SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The 16 Best SAT Math Tips and Tricks

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Dec 31, 2019 12:00:00 PM

SAT Math

 

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Many students taking the SAT are most daunted by the Math section. There are a lot of questions covering a lot of topics that you need to answer in a short amount of time. Fortunately, you can enter the exam room feeling prepared and confident for SAT Math. This guide contains the 16 best SAT Math tips and tricks you should be using. They cover all the bases from the time you begin studying to the moment time is called on the exam and you put your pencil down.

 

Overview of SAT Math

Before we dive into the SAT tricks for math, let’s briefly go over the format of this part of the exam. SAT Math is broken into two sections. You’ll first complete a 25-minute section, during which you can’t use a calculator. After a short break, you’ll move onto a 55-minute section. During this longer section, you’re allowed to use your calculator.

Both sections will begin with multiple-choice questions, each of which will feature four answer choices. Then you’ll be asked for some student-produced responses, more commonly known as "grid-ins." You won’t have answer choices for these and will need to fill in the correct answer yourself. On the calculator section, some of these grid-ins will relate to one another as part of an Extended Thinking question.

 Here’s the breakdown of time, number of questions, and question types on the two SAT math sections.

Section

Number of Questions

Time

No calculator

15 multiple choice, 5 grid-ins

25 minutes

Calculator

30 multiple choice, 8 grid-ins (including one Extended Thinking question)

55 minutes

Total

58 questions

80 minutes

 

 

SAT Math Tricks to Use Before Test Day

Use these SAT Math tips while you’re studying for the test, so that you’re well prepared by the time you sit down to take the SAT.

 

#1: Know What Math You’ll Be Tested On

It’s hard to do well on a test if you don’t know what subjects it’ll test you on. Depending on your school and the types of math classes you’ve taken, you may find that SAT Math tests topics quite different from what you’ve covered in your math class. The topics might be skills you learned years ago or have never even covered. Either scenario is OK; what’s important is that you know what you’ll be tested on so you can study the right topics. Here are all 24 skills tested in SAT Math:
  • Basic Algebra
    • Linear functions
    • Single variable equations
    • Systems of linear equations
    • Absolute value
  • Advanced Algebra
    • Manipulating polynomials
    • Quadratic equations
    • Dividing polynomials
    • Exponential functions
    • Function notation
    • Solving exponential equations
    • Systems of equations with nonlinear equations
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis
    • Ratios and proportions
    • Scatterplots and graphs
    • Categorical data and probabilities
    • Experimental interpretation
    • Medan, median, mode, standard deviation
  • Additional Topics 
    • Coordinate geometry - lines and slopes
    • Coordinate geometry - nonlinear functions
    • Geometry - circles
    • Geometry - lines and angles
    • Geometry - solid geometry
    • Geometry - triangles and polygons
    • Trigonometry
    • Complex numbers

    If there are any topics you are already sure you don’t know, you can flag them to study. This list will also be helpful after you’ve taken some practice tests (see tip #3) so you can identify the areas you’re doing well in and the areas you need to improve in.

 

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#2: Memorize Common Formulas and Math Facts

On SAT Math, 12 important formulas with be included at the beginning of both math sections. You can refer to these formulas throughout SAT Math, but if you're flipping to the front of the section every time you need to look up a formula, you’ll be wasting valuable time. It's best to have all the formulas memorized before exam day. Check out our article on the formulas you need to know for the SAT Math section to see which formulas you’ll have on test day, as well as other math formulas and facts you should have memorized.

 

#3: Take High-Quality Practice Tests

You can only get better at SAT Math when you use high-quality practice tests and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of substandard study materials out there. Using low-quality practice materials can actually lower your score because you can end up studying the wrong information and missing what you need to know.

The absolute best source for SAT Math questions is the official SAT Tests. These are made by the same people who make the actual SAT, so you know they’ll be giving you an accurate idea of what SAT problems are like. We recommend, at the very least, taking the two SAT Math parts timed and in one sitting so you can get used to the length of the Math section and its time pressure. You should also aim to take a few full-length SATs timed and in one sitting so you can see how testing for several hours affects you.

