Is SAT Math Hard?

Last Updated on December 20, 2022

If you’re planning to take the SAT or deciding whether to take the SAT, one thing you may be very curious to know is, how hard is the SAT Math section? In this post, I’ll discuss what math is on the SAT and how hard that math is, so that you can be well-informed about what you’re getting into.

Is SAT Math Hard

Here are the topics we’ll cover:

Let’s begin by discussing the purpose of the Math section of the SAT.

The Purpose of the SAT Math Section

To understand how hard the Math section of the SAT is, we need to understand the purpose of SAT Math. According to the College Board, the purpose of the Math section of the SAT is to do the following:

  • determine whether students have learned the math taught in high school
  • assess students’ readiness for college-level math
  • evaluate students’ math reasoning skills

Notice that none of those things is “to be a super hard test for the purpose of identifying math superstars.” Rather, the stated purpose of the SAT Math section tells us that maybe SAT Math isn’t extremely hard.

KEY FACT:

The purpose of the SAT Math section is to determine whether students have learned high school math, to assess students’ readiness for college-level math, and to evaluate students’ math reasoning skills.

Now, let’s take a look at what math the SAT tests.

What Math Does the SAT Cover?

As we just saw, one purpose of the Math section of the SAT is to determine whether students have learned the math taught in high school. Accordingly, the math that appears in the Math section of the SAT is high school math, including the following:

  • Heart of Algebra: Heart of Algebra questions focus on linear equations and inequalities, systems of linear equations, and functions.
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions focus on using ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning to solve word problems and other types of questions involving real-world situations.
  • Passport to Advanced Math: Passport to Advanced Math questions focus on the math needed for pursuing further study in a discipline such as science or economics or career opportunities in STEM fields. These questions may require you to work with polynomials or expressions involving exponents, radicals, fractions with a variable in the denominator, or complex equations. They also assess your understanding of functions and their graphs.
  • Additional Math Topics: These questions focus on geometry, trigonometry and radian measure, and the arithmetic of complex numbers.

KEY FACT:

The SAT tests math that students commonly learn in high school.

Now that we know the purpose of SAT Math and what concepts it tests, let’s discuss why this information means that, in a way, the math on the SAT is not hard.

How SAT Math Is Not Hard

What we’ve seen so far is that the purpose of the Math section of the SAT is basically to determine whether students have learned high school math and are ready to learn college-level math. Logically, then, the Math section of the SAT is not particularly hard. After all, it doesn’t involve any math that high school students aren’t already expected to know.

If you’ve paid attention in your math classes, done your homework, and learned the math taught, you should be pretty well-prepared for what appears in the Math section of the SAT.

If you’ve paid attention in your math classes, done your homework, and learned the math taught, you should be pretty well-prepared for what appears in the Math section of the SAT.

At the same time, in some ways, SAT Math can be hard. Let’s discuss why.

How SAT Math Is Hard

Even though the SAT Math section is not meant to be super-hard, there are ways SAT Math is somewhat hard. Let’s discuss each of these ways.

SAT Math Questions Add a Twist to High School Math

One reason SAT Math can be hard is that the SAT asks questions you’ve never seen in math class.

Consider this example multiple-choice question:

Example 1

What is the sum of the solutions of x2 – 3x + 2 = 0?

  • 5
  • 4
  • 3
  • 1

Solution:

Upon seeing this question, a test-taker might say, “Wait, what? The sum of the solutions? My teachers never put a question like this on a test. They just asked me to find the solutions.”

To solve this problem, we can factor to get (x – 2)((x – 1), and then get x = 2 and x = 1 as the solutions. Then, to find the sum, we add 2 + 1 = 3. So, (C) is the correct answer.

So, this question isn’t very difficult once we get what it’s asking. Yet, it illustrates just one of many ways the SAT takes relatively easy math questions and puts a twist on them to make them more difficult. The algebra is what you learned in Algebra I, but you might be taken aback because you’ve never had to add the solutions. Added twists like this are one thing that makes the SAT not just another math test.

KEY FACT:

SAT Math can be hard because the SAT asks questions you’ve never seen in math class.

The Wording of SAT Math Questions Can Be Convoluted

Another characteristic SAT Math questions that can make them challenging is convoluted wording.

Consider the following example:

Example 2

y = x2 + 10x – 7

The equation above represents a parabola graphed in the xy-plane. Which of the following characteristics of the graph appears as a constant or coefficient in the equation?

  • The coordinates of the vertex
  • The minimum value of y
  • The x-intercept(s)
  • The y-intercept

Solution:

Once again, we see a question that involves relatively simple math but is still challenging because of what the question asks and the way the question asks it. After all, “Which of the following characteristics of the graph appears …?” isn’t what we’re used to seeing.

