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How to Get 800 on SAT Math

To get an 800 on the SAT Math section, you need to:

  • Know the math content perfectly. You should be able to call up any knowledge that you need instantly and accurately. If you have to sit around thinking about how to use the Pythagorean Theorem or how to solve a quadratic, your chances of getting a perfect score are going to be slim.
  • Know how to apply that math content. The SAT Math will throw so many words at you that you might think it’s more a test of Reading than of Math. But underlying all the verbiage are straightforward math problems. The key to getting an 800 is cutting through what’s unimportant to focus on the underlying math concepts and strategies.
  • Practice often and thoroughly. Getting good at the math section requires experience, so you need to work through as many practice sections as you can to help you understand the wide range of questions you’ll encounter on a typical SAT math section and the problem solving skills you’ll need to answer them.

Here are some strategies you can use to get you closer to an 800:

Use multiple choice against the test makers.

The fact that the SAT is a multiple choice test is a weakness of the exam, so use it to your advantage. If you can, test out the answer choices on particular problems that allow it. Instead of trying to work it through yourself, test out their answers within the parameters of the question. Once you find one that works, you’re done!

Plug in your own number when possible.

This method is most effective when the answer choices aren’t numbers but letters or variables. Then it’s just a matter of plugging in your own numbers for those variables in the text of the question, working through the question, getting a numerical answer, and seeing which answer matches in the answer choices when you re-plug in.

Break the question down.

This is one of the key skills that will help you improve your reading and reasoning skills and thus your math score. Too many students try to understand the question as a whole. Of course, they read it and say “I don’t know how to do this,” because they are 1) trying to skip the steps needed to figure out the questions and 2) looking for a way to solve the question that they’re used to from math class. But you won’t recognize these questions most of the time, with a few exceptions, because they are not straightforward, high school math questions.

Instead, you need to break each question down into pieces that you can digest and absorb. As you read the question, stop after each new piece of information and write it down. Don’t skip this step. Delegate the remembering to the paper instead of taking up space and energy in your brain. Do your thinking on paper. Then, after you’ve finished doing this with the entire question, look for the “first step” to move the question along. Once you’ve found that step, look for the next. In fact…

You don’t need the roadmap before you start the journey.

Many students read a problem and freeze up because they “don’t know how to do it.” This is totally normal and not a sign that you can’t get the question with a little work! Most students, especially on hard questions, won’t know what “to do” the instant they read the problem. That’s what happens. Instead, you just need to get started. Write down what information the problem provides. Write down what you need. Write down what you can compute based on what you have. Then progress from point A to B to C in a step-by-step manner, all the way to the finish line.

Do everything on paper – shun “mental math.”

Too many students try to do too much in their heads. Perhaps it has something to do with the perception that being “good at math” means being able to do huge calculations mentally, but really those who are good at math know how to ‘delegate’ their thinking – in other words, how to think on paper! Use paper, use your pencil, use your calculator – let your brain do the reasoning and leave the computation elsewhere.

Draw diagrams and label them.

This goes with the above “read the questions word by word” strategy, but it bears repeating. If the problem gives you a diagram, label it with the information provided. But don’t trust the diagrams given to you when you see “Note: Figure not drawn to scale.” In this case, you should definitely draw your own diagram based on the information in the problem. Some problems won’t give you a picture or diagram, but drawing one yourself can help you solve it.

Use your calculator effectively.

Yes, calculators are great tools to help avoid having to do long division or big multiplication. But calculators can be problematic when they become a crutch for reasoning and thinking. It’s also very easy to make an input error on the calculator, leading you to a wrong answer when all your thinking and computation was totally fine. So you need to use your calculator as a trusted tool, even one that can help direct you to the answer, but don’t make it your lifeline either. In theory, you should be able to do this test without using a calculator.

Of course, on one section (Test 3 – Math No Calculator Permitted) of the test, you won’t get to use your calculator, so brushing up on the methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing will be useful for Test 3.

Stuck? Reread the question.

If you don’t know what to do in a question, or if you are halfway through but get stuck on the next step, reread the question to see if you missed pertinent information. More often than not, you will find that you misread or ignored a vital piece of information that will help unlock the problem for you. The key is to keep moving – you want to spend as little time as possible just sitting around “thinking” and more time reading the question, writing things down, and working things out on paper.

Do the problem again!

This advice is not just meant for those who have plenty of time to complete the section. One good strategy is once you get the answer to go back over both your reasoning and computation to make sure it makes sense, takes into account all the relevant information, and is free from simple computational errors or other mistakes. Being able to catch your own mistakes is the surest way to 1) not making those mistakes again and 2) increasing your overall score without learning anything “new.”

Use the “reasonableness” criterion to help check your answers.

For a lot of questions you should be able to figure out what the “approximate” answer should be, or at least a general range. If you expect the answer to be an integer between 0 and 10, and you get 123.5, you probably made a mistake. If you are working a percents problem and get an answer that is widely out of proportion to the approximate magnitude you’re looking for, go over your work again. You need  your radar constantly trying to verify your work and looking out for errors.

Be careful with “must be true” questions.

If you need to pick an answer that “must be true,” it has to always, without a doubt, 100% of the time be true. If it “could” or “might” be true, that’s not good enough. If there is at least one scenario in which the choice isn’t true, then you cannot pick the choice. However, if you’re dealing with a “could be true” question, an answer choice that is true at least one time is going to be your answer. If the choice is never true, you can eliminate it. This is where reading and reasoning truly matter.

About the Author:

I’m Rob Schombs, the founder of Reason Prep, creator of these videos, and your test prep tutor. I earned a BA in Chemistry (2006) and an MA in Science and Technology Studies (2009) from Cornell University. In 2010 I started tutoring SAT, ACT, math, chemistry, and writing full-time, and Reason Prep followed shortly after!