SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Get the Most Out of SAT Math Practice Questions

Posted by Courtney Montgomery | Nov 9, 2015 12:00:00 PM

SAT Math



You’ve lined up all your SAT math study material, but now how do you use these questions to their best effect? Getting the materials to study is only half the battlemaking an effective study plan and knowing how to best execute it is the second, crucial step.

We’ve put together a comprehensive plan on how to make use of the study materials you have at hand. In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to best use your math practice problems and how to make the best study plan possible to boost your SAT math score.


The Importance of Using Proper SAT Math Study Materials

Before we start in on how to use the practice materials, it’s important to talk about what study materials to use. The SAT is a very specific kind of test and a good deal of the study material available online does a poor job of replicating it. The most accurate and highest quality study material will come from the College Board itself and only prep programs that truly base their questions off this material are worth your time.

Always use the highest quality study material and practice problems so that you can get the best measure of how you’ll do on test day. If you study from inferior sources, you will have an inaccurate picture of how you’ll do (for better or worse), which will only hamper your study progress.

We have gathered all the best free SAT study material and practice problems, so definitely start there for all your SAT math practice problem needs.

body_smarty_dogOnly the best SAT study materials are worth your time (so says Study Dog).


How to Begin — Identifying Your Current Strengths and Weaknesses

First things first, you need to run a diagnostic!

Step 1: Take a Full-Length SAT Practice Test

If you haven’t taken one already, start by taking a full practice test to gauge your current score and percentile. Though you may be more focused on improving your math score right now, you will still need to take a full test so that you can best replicate a real testing environment.

You won’t truly know where your weaknesses or strengths on the test are without first taking the test. You also won’t know how your math scores fit into your larger test-taking picture if you only take the math sections by themselves. The SAT is a marathon and scores will fluctuate depending on your energy and concentration levels over the course of the entire test. So you’ll only get a full picture of your current levels if you take the complete test all together.

This is a baseline, so be honest. Only then will you be able to tell where you’re starting and how far you have to go. So treat your practice run as you would the real test—adhere to the timing rules, don’t stop and look things up, and skip questions you don’t feel you can answer accurately. And, as you go through, make sure to mark your questions. Put a mark any time you feel unsure about a question and cross out any eliminated answer options. This will help you to identify patterns in your overall test-taking later.


Step 2: Examine Your Test-Taking Patterns

Once you’ve corrected your practice test, look at your spread of right and wrong answers. Are there any patterns to the distribution? 

There are two broad ways to categorize your mistakes: by location on the test and by type of content. See if you can organize your errors accordingly. 

There will be three SAT math sections on any given practice test, two that are entirely multiple choice and one that is a combination of multiple choice and grid-in. The multiple choice only sections are arranged in order of ascending difficulty, so the last problem of a math section will be much harder than the first question. On the combination multiple choice and grid-in SAT math section, the questions will go in ascending order of difficulty for the multiple choice and then will reset for the grid-in. So question 8 (multiple choice) will be much more difficult than question 10 (grid-in). 

What this all means is that if your errors on the SAT math sections mostly appear in certain locations, your mistakes are probably related to the difficulty level of the problems. 

To spot patterns of location-based errors, ask yourself whether you are:

  • Missing questions over the entire math section, seemingly evenly throughout?

  • Missing mostly the grid-in questions? (For some students, the grid-in section is exponentially more difficult than the multiple choice section and can be a large source of lost points.)

  • Missing several questions in the early range of the multiple choice or grid-in? (Though it is normal to miss some or even several questions on the overall SAT math section, try to carefully analyze and improve upon your mistakes in this earliest range. These earlier questions will be the quickest and "simplest" to solve for the whole math section and so will net you a nice cushion of points if you can grab them.)

  • Missing questions in a cluster in the mid-range of each math section? (This is where the questions transition from "easy" to "medium-level" difficulty and that transition can trip many students up.)

  • Missing mostly the last questions in each section? (These are the "high difficulty" questions and are difficult for most students.)

You may also be getting questions wrong by topic. Take a close look at each of your errors to see if there is a topic-specific pattern to your errors. 

To spot trends in content errors, ask yourself whether you are:

  • Getting all or most questions wrong in a particular topic, no matter where the questions are located in the test? (E.g., are you missing all polygon questions, whether they appear as question 2 or question 20?)

