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Lucas Fink

How Hard is SAT Math

Just how hard is SAT math if it doesn’t test really high level math topics? It doesn’t even get to trigonometry. Yet, at the same time, it’s meant to challenge even the most advanced math students. There’s a pretty clear problem there. How do you sort the best junior or senior year math students from the 9th graders who are constantly sneaking in to take the SAT? (Alright, so that doesn’t really happen).

In order to assess students well, the test-makers resort to other ways of making SAT math difficult.


Complicated question setups

Even the most astute students find that sometimes the hardest part is just digging through all the information in a convoluted word problem. Instead of simply giving you an equation or providing a figure, the whole thing will be written out in sentences, and it’s up to you to set up the math or draw the situation. That can be seriously difficult, depending on how complicated the equation or picture is.

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Topics you learned three years ago

Learning math is a cumulative process, for the most part; what you studied in 8th grade gets used in your 11th grade math class. But that’s not always true, and if it’s been three years since you’ve even looked at shapes, you might be a little hazy on your SAT-type geometry.

But this situation is pretty easy to get around, thankfully. All you have to do is review.

Combining knowledge

Okay, so you know how to deal with average rates. Can you work with them if there are two variables in the picture? Or maybe you’ll get a geometry problem that includes a few different types of shapes. Or maybe the SAT graph you’re facing is spiced up with a little geometry to boot.

Difficult SAT math questions might have a number of steps. Getting to one correct answer in a more difficult problem might involve three or four times as much scratch work as finishing a question at the beginning of a section.

The key to problems like this is to take them one step at a time. Don’t take shortcuts unless you’re 100% sure that you’re not going to slip up. Write everything out, and always put parentheses around any terms that you plug in so you don’t make the classic positive/negative mistake. The good news is that there are also ways to improve SAT math. 🙂


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

2 Responses to “How Hard is SAT Math”

  1. sara says:

    I am an international student and my college is in ankara, turkey they want 1350/1600 in critical reading and math and i ‘ve took a practice test from the blue book for the first time and scored 670/800 is that a good score and can it improve if i study the chapters of the mathematic section? and for the critical reading can i just depend on the magoosh vocab with some of free lists online because there is no bookstores here that sells sat prep materials

    • Lucas Fink Lucas says:

      Hi Sara,

      A math score of 670 is absolutely a good score—that’s higher than the scores of 89% of students who take the test. 🙂 But more importantly, it is close to your target score, depending on your performance in critical reading. Keep in mind that there will be two scores out of 800 to make that total out of 1600, and critical reading is half of it (of course, the full SAT has three sections for a total of 2400, including the writing section, but it sounds like your target college doesn’t care about the writing section).

      And yes, I definitely think you can improve with practice. It’s most important that you answer practice questions, make mistakes, and then learn from your mistakes. In time, if you analyze your weaknesses and errors, you’ll see your score increase.

      As for critical reading, you will need to do more than just study vocabulary! Although that can certainly help, the SAT is not just a vocabulary test. You also need to practice reading comprehension; learn the types of questions you’ll see, the types of wrong answers the test writers make, how to pace yourself well, and more.

      Plus, vocabulary lists can help for improving vocabulary, but only if you use them very well. Don’t just read free lists! Make flashcards, pay careful attention to example sentences, and practice using the new vocabulary you’ve learned.

      Happy studying!

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