It’s not too tough to determine the correct answer since, when x = 0, y = -7. So, the constant -7 must be the y-intercept, and thus the answer must be (C). At the same time, the convoluted wording of this question makes it more challenging than a typical math question, such as one that simply asks for the value of the y-intercept.

KEY FACT:

The questions on the Math section of the SAT can be hard because they may use convoluted wording.

SAT Math Questions Can Involve Obscure Concepts

If you haven’t taken a Statistics class, you are probably unaware of the line of best fit or the margin of error. And even if you have taken a Trigonometry course, you likely can’t recite (or use) the relationship between trig functions of complementary angles. Yet, it is almost certain that you will encounter questions on your SAT that test at least one of these math concepts.

These are just a few examples of the types of obscure concepts that can appear in SAT Math questions and make them hard. So, even if you have strong math skills, you might find some SAT questions hard simply because they involve concepts you aren’t familiar with.

KEY FACT:

Some math questions on the SAT can be hard because they involve concepts you’re not familiar with.

SAT Math Questions Can Involve Many Different Topics

Another characteristic of SAT Math that can make it hard is the sheer number of topics the questions can involve. While none of these topics is super complex on its own, the fact that you need to know so many different topics can make scoring high on SAT Math challenging.

KEY FACT:

One factor that can make SAT Math challenging is the large number of topics it involves.

The SAT Is a Timed Test

The final characteristic of SAT Math that can make it somewhat difficult is that the SAT is a timed test. After all, even if you could sort out what the questions ask or work through the convoluted wording if you had unlimited time, you may find it challenging to answer all the questions in the section in the limited time you are provided.

KEY FACT:

The fact that the SAT is a timed test can make the Math section challenging.

We have seen that, while overall, the Math section of the SAT is not super-hard, there are aspects of it that can make it somewhat challenging. So, let’s now discuss what we can do to make it easier.

How to Study for SAT Math to Make It as Easy as Possible

To make SAT Math as easy as possible, we can address each of the issues that make it hard.

Fill Your Skill Gaps

To prepare for the fact that SAT Math questions can involve many different topics, some of which are obscure, take a topic-by-topic approach to your SAT prep and master each of the topics you’re currently not strong in.

To determine which topics to work on, you could go through a list of the SAT Math topics and identify the ones you don’t feel confident in. Also, you could take one of the official SAT practice tests and use your performance on the questions to determine what to work on.

Once you’ve determined what topics to work on, work on them one at a time. To work on a topic, first review the concepts and strategies associated with the topic. Then answer practice questions involving just that topic.

TTP PRO TIP:

To fill gaps in your SAT math skill set, take a topic-by-topic approach, mastering topics one at a time.

Learn to Handle SAT-Specific Math Challenges

To address the fact that SAT Math questions ask things you aren’t used to being asked and use convoluted wording, answer many SAT-type math questions.

Since the SAT is a standardized test, the same types of questions will show up over and over. So, by practicing, you can learn to handle the patterns of SAT questions and answer choices. In other words, you can go from being good at math to being good at SAT Math.

It’s generally best to start off taking your time answering SAT practice questions. By taking your time, you give yourself time to learn to answer them step by step.

In other words, by answering practice questions untimed, you give yourself time to learn how to do things such as find ways to answer hard SAT math questions and correctly fill in the answers to grid-in questions. Once you’ve learned to get the questions correct, you can work on learning to answer them at test pace.

TTP PRO TIP:

The best way to learn to answer SAT questions is to start off practicing untimed.

Learn to Handle the Time Factor of the SAT

Finally, to address the fact that the SAT Math section is a timed test, you can use the official SAT practice tests to practice answering SAT Math questions under test conditions. By taking practice tests, you can learn to handle all aspects of the SAT test experience, including deciding which questions to skip and come back to, keeping track of the time you have left, and the challenges of carefully reading questions and maintaining accuracy while working quickly.

TTP PRO TIP:

To prepare to handle the time factor and other aspects of the SAT test experience, take official practice tests.

Let’s wrap up with some key takeaways.

Key Takeaways: Is SAT Math Hard? 

Remember these key points about the SAT Math section:

  • The main purpose of SAT Math is to determine whether students have learned high school math and are ready to learn college-level math.
  • In a way, SAT Math isn’t hard because it basically tests the math skills students typically learn in high school.
  • SAT Math is somewhat hard because SAT Math questions ask things high school math doesn’t ask, use convoluted wording, and involve many math topics, some of which are obscure.
  • We can make the Math section of the SAT as easy as possible by working on SAT Math one topic at a time, answering SAT Math practice questions, and taking SAT practice tests.

What’s Next?

Now that you have a better understanding of what SAT Math is like, you can learn how to maximize the results of your SAT preparation by reading this post on the best way to study for the SAT.

Also, if you are finding it challenging to get yourself to prepare for the SAT, you can get some helpful ideas from this post on how to motivate yourself.

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