  • Getting questions wrong by topic only in the medium or high level difficulty? (For instance, can you solve your "easy" slope questions, but miss all the "difficult" slope questions?)

  • Having a seemingly even spread of right and wrong answers by topic throughout the test? (If you answered questions 4 and 14 on functions correctly, but missed question 9, it may have less to do with your understanding of functions as a topic and more to do with the phrasing of the question or the speed at which you were taking the test. Take a careful look at each problem to see if you can spot the pattern.)

The less familiar you are with a particular math topic, the harder it will be to answer the variety of problems on it that you’ll see on the SAT. Take a look at our individual math guides for topic-specific help and practice questions for any of your SAT math topic problem areas. 

Most people will start out their SAT practice by missing a combination of location-specific and topic-specific questions, so don’t worry if your pattern starts out this way too. As you get more and more used to both the material and the way the SAT tests this material, you’ll narrow your range of wrong answers and increase your accuracy in both fields.


Step 3: Make a List of Your SAT Math Strengths and Weaknesses

Now that you’ve looked at your test-taking patterns, make a list on a separate piece of paper of all the math topics in which you missed questions. In addition, make a list of the types of errors you made.

Why make a list of the type of error? There is a big difference between errors on the SAT math test—not knowing how to approach a question at all is very different than misreading a question. You’ll need to examine exactly what kinds of errors you’ve made so that you can learn to avoid them in the future.

Types of errors include:


  • Finding the wrong variable or final value
    • This is one of the most common errors, especially on problems where you must find an "unusual" final answer. For instance, the problem may ask you to find the value of 2x for your final solution, when your natural instinct is to find the value of x alone. 

  • Misreading the question
    • This can include misreading any value or variable in the overall question or simply misreading what the question is asking you to do. For example, in a word problem, did you mix up "Tom" and "Tina"? Did you read "subtract" as "square"? It is easy to make assumptions or to mix up similar words if you're going too quickly through your problems. 

  • Stopping your solve too early or too late
    • In a problem that requires multiple steps, you may accidentally find yourself stopping a step or two too early or going a step or two too far. For instance, if you are tasked with finding the 12th number in a sequence and you're counting by hand, you might accidentally find the 11th or 13th number in the sequence instead. Many answer choices are generated by this type of error, so be extra cautious in only taking the exact number of steps necessary. 

  • Not knowing how to approach the question at all
    • Whether it's the wording of the question or the math topic involved, sometimes you'll find yourself completely flummoxed. You may not know how to set up the solve to the problem in the slightest, or you may try and fail to set up the solve. Either way, this is a problem that leaves you stymied. 

  • Mixing up or forgetting your formulas
    • Though you will be given a formula box, it can be easy to misremember or mix up your formulas in the heat of the moment. If you need to find the area of a circle, make sure you're using the area formula and not the circumference formula. 


Note: don’t take “careless errors” like misreading the question or finding the wrong final value lightly! The SAT is designed to make you make these kinds of errors, so don’t just assume you’ll make the correct choices next time. You’ve got to commit yourself to slowing down and identifying what the question is truly asking you. Always double check to make sure your answer matches exactly what they’re asking you to find.


body_dominoesYou've lined 'em up, now let's knock 'em down!


How to Proceed: Using SAT Math Practice Questions to Raise Your Score

You’ve got your baseline, so how do you use your practice material to up your score? Let’s take a look.


1) Now that you’ve identified your areas of strength and weakness, take the time to brush up on those math topics that lie in your weak zone.

It’s not enough to assail yourself with practice problem after practice problem if you still don’t understand the material—you must first understand both the ins and outs of the particular math topic as well as how you’ll see it tested on the SAT.

Our SAT math guides are tailored to reflect and demonstrate how each topic is presented on the SAT, so you won’t have to waste time reading and memorizing more strategies and facts than you absolutely need to.

This way, you’ll also keep your practice problems “fresh.” It’s no use throwing yourself against a wall of function problems if you’ve never studied functions in school. It will only leave you with no new material to study from once you’ve brushed up on how to solve function problems.

Practice will only help you so much if you don’t know how to even approach a particular topic. Only then, once you’ve learned what you need to learn, will your practice problems solidify the knowledge in your head and get you to where you need to be—polishing up your topic skills so that you’re ready for test day.


2) When you do find practice questions, always try to solve them yourself first without looking to the answer.

