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Jonathan Reidenouer

10 Score-Boosting SAT Math Tips

If you need help boosting your SAT Math scores, it’s safe to say you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of students struggle with math on the SAT. For standardized tests at any level, math is consistently the subject area that students feel they need the most help with.

What is it about the SAT Math test that often frustrates students? It’s much different than math tested on the ACT. Mainly, it’s the fact that The College Board designs the math questions to test students’ ability to reason. That means that even if you understand the concepts being tested, you may not be as familiar with the application of those concepts. Many of the SAT Math test questions are unlike any questions you have seen in math classes in school.

Even students who perform well in high school math often come up short when first encountering the types of math on the SAT. Thankfully, there are some concrete ways anyone can boost their SAT math scores.

1. Know the content of the SAT Math tests

The College Board categorizes all SAT Math questions as being part of Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, Problem Solving and Data Analysis (all official categories), or Additional Topics, which covers geometry, trigonometry, and imaginary numbers. The bulk of the questions center on three broad skills areas, though:

  • Linear equations, functions, and inequalities, including linear patterns in word problems;
  • Polynomial expressions and functions, quadratic equations and functions, and parabolas;
  • Ratios, rates, and percentages, including averages and probability.

Although some SAT Math formulas are provided for you at the beginning of each Math test section, there are a few others you’ll want to remember that aren’t on that official list, such as the circle equation, the quadratic formula, and the distance-rate-time equation. Don’t go overboard trying to memorize formulas, though, as your time could be better spent in other areas of preparation.

2. Learn to use your calculator effectively

Almost two-thirds of the SAT Math test is calculator-allowed, so there is great benefit in learning all the ins and outs of your graphing calculator. You say you don’t have a graphing calculator? In that case, it’s best to get one. Since every point you can get matters, it’s best to have the advantage a graphing calculator affords. There are a few restrictions on what calculator you can bring to the test, so make sure you check the College Board’s calculator policy.

There are all kinds of small “tricks” and “shortcuts” that a calculator can provide, but it’s tough to figure them all out on your own. An experienced SAT Math tutor can teach you all the useful features in an efficient manner so that you’re a calculator pro when you take the test.

3. When confused on a question, get started by writing something down

Hey, we have all been there: you read the question, but it doesn’t make sense, so then you stare at it without doing anything. Instead of making your head spin trying to understand every detail of the problem, just start writing things down.

If the problem gives you values for variables, plug those numbers into the function provided. You can construct tables so you can plug in your own input values to get a list of corresponding output values. Make a sketch or diagram to get a visual image of the information given. If there is a graph provided, draw on it! If there isn’t one, then make your own set of coordinate axes and use that to graph the given information.

While writing things down won’t necessarily lead you directly to the answer, it will get you started. Hopefully getting the information down on paper will cause that light bulb to go off in your head, and you’ll realize the next steps to make to arrive at the correct answer.

4. Know your options when the “direct approach” isn’t working

The direct approach is the method we all learned in school, where we take the given information and put it into some mathematical model to find an answer. Many questions can be solved fairly quickly using this approach, so if you’re comfortable with it, then use it.

What can you do if the direct approach isn’t working? Well, if it’s a multiple-choice question, you have several back-up options. Thankfully, more than three-fourths of the SAT is multiple choice!

The two most powerful alternative strategies are Plugging in the Answers (PITA) and Plugging in Numbers (PIN). There are specific conditions where each one is applicable.

Plugging In The Answers (PITA)

PITA is used when the answers are numeric. If the question presents an equation or a word problem that can be modeled with an equation, then you should take the answers and plug them into the equation for the proper variable(s). When an answer choice makes the equation true, you have found your answer. Even with word problems, you can start with the answers and work your way backwards to see if the implications of those answer choices align with the information given in the problem. Remember this: When the question is multiple choice, then the answer is right in front of you!

Plugging In Numbers (PIN)

PIN is primarily used when the answer choices have variables in them—i.e., they are mathematical expressions. Since the problem is just comparing expressions, you can work it by picking numbers for the variables:

  • Pick an easy number to work with (like 0 or 1) and plug it in for the variable in the original expression.
  • Simplify that expression to find your check value, which you’re going to use to evaluate the answer choices.
  • Substitute the original number you chose for the variables in the answer choices and look for which answers match the check value.
  • Remember to check all the answer choices when using PIN, as more than one expression can produce the same check value.
  • If only one answer choice matches the check value, then that’s the correct one. If more than one matches the check value, that’s all right: you still were able to eliminate the ones that didn’t match. Just choose another number for the variable and repeat the process until only one answer choice matches the check value.

Because it can sometimes be challenging to know when to use these back-up strategies as opposed to the direct approach, you should probably set up a few sessions with an SAT Math tutor in order to get some expert guidance on these test-taking skills.

5. Utilize guess-and-check on student-produced questions

Student-produced questions are also known as “grid-ins”, since, instead of choosing a correct answer from a list of options, students must solve problems and enter their answers in grids on the answer sheet. If you don’t like the student-produced questions, that’s fine - it’s perfectly normal! We all prefer questions where one of four given choices is the correct answer. But even though the questions aren’t multiple-choice, there is still a strategy you can sometimes use when the direct approach doesn’t work: guess-and-check.

The guess-and-check method is similar to the PITA strategy in the multiple-choice section. It’s just that you need to come up with your own numbers to plug in. Make a table where you can arrange the information and then compare your results to the correct amount indicated in the problem. If your output amount is too high or too low, just adjust the input value accordingly.