Many students also like to study using prep books as well. If you’re one of them, check out our article on the best books for SAT Math. These all have high-quality practice tests and questions that can also help you with your studying.

 

#4: Learn From Your Mistakes

It’s not enough to work your way through dozens, or even hundreds of practice problems. Afterward, you need to analyze each of the questions you answered. Every mistake you made on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you'll make that mistake over and over again.

For each practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're unsure about. When you correct your answers, review every question you got wrong and every question you marked you were unsure of. This way even if you guessed on a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.

For each question, figure out how to solve the problem (see tip #5) and understand why you didn’t know how to solve it. If you notice a lot of the problems are in a certain area (such as geometry), then you know to spend more time specifically reviewing that subject. There’s no denying that these steps will take time, but they’re the absolute best way for you to get the most from practice tests and actually see improvements to your SAT Math score.

 

#5: Retry Questions You Got Wrong Before Looking at the Answer Explanation

When you get a question wrong, the first thing you probably do is look to see what the correct answer is and then read through the answer explanation. However, this isn’t the best way to study for SAT Math! This is passive learning; you’re not actively engaging with the mistake you made.

We recommend a different approach. Find the correct answer choice (A-D) as you normally would, but don't look at the explanation. Instead, try to re-solve the question to see if knowing what the correct answer is can help you figure out the correct way to solve the question.

To be honest, this can be hard. If you didn’t get a question right the first time, it’s usually not easy to get it right when you try it again. However, now that you know the correct answer and aren’t pressed for time, you might spot a new strategy, or think of a new way to approach the problem.

When this happens, and you do end up correctly solving the problem, what you learned will stick in your mind much longer than if you had just read the answer explanation. Because you've actively worked to solve the problem and reached a breakthrough, you retain that information much better than if you just passively absorbed the information. It’s one of the best ways to learn from your mistakes and really shore up your weak areas.

 

#6: Focus Your Studying on Areas You Struggle the Most In

Here’s some good news: you might be spending too much time studying! For some parts of SAT Math, anyway. Some students are tempted to work their way straight through prep books or review materials, but if there are subjects you’re already solid on, you don’t need to keep reviewing them. The most effective way to study is not to just review all the material you can; it’s to target your studying so you’re spending the most time on the areas where you need the most improvement. This is where knowing what subjects SAT Math tests and taking practice tests comes into play. If you know you’re solid on, say, algebra, but consistently get geometry questions wrong, you should be devoting much more time to studying geometry concepts and answering geometry practice problems than you spend studying algebra.

 

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SAT Math Tips to Use on All Questions

On test day and when answering practice questions, use these SAT Math tips to help you on all questions, both multiple-choice and grid-ins.

 

#7: Underline Key Parts of the Question

This is one of the best SAT Math tricks to use if you’ve been making careless mistakes and getting questions wrong even though you know how to solve them. For every question, underline what you need to find in the question so you don’t get confused during the calculation process.

Sometimes SAT Math questions will ask you to solve for a value that necessitates solving for something else along the way (say, you need to solve for x before you can find the value of 4x). That something else (the value of x, in this case) will often be one of the incorrect answer choices. Many students accidentally pick the trick answer choice because they lose track of the value that they were originally supposed to find. You can avoid this by underlining relevant parts of the question to maintain your focus.

Here’s an example:

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For this question, I’d underline “$300 plus 20 percent of his sales,” “$200 plus 25 percent of her sales,” “same amount of sales and the same compensation,” and “compensation” at the end to remind me that was what I was looking for. That’s the key information you need to know, and seeing it in small chunks can make it easier to understand and remember compared to looking at a block of text. (The correct answer is 700, by the way.)

