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SAT math strategy prerequisite June 2, 2010

Posted by Jason McDonald in : SAT tips , trackback

Think with your pencil!

No matter how rusty students’ math skills are, they could benefit first from learning SAT math strategies to increase their score. When I tutor students for the SAT, they often start our tutoring session with “I had NO idea how to do lots of those problems.”  I can often tell which problems they couldn’t get right before they even ask me a question.

I simply look at their test booklet and over 80% of the time, if a problem has no writing near it, they didn’t get it.  I don’t ask them which of the six essential strategies they tried because I know they didn’t.  Why didn’t they?  They were like a deer in headlights.

Whether you know the essential six math strategies or not, you need to know where to begin when you’re stuck. The saying in whitewater kayaking is, “When in doubt, move your paddle.” This helps someone struck with fear and not sure which way to go.

Heading in any direction is better than not moving at all, even if it’s the wrong direction! Simply recognizing you’re moving in the wrong direction is enough to tell you to change course! Physical movement keeps the brain involved and doesn’t allow you to “freeze up.”

The SAT question writers have an amazing ability to write questions that lead you to think, “I have no idea what to do here.” The saying that applies to the SAT is, “When in doubt, move your pencil.” If you’re stumped on a geometry problem with a diagram, create a crude protractor or ruler and start measuring! Sketch your own diagram if it doesn’t have one! If a problem is “wordy” or confusing, display the information differently. Make a table or a chart. Draw a tree diagram or a simple picture.

If you’re stuck on a problem with variables, make up numbers or plug in answer choices; and more importantly – write them down and work them through (think with your pencil)! Do anything that gets your pencil moving! If your pencil is moving, your brain is engaged. If your brain is engaged, you are one step closer to a solution; even if that solution is, “I’ll come back to this problem later if I have time.”

The most important fact you need to experiment with is it takes little to no more time to write stuff down than it does to do it in your head. The points you gain by avoiding errors and sparking ideas when stumped, by far, outweigh the time it takes to move your pencil. If you review your practice test and find yourself saying, “I should have got that right,” or “that was a stupid mistake,” you need to write more stuff down and let your pencil do the thinking.

Don’t let the limited blank space intimidate you – use scratch paper.  Ask for it before the test begins.


1. Jason McDonald - June 6, 2012

Be sure to sign up for my e-tips.

2. Gaby - June 5, 2012

Im taking the SAT next year and i was wondering if you can give me some useful tips on taking the math portion i really suck at math

3. Jason McDonald - November 19, 2011


4. ali al-murda'a - November 19, 2011

i’ve to score more then 1250 in math nd reading but i really need a mircle

5. Jason McDonald - October 25, 2011

I know it’s frustrating but it’s not uncommon to retake the test multiple times with similar scores. The way to improve your score is to learn new methods. That’s what my premium member forum is all about — teaching students new methods and giving guidance how to study best.

6. Samantha Butler - October 25, 2011

Dear Mr. McDonald,
I have taken the SAT’s three times,but my score barely seems to improve each time. My higest scores so far are; Reading-540, Math-430, and Writing- 500. I am a senior and I can only take it one more time before I HAVE to apply to college. What study strategies do I have to have to try to make a 630 on critical reading and writing? And what about a 600 on math, because I really stink at it.
Thank you!

7. Jason McDonald - September 22, 2010


Glad to hear you’re willing to carve out the time. Unfortunately, score improvement is not linear so it would be discouraging to track weekly improvements. I suggest carving out an hour/day and mastering strategies to tackle those problems that are stumping you. They’re laid out in my premium member area and I cover them with skype tutoring.

8. Radha - September 22, 2010

Dear Mr. McDonald,

I am really worried about my SAT MATH score. I can’t seem to improve very easily and I have one month to increase my SAT math score from 580 to 720 to get into this math academy I desperatly want to get admission to. I am willing to do anything it takes-how many hours of practice a day do you think this is going to require? I am able to master all the problems correctly but the last five problems in each section always stump me.
Also, about how many points increase should I ecspect per week if I am putting in enough effort? Right now I am a sophomore in an advanced pre cal class.
I would really appreciate some advice and tips!

9. Jason McDonald - June 1, 2010


Average in each section is around 500. Good news is it’s much easier to gain 100 points per section when you’re below the average rather than above. Poke around this site, you can get your score up quite a bit.


