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 had 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 we mean.
But don't despair! In this guide, we'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 SAT Math Sections by Time
The SAT Math section is divided into two parts—one where you can use a calculator and one where you can't.
The no calculator part of SAT Math will always be the third section of the text, and the calculator part will always be the fourth section of the test. Both of these sections will be primarily multiple choice, with a few grid-in questions at the end of each section.
Here's a chart showing the format of SAT Math.
|Time in Minutes
|# of Questions
|Time per Question
|Math No Calculator
No Calculator Section
In this section, you'll have 25 minutes to answer 20 questions, which gives you about 75 seconds to answer each question. The first 15 questions in this section are multiple choice, and the last five are grid-in.
For the calculator section, you'll have 55 minutes to answer 38 questions. This gives you about 87 seconds per question. The first 30 questions are multiple choice, and the last eight questions in this section are grid-in.
A little more than a minute to a minute and a half per question may not seem like a lot of time (especially if you start to panic or freeze up), but almost every SAT Math 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. Keep reading to learn how to do that!
How to Develop a Time-Saving Strategy for SAT Math
In this section, we go over the three steps you should take in order to develop your strategy for maximizing your time on the SAT. After that, we explain how SAT Math scoring works then dive into the time-saving strategies you should follow.
Step 1: Determine Your Target Score
You first want to figure out what your goal score for the SAT is. You may find that, based on the schools you're interested in, you don't even need to worry about raising your Math score.
Your goal score is based on the average SAT scores of accepted students of the schools you want to apply to. For a step-by-step explanation on how to figure out what SAT score you should aim for, check out our guide specifically on the subject.
Your target Math score will be a scaled score, the score out of 800 that you'll see on your score report. To figure out how many questions you need to get right to meet your target score, you'll need to convert that score into a raw score. We explain how to do that in the next section.
Step 2: Take a Practice Test
If you haven't already, after you figure out your target SAT score, you should take a practice SAT (or at least just an SAT Math section). This will give you an idea of how well you're currently scoring and how much you need to improve by.
If you need help scoring your SAT Math section, check out the next section. You should know both your current raw and scaled SAT Math scores before moving onto the time-saving strategies.
Step 3: Follow the Strategy That Fits Your Current Scoring Level
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).
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 Math, if you’re scoring between 400 and 600, and if you’re scoring over 600.
Most of the time-saving strategies rely on you "skipping" the hardest questions on SAT Math to focus more time on questions you have a higher chance of answering correctly. When we refer to skipping questions on the SAT, we mean not trying to solve the problem and instead just guessing on the answer. Since there are no point deductions for wrong answers, you should always answer every SAT question, even if you just choose a random answer, since you may get lucky and choose the right answer!
How to Calculate Your SAT Math Goal
Before you move to the strategy that suits your current Math score level, it’s a good idea to understand the relationship between your scaled score and your raw score. In this section, we explain the different SAT Math scores and how to calculate them so you can figure out what your goal score is and where you're currently scoring on SAT Math.
Your raw score is simply the number of SAT Math questions you answered correctly. This number is then converted into a scaled score out of 800. The scaled score is the score you see on your score report.
To calculate your raw Math score, take a practice SAT Math section, then just add up the number of questions you answered correctly in both SAT Math parts. (There is no penalty for incorrect or skipped questions.) This number will be out of 58.
Then, look at the chart below, find your raw score, and see which scaled score it corresponds to. For example, if you answered 30 Math questions correctly, that means your raw score is 30 and your scaled score is 530.
Every SAT will have a slightly different raw to scaled score conversion, but using this chart will give you a good estimate of what score you'd get on SAT Math.
Once you've figured out your SAT goal score, you can also use this chart to figure out what raw score you need for SAT Math to reach that goal score. You can then use this info to determine how many SAT Math questions you should answer to reach your target score.
For example, if your target score on SAT Math is a 570, then your target raw score is 35, and you should plan to answer about 41 or 42 questions. This will allow you to get a few questions wrong and still meet your goal.
Remember that questions on the Math section are roughly ordered by level of difficulty, with the easiest questions coming first and the hardest questions coming at the end of the section. So, if you’re scoring below a 600, guess randomly on the last questions of each section and only attempt to solve 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 try to solve most, if not 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.
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Practice your timing strategies, and you'll find you have time enough to complete each section
8 Time-Saving Tips for All SAT Math Scoring Levels
Whatever your current score, these strategies will help you to beat the clock come test day. Read through these tips first, then go onto the strategies specifically for your current score level.
#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. We recommend taking at least three full-length SATs before exam day so you're well prepared.
#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: 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: 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.
#8: Use 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. One of the best ways to have more time on SAT Math is to skip and guess randomly on the hardest questions and concentrate more time on the questions you can answer more easily. We go over this in more detail in the next section.
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 26. Your biggest time-saving asset will be in skipping questions (again, by skipping questions, we mean not trying to solve them and instead just choosing a random answer. Always choose an answer for every SAT question!).
Considering there is a potential raw point possibility of 58, at a 400-level you can answer less than 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 1-10 and 16-17 in the no calculator section (the easiest of the multiple choice and grid-ins) and questions 1-18 and 31-33 on the calculator section, you’ll be answering 33 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 just 12 questions on the no calculator section, you'll have about two minutes to answer each question, and if you answer just 21 questions on the calculator section, you'll have over 2.5 minutes per question. You’ve practically 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 39. This means you can still skip and just mark random answers for a significant number of Math questions 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 solve 45 or 46 questions in order to meet your raw score goal of 39.
As a start, try questions 1-16 on the no calculator section and 1-25 and 31-35 on the calculator section. Allowing for the occasional wrong answer, this should save you precious time and still get you scoring in your target range.
If you follow those guidelines, you’ll now have 94 seconds per question on the no calculator section (up from 75 seconds) and about 110 seconds per question on the calculator section (up from 87 seconds). It may not seem like much, but it increases your time by about a third for the entire Math section!
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. 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.
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 Math sections of the SAT deliberately test your ability to think well under time pressure, 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.
For those of you who are going for a score of 700 or above, check out our article on How to Get an 800 on the SAT Math by a perfect 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.