Why Is SAT Math So Hard? (Plus 10 SAT Math Tips)

If you are like most students, then you struggle on at least some parts of the SAT Math sections. Why is SAT Math so hard?

SAT Math is hard because it asks about a wide range of topics from your high school career, including

  • algebra
  • geometry
  • trigonometry
  • probability
  • statistics

When you begin studying for the two SAT Math sections (Calculator and No Calculator), the whole process can seem overwhelming.

The SAT Math Calculator section may challenge you just as much as the No Calculator section!

Here are a few tips to help keep you calm while you study – and perhaps save you some time in the long run!

Jonathan SAT Social (1)

1. Pump Up Your Vocabulary

Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud.  First, be sure that you understand all of the vocabulary in the question – yes, every single word.  After all, if you don’t know what the question is asking, how can you possibly answer it?

As you go through practice questions, make a list of any words that are not familiar to you.  For each definition, make a flash card with words, pictures, graphs, equations, flowcharts – whatever it takes to get a handle on that word!

Study your flash cards at odd hours of the day, every day. Even if you only have a minute to spare, you can still review a card or two.

Plus, carrying around all of those SAT Math study cards will finally settle, once and for all, the question of who the coolest kid in school is.

2. Use the Force, Luke

Ok, not really.  However, you should use the answer choices to your full advantage!  There are a few ways to do this.

Plug in Answers

No, it’s not cheating!  If you see a problem where you can plug in answer choices until you get the right one, do it.

Often, this method will be faster than solving the problem as you were taught in school.  Don’t worry about showing your work!

There is no partial credit on the SAT – you are either right, and get a point, or you are wrong, and get no points.

Pick Values for Variables

Using this method, you choose values for a variable in the problem, plug them in, and eliminate answers that cannot possibly be correct.

You might only be able to eliminate one or two answers, but this still gives you an edge if you need to guess.

Reverse Engineer the Problem

Look at the format of the answers.  Do they all look like something that came out of the quadratic equation (that is, a rational number, plus or minus a radical expression)?

That might be a hint on how to solve the problem: by finding a quadratic and solving with the quadratic formula.

3. I’ll Be Back

Why am I using so many Schwarzenegger references today?  Anyway, if you see a problem you cannot solve, go ahead and skip it.

Don’t beat yourself up over it, and don’t lose your momentum. You can circle back to try the problem again later.  This strategy has a few benefits.

First, you don’t waste time on a problem that could take a while to figure out.

Second, another later question might remind you of a concept you need to solve the skipped problem.

Third, if you finish lots of easier problems on your first pass through the test, you can feel confident that you have already logged some serious points.  This will make it easier to focus your energy on the few remaining tough questions.

4. Take a Wild Guess

This is generally not recommended, but the reality is, you may run out of time.  If this happens, be sure to bubble in an answer for each blank question as a last resort.

There is no penalty for guessing incorrectly, so take your shot and hope it’s right!  Make sure to eliminate answers first if you can, to improve your odds of guessing correctly.

5. Bubble Batching

Many productivity experts emphasize the importance of “batching”, or doing similar tasks all at once.  For example, doing all of your laundry on Saturday instead of a little bit every few days.

On the SAT, you can apply this batching technique by circling your answers in the test book as you go. When you finish a page, fill in all of the answer bubbles for questions on that page at the same time.

That way, you don’t have to switch back and forth between “math-warrior” mode and “bubble-filler” mode so often.  It also gives you a quick “breather” between each page, to gather your energy and collect your thoughts for the next set of questions.

6. I Hope You Are Taking Notes

There are two reasons to take detailed notes on missed questions.

First, you learn more from a problem when you explain the concept and the solution in your own words, in writing that is easy to understand.

Second, even if the idea is fresh and clear today, it may fade a bit in a few weeks.  So, by having a list of notes for questions you missed, you can review them as the test gets closer.

You can also use your notes to apply what you already know to similar questions.

Take good notes on missed questions, and see mistakes as an opportunity to learn.

7. Day by Day

You should be practicing every day to improve on the SAT Math section.  I know, the horror, but hear me out.

Think of it this way: if you want to improve at a sport (or an instrument, or any other skill) and do your best, would you practice one or two times a week?  Or would you get out there and practice every day, rain or shine, sick or not?

I think we both know the answer to these questions.  Even if it is only five minutes on your busiest/worst day of the week, spend a little time practicing every day.

That way, you avoid getting rusty, and you get in the habit of daily practice.  The more ingrained the habit of practice is, the easier it is to do every day.

Once you make a habit of daily studying, it is more likely that you will continue the habit – a virtuous cycle of improved math ability and better SAT scores!

8. Dissect Missed Problems

Because you really need extra credit in Biology class.  Jokes aside, there is a good reason to dig deeper on why you missed a problem.

In your notes, categorize each question you missed.  This can reveal which topics you are weak on.

(You can find a helpful list of topics (along with examples) to help you get ready for the SAT Math section here.)

Also, note the reason you missed the question: did you miss or misread a word?  If that keeps happening, ask yourself why, and take steps to avoid it in the future.

Are you forgetting key equations/concepts, or not knowing when to apply ones you do know?  Record that as well, and if it is a pattern, do something to change it.

9. A Variable By Any Other Name

Name your variables!  Especially for grid-in word problems or algebra problems, you will need variables to solve effectively.

Just because no variable is given in a problem or diagram does not mean you won’t need one.  Do not be afraid to name variables as needed.

Just make sure that your variable names are descriptive and easy to follow.  “A” and “B” is probably better for apples and bananas than “X” and “Y”.

10. Draw Outside the Box

On certain geometry/trigonometry problems, you will be given a diagram.  Sometimes, the diagram will be incomplete. Other times, it will be easier to solve the problem if you add something to the picture.

For example, you may be able to solve a problem more easily by drawing a radius somewhere inside a circle, or by drawing a line to cut an angle in half (also known as “bisecting the angle”).

If you read any solutions using such a method, study them carefully, step by step, to make sure you understand how the modified diagram helped to solve the problem.

Bonus: Get Started Early

If you are reading this article, then you are probably serious about preparing for the SAT Math section.

The earlier you start, the more time you will have to absorb content, and also to practice the tactics and strategies that will help you to succeed on test day.  So, get started now!


The SAT Math section can be tough, especially when the clock is ticking. However, if you get started early, pay attention to your mistakes, and work to improve, you will be much more confident on test day.

If you would like to hire a math tutor, check out this article first.

You can learn more about what to know for the SAT Math section here.

Some colleges have gone test optional in recent years – you can learn more here.

You can learn more about SAT Math scoring (and what makes a good score) here.

You can learn about dyscalculia (and some ways to work with it) here.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

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