10. tricee0518 - May 31, 2010

i made a
410 on Reading
360 on math
280 on writing idk if its good or bad

11. Jason McDonald - July 7, 2009

I just sent you an email, Julia. I’ll “see” you in the member area.

12. Julia - July 7, 2009

How should I study for the SAT Math portion over the summer?

I’ve been taking practice tests from the Princeton Review book and the Collegeboard book, but no matter how much I solve these math problems I feel like I’m not improving.
The last time I took the SAT, I studied a lot for the math part. I basically took a SAT course where I had to solve lots and lots of problems. But I still got below 700. Is it just me or am I studying wrong? Now I’m trying to analyze why I got the problems wrong, but I don’t know if it’s working.

I always run out of time too. What should my study plan be over the summer?

13. Jason McDonald - May 23, 2009


1940′s pretty solid. To get 2100 you really gotta know strategies for the test. Best place to start with the math section is my free e-course.

14. anonymous - May 22, 2009

I recently received 1940 on my SATs. Is this a good score? I did not do well on the math section- I go only 590, how can I get my score up to over 2100?

15. Jason McDonald - March 17, 2009

Great question, Chris. You need to have a plan every time you take a practice test. This is a great place to start.

You need to figure it out for each of the three subsections. I’ll do the math section for you and you can do the others . . .

For starters, guessing is a wild card so be sure to read my guessing post to address whether you should guess or not. Guessing isn’t a factor in the formula you’re after, but leaving questions blank is.

Here’s a formula you can use to toy with how many questions you need to get right to hit your target score in a given section:

    RS = Raw Score
    AQ = Attempted Questions
    PC = Percent Correct of attempted questions

    RS = (PC)(AQ)/100 – (AQ)((100-PC)/400)

Now from a math point of view, we could clean this up by factoring and such but I think it’s clearer to leave as is so you can see the raw score is simply the number of correct questions minus 1/4 of the number of missed questions. Your actual score may be slightly higher as there’s no 1/4 point deduction for missed grid-in questions (10/54).

To get a 600 in math you need a raw score of 38 (from pg. 439 in The Official SAT Study Guide). You can get this raw score many different ways. At one extreme, you can answer every single question (54), get 76% correct (41) and get a RS of 38 (from above formula). Another example is leaving 1/5 of them blank (so AQ = 43) and getting 91% of those answered correct (39/43).

You’ll notice for the writing section that there’s one more variable — the essay score. I’d suggest running the numbers with a 4 or 5 on the essay if you’re a candidate for 600 overall. Toy with the numbers and let me know if you have any more questions!

16. Chris B. - March 17, 2009

Is there a formula or strategy that can be used to get a certain score?

Say for instance, I wanted an 1800, is there a method that i can use to know exatly how many problems that I can get wrong and how many I can guess on to get the score I desire?

17. Jason McDonald - February 21, 2009


To get your overall score you just add the three subscores. So yours is 1250. A 250-point gain is doable with some prep.

The best place to start is to buy the only printed SAT book worth purchasing: “The Official SAT Study Guide” exclusively for its 8 full length practice tests. Take one and score it. You’ll then know specifically where to need to improve. Be sure to take my free ecourse if you haven’t already. Happy to help you if you have any other SAT questions.

18. Jamez Ellis - February 17, 2009

how do i boost my sat scores. i have to make a 1500 on my sat score in order to be accepted in western carolina university.

-i made a 410 on critical reading
-a 430 on math
-and a 410 on writing.

whats my overall score( for an example 1500,1100,1300)
please help!

19. Jason McDonald - January 21, 2009

Robert — here’s an excerpt from day 4 of my free 5-day ecourse. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already.

Many students are aware that memorizing vocabulary and word roots will boost their verbal and writing SAT scores. However, there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding whether memorizing anything math related will boost one’s math score.

MYTH: You shouldn’t memorize math information as all required formulas are provided on the test

I’m here as a professional math tutor to tell you, you should memorize formulas (not only the given ones, but a few more!) while preparing for the SAT math section for three reasons:

1. There are a handful of formulas that they do not provide that make problems a breeze when used.
2. You’re wasting valuable time if you need to flip back to the reference page to hunt for a formula.
3. If you don’t have formulas memorized you might turn back to that page looking for a formula that isn’t there.

Let me know if you have any other questions!

20. Robert Huckabee - January 21, 2009

my sat prep teacher told me that i need to work on my memorization skills with squares and things i wanted to know whether that is a good idea or not.