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How to Study SAT Math

There’s a special recipe for acing SAT math. It’s a very specific blend of knowing the material (doing your school homework counts a lot for this) and knowing the test. Studying for the SAT, then, is a balance between the two. How do you make it work?

Let’s say you’re taking a practice test, and the first question on a math section is pretty easy. Actually, for clarity’s sake, let’s say it’s disgustingly easy—the kind of thing you’d hope any test-taker would answer quickly and correctly. This isn’t something you’d actually see on your test, but here we go:

1. If x = y + 3 and y = 2, then what is the value of x?

(A) -1

(B) 0

(C) 1

(D) 5

(E) 6

So simple, right? We substitute 2 for y and so find that x = 2 + 3 = 5. But notice some of the values in the answer choices, here. Why are they what they are? If you’d accidentally made any of these equations, you’d have gotten the wrong answer:

(A)  x = 2 – 3 = -1

(B)  x = 3 – 3 = 0

(C)  x = -2 + 3 = 1

(D)  —-

(E) x = 2 * 3 = 6

And there’s a good reason for that. The SAT makers include in the choices wrong answers that come out of simple slip-ups. It’s easy to switch positive and negative if you’re moving quickly, as it is to multiply and not add.

And here’s the problem: many students will write a blunder like that off. They say, “I knew that. It won’t happen again.” But you’re still you—nothing’s changed! There’s no reason to assume you won’t make the another silly error on a question you could have gotten right on test day. That’s just throwing away points.

You’ve gotta gotta GOTTA make note of any mistake you make. Find when and why they happen: whether they’re caused by not checking your work, rushing, an incorrect formula, not following PEMDAS, or whatever else. This helps to point you toward whether it’s the format of the test that’s tripping you up or it’s the material that’s tested. Then you’ll know what to spend more of your time and energy on.

Your goal should be—and this is lofty, mind you—never to make the same mistake twice.

Lessons, Practice, and Analysis

Simply reading about the test or listening to a teacher work through concepts won’t get you points. You don’t learn to ride a bike by watching other people do it. You have to get on the bike and start moving. By the time you take your actual SAT, you should have done multiple full-length practice tests and plenty more training.

But you could say you’ve gotten that practice from your classroom studies, right? After all, almost all the math that’s on the SAT is stuff you’ve seen before. And to an extent, you’d be right. But let’s take the bike analogy a step further. The SAT isn’t just any bike ride; it’s the Valparaiso Cerro Abajo Race, and you’re going to to tear through the city at break-neck speed. If you lose focus or hit a rock at the wrong angle (or a dog, for that matter), you’ll crash. Sure, you’ve ridden your bike around town before, but will that prepare you?

Before you go, you’ll want to do some light practice runs. Take it slow at first. Get to know the terrain. Then go a little faster. Do some question-by-question practice, revisiting old math that you’re not confident with when you get stuck. Then do some timed practice with mind-numbingly tough questions to work on your pacing. Keep varying up your practice depending on what your weakest areas are.

And, again, when you do make a mistake, look at why you made it.

Use the Best SAT Study Material

If you tackle enough SAT math questions before the day of your test, you’ll have a good feel for the best strategies and when to use them, as well as what topics you can expect to see, how long you should spend on a question, and when you’re going down the wrong path. But in order to learn those lessons from your practice, you really need to have the best SAT resources at your disposal. Think of this as taking those practice runs on the bike course. The wrong book is like a whole different city. It might help you to build up some skills, sure, but are they the exact same skills you’ll need on your test?

Don’t just rely on your nagging parents to get you motivated. Nobody benefits from your SAT prep more than you do; it’s time to get yourself going, and there’s no better way to do that than by setting up a plan for yourself.

And to that end, by the way, we offer SAT study schedules to get you started if you don’t want to make one for yourself. There’s no easier way to get the ball (or bike) rolling!

And don’t forget to take a look at the other posts in this series: