For many high school students, the SAT is the first exposure to high-stakes standardized testing. A great score can open doors to your future, while a poor one can limit your options. There’s little doubt that the SAT can seem overwhelming and even lead to stress and anxiety for some students.


But with the right tools and proper preparation, anyone can achieve a score that’s a true reflection of their best ability. From study groups, to tutors, to free online resources, there are many ways to prepare for the SAT.


At CollegeVine, we support every student who’s striving for success on the SAT. That’s why we regularly publish many of our favorite SAT tips and strategies here on our blog. In this post, we’ll dive right into the new SAT Math sections, summarizing their format and content and sharing our five favorite strategies for boosting your SAT Math score.


What is the Format of the Math SAT?

The SAT actually contains two separate math tests. The scores for each of the math tests are combined into one single scaled Math score ranging from 200-800. The SAT Math tests consist of 58 questions completed over the course of 80 minutes. Most of these questions are multiple-choice, but 13 are grid-in questions that require you to come up with your own response rather than selecting your answer from the available choices.


The first Math SAT test that you’ll take is called the Math Test—Calculator. At the name implies, you are allowed to use your calculator on this portion of the SAT. The test consists of 30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-in answers, which you’ll complete over the course of 55 minutes.


The second Math SAT test that you’ll take is the Math Test—No Calculator. As you might have guessed, you are not allowed to use a calculator on this part of the SAT. This section contains 20 questions, including five grid-in answers. You will have 25 minutes to complete the questions in this section.

Download a Free SAT Test Prep Checklist

What Skills Does the Math SAT Assess?

The Math SAT assesses your math fluency, conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts, and your ability to apply your knowledge towards solving problems.


These skills are assessed in three major content areas. These content areas are:


Heart of Algebra: focuses on the mastery of linear equations and systems.

Problem Solving and Data Analysis: about being quantitatively literate.

Passport to Advanced Math: features questions that require the manipulation of complex equations.


In addition to this content, there is also some geometry and trigonometry on the test that falls under the category of Additional Topics in Math.


With a firm understanding of the test’s content and format, you can begin to really prepare for the test’s content and boost your scores to the best of your ability. Keep reading for our five favorite tips to boost your score on the Math SAT.


Five Tips to Boost Your Score on the Math SAT

1. Get Smart About Focusing Your Study

There are two primary ways that you can maximize the efficiency of your studying.


First, be certain that you know where you’re starting from. Here at CollegeVine we recommend that all students begin their studying, whether for an SAT or not, with a formative assessment. If you haven’t yet taken an SAT, we suggest you start with the free College Board Official Practice SAT Test. If you have taken an SAT already, your score report will provide you with the information you need (though the diagnostic test might still provide some additional insight).


In any case, you will need to have a good idea of where you’re starting from and, more importantly, your specific strengths and weaknesses, before you can really dig deeply into the material.


The other technique for focusing your studying is by identifying which content areas are most heavily tested. In the past, the following content areas alone have accounted for more than 50% of the SAT math content:


  • Solving single variable equations
  • Define and interpret linear function
  • Ratios and proportions
  • Solving systems of linear equations
  • Manipulating polynomials
  • Scatterplots and Graphs
  • Solving quadratic equations
  • Coordinate geometry of nonlinear functions
  • Exponential functions

To study efficiently, make sure that you cover each of those content areas deeply, even if it means conserving time around other, less commonly tested content areas.


2. Plug In Answers For Hypothetical Questions

If you’re like most students, thinking in terms of variables and hypothetical, abstract scenarios is much more difficult than thinking in terms of actual numbers. For example, consider the following prompt:


If the radius of a circle is tripled, what is the effect on the circle’s circumference?


The answer choices to a problem like this will generally involve the variables for radius and circumference, but the only numbers present will be coefficients. Make it smooth on yourself and plug in easy, simple-to-use numbers to solve the problem. In this example, you might plug in a radius of 1 to start, and then calculate how that changes the circumference. Once you have a theory, see if it holds as you plug in another simple value, such as 2. Just be certain to try a number other than 1 or 0 to ensure that your theory holds.


