Studying for the Math Portion of the SAT

The Math section on the SAT makes up one-third of your composite score. There are two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. There are 54 questions, 10 of which are student-produced response questions.

In my opinion, math is the easiest section to prepare for on the SAT. The actual skills are not especially advanced and the questions are relatively straightforward. The SAT math does not test past Algebra II. It tests mostly basic algebra and geometry. For this reason, your performance on the math section is not indicative of your general mathematics ability. A student doing well in Multivariable Calculus is likely to not score very well without some preparation. Likewise, a junior studying Algebra II might earn a very high score since the skills required for the test are still fresh in their mind.

The math on the SAT is extremely predictable. This means that from test to test, questions vary very little. While no two questions will be identical, the structures and concepts will be the same across tests. This is why your best strategy for mastering the math section is practice – but only with real SATs. This means that Official SAT Study Guide 2nd Edition by the College Board along with a few released tests the College Board puts online are your primary study tools. Sometimes, other test prep books like Gruber’s may be helpful for learning content, but typically their practice tests and questions are less helpful than those of the College Board because they are not questions that are actually used on the SAT.

Here are my recommendations for beginning to study for the math portion of the SAT:

  • Open The Official SAT Study Guide to the very first “real test.” Skip all of the instructional fluff that comes before that.
  • Work through about 5 questions at a time and do not worry about time.
  • After you complete 5 questions, go on the College Board website and view the answer explanations. This will involve creating a College Board account, but it’s still worth it. Read every single answer explanation regardless of whether you answered the question correctly or incorrectly. This forces you to begin to see patterns in the test and understand the formulaic ways to answer these questions rapidly.
  • If you are still having difficulty understanding the College Board’s answer explanations, you may want to look at the Khan Academy for video explanations from a brilliant Princeton graduate. These solutions only line up the The Official SAT Study Guide 1st Edition test questions. However, the 1st Edition does not come with online answer explanations from the College Board like the 2nd.
  • After a few weeks, you should have completed about 2-3 tests worth of math questions. At this point, you should then transition to completing whole math sections at a time.
  • Begin to note how much time it takes you to answer each section. I recommend that you set a timer, circle the question you are working on when time ends and then continue to finish the section, noting how much extra time you needed.
  • At the conclusion of each section, read the answer explanations for each question. Make sure to read not only the explanations for why a given choice is right, but also why all of the other choices are wrong. This will enable you to rapidly spot “trick” answers that the College Board uses to distract test takers.
  • After completing 2-3 tests worth of math sections, begin to complete whole math tests at a time. This means that if in Test 5 of your Official SAT Study Guide, math makes up sections 2, 6, and 9 then you will complete sections 2, 6, and 9 within the time constraints.
  • Score your tests to gauge your performance. Look to identify patterns in your mistakes. Again, be sure to read through all of the answer explanations. This is where all of the real learning takes place.
  • Finally, after completing 2-3 tests worth of math sections, begin to take full-length, timed SATs. But hold off on this step until you have prepared for the other test sections as well.

Do you find you are still having difficulty completing math sections within the allocated time? Have no fear and look out for a new post on improving speed in the math section of the SAT, coming soon.

Have any questions? Drop me a line at hbrinn@thecollegiateblog.com.