Ten Tips to Improve Your SAT Math Score

8 Aug

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Study Diligently in Your Math Classes
Getting a good score on the SAT isn’t a trick. The SAT does a very good job of testing what
you really know about math. No amount of “guessing (B) or (D)” is going to get you a good
score if your math skills are nonexistent.
Fortunately, your current math class is the one place that you can go where, for no money
out of your pocket, you can build these skills. Even if the curriculum in your current class
is beyond what’s tested on the SAT I — for example, if you’re studying trigonometry, precalculus,
or calculus — staying current is going to help you. (And blowing it off isn’t going
to help your SAT score, your grades, or your readiness for college.)
Look at it this way: If you’re looking to get into college, you need both a good SAT score and
good grades. Studying hard in your math classes will pay off on both fronts.

Get Good at Doing Basic Calculations in Your Head
There’s a big difference between knowing something and knowing it cold. Chances are, you
know what 2 + 2 equals without even thinking about it. But do you get thrown by –8 – (–6)?
How quickly can you find the common denominator of and ? Do you feel confident about
your ability to factor 6×2 – 4xy without stress?
In Chapter 2, I list types of calculations that you should be able to do in your head quickly and
without much thought. These include performing operations on negative numbers and fractions,
doing simple percent problems, decomposing small numbers into their prime factors,
finding common denominators, and doing some basic algebraic manipulations.

Get Good at Using Your Calculator
Calculators — including graphing calculators and scientific calculators — are allowed on
the SAT, providing you with a great opportunity to save time and avoid mistakes. Although
you don’t want to use your calculator for simple calculations that you could do more
quickly in your head, I encourage you to use it whenever it may be really helpful.
In Chapter 2, I provide a list of the calculator skills I believe are most helpful on the SAT.
These include working with fractions, calculating powers and square roots, solving and
graphing equations, and generating input-output tables.

Study SAT-Specific Math Skills
The SAT tests a relatively limited set of skills, such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, functions
and coordinate geometry, and a smattering of additional topics. (You don’t need trigonometry,
for instance, to do well on the SAT.) And inside each of these broad skills is a related set of
subskills. For example, in geometry, you need to know how to find the area of a triangle, but
you can safely avoid just about everything you know about doing geometric proofs.
You can think of these as the basic toolset that you need to answer most SAT questions. In
Chapters 3 through 7, I break down these skills and subskills. Focusing on strengthening
these SAT-specific math skills is time well spent as you prepare for the test.

Study SAT-Specific Problem-Solving Skills
SAT questions are usually quick to solve after you see the “way in” — the math principle or
formula that’s being tested. Some problems are tough because they rely on putting together
two unrelated math ideas together in a novel way.
After you know the basic math skills necessary to succeed, the next skill to attain is becoming
quick at identifying which tools are most likely to help you answer a specific question. In
Chapter 9, I focus on these problem-solving skills, such as determining what a question is
asking and which skills you need to answer it, making diagrams and charts, identifying
useful formulas, and finding a path from the facts you’re given to what the question is
asking for.
Get Comfortable Turning Words into Numbers
In a sense, word problems are a very specific type of reading comprehension question. You
need to become good at the careful type of reading that allows you to turn information in a
word problem into numbers, symbols, and equations. In many cases, you may find that after
turning words into numbers, the rest of a word problem is a lot easier than it looks, and you
can solve it easily in your head or with a calculator. Check out Chapter 8 for some tips on
translating between math and English.

Take Timed Practice Tests
No matter how good your math skills are, you should practice for the SAT with timed tests.
Time pressure adds a dimension to a test that isn’t normally present when you’re studying.
It also forces you to make trade-offs, such as skipping over a problem that looks difficult or
This book contains hundreds of questions to practice on without the clock running. But it
also includes three full timed practice tests with a total of 162 questions. I highly recommend
saving these questions for when you’re ready to practice under the timed conditions
stated at the top of each test. You can also visit sat.collegeboard.com to get a free,
official SAT practice test from the College Board.
Study from Your Timed Practice Tests

After you take a practice test, go over the answers you got wrong and find out why. Use the
test to fill in gaps in your knowledge that may be useful on the next test.
Remember, any math skill that showed up on one question is likely to show up on a later
SAT — possibly yours. Furthermore, as you spend time examining SAT questions in depth,
you’ll begin to get a sense of how they’re put together, giving you an advantage in answering
questions you haven’t seen.
Retake Your Timed Practice Tests
In studying from the practice tests you’ve already taken, did you really absorb new material?
One way to find out is to take the test again. My advice is to wait a few weeks so that you
forget the specifics of each question. In the meantime, take a few more practice tests and
study those, too. Then go back and retake a test. Your score will almost certainly be better
than your score the first time you took it. But take a good, hard look at the questions you miss
the second time around to be sure you know what you need to know on your SAT date.
Take the SAT More Than Once
No matter how prepared you are for your SAT, you’re bound to be a little nervous and
uncertain your first time. But if you take the test more than once, you’ll begin to know what
to expect and be able to plan ahead for it.
I recommend taking the test for the first time as early as you can, just for practice. That
way, you know that your first time taking the test doesn’t have to count, so you can relax
and (dare I say?) have fun with it — or at least minimize your anxiety throughout the


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