What kind of math is on the SAT?

For many high school students, the math sections on the SAT are the most daunting part of the entire test.

While the SAT Math section (divided into a calculator section and a no calculator section) might be intimidating, they will be a lot easier than they seem if you know what to expect and prepare accordingly.

This guide will break down the types of math concepts you will see on the SAT and provide you with a few helpful tips for knocking this section out of the park.

SAT Math topics

While the SAT Math section tests your knowledge of high school math, it doesn’t venture past what you’ll learn in Algebra II and Pre-Calculus classes.

If you haven’t reached Calculus yet, there is no need to worry!

The SAT Math section can be broken into four categories:

  • Heart of Algebra (19 questions)
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis (17 questions)
  • Passport to Advanced Math (16 questions)
  • Additional Topics in Math (6 questions)

Once you are familiar with each of these categories and the types of questions they include, you will know everything you need to know about what kind of math is on the SAT.

Practice math questions from each of these categories and work on solving the top 10 hardest SAT Math questions, and you will be in good shape for this section of the SAT.

1. Heart of Algebra questions

Heart of Algebra questions make up the majority of the SAT Math section. As their name suggests, Heart of Algebra questions mostly consist of Algebra I and Algebra II related topics.

Answering these questions will require you to analyze and solve equations and systems of equations, create equations and expressions, creating inequalities to demonstrate the relationship between different variables, simplifying formulas, analyzing functions, and interpreting data from graphs.

When answering these questions, you should be prepared to solve, graph, and interpret linear equations, functions, and inequalities.

For example, you might run into a question like this:

 If 4x + 5 = 13x + 4 – x – 9, then x = ?

A. -5/4

B. 0

C. 5/4
D. 1 ⅘

E. 2

To find the answer, which is C, you will have to have a good understanding of Algebra II.

2. Passport to Advanced Math questions

Passport to Advanced Math questions differ from Heart of Algebra questions because they are focused on nonlinear expressions.

To answer the questions that fall under this category, you will need to be able to analyze the relationship between variables using ratios, percentages, and units; interpret data from nonlinear graphs; analyze and summarize quantitative data; identify and work with radicals to solve nonlinear equations; analyze rational exponents, and solve quadratic and exponential word problems.

For example, you might run into questions that gives you a function and asks:

For the function f above, where x is a constant, and f(9) =81  what is the value of f(11)?

These questions are also geared toward Algebra I and Algebra II.

3. Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions

Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions are typically a culmination of various skills you have gained in math classes throughout high school.

They largely focus on data interpretation and analysis, requiring you to have a strong understanding of ratios, proportions, percentages. Usually, questions in this section will require you to analyze visual elements like tables, charts, graphs, and scatter plots. 

For example, you may be asked to look at data from a table and determine the percentage by which the numbers within the table are increasing or decreasing.

4. Additional Topics in Math

While there may only be six Additional Topics in Math questions, you still need to be able to master these types of questions if you want to score in the top percentile on the SAT.

These questions cover geometry and trigonometry.

To do well on Additional Topics in Math questions, you will need to be able to determine the volume, area, diameter, and circumference of a shape; calculate angles of right triangles; know and use the Pythagorean Theorem; use theorems to evaluate lines, circles, and triangles; and analyze trigonometry functions

For example, given two triangles in your test booklet labeled PQR and XYZ, you you could see a question like this one provided by The College Board:

In the figure above, right triangle PQR is similar to right triangle XYZ, with

vertices P, Q, and R corresponding to vertices X, Y, and Z, respectively.

If cos R = 0.263, what is the value of cos Z?

SAT Math tips

Once you are familiar with the types of questions you will encounter on the SAT Math section, you should learn tips and tricks that will help you do well on this section. 

Here are a few tips that will help you earn a high score for this part of the SAT:

Memorize formulas

What if I told you that you could sneak a cheat sheet worth of formulas into your test administration. As it turns out, you can. No, you can’t bring a physical cheat sheet on paper or written down for you to access, but you can have a mental cheat sheet that you can refer to any time you need it.

If you memorize all of the key formulas that you’ll need to know for the SAT Math section, it will save you time and energy because you won’t have to keep flipping through your test booklet to the formula page.

Here are some of the  formulas that you will need to know on test day:

Slope-Intercept Form of a Line

Distance Formula

Quadratic Formula

Exponential Growth and Decay

Area of an Equilateral Triangle

Equation of a Circle

Pythagorean Theorem

Area of Sector in a Circle

Sine, Cosine, and Tangent Ratio

Skip around

Don’t feel like you have to answer all of the questions in order. If a question is taking you more than a few seconds to start working through, skip it and move on to an easier question. You can always go back and answer these questions later with your extra time.

Only use your calculator when necessary

On the SAT Math section that allows you to use your calculator, don’t get glued to the calculator as you answer questions.

If you are using your calculator for simple calculations that you could answer quicker in your head, you are wasting seconds that will add up in the long run.

Only use your calculator when you need it.

Mark key parts of the question

Sometimes students get too bogged down in the irrelevant details of word problems that they struggle to answer the questions.

Try underlining or circling the most important information that you will actually need to answer the question so that you can skip over the rest without getting confused or missing essential information.

Show your work

As annoying as it may be when your teacher asks you to show your work, this is a practice that will serve you well on the SAT Math section.

Writing out each step of the process as you solve a challenging question will help you catch potential mistakes and keep track of your thought process.

Plug-in answers

When in doubt, try plugging in answers to see if they are correct. 

For instance, if you look at a simple question asking you to solve for x like 5(x)=15, if you were to plug-in each of the answer options for x, you would find one that would equal 15 when you multiply it by 5. 

This strategy can help you save a lot of time, especially when you start by plugging in the answer for answer option C. 

This is the best option to start with because all of the answers above will be smaller values and the answers below will be larger values. If you plug-in the answer for C, and it is too low or too high, that will eliminate two additional answers.

Using these strategies will help you feel more confident and capable when you get to the math portion of the SAT.

Visit Prep Expert to learn more SAT strategies that will come in handy on test day.