SAT Math: Strategy for Approaching the Math Section

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  • 0:01 SAT Math
  • 0:55 Multiple Choice
  • 3:02 Grid-In
  • 4:56 Tools to Help
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How should you approach the SAT math section? To help prepare you for exam day, this lesson examines test-taking strategies for the two most common types of questions and the tools available to students on the day of the test.

SAT Math

Kevin is nervous. He's getting ready to take the SAT, and he's worried that he won't do well on the math portion of the test.

The math section of the SAT assesses students' understanding of math concepts that they will use in the real world. There are two types of questions that Kevin will face on the SAT math section: multiple choice and grid-in questions. To succeed on both types of questions in the math section, Kevin needs to understand not just what each type of question is like but also what test-taking strategies and tools he can use to support his math skills. To help him out, let's look at the two types of questions, including tips for each type and tools that Kevin can use while taking the SAT.

Kevin understands that he'll see two different types of questions on the math section of the SAT, but he's still a little confused. What are the types of questions, and how should he approach them?

Multiple Choice

The first type of math question on the SAT is multiple choice, or math questions with four answer choices. Kevin will choose the correct answer from the answer choices provided. Most of the math questions on the SAT are multiple choice questions. That's good news because there are a couple of things that Kevin can do to help him do well with multiple choice questions.

The first thing Kevin should do when he's looking at a multiple choice question is to eliminate answer choices that are obviously wrong. To understand how to do that, let's look at a simple example.

Let's say that Kevin sees this question on the test:

1. If 2x + 5 = 3, then x is:

(a) 6
(b) 2
(c) -3
(d) -1

When Kevin looks at this question, he notices that x has to be a negative number because 2x plus 5 is 3, and 5 is larger than 3. Thus, 2x has to be a negative number, so x has to be a negative number. The first thing Kevin can do, then, is eliminate answers (a) and (b) because they are not negative numbers.

That helps a lot! Now Kevin only has to choose between two different options, answer choices (c) and (d). Both of these are negative numbers, but which one is correct? After eliminating wrong answers, Kevin will next want to try plugging in answer choices to the problem or equation.

For example, Kevin can take answer choice (c), which is -3, and try that out.

2 * -3 = -6

-6 + 5 = -1, so that doesn't work with the equation given.

But look at what happens when Kevin plugs in answer choice (d):

2 * -1 = -2
-2 + 5 = 3

That's the right option!

But, what happens if the question is harder, and Kevin just can't figure out the answer? There's no penalty for guessing on the SAT, so Kevin should guess if he's not sure of the answer.


As we said, Kevin will see mostly multiple choice questions on the math portion of the SAT. But, there is another type of question, grid-in questions, which require students to figure out the answer and fill it in on an answer grid. These questions can be trickier because Kevin can't just plug in the answer to see if he's right; he has to come up with the answer himself! But, there are still some things he can do to help himself out.

Kevin should show all work as he's going along. This is especially important for questions that require multiple steps, because it allows Kevin to check his answer and make sure he didn't make any errors as he was working things out.

Let's look at another example. Imagine that Kevin sees this question on the SAT:

2. The table below shows average rainfall by month in Hong Kong between 1961 and 1990. What fraction of days with 50mm or more of rainfall occur in May, July, and November?

Rainfall Table

Because it's a grid-in question, there aren't any answer choices, so Kevin's on his own. The first thing he does is to add the average number of days with 50mm or more of rainfall in May, July, and November together. He writes down what he's doing on his scrap paper:

1.93 + 1.97 + 0.1 = 4

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