27 Jun 2017

Breaking Down the Two SAT Math Sections

For anyone who knows about the SAT, this should be a simple question. The main difference is that Section 3 does not allow the use of calculators while Section 4 permits it. While this answer is true, it does not address the nuanced, subtle differences between the two sections and what each section is testing. By looking at the differences, you’ll understand why the SAT gives you certain questions and what your mindset should be going into Section 3 and 4.


1) Section 3 (Non-Calc) Is All About Algebraic Manipulation

For the most part, the non-calculator section of the SAT is all about your ability to move numbers around. Thus, you’re more likely to run into problems that require the quadratic equation or long algebraic manipulation. Plugging in can be useful, but a good amount of the time, it can be messy and algebra is just the faster way. So it’s a good idea to brush up on your number movement skills.


2) Section 4 (Calc) Has Word Problems and Charts Galore

The old SAT was criticized for having too many questions that were tricky and not straight-forward. They still have that, but they have toned it down a good amount. Instead, the SAT test keeps its difficulty level by bringing in more word problems. The test makers know you have use of a calculator in section 4. So questions that require you to make use of a formula are usually out. What’s left are long questions that require you to take stock of information and figure out the best way to solve the problem. The key is to not panic, write down your information bit-by-bit and solve portions of the problem as you work through the wording.


3) Your Calculator Is Only as Smart as You Are

While Section 4 permits the use of a calculator, the approach between Section 3 and 4 are quite similar. You shouldn’t be so quick to pull out the calculator and jam numbers until an answer comes out. Instead, work out what info and formulas you need and what more you need to know to arrive at the correct answer. In other words, you have to take the time to set up the problem. The calculator is there as a tool to make calculations easier, but it can’t think for you. This isn’t a video game. You can’t always button-mash your way out.


4) Formulas Aren’t As Necessary As You Think

For both sections of the math test, there’s not a lot of forumulas you need memorize. Most of the geometry formulas are at the beginning of the section and the only formulas I find myself using are the quadratic equation and equations related to factoring (but even then you can just reverse FOIL and not really rely on the equations). What this means is that in your studies, you should focus on process and less on rote memorization. Because the SAT relies so much on your ability to interpret data, memorization of a hundred equations is not going to help much anyway.


5) Don’t Linger

Finally, don’t linger. While the math sections generally follow the format of easy-to-medium-to-hard questions, your knowledge of math might allow you to do harder math questions further ahead. Don’t be afraid to jump around more. Having more exposure to as many questions ensure that you’ll at least try to answer more of them.