 

#8: Be Aware of Your Time

Time pressure is something nearly everyone taking the SAT needs to be aware of, and it can be a particularly big issue on SAT Math, when it’s easy to lose track of the number of minutes that have ticked past as you work to solve a tricky equation. However, it’s critical to keep track of time during the exam because not getting to all the SAT Math questions can make it difficult for you to get the score you want.

First, know how much time you have. For the No Calculator section, you’ll have 25 minutes to answer 20 questions. That gives you about 75 seconds per question. For the Calculator section, you’ll have 55 minutes to answer 38 questions. Also remember that the final questions in each section are grid-in, and they often take longer to answer.

The best way to get faster on SAT Math is to do a lot of practice. As you answer more practice questions, you’ll become familiar with the style of questions asked on SAT Math and the types of tricks the test writers try to use.

Additionally, don’t let yourself get stuck on a question and waste a lot of time trying to solve it. Every math question is worth the same number of points, so spending ten minutes to get one question right isn’t a good strategy if it causes you to have several questions you haven’t even looked at when time is called. If you’ve been working on a problem for over a minute and still have no idea how to solve it, mark it in your test booklet as one to come back to and move on. You can return to it if you have time at the end of the section.

 

#9: Make Sure You Solve for the Correct Value

The writers of the SAT love using this trick: have students solve a math problem (typically a long one so the question’s instructions aren’t as fresh in their mind), then, once they’ve solved for the variable, they confidently mark their answer, but get it wrong! What happened? They didn’t solve for the variable the question asked for.

Look at this example:

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As you learned in tip #7, when you read through this question, you should clearly underline “2x.” We are given the problem: "10+x is 5 more than 10." The "is" in the question sets the terms equal, so when we translate this statement, we get:

10+x=15

Now, let’s isolate our variable.

10−10+x=15−10

x=5

Now let’s double-check by plugging our x back into the original equation.

10+x is 5 more than 10.

10+5=15 is 5 more than 10.

Awesome, we’ve isolated our variable. But this is where the SAT tries to trick you! Do you see how 5 is one of the answer choices? They are hoping you’ll see it, forget you’re solving for 2x, and mark it as the correct answer.

Remember, the question wants us to find the value of 2x, not just x. x=5

2(5)=10

So our final answer is C, 2x=10.

 

#10: Show Your Work

If you’ve been in any math class, you’re probably familiar with the much-repeated math teacher mantra: show your work. Teachers don’t want you to seemingly pull an answer out of thin air; they want you to write out, step by step, how you worked through a problem. Not only does this demonstrate your understanding, but it also helps you catch any mistakes along the way.

Now, you won’t get partial credit on SAT Math the way you can in school, but showing your work on the SAT can help you keep your thought process straight and reduce the chance of careless errors.

Write out any calculations you do, as well as the steps to solve other problems, whether you’re solving for x or simplifying a multi-variable expression. Many of the No Calculator problems require multiple steps, so writing out your work will help you keep track of your thinking and avoid errors.

 

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#11: Know When to Put the Calculator Down

You’re allowed a calculator for the majority of SAT Math questions, but that doesn’t always mean you should use it. It’s fine to use a calculator for some quick multiplication/addition or to, say, find a square root, but if you start trying to solve a question using a complicated computer program, know that you’re probably making the problem harder than it needs to be. No math problems require calculator programs to solve. In fact, every SAT Math question can be solved without a calculator, as the makers of the exam didn’t want to give students without access to a calculator an unfair disadvantage. A calculator just makes solving some of the questions faster and easier.

Also, keep in mind that if your answer isn’t a whole number, your calculator will give you the answer as a decimal, while some questions require answers in fraction form. This means you’ll waste time converting from decimals to fractions, and you always want to use your time wisely on the SAT.

 

SAT Math Tricks for Multiple-Choice Questions

Use these SAT Math tips and tricks for the multiple-choice questions on the exam.

