The SAT is designed to be taken by every high school student in the country, which means it can only test math concepts that every student has experience with. The way the creators of the test make it hard is by presenting questions in unusual ways--ways that you never see in your math classes--and by putting you on a strict time crunch.
If you've ever started freaking out at the end of an SAT Math section, unsure how you're ever going to get through the entire section, you know exactly what I mean.
But don't despair! In this guide, I'll walk you through the timing of the test and teach you how to beat the clock and maximize your time on the SAT.
Breakdown of the Math Sections by Time
The SAT math sections are divided into three parts--two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section. One of the 25 minute sections will be all multiple choice, the other will be a combination of multiple choice and grid-in.
The order that they come on the test may vary, but you will always get all three sections on the SAT, and the timing will always work this way:
25 Minute Section, All Multiple Choice
This is the longest multiple choice section. It will always have 20 questions in 25 minutes, which gives you 1.25 minutes per question
25 Minute Section, Multiple Choice and Grid-In
This section is a combinantion section and will have 18 questions total in 25 minutes, which is roughly 1.4 minutes per question. The first eight questions will be multiple choice and question 9-18 will be grid-in. They give you a bit of extra time here because you must find your own answers on most of the questions
20 Minute Section, All Multiple Choice
This is the shortest multiple choice with 16 questions in 20 minutes. Again, this gives you 1.25 minutes per question.
What This Means for You
1.25 or 1.4 minutes per question may not seem like a lot of time (especially if you start to panic or freeze up), but almost every SAT problem can be solved well under one minute if you are familiar with how to approach the problem. When you become familiar with the typical SAT question patterns, you can get faster at both understanding what these weird questions are asking and in finding quick solutions and shortcuts.
Your strategy for buying yourself more time depends on both your initial score range and your target score (and will evolve as your scores change). Take a practice test to determine your current score (both curved and raw). Next, determine your target score (check out our step by step guide on how to figure out what SAT score you should aim for), and then apply our time-saving tips accordingly.
We’ve organized these time-maximizing strategies into four categories: general time-saving tips for all levels, tips if you’re currently scoring below 400 in the math, if you’re scoring between 400 and 600, and if you’re scoring over 600.
Raw Scores and Scaled Scores
Before you move to the strategy that suits your current curved-score level, it’s a good idea to understand the relationship between your curved score and your raw score. Here is the chart to see how your curved score relates to your raw score.
Understand the relationship between your raw score and your scale score to find your best strategy
After you take a practice test, figure out your current raw score and scaled score. Now find the raw score of your target curved score and make that the goal you strive for. Notice that each 100 curved points is roughly 10-12 raw points, depending on where you are along the curve.
Keep your target raw score in mind as you go through strategies to maximize your time--if your target raw score is 25, plan to answer 31 or 32 questions. This will allow you to get a few questions wrong and still meet your goal.
Remember that the difficulty level of questions roughly goes up in order on each section of the test, so if you’re scoring below a 600, skip the last questions of each section and answer only the questions in the beginning and middle. For students scoring in the 600 or above range, it’s going to be in your best interest to attempt, if not answer, every problem.
The exception to the rule of difficulty level is in the section with grid-ins. The multiple choice questions of that section go from “easy” to medium to hard and then resets in the grid-in. So the first question of the grid-in is going to be more straightforward and less challenging than the last question of the multiple choice.
Practice your timing strategies, and you'll find you have time enough to complete each section
Time-Saving Tips for All Scoring Levels
Whatever your current score, these strategies will help you to beat the clock come test day:
1) Familiarize yourself with the test ahead of time.
The instructions are the same at the beginning of every math section on every SAT. Read them ahead of time so you don’t waste time on test day. Familiarize yourself with the structure of the test until it feels more comfortable and less foreign.
2) Practice, practice, practice
Sit down with a test at home and take it timed. Get used to both the types of questions on the test and the pacing you’ll need to finish on time.
3) Learn to let go of a question
It can be very tempting to sit and try to puzzle a question out, but you have to learn how to be more ruthless, both with how you answer questions and in choosing which questions to answer. Each and every question is worth the same amount of points, so pick the questions you can solve easiest and fastest first and then try the more time-consuming ones.
If you look at a question and have no idea how you would go about solving it, mark it and move on. Sometimes moving on and coming back to a question later can trigger your mind to think of a new approach.
4) Eliminate answer choices.
As you go through the test, write on your booklet. Write in the angles and lengths you’re given, draw diagrams, and, most importantly, eliminate wrong answers.
Often, you’ll be given a range of choices, one or two of which will be wildly wrong. Do yourself a time-saving favor and cross these off your booklet immediately. The faster and more efficiently you can eliminate your wrong answer choices, the better off you’ll be when solving for the right answer.
And bonus! Sometimes you will be able to eliminate all but one or two answer options. You don’t necessarily have to know a particular answer is right if you know that the rest are unmistakably wrong.
5) Identify problems that will take a long time
Sometimes a problem is not necessarily difficult to solve, but is instead a time-suck. Identify these and save them for last. If this is a multiple choice question, it is a particularly good time to use process of elimination on some of the answer choices. That way, if you need to mark the question to come back to it later, you’ve already narrowed down your potential answer options.
6) Practice smart and identify your areas of weakness
It’s not enough to simply practice the test over and over again if you continue to make the same mistakes with regards to your timing.