Just remember that the questions in the student-produced sections produce only positive rational answers. Unless the question specifically instructs you to round off a number, you should stick with fractions on the answer grid.

6. Learn not to fear word problems

Yes, this is easier said than done! It’s no secret that almost everyone who struggles with math doesn’t like word problems. You may never feel totally comfortable with word problems, but at least you can learn how to attack them rather than fear them.

Reread the end of the question

The biggest mistake made by panicking students is failing to recognize what the answer choices represent. Look for the sentence or clause with the question mark and underline what the problem is asking for.

Ask yourself, “What is this problem about?”

You’re just looking for a simple theme to get you started—something like money, distance, averages, or probability. Having that information can help set your thinking on what to do next.

Establish what you already know

If nothing else, go ahead and write down the information given in the problem. Often just the act of writing it down can get your mind moving in the right direction.

Use models you are already familiar with to organize things

Now that you know the theme of the problem and what the answer should represent, you can choose a model that the given information fits into.

For multiple-choice questions, try out all the answer choices

Use what’s available in your model to see which answer fits the given information.

7. Don’t be afraid to use some common sense

Math is by nature logical, even though it can be confusing for some. It’s not some secret code that requires special insight to understand, but rather a system of principles that remain constant. If you can remember that while taking the SAT Math test, then you can use common sense to help in your problem-solving approach.

  • Remember that the difficulty level of the questions gradually increases over the course of both the multiple-choice portions and student-produced portions. The earlier questions are supposed to be easy, so don’t overthink them! Conversely, the later questions are supposed to be challenging, so don’t underthink them by failing to read the problem closely and assuming you know what is being asked.
  • Eliminate impossible answers first by recognizing the conditions of the question. For example, say you’re asked to find the slope of the line on a graph, and you can see the line is sloping upward: you can eliminate answer choices with negative slopes.
  • When taking the No Calculator test, keep in mind that The College Board is not going to give you problems that require extensive calculation by hand. If you find yourself doing tedious calculations, then it’s time to rethink your strategy: reread the question and start over.
  • If the SAT does not tell you to give an approximate value, then your response should match one of the answer choices precisely. The test will indicate when you are to approximate by using terms such as “closest to” and “approximately,” or by instructing you to round the answer to a certain number of decimal places. If such language does not appear, then one of the answer choices will be the exact answer. Don’t “force” a decimal to fit one of the answer choices when the question did not call for approximation.

8. Beware of “hidden instructions”

This may be the SAT “trick” that catches students more than any other. “Hidden instructions” are extra instructions tacked onto the question.

For example, suppose the equation 4x+5=9–3x is presented, but instead of being asked to solve for variable x, you are asked to find what 3x–5 is equal to. Most students will solve the equation for x, but not all will remember to then plug that solution into the expression 3x–5. They miss those “hidden instructions.”

Before you mark your answer on the bubble sheet, take a look back at the problem and reread the question to make sure you are answering it properly. Make sure you are actually answering the question that’s being asked, not the question you think is being asked!

9. Retake, review, improve

If you have already received your SAT scores, then you have an idea of how much you need to improve. Remember that you can take the test again…and again…and again—up to 12 times if necessary!

When registering for your next SAT, make sure you sign up for the Question and Answer Service (QAS), provided it’s available. The QAS enables you to review your work by providing you with the questions from your test and the answers you selected. If you sign up for the QAS in advance, you will get digital access to your questions and answers as part of your score report from The College Board. If you don’t sign up in advance, that’s all right: you can still order the QAS in paper form after you have taken the SAT, and your answer sheet and a test booklet will be mailed to you.

Unfortunately, the QAS is not always available, as The College Board offers the QAS only for those tests given in March, May, and October. Keep in mind also that the QAS is not the same as the Student Answer Service (SAS), which is simply a list of your answer choices for each question, along with information about the questions such as degree of difficulty and content category.

Each time you take the test, get either the QAS or the SAS (if QAS is not available) so that you and your SAT tutor can go over the results. Even the smallest adjustments can make a difference when you’re looking to boost your SAT Math scores.

10. Focus on the areas where you need most help

Once you have experienced the SAT or PSAT, you should direct your attention to those pesky areas that are bugging you the most.

If you need to, you can work on some problems dealing with a specific topic. Kaplan in particular has some good resources that can provide the SAT Math practice you’re looking for, offering questions grouped both by math topic and the official SAT Math categories.

Pacing is important on a timed test, and the best way to get your pacing right is to work on practice tests. The College Board has released 10 official SAT practice tests, so it’s best to start with those. If you should need additional practice tests, it’s best to use the ones created by The Princeton Review, which does an excellent job of replicating the design of the official practice tests.

Keep in mind that pacing is about self-awareness: recognizing what you know and what you struggle with, then adjusting your strategy accordingly throughout the test. When you encounter a question that you either don’t understand or you know will take a lot of time to do, mark it and skip it—making sure you skip the question on the answer sheet as well. Why do that? It’s best to at least be able to look at every question on the SAT Math tests, rather than running out of time and having to guess on questions you haven’t even read. That way if time does get tight, you can use your guesses for those ones you had skipped—which you already knew were the tough ones!

To obtain maximum results, you should look into acquiring a good SAT Math tutor to guide you in the quest to boost your Math scores. If you can’t find an experienced one in your geographical area, then you can check out your options with online tutoring. With the technology of an online tutoring platform featuring an interactive virtual whiteboard, online SAT prep can be just as effective as in-person instruction.

For even more pointers on how to tackle the SAT, read 10 Expert Tips for a Perfect SAT Score.