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 Jun 06, 2020
How Hard is SAT Math, Really?

I don’t want to make it seem like the SAT Math section is super easy and that anyone who gets less than an 800 is a dumb-dumb head. Of course, the Math section has some tricky problems and requires you to synthesize different concepts and formulas from a range of high school math, especially algebra.

I think I can make the case, though, that the reason why SAT Math is “hard” is quite different from why the Old SAT Math was hard. And lucky for us, the difficulty on the New SAT Math is something that we can prepare for much more easily!

Old SAT Math was difficult because it made you think about problems in different, unexpected ways. The problems were unlike anything you saw in your regular math classes. For most students, it could be quite disorienting to do Old SAT Math problems since they seemed so foreign to what they did in their typical math class.

The New SAT is totally different. The problems are similar to the kinds of things you’d see in your math class, and what makes the problems “hard” is not unfamiliarity but rather the complexity of the material itself.

So if you see a #20 on the New SAT and don’t know the formula or concept, then you’re almost certainly not going to be getting the question right.

However, if you do know the formula or concept tested, then the question actually becomes quite easy.

So what makes the question hard is that most students simply don’t know the formula, concept, or trick. So they get it wrong. But if you know the formula, concept, or trick, you get it right, and without breaking much of a sweat.

To illustrate this, check out this sample problem from Practice New SAT #1 released by the College Board. It’s #20 (the hardest question of the section allegedly) from Math Section 3: No Calculator Permitted.


And here’s my solution & discussion of this question.

Now, whether or not you got the question right, think it’s easy, etc. is beyond the point. The point is that the way forward for solving a question like this is knowable. It’s likely a question type you’ll see again on the SAT, and now that you know this, it’s something you can train for. Contrast this to the old SAT – a #20 was often a really strange question. Whether or not you “understood” it didn’t much matter since you likely wouldn’t see its like again.

Happily for us, the New SAT Math section is repetitive, firmly based in typical “high school math,” and relatively narrow in the kinds of question it asks. Good deal!

I’m Rob Schombs, cofounder of Brilliant Prep and your test prep tutor. I earned a BA in Chemistry (2006) and an MA in Science and Technology Studies (2009) from Cornell University. I've been teaching the SAT & ACT since 2010.