SAT Math: What You Need to Know

The SAT has two math sections: No-Calculator (20 questions) and Calculator (38 questions).

Students’ performance on these two sections contributes to 50% of their SAT composite score (400-800).

What math do you need to know for the SAT?

First things first: SAT math is very different than high school math! 

SAT math tends to cover the same basic concepts that students have probably seen before. However, it tests those concepts in unfamiliar ways. 

The best way to prepare for SAT math is to know what to expect going in so that there are no surprises. It’s also essential to have some strategies on hand for approaching a variety of math question types.

In this post, we cover the following:


SAT Math: The Basics

There are two math sections on the SAT:

  • No-Calculator Permitted: 20 questions, 25 minutes
  • Calculator Permitted: 38 questions, 55 minutes 

These two sections come after the Reading and Writing & Language sections. (We discuss SAT format at greater length in our post about the 5 SAT Sections.)

In general, the no-calculator math section tends to contain more straightforward questions. The calculator section often requires more critical thinking, translating words into math, and data analysis. 

In both sections, the questions are arranged in order of increasing difficulty

That may sound intimidating, but smart test-takers can use that structure to their advantage by knowing to prioritize the earlier, easy questions first!


General Tips for Approaching SAT Math

As with all SAT sections, one of the biggest keys to success is using time efficiently. What can you do to maximize your time on SAT Math?

We have a few tips.

Question Order

All questions on the SAT are worth the same number of points (within each individual section). 

It just doesn’t make sense to waste five minutes struggling through a difficult problem (that a student might get wrong anyway!) at the expense of spending that time on easy/intermediate questions a student can definitely get right. 

Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to rush through the initial easy questions to get to the hard problems if it means making careless errors! Focus attention on where you’ll have the most success.

SAT Math_ What to Expect (2) (1)

For that reason, don’t feel like you have to answer every question on SAT Math in order. In fact, this is what we recommend:

  • Skip around, prioritizing quick, easy questions first
  • Then work questions you feel comfortable answering but know will be time-consuming
  • Finally, attempt any difficult questions (if there is time left)

How do you recognize hard questions on SAT Math?

As a rule-of-thumb, hard questions require more than 1 minute to complete. 

If you’ve spent a full minute on an SAT Math question, pause and re-evaluate. If you can solve the problem in another 30 seconds, go for it. Otherwise, skip it and come back to it later. 

Guessing

While you might not have time to attempt every SAT Math question, never leave a question blank. 

There are no penalties for wrong answers on the SAT, so make sure to grid in an answer for every question, even if it’s a total guess! 

That being said, try to use process of elimination as much as possible to weed out unlikely answers and increase the probability of guessing correctly. Every answer choice ruled out significantly increases your odds of getting a correct answer. 

In the event that no answer choices can be ruled out, choose a “Letter of the Day” (i.e. A, B, C, or D) and use that same letter for every guess.

Be Prepared

Finally, while this may sound obvious, students should come into the test prepared.

Save yourself time by memorizing the SAT Math instructions and reference information that appear on every test at the start of each section. For example, here are the directions and reference information for the no-calculator section:

SAT Math: No-Calculator Section Instructions

SAT Math: Reference Information
Source: College Board Official SAT Practice Test 1

Both SAT Math sections involve grid-in questions, where students must supply their own answers. Familiarize yourself with how to grid-in answers correctly ahead of time to avoid careless errors and wasted time.

SAT Math Grid-In Questions
Grid-in questions appear on both SAT Math sections.

Lastly, understand the how-and-when of using calculators. While many students rely on a calculator for computation, it’s not always the quickest way to solve a problem (especially on the SAT!). 

Practice problems with and without a calculator in advance of the test to understand which is fastest for you!


Problem-Solving Strategies for SAT Math 

The most important strategy for SAT math is solving problems in the fastest way possible. 

This does not mean rushing through problems. Rather, it means being a savvy test taker and adapting your strategy for each problem!

Unlike high school math, the SAT doesn’t care how students solve the problem. You don’t get credit for showing your work (although showing your work can help you avoid careless errors). 

Choose whichever method is quickest for solving an SAT math problem. 

There are 5 main approaches to SAT math problems. 

1. The Straightforward Approach

With this approach, simply solve the problem in the “traditional” way. 

However, know that there are multiple ways to solve the same problem. As you practice, try to get into the habit of identifying which approaches are quickest for different question types.

2. Plugging in an Answer Choice

This SAT Math strategy is great if you’re not sure how to answer the question, or if you think the traditional approach will take longer. This strategy works best when there are variables in the question and numbers as the answer choices.

Pick an answer choice, plug it back into the question, and see if it works.

If it doesn’t, try again with another answer choice.

Start by checking answer B or C, as these answers will tend to be values in the middle of the range. This can help you rule out answer choices more quickly. 

For example, if you start by checking B and the value is too low, you know that you need a bigger number–you don’t need to waste time checking answer A.

The only exception to this rule is if a question asks about the least or greatest possible value. In this case, start by testing A (for least possible value) or D (for greatest possible value) and move on from there.

Here’s a great question for plugging in the answers:

Plugging in the Answers_SAT Math
Source: College Board Official SAT Practice Test 1

3. Plugging in Your Own Numbers

This is an effective strategy if there are a lot of variables and it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Replace variables with your own numbers and see which answer choice fits the stipulations of the question.

Make sure to check all answer choices when using this method – it’s possible that more than one answer will come out to the same correct value. If that happens, rule out all answer choices with incorrect values, then choose new numbers and test the remaining answers again.

