# An Introduction to the SAT Math Section

*By Patrick Fitz*

The Math Section of the SAT examination is the last of the three sections on the exam, the first being the Reading Test and the second the Writing and Language Test. Depending on a given student’s relative strengths or weaknesses, any one of these three may be the easiest or the most difficult. Test Prep and SAT classes can and do fill in the gaps.

Like the other two sections, moreover, a thorough understanding of the Math Section on the SAT is necessary in order for students to maximize their score and achieve their potential on the exam. Top colleges and universities, including the Ivy League, use the score on the Math Section, in addition to grades earned in math and statistics classes in school, as a proxy for the mathematical ability of potential students. Strong performances in class and on exams like the SAT may win students scholarships from certain institutions.

Furthermore, the Math Section is objectively more complicated than the other two sections of the SAT, for reasons explained below.

**Format**

The Math Section of the SAT is actually split in two: the Calculator and No Calculator Sections. College Board wants to ensure that students are capable of solving complex math problems both with a calculator (allowing for more difficult arithmetic and mimicking problem-solving in the real world) and without one (permitting testing of more conceptual or theoretical material).

The No Calculator Math Section is first, and consists of twenty questions to be completed in 25 minutes. The first fifteen, in ascending order of difficulty, are the usual multiple choice questions; the last five, known as Grid-In questions (to be discussed below), are also arranged in order of difficulty, with the easiest coming first and most challenging placed last.

The Calculator Math Section is the final section of the SAT and lasts for nearly an hour, testing both students’ abilities and stamina. The first thirty questions are multiple choice, while the final eight are the Grid-In type. As with the No Calculator Section, all questions are in ascending order of difficulty, meaning that, for most test-takers, Question 1 will be easier than Question 15 then will be Question 30.

**Material**

As a de facto college entrance examination, the SAT is designed to test mathematical concepts and competencies that students will encounter in their undergraduate studies. Even students who will not be studying a math-heavy major at university are expected (at least by College Board) to be able to solve a certain level of math problem—in other words, to achieve a given level of numeracy.

The vast majority of material is found in Algebra and Geometry courses standard across American high schools. Select topics more common to Precalculus classes—trigonometry in particular—is tested but is not a majority of the material. Even students who have not taken a math-intensive high school course load should be familiar with many, if not most, of the subjects tested on the exam. Test prep and study outside of school can make up the rest.

**Question Types**

There are two kinds of questions on the Math Sections of the SAT: multiple-choice (MC) questions and Grid-In questions. The vast majority of questions are standard MC questions, consisting of four answer choices, three of which are wrong and only one of which is demonstrably correct.

The Grid-In questions are more interesting. These questions require students to develop the answer and then fill out a short bubble section consisting of 4 spaces, consisting of numbers 0-9 or the operators "." (a decimal point) and "/" (a fraction bar). Consequently, students won’t be able to work backwards from the answer choices and solve a problem that way, nor will students be able to arrive at a rough estimate of the answer and choose the closest answer choice.

Correct answers for the Grid-In questions may be entered in any number of ways. This could include, for example, either “⅓” or “.333”. Education consultants would recommend the “⅓” answer (as it is more precise) but College Board will accept both. What the SAT does NOT accept, however, is answer choices that are not as precise as possible. In this example, “.333” is the best decimal answer: others, like “0.3” or even “0.33” are not acceptable because they are not specific enough given the availability of spaces in the Grid-In question bubble grid.

Students should commit to ample practice before the exam day in order to fully understand and appreciate the requirements of these Grid-In questions. Instructions are provided before both the No Calculator and Calculator Math Sections, but students should be familiar with these instructions before exam day.

**Methodology**

The Math Section of the SAT is not like other math exams. It is not an Algebra or a Geometry test, nor is it a rote examination of arithmetic. To some degree, the SAT tests both mathematical ability and critical thinking skills. Students are expected to not only apply what math they know but also to think critically to solve mathematically-oriented problems.

It isn’t enough, on the SAT exam, to simply memorize a bunch of formulae and “plug and chug”, as the saying goes. That the exam comes with a formula sheet at the beginning of both the No Calculator and Calculator Sections indicates as much. Students must instead be ready to think deeply about the problems with which they are presented: this includes deciphering word problems, interpreting visual information, and drawing from multiple stocks of knowledge at once.

Education consultants like to say that what makes a problem an SAT Math question is not the level of math required but the complexity of the problem itself and how it is presented. Good SAT Math questions often require students to interpret words, apply different kinds of math (think both algebra and geometry on the same question), and choose from similar-looking answer choices.

**Conclusion**

The Math Section of the SAT, while two separate sections on the actual SAT exam, counts for one half of the overall topline score, out of 1600. Students, even those for whom math is “easy” or “natural”, should prepare in advance for the SAT exam generally and the Math Section in particular. There will be problems that students, even those with advanced backgrounds in Mathematics, have not seen before. Thus, SAT Prep is essential even for those who are more experienced or more technically capable.

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