 

#12: Eliminate 3 Wrong Answers

The most important rule to remember for SAT Math (as well as all other SAT multiple-choice questions) is that there is only one correct answer for each question; the other three answer choices are irrefutably wrong. The SAT needs to be able to defend its questions and show that there is one, and only one, clear answer for each question. The test would be greatly weakened if people could challenge the questions all the time and argue convincingly that more than one answer could be correct. The College Board would have to throw out all the questions that were disputed, leaving them with less data to calculate scores and a reputation for unreliability.

This means that your number one strategy on the test is to use the process of elimination. If you're struggling with finding the correct solution to a question, try to find reasons to rule out most of the answers rather than reasons why certain options could work. All incorrect choices are incorrect for good reasons, and it’s your job to find those reasons until you narrow your answers down to one possibility.

 

#13: Plug-In Answers to Solve Problems

Sometimes you may find yourself confronted with a problem that you have no idea how to approach or that you think it will take too long to solve algebraically. Other times, you may just want to be absolutely you have the right answer to a question and didn’t make a careless mistake along the way. When this happens, plugging in the answers is one of the best SAT Math tricks to use to make sure you get the right answer.

Even before you begin to approach the problem, look at your answer choices. If you look at the answers first (instead of trying to work out the problem from scratch), you will already know the range in which the correct answer should fall. For example, if your answer range spans from 2 - 20, you know the correct answer cannot possibly be 35. 

Now, which answer choice should you plug in first? Notice that the SAT always presents you with answer choices in order from least to greatest (or, on rare occasions, greatest to least). We always recommend you start with answer choice C. This can help you narrow down your time for a plug-in the answer question by starting in the middle and using process of elimination. For example, if you start with C and it gives you an answer that is too large, you can cross out any answer choices larger than C because they definitely won’t be true. 

Here’s an example: 

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We’ll start with C, where y +z = 0.

We have (y+z) in the second equation, so let us replace it there. 

3x+y+z=14

3x+0=14

3x=14

Now, take that value for 3x and replace it in the first equation. (We do not need to find the value for x alone (4.67), as 3x is repeated in the top equation.)

3x+2(y+z)=19

(Why did we re-write 2y+2z as 2(y+z)? Because we could distribute out the common 2 and keep our y+z intact)

14+2(0)=14

14≠19

So C is not correct. 

We can extrapolate from the problem that (y + z) will not be negative. Why? Because 3x remains the same and yet the solution is greater when (y + z) is doubled. Therefore, (y + z) must be positive, as a negative (y + z) would mean that the top equation would have a solution that was smaller than that of the bottom equation.  

So let's try option D next. 

3x+y+z=14

3x+4=14

3x=10

Again, we do not need to find the individual value for x (3.33), because 3x is repeated in the top equation. 

So 3x+2(y+z)=19

10+2(4)=18

18≠19

So D is not correct. 

 Let us now try option E. 

3x+y+z=14 

3x+5=14

3x=9

Now we’ll plug in this value for 3x in the top equation. 

3x+2(y+z)=19

9+2(5)=19

19=19

So our final answer is E, y+z=5.

 

#14: Choose a Single Letter for All the  Questions You Can’t Solve

It’s not uncommon for there to be several SAT Math questions that you just can’t solve. Don’t get discouraged by this! What you can do however, is maximize the potential of gaining extra points by guessing correctly on problems you couldn’t solve.

The best way to up your odds of randomly choosing the right answer is to pick a letter and use it to answer all the questions you’re guessing on. It can be any letter A-D (despite what you may have heard, C isn’t the most common correct answer), just make sure you use it for all questions you guess on (after you eliminate any obviously wrong answers).

Using only one letter to guess gives you a 25% chance of getting each question right, whereas if you guessed a different letter randomly, your overall odds of guessing correctly would be significantly lower.

 

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SAT Math Tricks for Grid-In Questions

Use these SAT tips and tricks for math for the grid-in questions where you aren’t given answer choices.