Choose different numbers for different variables (i.e. x and y). Choose numbers that are friendly to work with, but avoid choosing 1 or 0, which may result in trick answers.

This is a great method for percentage word problems (choose 100 as your number!).

Here’s a question that can easily be solved by plugging in your own numbers:

SAT Math_Plugging in Numbers
Source: College Board Official SAT Practice Test 1

4. Graphing

Graphing on your calculator can be useful if you’re ever in a jam finding points of intersection, x- or y-intercepts, minimums/maximums, etc.

This method is usually more time-consuming, so only use it if you’re totally lost!

5. Guessing

If all else fails, use process of elimination and Letter of the Day to make an educated guess. This is a great approach for high-difficulty SAT Math questions.

In general, high-difficulty SAT Math questions occur at the end of each section:

  • No Calculator: questions 14-15, 19-20
  • Calculator: questions 20-29, 35-38

Section 1: The No-Calculator Section 

SAT Math: No-Calculator Section   The first SAT Math section is the no-calculator section. Students have 25 minutes to answer 20 questions. 

The first 15 questions are multiple-choice, while the final 5 questions are grid-in questions that require students to fill in their own answers. 

In general, this section encompasses the following four content areas:

  •     Algebra (8-10 questions)
  •     Trigonometry (0-2 questions)
  •     Geometry (2-4 questions)
  •     Advanced math (6-10 questions)

All of the questions in this section are designed to be answered in about one minute or less and can be completed without a calculator. 

Common algebra topics include:

  • Fractions
  • Single Equations
  • Simplification
  • Substitution
  • Percentages
  • Inequalities

Common geometry questions include:

  • Triangles
  • Circles
  • Volume/Area

The SAT tests geometry in limited and predictable ways, so students don’t need to be well-versed in the entirety of geometry in order to be successful. 

Rather, they should be comfortable solving problems involving circles (especially finding circle area, circumference, arc length, and sector area), triangles (especially Pythagorean theorem, special right triangles, and similar triangles), and volume/area problems for all regular shapes.

That’s pretty much it!

A typical no-calculator geometry problem might look something like this: 

SAT Math: Geometry Problems

Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Trigonometry questions will test a pretty basic understanding of trigonometry (if it appears on the test at all!), so don’t worry about being an expert.

The SAT wants to see that students have a working knowledge of trigonometric concepts, but the test usually doesn’t require students to apply trigonometry in overly complicated ways.

A typical trigonometry question might look something like this:

SAT Math: Trigonometry

Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1 

With this sample problem, once students recognize the trigonometric identity that states that sin =cos(90°), the problem becomes a no-brainer. 

Common trigonometry questions involve:

  •     Sine, cosine, and tangent
  •     Trigonometric identities
  •     Evaluating trigonometric expressions

Similarly, “Advanced Math” is not as scary as it sounds. For the sake of the SAT, “Advanced Math” simply means testing a basic understanding of more advanced algebra topics, but not necessarily more difficult problems.

A typical “Advanced Math” problem might look something like this:

SAT Math: Advanced Math

Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Topics covered in Advanced Math include:

  • Factoring
  • Polynomials
  • Systems of Equations
  • Translating Words into Math
  • Fractions 
  • Ratios 
  • Functions
  • Substitution
  • Imaginary Numbers
  • Square Roots

Section 2: The Calculator Section

SAT Math: Calculator SectionThe second SAT math section is longer and a bit more challenging. It is composed of 38 questions to be completed in 55 minutes. 

The first 30 questions are multiple-choice, while the final 8 questions are grid-in questions.

In general, the calculator section of the SAT tends to cover similar concepts to the no-calculator section, but with a few key differences. 

The calculator section places a lot more emphasis on data analysis and problem-solving than the no-calculator section. Students should expect to encounter some wordy problems that require more critical thinking than straight computation. 

This will mean translating English into math and analyzing a lot more charts and figures that emphasize “real-world” math!

A typical “Data & Analysis” question from the calculator section might look something like this:

SAT Math: Data Analysis

Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

The flip-side is that students won’t come across as many geometry or trigonometry problems on this SAT Math section. In fact, the frequency with which each concept is tested in this section is quite different. In general, students should expect to see:

  •     Geometry (3-6 questions)
  •     Data Analysis & Problem Solving (16-18 questions)
  •     Algebra (10-13 questions)
  •     Advanced Math (5-8 questions)

Note that there is still quite a bit of algebra on the calculator section. However, it might look different than it does on the no-calculator section.

There will likely be more word problems that require students to interpret real-world situations and figure out how to turn them into mathematical expressions.

A typical algebra problem from the calculator section might look something like this:

SAT Math: Algebra

Source: The College Board Official Practice Test 1

Next Steps

More so than anything else, the secret to mastering the SAT math section is practice

While the majority of the material will be familiar to most high school students, the test oftentimes presents that material in challenging and unusual ways. 

The best way to be prepared is to practice as much as possible in order to familiarize yourself with different question types, as well as to figure out which strategies work best for which questions.

How can you make sure that you’re getting the best practice in possible? 

We strongly recommend signing up for one of our state-of-the-art SAT programs. Working with professionals who utilize real College Board materials is the surest way to guarantee excellent results as you study for the SAT.

Check out our course offerings here!


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Annie is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A. in English). Originally from Connecticut, Annie now lives in Los Angeles and continues to mentor children across the country via online tutoring and college counseling. Over the last eight years, Annie has worked with hundreds of students to prepare them for all-things college, including SAT prep, ACT prep, application essays, subject tutoring, and general counseling. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.