 numbers). Remember that the decimal point and the fraction sign (/) each take a space.
  • It does not matter which boxes you use
    If you come up with "12" as your answer, you may grid it in either in the first two boxes, the middle two boxes, or the last two boxes. It does not matter.
  • You do not need to round decimals correctly
    If you're final answer is 0.6178, you can grid it in either as ".617" or ".618". You do not need to round correctly. So don't waste your time rounding decimals and just chop off whatever doesn't fit. This also applies to repeating decimals (e.g. .6666666 can be grid in as ".666" or ".667").
  • You do not need to reduce fractions
    If your final answer is 2/4, you can grid it in as "1/2", "2/4", or even "9/18". You do not need to reduce fractions. So don't bother.
  • You cannot grid-in mixed numbers
    If your final answer is 2 1/3 (two and one third), you must grid it in as 7/3 (seven thirds). If you were to grid in "21/3", it would be interpreted as twenty-one thirds instead.

Remember that these tips should be used in addition to -- not as a replacement of -- studying math. No amount of tips will help you if you have forgotten how to do a particular algebra problem. You should also refresh yourself with the easy-to-forget mathematics definitions. For example, you may feel like you know what odd and even mean, but do you remember if 0 is odd or even? Is 0 positive or negative? Is it a whole number? Is it a prime number? Is 1 a prime number?

Make sure you know these things. It's not fun to go through computing a difficult set problem only to be confounded when the question asks you "how many real, positive, prime numbers are in this set?"

For the record, 0 is an even number. It is neither positive nor negative. It is a whole number. It is not a prime number. And no, 1 is not a prime number either. Technically 1 is divisible only by 1 and itself, but 1 is simply defined not to be a prime number. Now you know.

Make sure to read my other SAT tips, including general SAT tips, SAT reading tips, and SAT writing tips.

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