 

#15: Know How to Fill in Answers for Grid-In Questions

For grid-in questions on SAT Math, you need to do a little more work than simply filling in the correct bubble. Entering your answer incorrectly on the answer sheet could cause you to lose major points, even if you’re actually solving the problems correctly.  Here are the rules for answering grid-in questions:
    • Fill in no more than one circle per column
    • If an answer doesn’t take up all four spaces (such as 8, 17, or 347), you can start it in any column. For example, if the answer is 201, either response below is correct:
  • 15 
    • Note that your answer can never be a negative number (as there is no way to bubble in a negative sign).
    • You’ll never include pi in your answer; you’ll use a decimal. For example, 3π would be written as 9.425.
    • You can write answers as fractions or decimals, but you can’t use mixed numbers. For example, you’d need to grid 3 ½ as either 7/2 or 3.5, since the grading machine would read 3 ½ as 31/2. 
    • Some questions will have more than one answer (they’ll typically tell you that in the question). Only grid in one answer. For example, if you’re asked for one value of x, which makes (x−1)(x−3)=0, then the answers are x=3 or x=1, and you’d have to choose to grid in either 1 or 3.

 

#16: Plug-In Numbers to Solve Problems

With grid-in problems, you won’t have a set of potential answers to plug-in the way you do with multiple-choice questions. However, you can plug in values you choose to make solving some of these questions easier.

Here’s an example:

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Because we aren’t told that this problem works for "all numbers," we know we must choose our own number for just one variable and solve for the rest. 

In this problem, we’re replacing v with our own number. Why v? Because v shows up in the middle equation and so will be useful for finding our other variables.

We can also see that v=4t, so let's give v a number that is divisible by 4. (Note: we do not HAVE to make v divisible by 4, but it makes life easier for us, as it means we will be dealing with integers rather than decimals.)

So let's just say that v=8. If we replace every v with the number 8, our first equation would look like:

x=3v

x=3(8)

x=24

So we know now that, when v=8, x=24. Now for our second equation:

v=4t

8=4t

t=2

So, when x=24 and v=8, t will be 2. 

And finally, let's look at the last equation using our newly-found numbers for x and t. 

x=pt

24=p(2)

p=12

So p equals 12. 

But wait! Maybe you think p equals 12 only in this one instance and that it would equal something else had we chosen a different number for v. Well let's test it. 

Let's say that v=20 instead of 8. 

x=3v

x=3(20)

x=60

And our second equation:

v=4t

20=4t

t=5

And finally, our last equation:

x=pt

60=p(5)

p=12

As you can see, no matter what value we choose for one of our variables, p will always equal 12 as long as we keep the relationships between the variables intact. 

So our final answer is p=12.

 

Summary: SAT Tips and Tricks for Math

Getting the score you want is often doable as long as you know key SAT Math tips and tricks. Here is a recap of our 16 best SAT Math tricks.

#1: Know What Math You’ll Be Tested On
#2: Memorize Common Formulas and Math Facts
#3: Take High-Quality Practice Tests
#4: Learn From Your Mistakes
#5: Retry Questions You Got Wrong Before Looking at the Answer Explanation
#6: Focus Your Studying on Areas You Struggle the Most In
#7: Underline Key Parts of the Question
#8: Be Aware of Your Time
#9: Make Sure You Solve for the Correct Value
#10: Show Your Work
#11: Know When to Put the Calculator Down
#12: Eliminate 3 Wrong Answers
#13: Plug-In Answers to Solve Problems
#14: Choose a Single Letter for All the  Questions You Can’t Solve
#15: Know How to Fill in Answers for Grid-In Questions
#16: Plug-In Numbers to Solve Problems
 
 

What's Next?

Trying to improve your SAT Math score with additional SAT tips and tricks for math? Here are 9 SAT Math tips specifically for people looking to raise their SAT math score fast!

Looking for book recommendations specific to the math section? Here are our suggestions for the best prep books for SAT Math, along with a few pointers on how to use them most effectively.

Want to make sure you're solid on math basics before diving into SAT Math? Check out our refresher articles on solving inequalities, adding and subtracting fractions, multiplication, perfect squares, and the distributive property.

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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