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Chris Lele

Changes to the SAT: The New SAT Math Section

One of the ways in which the SAT math is changing—and this is a big change—is that there are only four answer choices on the redesigned test. Wait? That’s the big change? Well, I should add that the three wrong answers out of those four are pretty wrong. In other words, there aren’t really sneaky trap answers the way there are with the current SAT.

And this change is big; it implies that the underlying question structure is different, because it does not lend itself as well to trap answers. In simple terms: the questions on the new SAT aren’t as tricky. But that doesn’t mean the questions are easier. In fact, I’d argue that the questions are harder.

  • The new test won’t have all the easy throwaway questions that you get at the beginning of the current SAT. With the new SAT, you will be given medium level questions very close to the beginning of the section.
  • On the redesigned SAT, the questions will often have more steps (those of you who are fond of doing all the calculations in your head might have a tougher time with this). However, the thing that will make the math questions on the new SAT easier, is that it will usually be more straightforward to see what the question is asking. Once you know what the question is looking for, you will have to follow several steps to complete the problem. This differs from the current SAT, where you often have to “decode” the question before doing a quick calculation to arrive at the answer.



To illustrate, here is a practice question that could very well show up at the beginning of the section:

David is paid $32 per hour to design a webpage. Upon finishing the webpage, he is given an extra $80. Max is paid $38 an hour to design a webpage and upon completion is given an extra given $50. If both David and Max are paid the same amount for designing a webpage, how many hours does each spend designing a webpage?

A) 2 hours
B) 5 hours
C) 8 hours
D) 12 hours


There are a few things to notice. First off, the answer choices are spread out quite a bit. Also, there are no fractions or weird numbers (6.5, etc.). That is not to say every new SAT question will give such a spread. But trap answers, like 10 hours (which makes for a good trap as I’ll explain later), won’t necessarily be part of the answer choices.

And that’s huge: the SAT is not trying to trick you as it was before. Basically, you won’t have to deal with the SAT folk diligently crafting questions that are set up perfectly for a trap answer.


So what’s the answer?

One option is to “backsolve”, meaning you take the answer choices and “put them” into the question. If all the numbers match up, then that’s the answer. To illustrate, let’s “put” (A) 2 back into the question:

(32)(2) + 80 = (38)(2) + 50
144 = 126

However, that is clearly not true, since 144 does not equal 126.

Putting (B) 5 into the question, we get:

(32)(5) + 80 = (38)(5) + 50
240 = 240

Therefore, (B) is the answer.

While this might seem like a time-consuming problem, it depends on which section you see this problem. If you see it on the calculator section, you can whip through the answer choices pretty quickly.

Even if this question were to show up on the “no-calculator section”, you would only have to do the math for three of the four answers (vs. four of the five in the current format). If the math in the first three answer choices doesn’t match up, then the last one is the answer.

Of course, some who aren’t that confident with their arithmetic skills can use some quick algebra:

32n + 80 = 38n + 50
30 = 6n
n = 5

The old SAT would likely have included 10 as a possible answer choice since the question is asking about two people and you could have easily misinterpreted the question so that you weren’t focusing on how long each works but adding up the total amount the two work.

Based on the questions we have available so far, it doesn’t look like the SAT is as concerned with these kinds of “tricks”.


The point here is neither to tout the wonders of “backsolving” or the elegance of algebra, nor to imply that the questions will all look like the one above. Rather, the questions are going to be kind of dense and you’ll have to sift through a lot of information to either “backsolve” or form an algebraic equation.

So if you know your algebra or backsolving you are likely to get the question right.

All of this leads to my final thought: the new SAT (like the ACT, which it is desperately trying to keep pace with on the profit front) will be about knowing the material rather than knowing the test. Those who were able to think like the test to do well on the current SAT might actually have to do more review to succeed on the redesigned SAT, whereas those who are hard workers are likely to be rewarded.

Did you know that Magoosh offers online test prep for the New SAT exam? We also give discounts to students who purchase subscriptions for more than one exam. Learn more at newsat.magoosh.com.


About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 8 million views.

You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog!

You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

3 Responses to “Changes to the SAT: The New SAT Math Section”

  1. John says:

    “[H]ow many hours does it each spend designing a webpage?”

    What do you mean by “does it each”?

    • Rita Kreig Rita Kreig says:

      Hi John,

      Great catch! That’s a typo. It should read, “How many hours does each spend designing a webpage?”, with “each” referring to David and Max. I fixed the typo in the post, so we don’t cause any unnecessary confusion. Thank you again for your help! 🙂

      All the Best,

  2. don says:

    How do we know they spent the same amount of time? It should be explicit in the question.

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