Introduction to the SAT Math Test

In this article, you will find:

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Here's How You'll Improve Your Math Score
I'll show you everything you need to know to achieve your maximum SAT math score in the minimum time.

Of course I'll show you all of the math you need to know for the test (it's surprisingly little). But I'll also show you the most common tough SAT problems of the past twenty-five years—these problems show up over and over—and how to solve each one in a snap.

I'll show you the true secret behind solving SAT math problems, and four specific master math moves that can solve just about any SAT math problem they may throw at you—sometimes in mere seconds. Every SAT has its little surprises, so I'll show you the best way to rescue problems that you can't solve, and the best way to bail out of difficult situations.

I'll show you how to make the best use of your limited time—and what to do if you run out of it. Finally, I'll show you how to catch errors that you make (it's not the way you think), and how to avoid most errors in the first place.

Have a Calculator Handy for Emergencies, but Try Not to Use It
The instructions say that you can use a calculator on the SAT Math Test, but relying on a calculator on the actual exam is not recommended for the following reasons.

  • Using your calculator wastes time. Unless you're ambidextrous, stopping to use a calculator means juggling with your pencil, punching numbers into the calculator, and then readjusting your pencil to resume writing—and that's just for a single step of a problem.
  • It's easy to get confused with order of operations on a calculator, or with multi-step calculations; heck, even punching in the numbers incorrectly is a source of error. If you make a mistake, it won't be clear where you went wrong and you won't have any written record you can review.
  • Most risky of all, when you use a calculator you take your eyes off the problem and you stop thinking. It's easy to get caught up in the calculation and forget what you were solving for.
Besides, you shouldn't need your calculator: if you think you need it for a tough or lengthy calculation, you probably missed the point of the question.

Still, you should have a calculator with you in case your brain freezes in the exam room on the Big Day and you can't remember what 9 times 8 equals—it happens! Calculators are not supplied so bring one you're familiar with, not a calculator you borrowed from someone at the last minute. The last thing you need when you're taking the SAT is to be fumbling around with your best friend's super-calculator.

Most four-function, scientific, or graphing calculators are fine. The calculator needs to solve only simple calculations, so avoid anything too complicated; the simpler the model, the better. Hand-held minicomputers, laptop computers, and pocket organizers (such as those with typewriter-style keypads) are not allowed.

A Few Important Words about the Open-Ended Questions
Ten of the 54 questions on the SAT Math Test will consist of what the test writers call "student-produced response" questions. The open-ended questions do not have choices, so you will have to grid-in your exact answer.

These questions will require us to modify some of the techniques you'll be learning shortly—our four "math moves"—but the important thing is to become comfortable with bubbling-in your answer in the special grids.

I'll give you some practice bubbling-in on your answer sheet shortly, but first here are the main points to keep in mind regarding these questions:

  • Before filling in the ovals on a question, it's a good idea to write your solution to each problem in the space provided on the answer sheet above the bubbles. Doing so takes only a couple of seconds and reduces the chances of filling-in the wrong bubbles.
  • Some questions have more than one correct answer. If so, you can bubble in anyone of the possible answers; the choice is up to you.
  • All answers are non-negative. If you get a negative answer to an open-ended question, you've made a mistake. (The answer to any open-ended question must also be no greater than 9999, which is the maximum number that the answer sheet will allow for these questions.) In other words, the answer to an open-ended question on the SAT Math Test must range from 0 to 9999 inclusive.
  • The answer sheet gives you the option of filling in the answer to a question as a fraction or as a decimal. Choose whichever way seems most natural to the problem you've just solved.
  • Mixed numbers (like 1½) are not allowed, so either convert any mixed number to a fraction (3/2) or convert it to a decimal (1.5) before filling in the bubbles.
  • The answer sheet has room for four-digit answers. If your answer has fewer than four digits, you can start bubbling your answer into any column that space allows. For example, the two-digit number 28 could be bubbled into the first and second, second and third, or third and fourth columns.
  • Ignore the decimal point for integer answers.
  • If you're entering a decimal answer with a repeating digit (such as 2/3, which equals 0.6666. . .), you should enter the decimal point (ignoring the zero to the left of the decimal point) and the first three digits to the right. You can round the answer or not (.666 or .667 are equally acceptable versions of 2/3; .66 or .67 are not); it's up to you. Of course, simply entering in the fraction version of such answers may be easier than wondering which digits to include or how you should round them.
Be especially careful—but then you're always careful, aren't you—on the open-ended questions. If you're off on a question by even a one-thousandth, you will receive no credit for your answer.