SAT Prep – How to Approach SAT Math Questions

How to Approach SAT Math Questions

The 2023 SAT Math Test is an assessment that evaluates problem-solving abilities in a variety of contexts. Knowledge of math is obviously important, but Math Test scores can benefit from test-taking approaches that make strategic use of memorization, time management skills, and familiarity with the test. The best possible student performance results from preparation that incorporates both subject-matter study and regimented practice with exercises that are specific to the SAT Math Test.

Targeted Memorization and Time Management

The 2023 SAT Math Test includes a reference section with 12 standard mathematical formulas (e.g., the formula for finding the area of a circle, the circumference of a circle, the area of a rectangle, etc.). Students would be well-advised to consult practice tests and memorize all formulas in this reference section, as the more familiar students are with these formulas, the more time they will be able to save when taking the test. It is a good idea to practice solving problems using these formulas to sharpen these computational skills. The more comfortable students are with these particular types of problems, the less stress they will experience when encountering them, making them more likely to solve the given problems correctly and earning themselves an impressively high score.

Memorizing the format of the SAT Math Test in terms of number and types of questions, time allotted, and division of skills will allow students to carefully proceed according to individual math strengths and weaknesses when taking the test. With 80 minutes given for a student to complete a total of 58 questions, a literal interpretation would allow approximately 1 minute and 23 seconds per question. However, all questions on the SAT Math Test are not equal in terms of the effort required both from the general student population and in terms of the specific background of a given student. Test-takers should allow additional time for questions on mathematical skills with which they have more difficulty. Students should also anticipate devoting extra time to the gridded response questions, which take longer to answer due to the fact that a numerical response must be provided along with filling in the appropriate circles.

Here is an overview of the type of questions that comprise the SAT Math Test, as well as the number of each type of question a student will be asked to solve:

  • Heart of Algebra: These questions focus on a student's mastery of linear equations and systems. There are 19 such questions.

  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: These questions focus on how quantitatively literate a student is and involve using ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning to solve problems set in real-world scenarios. There are 17 such questions.

  • Passport to Advanced Math: These questions require the manipulation of complex equations or functions such as might be used in a career involving science, technology, engineering, and/or math. There are 16 such questions.

  • Additional Topics in Math: These questions involve topics including but not limited to geometry, trigonometry, radian measure, and complex numbers. There are 6 such questions.

The more students know about the SAT Math Test, the more targeted they can be in their preparation, spending less time on areas they are already strong in and more time practicing the types of problems they are less skilled at or comfortable with.

Guessing Answers

The 2023 SAT does not penalize students for incorrect answers. Students should therefore provide answers to all multiple-choice questions, even if these are only guesses. Statistically speaking, guesses can make a substantive difference to a student's section and test scores. For example, 45 of the SAT Math Test's 58 questions (almost 78%) are multiple choice, each with four possible answer choices, which correlates to a 25% probability of a correct answer. Guessing on eight multiple choice questions, for example, would be statistically likely to result in at least two additional correct answers in comparison to not answering those questions. This would boost the total number of correct answers (which the College Board refers to as the "raw score") by about 3.5%. Conversion of raw scores to test and section scores is a complex process meant to account for variations of difficulty level across multiple test administrations, but College Board data show that two additional correct answers can turn a 760 section score into a 790 or a 610 into a 630. These are significant differences with potential real-world implications when applying to college, and while many students find it difficult to provide an answer, they know they guessed at, taking practice tests can help them overcome this and make using the process of elimination more habitual.

Verifying Answers, Effective Use of a Calculator, and Basic Math

If time allows, testing the answers to formula questions should be undertaken by plugging in random values for variables, as this approach will confirm answer choices. For at least the earlier part of 2023, the SAT Math Test will include both calculator and no-calculator segments. Beginning later in 2023 for international students and in 2024 for students in the United States, calculator usage will be permitted across the entire SAT Math Test. In fact, when the SAT goes digital, an embedded calculator will be provided, meaning students will no longer be required to bring a calculator with them to complete the test.

Until then, students can benefit from knowing which types of computations are appropriate for calculator use. The calculator portion of the 2023 SAT includes 38 questions (30 multiple-choice and 8 grid-in), for which students are given 55 minutes. When used correctly, a calculator can save a significant amount of time on test day, but students may also waste time if they rely on a calculator too heavily. College Board test writers have purposely developed the calculator questions to challenge test-takers' understanding of this distinction, and students should be aware that some of the problems on the calculator segments of the SAT Math Test are most quickly solved without a calculator. The no-calculator portions of the SAT math test are deliberately intended to assess test-takers' ability to perform basic mathematical computations. The no-calculator portion includes 20 questions students are given 25 minutes to complete. When preparing for the SAT, students should be familiar with using calculators correctly and efficiently to solve appropriate problems while also practicing basic math questions whose solutions they figure out without technological assistance.

Preparation Options for the SAT Math Section

Successful performance on the 2023 SAT Math Test is ultimately the result of careful and informed practice. Students taking the SAT are presented with an overwhelming number of self-guided preparation options, from books and flashcards to online video-recorded lessons. Few students derive great benefit from these approaches to SAT preparation, however, as self-study methods are less than ideal in their relative lack of accountability and personalized attention to specific student test prep requirements. Published research has convincingly demonstrated the value of professional SAT instruction. An experienced tutor or classroom instructor can usually provide the best results through assessment of individual student needs, live interaction during the preparation process, regular and specific feedback, and structure with respect to teaching and study time. While preparing for the SAT can involve an investment of time, as well as financial resources, earning a top score that allows a student to have choices when it comes to attending college is truly priceless, making such a commitment well worth it.

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