Should You Choose SAT Math Level 1 Or 2

If you are preparing for college and need to take an SAT Math subject test to get into the program of your dreams, then the choice sounds simple – Math 1 or Math 2.

Surprisingly, choosing between SAT Math Level 1 or 2 requires thinking about a number of different factors, which we’ll discuss here to help you make the right choice for your goals.

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SAT Math Level 1 & 2 Basic Differences

For a basic idea of the similarities & differences between on SAT Math Levels 1 and 2, refer to the table:

Factors to Consider SAT Math 1 SAT Math 2
Main Subjects Numbers, Operations, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis, Statistics, Probability Numbers, Operations, Algebra, Functions, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis, Statistics, Probability
Questions and Time Limit 50 multiple-choice questions to be answered in 60 minutes 50 multiple-choice questions to be answered in 60 minutes
Important Differences
  • More questions focusing on a smaller number of areas, testing one’s retention more thoroughly
  • Plane geometry is covered in Math 1 ONLY
  • More abstract and multi-step problems to handle than Math 2, requiring additional time and concentration
  • Designed for students who have had more high-school math coursework
  • Tests higher-level concepts associated with Math 1’s subjects, such as Trigonometry
  • Math 2’s grading curve is less steep than Math 1’s, giving students more room to miss questions but still score well

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Math 1 Vs Math 2 Trends To Notice

The above chart touches on the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the major differences between these two tests, however, some trends are important to note:

Both Tests Have the Same Number of Questions – 50 questions need to be answered in 60 minutes. The issue though becomes how those questions are distributed. Because Math 1 covers technically less subtopics and concepts than Math 2, Math 1 instead dives deep by forcing students to answer questions requiring more steps and calculations.

On the other hand, Math 2 questions tend to be more straightforward in wording and overall design. In exchange for testing more concepts, Math 2 questions generally require fewer calculations to complete. If working through questions fast is important to you, then it’s important to bear this in mind when considering which test to take.

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Math 1 vs Math 2 Concepts – At a glance, the major difference between the subtopics tested in Math 1 vs 2 boils down to this: Math 2 looks at higher-level concepts associated with Math 1 subjects. Take Trigonometry for example.

In Math 1, only introductory concepts like the Pythagorean Theorem and fundamental trigonometric identities like sine, cosine, and tangent are tested. If you’re familiar with the subject matter but don’t have in-depth experience, you still have a strong chance of doing well on those questions.

In Math 2, trigonometry questions dig into radian measures, double angle formulas, how to solve algebraic equations including trigonometric identities, etc. If you’re a student that has AP math courses in preparation for precalculus, then many of the concepts that Math 2 will put forth will be fresh in your mind.

Different Grading Curves – Contrary to common sense, SAT Math 1 has a more stringent grading curve than Math 2. For example, if you’re looking to score a perfect 800 on Math 1, then basically prepare not to miss a single question. One wrong question alone has enough weight to knock you down from that perfect score.

Math 2, on the other hand, is graded on a more forgiving scale than you’d expect. It’s possible to miss five, six, or up to eight questions on it and still be able to achieve a perfect score. It’s not a guarantee to count on, but know that Math 2 gives more room for your mistakes than Math 1 will.

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General Tips To Help You Choose SAT Math 1 Or Math 2

Besides looking at the tests themselves, there are bigger-picture variables to consider when making your decision.

Know Your Strengths – Before you take either test, it’s recommended that you already have three years of high school math under your belt at a minimum. This isn’t to say that you can’t already start planning ahead your sophomore year, but be aware that you likely won’t be ready for either test that early on.

It’s important then to evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to math. Have a handle on trigonometry but it’s not your best subject? Then Math 2 may not fit well because you are required to demonstrate clear understand and application of advanced concepts.

Here’s a good rule of thumb to remember – if you’ve taken a year of geometry and two years of algebra, then you will likely have enough information to do alright on Math 1. The main advice would be to polish up your understanding and application of their basic concepts because that is what you will be tested on.

However, if you’ve already taken trigonometry and are studying precalculus then you’re in a much better position for Math 2. Remember that Math 2 will test you in areas including trigonometric functions and the laws of sine and cosine. Make sure you understand those concepts inside and out because you will be forced to demonstrate it on Math 2.

Think About Preparation Time – Remember that both tests have 50 questions that you must answer in 60 minutes. That means you have to be ready to recall information fast enough to apply for calculations and answering.

If you have little experience or significant trouble with statistics, trigonometry, and precalculus, then Math 1 will probably be your best bet. Trying to self-prepare for those higher level concepts often doesn’t work out well, because it will require a significant time investment that you may not have available.

Ultimately, if you attempt Math 2 without a fundamental understanding in those areas, you probably won’t do well even with the easier grade curve. However, if you’re looking to pursue a career in one of the STEM fields, then you’re likely going to need a mathematically-heavy degree.

In that case, the college programs you’ll be applying for will most certainly require SAT Math 2 completion before consideration. If this is the case, it’s best to find out as early as possible what degree programs require it and start scheduling time for intense preparation.

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Investigate College Program Requirements – Hinted at in the previous tip, you need to research the programs you want to apply for first to see what their test requirements are. For example, CalTech requires Math 2 from all of its applicants, regardless of program.

At MIT though, applicants can choose between either taking SAT Math Level 1 or 2 to get in. Other larger universities often impose these demands on specific programs only. Examples included Johns Hopkins and most schools in the University of California system requiring Math 2 for their engineering applicants.

If you already have a couple of dream programs in mind, then take the time now to look at their admission requirements and see which test you need to take. The sooner you can select those programs and examine their requirements, the more time you have available to schedule for preparation. When it comes to test prep, more time is always best.

Don’t Forget About Percentile Rankings – One more thing to do when deciding is check out the percentile rankings for both tests. Remember that your score is an indication not only of your knowledge but also how you compare with other students who took the test too.

For example, in 2016, only 20 percent of the students who took Math 2 scored a perfect 800. However, only one percent of the students who took Math 1 achieved the same score. Let’s say then that you hypothetically took both tests and scored 750 on each.

750 is not a bad score by itself but now you have to apply it to the percentile rankings. If you received a 750 while a decent size of other test takers hit 800, then in an admission board’s eyes, you look intelligent but were clearly outpaced by a significant number of other students. Your stock will naturally go down.

However, that same 750 on a Math 1 test, puts you high up in the top 10 percentile of everyone else. If you’re applying for a program that will accept either an SAT Math Level 1 or 2 score, and you want to look much more impressive than other students, then take the test that will put you in the highest possible percentile, based on your knowledge and test-taking skill.

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Final Thoughts And Game Plan

Choosing between SAT Math 1 or 2, like choosing between the SAT and ACT, is a deceptively difficult decision to make, but there is a general game plan you can follow to help.

Ultimately, the best way to move forward is to consider the kind of degree and career you’re interested in pursuing, make a list of your dream programs at different schools, and find out their admission requirements.

This is the best, first step to make because you can then gauge how more likely it is for you needing one test versus the other. If you need to take SAT Math 2 and haven’t taken all the necessary classes yet, it’s ok, but finding out far ahead of time gives you more options on covering that material and preparing for the test itself.

Also be aware of the percentile rankings to make sure that you are competing at the highest possible level with everyone else. If you follow this general game plan, you will figure out the right test to take.

For more tips and help, visit Prep Expert.



Todd Konrad

Todd has an extensive background in entertainment, public relations, and technology startup engagement. After graduating from Arizona State University, Todd has spent the past twelve years working in content development, writing for a variety of companies in various markets. He has interviewed various Academy Award-winning actors and directors, during his time in the film industry.