SAT Math Difficulty

Here's the good news: the Math on the SATs is not that hard. Seriously.

So why does it seem like it is?

To answer that, you need to know the big secret behind the SATs that the testmakers don't really talk about: The SAT is not testing your math skills. Sure, there are whole sections of math questions, but the point of those questions is NOT to see if you know how to do math. The testmakers use math as a universal language of sorts - since every kid has to take math class and every high school student has gotten to at least a certain level of math, they can use math questions to test what they're REALLY interested in finding out.

You may have heard before that the SATs aren't "knowledge-based," and that's true. The SATs are testing how you test, not what you know. But what does that mean? "How you test" means things like: do you follow directions; do you read carefully, taking note of details or do you zone out; can you handle pressure and stress; can you think creatively, finding a new way to answer a question that maybe doesn't fit the rules you learned in school; can you think critically, using your own judgment to rule out bad options even if you don't know all the facts? The reason colleges continue to use the SATs is precisely because these are the attributes the SAT tests. These attributes are the ones colleges are looking for in their students because these are the attributes that are going to lead to a successful college career - colleges don't want students that are simply memorizing facts; colleges want students that are going to listen in class, learn, grow, not crack under the pressure, not freak out, and graduate as proud examples of the kind of alumni one expects from Fancy Pants University.

What all this means for you, taking the SAT, is that the math concepts tested are basically 7th through 9th grade math. That's it. If you are a particularly poor math student, some of this might encroach on Sophomore year territory, but you've seen all of it before. If the questions appear tricky, it's not because the math is hard, it's because the testmakers are trying to trick you. That's right. They're not here to make you feel loved and help your self-esteem. The people that make up the questions and answers for this test have jobs they need to keep, and to keep their jobs they need students to fit the expected curve.

SAT Bell Curve

So what is that curve? You probably know that each section of the SAT is graded on a scale of 200 to 800, with 800 being a perfect score. But that scale is a curved scale, like this:

Most people in life fall somewhere in the middle. Some people are geniuses, some people are idiots, but most don't fit either of those extremes - which means neither should the test results (or so the testmakers and college admissions officers believe.) So they design the test based on that principle - a few people should fail, a few people should ace it, and everyone else will fall somewhere in the middle. This means that the scores are slightly weighted. So the difference between 8 questions wrong and 9 questions wrong on one section might be the difference between your getting a 580 and a 590; but the difference between only getting one wrong and only getting two wrong on the whole test could be the difference between a 750 and a 720. So be patient with your score increases - as your score begins to increase with the knowledge and techniques you'll learn here, just know that an increase of even 10 or 20 points is a good thing, and breaking into the elusive 700s is awesome.

What is a Good SAT Score?

So now you're probably thinking, what's a good score? The problem with answering that question is that it varies so much from student to student. Obviously, getting an 800 would be fantastic, and getting something in the 200s is, um, not advised, but where in that middle should you be? It totally depends. That's not a cop-out, it just does. If you want to be an engineer or a physicist and you're applying to math-based programs, you need something in the 700s. If you want to be a novelist, the low 500s might do fine for math as long as your Verbal scores are high - but if you want to be a novelist that went to Harvard, you'll need higher. In general for most competitive universities, anything above a 550 is considered on the good side of average, anything above a 600 or 650 is considered an acceptably high score, and anything above 700 is considered excellent. However, your grades, extracurriculars, application essay and recommendations can all change those requirements for your personal application. But here's the good news: out of all those elements, the SATs is the only one in which there are specific tricks you can do to change your score and blow your place in that giant middle of the curve.

Back to SAT Math Study Guide Next 1.2 SAT Math - The Facts