When looking over new problems, don't just look at the problem and go immediately to the answer. The answer explanation might make sense and even make you feel as though you would have been able to solve the problem yourself, but this feeling can be deceiving.

Solving a puzzle yourself and understanding how a puzzle was solved require two entirely different parts of your brain. Always (always!) try to solve a problem yourself first and commit to an answer choice, before you look up the answer. Even if your answer choice is that you would skip it if you saw it on test day, it is better to make a decision, rather than imbuing yourself with false confidence in your current abilities.

Remember—you can only improve if you have an accurate picture of your current skill level.


3) Once you’ve brushed up on the topic, take practice problems in multiples at a time, as if you were truly working on the test.

As you solve your practice questions, don’t solve questions one at a time and stop to look up the answer after each one. Though you may be tempted to know exactly how well you've done after solving each problem, this kind of pacing does NOT give you an accurate picture of how you’ll do on test day and can hamper your progress. (Remember: you won’t be able to verify whether your answers are correct or not on test-day—you simply have to do your best and move forward on multiple questions at a time.)

Even if you don’t always sit down to take a full test or a full math section at once, it is still better to answer two or three questions at a time than it is to simply answer one.


4) If a topic can use multiple solving methods for its problems, try all the different ways in order to find the one most comfortable for you.

Many questions can be solved in several different ways. Plugging in answers and plugging in numbers are strategies that work for a large variety of questions, but there are others as well. For instance, systems of equations questions can be solved by graphing, subtraction, or substitution, while sequence and distance questions can be solved via formulas or by working them out by hand. These are just some examples, and each of our guides will go into further detail. The point remains that most every SAT question is purposefully designed to be solved in multiple ways and different methods work best for different people.

So once you’ve finished solving your set of problems, go back and solve them again using a different strategy. Compare this to the first time—which method did you like better? Which was faster? Which made you feel the most confident in your answer?


5) Pace yourself (and your practice questions)

Though it may be tempting to get your studying out of the way, do NOT cram all your studying in one go! Improvement happens over time and you must pace yourself to get the most out of your prep time.

In addition, if you blow through all your practice problems at once, you won't have anything else to work with fresh. Again, solving a puzzle yourself and understanding how a puzzle was solved are two very different concepts, so try to pace out your fresh material and your review material so that you can use both parts of your brain in your study prep.


6) Sign up for a test-prep program if you feel you need more material than the free practice questions available.

If you feel you’ve exhausted your free study material, then definitely sign up for a test-prep program or buy one of the official study guides available, like the Official SAT Study Guide. Not only can a prep program provide you with additional material, but can also help you make the most out of your study time.

Our SAT study program at PrepScholar automatically targets your areas of strength and weakness and tailors your studying to you and your needs. No need to assess your patterns yourself—we’ll do all the work for you!


body_pathsThere are many paths for doing well on your SAT and, with experimentation and diligence, you'll find the best one for you.


The Take-Aways

The SAT is unlike most tests you’ll ever come across—it is long, tricky, and very specifically designed. Going into it blind (or poorly prepared) rarely ends well for anyone. The more you can prepare, and the better that preparation is, the better you’ll do on the test, hands down.

So make sure your study material always comes from the best sources and that you use this material to its absolute best effect while studying. Your goal is to train your brain to look at and solve puzzles in the way that the SAT wants you to, and most people can only do so with focused effort and practice.

Always remember that success on the SAT is entirely doable and, indeed, trainable. Once you know how to hone your focus and target specific areas to study, you’ll be mastering your SAT math questions in no time.


What’s Next?

You've taken a look at your SAT test-taking patterns, so now it may be time to check out our individual SAT math guides to help you brush up on any topic that was not too familiar to you. 

Running out of time on the SAT math section? If you found that you didn't have enough time to finish your SAT math sections, check out our guide for how to beat the clock and maximize your SAT math score. 

Unsure about your SAT math formulas? Make sure you know which formulas you'll be given and which you'll have to memorize and then check out how to use that knowledge to its best effect

Looking to get a perfect score? Our guide to getting a perfect 800 on SAT math (written by a perfect-scorer!) will help get you to where you need to be. 


Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? 

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Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Math strategy guide, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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Courtney Montgomery
About the Author

Courtney scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about bringing education and the tools to succeed to students from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she believes open education is one of the great societal equalizers. She has years of tutoring experience and writes creative works in her free time.

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