By working backwards and using the answer choices as your platform, you can go straight into solving a problem numerically rather than trying to think it through in abstract terms.


3. Eliminate Careless Mistakes

Careless mistakes are generally the ones that you come across as you’re reviewing your test that make you think “Wow, how did I get that one wrong?!” These are an easy way to lose valuable points, so you need to have some idea of how to minimize their occurrence.


First, slow down. Know the pace that you need to keep to finish the test successfully, and have some plans for time management, but overall, slow down and take as much time as you can for each question.


Next, write down each step of the problem as you’re going through it. This is especially true if you’re using a calculator. Sometimes, you will arrive to an answer that is not represented by the answer choices. In this case, you know you’ve made a mistake and you’ll need a clear visual of the steps you took to arrive at your answer. If you don’t, you’ll have to start the problem over from scratch and solve the whole thing again.


4. Be Familiar With the Resources Available

The Math SAT is one of the few standardized tests that allow you to use references during the actual test. In fact, a reference sheet is included at the beginning of each test booklet so that students can access them throughout the test.


Rather than spending precious time on test day reviewing the content of the reference sheet, you’re much better off arriving at the test with a firm understanding of what exactly you can expect to find on the reference sheet, along with how you can use these equations and diagrams during the test. You can find a copy of the reference sheet for the Math SAT here.


In addition to the reference sheet, you also have the obvious resource of a calculator available to you throughout most (but not all) of the math section. Do not borrow a friend’s unfamiliar calculator the morning of the test. Instead, bring a calculator that you’ve used consistently in the past. Know how to access common formulas and features, and make sure that you start the day with a fresh set of batteries.


5. Two-Pass Strategy

The two-pass strategy is a time management technique that optimizes your score by ensuring that you are able to answer all of the questions that you’re most likely to get correct. To employ this technique, you skip questions that seem initially difficult or time-consuming in favor of answering questions that seem easier to you.


As you take the test, if you come across a question that you have no idea where to begin solving or that you know you won’t be able to solve easily, you immediately fill in your best guess as the answer, circle the question in the test booklet, and circle the question on your answer sheet. You then spend your usual time and effort on the easier questions, and if there is time remaining at the end, you go back and review the questions that you guessed on earlier in the test.


Keep in mind as you use this strategy that questions on the math section of the SAT are generally ordered by difficulty. While there is of course some variation according to your personal strengths, as a rule of thumb, if you find yourself skipping many questions towards the beginning of the test, you may want to adjust your standards of which questions you are considering too difficult. They will usually only get more and more difficult as you go through the test. Try to reserve this strategy for content that you’re particularly unfamiliar with, or for questions that are exceptionally difficult.


Bonus Tip: PRACTICE!

There is really no experience that compares to taking the actual SAT. For this reason, the best practice is taking actual SATs or SAT practice tests. Start by taking these tests untimed and really focusing on identifying areas of strength and weakness. Then, move on to taking timed tests to perfect your pacing. Try to learn something from each practice test you take by carefully reviewing your answers and making sure that you understand your mistakes.


Free Study Resources for the Math SAT

You can find lots of free practice tests and study resources for the Math SAT online.


The CollegeBoard provides sample questions and a daily practice app to help you prepare for the Math SAT.

You can also visit Khan Academy, the official study partner of the College Board, to read more about SAT content and strategy for the Math SAT.

Finally, don’t miss the official CollegeVine Ultimate Guide to the New SAT Math Test for more tips and a complete breakdown of the test itself.

If you still have questions about SAT preparation or strategies, or you are interested in our full-service, customized SAT tutoring, head over to CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, where the brightest and most qualified tutors in the industry guide students to an average score increase of 140 points.


To learn more about the SAT, check out these CollegeVine posts:

SAT tutoring CollegeVine

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

Latest posts by Kate Sundquist (see all)