SAT Math: What It Is and How to Prepare

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Updated on Jul 10, 2009

Twenty-five years ago, only a few kids studied for the SAT. The rest of us just showed up and did our best. But as the competition to get into college has gotten stiffer, the test stakes have risen. Today, it’s all but required for students to spend time and money on preparing for this important exam.

I know from personal experience that practicing pays off. As a private SAT math tutor, I regularly saw students improve their math scores by ten to twenty percent. There was no magic – just the students’ commitment to hard work.

So has it become necessary to enroll your child in an expensive program? There’s no doubt that businesses like Kaplan and The Princeton Review give their students a leg up, especially when it comes to information on the new writing section. But if your child is motivated, it’s possible for him to study independently for the math section of the SAT. For insight on this option, we interviewed award-winning math teacher Gregg Whitnah. Mr. Whitnah has taught SAT preparation courses for twenty-eight years, in both private and group settings. Here are some tips he offered about how to prepare.

  1. Before taking the SAT, complete Algebra and Geometry. It’s optimal to have also taken the first few weeks of Algebra II.
  2. Carve out plenty of time to practice. Plan on at least thirty hours of studying for the math section alone.
  3. Buy the College Board book, ‘The Official SAT Study Guide.’ It offers a complete list of the topics that will be tested, as well as practice problems and eight real tests. Take all of the practice tests from start to finish; it’s the best way to become familiar with the instructions and organization of the test.
  4. Get to know the test format. The math test has three sections, each lasting twenty to twenty-five minutes. Most questions are multiple-choice, but a few are free-response. Each section starts out easy and gets progressively harder. It’s important to remember that the easy questions are worth just as much as the hard ones; it does no good to get #25 right if you are going to miss #1.
  5. Beware of guessing; the SAT doesn’t reward random guesses. Getting a multiple-choice question wrong deducts a quarter to a third of a point from your score. Test makers are good at creating ‘wrong answers.’
  6. Don’t rely on computer preparation programs alone because they don’t simulate the test experience. It’s important to practice with paper-and-pencil materials.

Next, your student needs to get to know which areas of math to study. The specific topics listed by the College Board are numerous, but can be grouped into the following categories: Computations, Algebra, Probability/Statistics, Functions, and Geometry. Below are five practice problems that demonstrate the types of questions on the test. You can find other free problems on the College Board's SAT Question of the Day.

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