Identify which types of problems are the most difficult for you or take you the longest amount of time and save those for last. Are they usually geometry problems? Word problems? Probabilities? As you get more used to the test and the types of math questions/concepts that appear, see if there are faster or easier ways to solve the questions that take you the most time.
Sometimes this can be remembering the properties of special right triangles, like a 30, 60, 90 triangles, so that you don’t have to take the time to find the side lengths via the pythagorean theorem. Sometimes it might mean using plugging in answers or plugging in your own numbers instead of trying to solve the problem algebraically.
7) Employ skipping strategies and study strategies according to your current score level and target score.
As your scores increase, your strategies will change. For now, take a practice test and determine both your raw score and your curved score and understand how the test is scored. Then, use the time-saving strategies that best suit you for your current level.
8) Don't worry about anyone else's pacing
As much as possible, ignore everyone else in the room while you're taking your test. If you start to worry about how much faster or slower other people are taking the test, you will lose your focus. Concentrate on your test alone and disregard everyone else's pacing. Your test and your goals are all that matter.
This is a race against the clock, not a race against anyone else
Time-Saving Strategies: If You’re Currently Scoring Below 400
If scoring 400 and below and aiming for a 500, you will need to get a raw score of 24. Your biggest time-saving asset will be in skipping questions.
Considering there is a potential raw point possibility of 54, at a 400-level you can answer half of all the questions available and still get a 500! You just have to pick the right questions to answer to make sure you can get the correct answer.
For example, if you answer just questions 1-12 in the longest multiple choice section, questions 1-5 and 9-16 on the grid-in, and 1-10 in the short multiple choice section, you’ll be answering 35 questions total. Giving yourself room for some of them to be wrong, you’re now likely to be scoring somewhere in the 500’s range. And best of all, you’ve saved yourself a tremendous amount of time!
If you just answer those first 12 questions on the longest multiple choice section, you’ve gone from 20 questions in 25 minutes (1.25 minutes per question) to 12 question in 25 minutes (2 minutes per question!). You’ve nearly doubled your time on the test just by skipping the most difficult and time-consuming questions.
This will give you a chance to breathe and may even give you enough time to check over your work to make sure your answers are all correct.
The SAT is all about steady pacing.
Time-Saving Strategies: If You’re Currently Scoring Between 400 and 600
If you’re scoring a 500 and aiming for 600, you’ll need a raw score of 35. This means you could answer just 2/3s of the questions on the test and still get a 600!
By skipping the more difficult and time-consuming questions, you’ll free up time and energy to work on the questions you feel comfortable and confident about. This may even give you time to go back and check your work (something we always recommend).
Allowing yourself to get a few questions wrong, attempt to answer 41 or 42 questions in order to meet your raw score goal of 35.
As a start, try questions 1-15 on the longest multiple choice section, questions 1-6 and 9-17 on the grid-in and 1-12 on the short multiple choice. Allowing for the occasional wrong answer, this should save you precious time and still get you scoring in your target range.
For example, you’ll now have 1.67 minutes per question on the longest multiple choice section instead of 1.25 minutes. It may not seem like much, but that’s a 33% increase in time!
You are capable of succeeding on the SAT. Stay calm, practice, and don't panic.
Time-Saving Strategies: If You’re Currently Scoring 600 or Above
If you’re in or above the 600 range, you will be attempting (although not necessarily answering) every question on the test. Always skip questions if you cannot narrow down the answer to two options, but at your score level, you will at least look at every question to determine if it is one you know how to do.
For you, understanding how to complete the questions faster will be more useful than skipping questions to buy more time. Luckily, almost every question on the SAT can be solved in multiple different ways. Your job is to become used to solving problems in the “short cut” way, rather than the formal way you’re probably used to doing math in the classroom.
For questions with multiple variables in particular, it can save you both time and give you increased accuracy to plug in your own numbers. If you’re able to solve questions by using shortcuts, you’ll have time enough to finish the test and maybe even check your work over again (which we always recommend whenever possible).
And if you’re a 600 and above scorer, it will serve you well to memorize your most important formulas, both ones you are given and ones you are not given. This will save you time flipping to the front of each section to look up the necessary formulas. It will also give you enough time after you’ve solved a problem to plug in the answer to double check if it is correct.
Plugging in the answers (PIA) is always a useful tool to have, but it can take time to use as an initial solving method if you feel pressed for time. If you’re feeling like you’re going too slowly through the test and are most concerned about speed, solve the problem via a formula and then double check with PIA. If you’re more concerned with initial accuracy and/or don’t like using formulas, solve with PIA from the start.
And to get used to finding the fastest ways to solve SAT problems, check out our article on the most common types of questions and question patterns on the SAT math (coming soon!) to find the most expedient way to solve problems.
Sometimes the best way to approach a problem is to simply go around it
If You're Time Pressured, Remember This and Breathe
Though the SAT is tested on a time crunch, you can find ways to maximize the time you’re given and get the best score possible. By familiarizing yourself with the test, finding ways to eliminate answers, and by skipping the most time-consuming questions, you can find your best possible test-taking pace.
Now that you know the the best ways to buy more time on the SAT, it might be a good idea to refresh yourself on both the must-know formulas and the general content covered by the SAT math. And for those of you who are going for a score of 700 or above, check out our article on How to an 800 on the SAT Math by a 2400 SAT-Scorer.
Currently scoring in the low or mid-range? Look no further than our article on how to improve your score if you're currently scoring below 600.
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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.