The Mathematics Section of the Sat Demystified

Math is only a part of the SAT test. The SAT as a whole measures thinking skills needed in college. Its results, together with high school grades, have been shown to correlate with college performance, at least in the first year, for whatever reason. The test is intended to smooth out differences in high school preparation when students are evaluated, and to make grades more comparable, since high schools can differ in competitiveness, effectiveness, and emphasis. All of that is really rather irrelevant to the student though, who only wants the best scores, to get into the school of his or her choice.

The mathematics section of the SAT is intended to measure mathematical reasoning and computational skills. Inevitably, it measures knowledge as well. Students who do not immediately remember the applications of crucial formulas will waste time recalling them, working them out, or fitting them to the template of the question at hand. They must practice until the formulas and their applications snap to mind. For similar reasons, students are well advised to be practiced in the use of a graphing calculator, and have it at hand. Cell phone calculators, PDAs, and laptops are not allowed in the test area.

The math test consists of three sections. One is 20 minutes, and two are 25 minutes each. Most of the test is multiple choice, scored in a way that makes it inadvisable to guess unless you can eliminate some of the wrong answers.

There are 5 choices in each multiple choice question. Each correct answer adds one point to the score, but each incorrect answer penalizes the score 1/4 point. Therefore, if is unwise to guess unless you can remove at least one wrong choice, and preferably more.

One of the 25 minute tests, though, contains ten “grid” questions, in which the student is supposed to fill in bubbles to indicate the answer. In the grid section, it is best to guess if you’re not sure, because there is no penalty for guessing wrong. The only difficulty here is remembering to fill in all the bubbles. Again, the student should practice.

In addition to the mathematics section of the SAT, there are also two math subject tests. IC is for students who have 3 years of college prep math in high school, usually Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry. The IIC
test is aimed at students who took pre-calculus and/or trigonometry as well. The Math IIC subject test is actually scored in a way that allows the test taker to miss more questions and still do well, but the questions are more difficult, and require deeper knowledge.

Find out which subject tests the colleges you are interested in require. This information may be available on the school’s website, or from a guidance counselor. If you are confident you will do well, take a subject test whether or not it is required. You may get a score that will impress the admissions office. But if the school does not require the test, and you are not confident, choose a different subject test.

College Board, the non-profit maker of the SAT test, offers a test study-guide, which sells for under $20 on their site and in bookstores. This is an inexpensive choice for students who are motivated enough to study on their own. Their site is also useful and informative, with a free sample question posted every day.