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Chris Lele

SAT Math: Heart of Algebra

Important stuff first: 27 of the 58 questions or nearly half of the questions on SAT Math will be “Heart of Algebra” questions.

When devising the new format of the test, the College Board seems to have come up with more than a categorization of concepts. Utilitarian tags, such as “algebra fundamentals”, have been invested with a poetic flair. Now we have “Heart of Algebra” (I can’t but help think of a plump cardiac next to an unknown variable). Don’t be thrown off for even a beat: “Heart of Algebra” simply means linear algebra.

What exactly is linear algebra, you ask? Well, anything that has an algebraic equation in which none of the powers next to a variable is higher than 1.

3x + 5 = 2
y + 5 < -1

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This might look pretty easy and indeed the actual computation underpinning the math is straightforward. However, do not think the SAT is going to give you equations like the ones above and ask you to solve for the variable. Rather, and this is where the New SAT is trying to differentiate itself from the old test, the math will be wrapped up in long, real-life world problems that you’ll have to unwrap, i.e. read several times over to figure out what is going on.

Here is an actual example from the College Board, found in the Official SAT Study Guide:

In 2014, County X had 783 miles of paved roads. Starting 2015, the county has been building 8 miles of new paved roads each year. At this rate, if n is the number of years after 2014, which of the following functions f gives the number of miles of paved road there will be in County X? (Assume that no paved roads go out of service.)

The answer, C) f(n) = 783 + 8n doesn’t even ask you to solve an equation. Rather, you have to choose the equation that accurately models the information in the text. And that’s really the essence of the test:


  • Plenty of text to sort through.
  • Understanding of the concept hidden in the text.
  • Real life scenarios where you often have to match a variable to a situation in the word problem.
  • Little to no computation or solving for variables (at least in word problems).



How does knowing this affect your prep? Well, don’t think that “Heart of Algebra” means you have to do algebra drills all day long. Your time is best spent doing actual SAT word problems, or word problems that capture all of the four elements listed above. So, you’ll want to learn to think in terms of how equations can explain real-life scenarios. In other words, can you translate the information into a mathematical equation?


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 10 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!

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