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SAT: Decoding the Math Section - Christian Homeschooling, Home Education

SAT: Decoding the Math Section

  • Jean Burk
  • 2012 9 Sep
SAT: Decoding the Math Section

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more at

Many students—sometimes it seems like about half of them!—hate math. Consequently, these students feel the same way about the math portion of the SAT. But the good news is that students don’t have to be math geniuses to ace the math section. These tests have very little to do with the math students are used to. As a matter of fact, not much of the math on the SAT resembles the math questions found in the average math class.

When students reach the math section on the SAT, they often freeze up. They feel clueless because the question types look unfamiliar, leaving them to automatically assume they don’t know the information and therefore often resolving to leave it blank. But understanding the math section is the key to doing well. These questions do contain information that most students actually know, but the problems have been disguised to look scary and create panic.

Even many confident math students are in shock when they get their test scores back. Usually it is because they approached the SAT just like their normal math class. They probably spent a long time working out every problem and made sure they showed all their work. This is fine for school, but not on a test of time management. The reality is, no one will ever see the work in their test booklet because the tests are graded by a machine that reads only the separate bubbled-in answer sheet.

Normal math questions at school are direct and to the point, whereas SAT math questions are obscure and devious in nature. The good news is that they are not higher math like trigonometry, calculus, or college math, but generally contain some algebra, geometry, or just plain ol’ arithmetic. These concepts are usually disguised with crazy symbols or strange figures. Most students don’t realize that the questions are designed to trick them, so often they will fall for the “dummy” answer (This is the one that the test makers want them to pick).

There are two sections for math: “Multiple-Choice” and “Student Response.” The first section will contain five answer choices, and the second will have no answers at all to choose from.

It is important to read each question carefully with a critical eye to find out what it is asking. The students’ first thought when they approach the math section should not be, “How do I calculate to find the answer?” but “Where’s the pattern—what’s the fastest way to find the answer?” By eliminating long calculations, mistakes are minimized and time cut in half.

Even though calculators are permitted at the actual test, these questions are designed so that students can generally answer all the math problems without one. This can save time and minimize mistakes, since the more the calculations, the bigger the chance of mistakes. If they look closely at what the question is really asking, students will often find that it is an easy answer that requires less work than they thought. Learning pertinent strategies will help students “see the math and not do the math.” For example, if all the fractions contain denominators larger than the numerators, then naturally the answer must be less than one since they are proper fractions.

Math drawings and diagrams found on the SAT should not be taken at face value. They often don’t reflect the question and are missing information that confuse students on what the correct answer should be. Redrawing the figure or creating something totally different can result in understanding the problem and not falling for the wrong answer.

The test booklet also contains some math formulas, so if a student forgets them, just turn to the front page of that section. There are also no proofs on the geometry questions, and sometimes strange-looking problems are really just two different figures put together that need to be separated and solved with their own formulas.

Setting up the problem is usually the hardest part of the math section. If students can set up two plus two, then it is easy to figure out the answer. Sometimes the real math is hidden inside a story and needs to be found, extracted, and then set up into a math equation.

One of the most important things students need to be aware of is that math terms are crucial to know when taking an SAT. If students don’t know words like product, tangent, integer, or bisect, it will be very difficult for them answer the question. Three words that are often mixed up are mean, mode, and median, and they are sometimes found in the same question. Learning simple tricks can help students remember these terms. For example, mean can be remembered by memorizing this acronym: Math Equations’ Average Number.

On the multiple-choice section, students can often derive fast answers by substituting, canceling, reducing, or estimating, or by knowing simple rules like anytime you add or multiply even numbers, the answer is always even. Also, simply knowing the order of the SAT answer choices means that students should never test more than two answers.

The student-response section contains no answer choices, but students must transfer their answers to the grid-in box on the separate answer sheet. There are a lot of common mistakes that need to be avoided in this section. For example, an improper fraction must be converted, or it will count as wrong. Mainly, there are only four spaces, so longer answers will have to be reduced, mixed numbers must be converted, and there will never be a negative answer. There is also no zero in the first column, and all four boxes must be filled up when it comes to a continual decimal answer.

But just like every other section, the math section of the SAT always follows the same patterns, rules, and standards. The test makers repeat similar concepts in which answers can be derived by using logic and critical thinking to find quick answers. There is a long, tedious way to answer the math questions, and there is an easy, clear, and fast way to achieve the right answers.

This whole section is really a logic test using math as the medium. Often, learning to work a problem backwards, thinking small, or looking for the hint in the question that points to the answer is all that is needed to work an otherwise scary-looking math problem. The test makers are not necessarily testing how smart a student is in math but rather testing his or her critical-thinking skills on a math problem.

The creators of the test make sure there is a long way and a short way to work out each math problem. Each one can be answered in thirty seconds or less once students understand the shortcuts and strategies and then practice the correct way with actual test questions from the College Board.

Approaching these tests with a very critical eye is essential for doing well on the math section. It doesn’t take a genius to get high math scores on the SAT, but it does take knowing the hidden, recurring patterns that the test makers always use. Once a student masters these, they will find themselves doing very little math—and this will make 100 percent of students happy.  

Jean Burk is a homeschool mom and author of College Prep Genius: The No Brainer Way to SAT Success. She has been the featured SAT expert for FOX, NBC, CBS, and The Homeschool Channel. Both of her children received full-ride scholarship offers because of their SAT and PSAT scores. If you would like to learn more about how to ace the SAT, go to to find out about her program, which has helped thousands of students raise their SAT scores as much as six hundred points!

Publication date: September 5, 2012