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Success Strategies for the SAT Math Sections

Answer in this order

Since the SAT is a standardized test, there are some things about it that are quite predictable.  Section 3 will be the no calculator math section.  It will have 15 multiple choice and 5 grid-in questions, and you will have 25 minutes to complete them. Section 4 will be the section where you can use your calculator.  It will have 30 multiple choice and 8 grid-in questions, and you will have 55 minutes to complete them.  Each set of multiple choice and grid in questions will be arranged from easiest to most difficult.  Your raw score will be determined by the number of questions you answer correctly, with every question contributing exactly one point.


Since these facts are so dependable, you can use them to answer some common questions about the best way to approach these two sections.  This post will do exactly that – use facts about how the test is designed to give you valuable tips about tackling SAT math problems, and thus maximize your score!


Success Strategy #1: Start at the beginning and take your time

This strategy could also be stated as “accuracy before speed.”  Focus on getting as many correct answers as possible rather than answering as many questions as possible.  It’s based on two facts about how the SAT is designed.

Fact: Each set of questions is arranged from easiest to most difficult.

Fact: Each question is worth exactly one point, regardless of how difficult it is.

Taken together, these facts mean that the easy questions are more important than the hard ones.  Why?  Because you are more likely to get the easy questions correct.  Think of the first 10 questions in each section as your “money questions.”  You will get most of your points from these questions, so you want to do your best to get all of them correct.  Avoidable errors on these easy questions have a large opportunity cost because you lose a point you were capable of earning.  Compare these two scenarios:

In the first scenario you rushed to finish the section in time, but that caused you to make three avoidable math errors on questions 2, 5, and 7, all of which are money questions.  In the second scenario you took your time and double checked each of the money questions before moving on.  This meant that you noticed and corrected those three errors; however, you ran out of time before you got to the last three questions.  It seems like you traded three questions for three questions, but look at the totals.  When you rushed through the money questions, you gave up points you were capable of earning just to read some questions you didn’t know how to solve.

What if you’re a superstar and you want to get all the questions right?  You still need to resist the urge to rush through the money questions.  If you are an excellent math student and are confident you can get even the hardest questions correct, then the greatest danger to your score is avoidable mistakes.  Remind yourself that just because the questions at the end are more difficult doesn’t always mean they take more time.  Then, fine tune your pacing using practice problems.  You should spend 60-75 seconds per question, no more or less, regardless of the difficulty.


Success Strategy #2: Skip ahead to the grid-ins

Section 3 of the SAT has 20 questions, with 1-15 being multiple choice and 16-20 being grid-ins.  By now you know that question 15 will be much more difficult than question 1; however, question 16 will go back to being easy!  Section 4 works the same way.  Questions 1-30 are multiple choice and in order of difficulty, then questions 31-38 are grid-ins and in order of difficulty.  Using the same logic as before, it’s best to do the easy questions before the difficult ones, so skip ahead to the grid-ins as soon as the multiple choice questions start getting difficult.  This will be around question 15 in the no calculator section and question 23 in the calculator section.

The next thing you should be wondering is: What do I first, the difficult multiple choice or the difficult grid-ins? Consider these two facts:


Fact: The probability of guessing correctly on a multiple choice question is 0.25.

Fact: The probability of guessing correctly on a grid-in is 0.000063.*

The conclusion here is to do the difficult grid-in questions before the difficult multiple choice questions.  This way, if you do run out of time, it will be where you have a better chance of getting a lucky guess.


*You can improve these odds by using educated guessing rather than random guessing.   If you really have no clue, guess 2 or 8.  These seem to be the most common grid-in answers.



Now that you’re familiar with these two success strategies, it’s time to practice them!  Get a book of practice questions and dive right in.  Remember, accuracy is more important than speed.  Above all, make sure you learn something from every question you get wrong.  If you try 10 questions and get 9 of them correct, great job on those nine!  Pat yourself on the back and move on, because you’ll probably get those correct on the day of the test as well.  However, the one question you got wrong is pure gold.  That’s the one place where you have an opportunity to improve your score.

When you’re ready for even more help, and several more success strategies, come to a math class at Test Prep for Success.  Each our two hour math classes starts with an overview of five success strategies, gives you a few practice questions, and then dives into a particular content area that is covered by the SAT and ACT.  We’re looking forward to seeing you in class!