Posts filed under: Math

Can you please share a list of topics that I need to master to achieve a 600 on the Math section? I do not think I have to learn all the topics, please give me as concrete and narrow list as possible. I think this would be useful for most of the people preparing for the test.

Apologies—I respect and honor your question but I cannot provide a concrete and narrow list. Hopefully you’ll find the answer that follows illuminating anyway.

You’re correct that you don’t need to learn all the topics to achieve a 600. What makes this question hard to answer generally is that you probably already know some topics pretty well, and others with the same goal might know different topics pretty well. Further complicating matters is that all topics are tested at a range of difficulty levels; even folks who have a pretty good mastery of parabola questions might occasionally miss a very hard parabola question.

A few months ago I published this post, which I think is important an useful in approaching your question. What it tells you is that, based on previous scoring tables, you’re probably going to need 36 correct answers to get a score of 600 (on the most forgiving scoring table you’d need 32 correct; on the most punishing scoring table you’d need 40 correct). So the real question for you is: what’s your path to about 40 correct (or what 18 questions can you ignore)?

There are 58 math questions on the SAT, broken out thusly:

  • 19 Heart of Algebra
    • ~12 Translating between Words and Math
    • ~9 Algebraic Manipulation
    • ~9 Lines or Systems of Linear Equations
  • 16 Passport to Advanced Math
    • ~3 Functions
    • ~3 Exponents and Exponential Functions
    • ~3 Quadratics, Binomial Squares & Difference of Two Squares
    • ~2 Parabolas
    • ~2 Polynomials
  • 17 Problem Solving & Data Analysis
    • ~9 Data Analysis
    • ~5 Ratios & Proportionality
    • ~3 Percents & Percent Change
    • ~2 Measures of Central Tendency and Variability
    • ~1 Designing and Interpreting Experiments and Studies
  • 6 Additional Topics in Math
    • ~2 Angles, Triangles, and Polygons
    • ~2 Circles
    • ~1 Right Triangles
    • ~1 Complex Numbers

To be clear, the indented, not bolded bullets represent my own subcategorizations and rough frequency calculations, while the main, bolded bullets represent College Board’s broad categories and official distributions. My categorizations don’t always line up perfectly with College Board’s. For example, I often assign a question multiple categories: a question can be both “Translating between Words and Math” and “Systems of Linear Equations”, not all “Translating…” questions are “Heart of Algebra”, many questions categorized as “Data Analysis” also include another topic, etc.

So anyway, while you could theoretically ignore Heart of Algebra, sweep everything else and still have a good shot at 600, that’s probably not your path. If you’re considering taking this test at all then you’ve probably already got some of the Heart of Algebra content locked down. You might, however, look at the list above and decide that you can safely avoid studying polynomials, exponents, and any geometry, if you hate those topics. Even with those exclusions, you’d have a pretty good cushion.

My real recommendation is to take a practice test or two and analyze your mistakes. Either use the tables at the back of my book to categorize your missed questions or make your own best judgments. Then use the list above to judge whether you afford to continue making that kind of mistake.

Most people spend the majority of their test prep time attempting to master content. This is a good thing! Without content knowledge, you’re in trouble. However, if you want to set yourself up for success, you should also be devoting some time to learning the rules of the game—you can’t develop effective strategy until you know the rules! One of the most important rules of any game is how the scoring works.

Below is a summary of the math scoring tables from the 8 official practice tests, which are a pretty good representative sample. You can see the highest, lowest, and “probable” (average over the 8 tests, rounded to the nearest 10) scaled score each raw score receives on the Official 8.

There are a few good use cases for this. First, you may know that you need to hit a certain score in order to qualify for something (a scholarship, a summer studies program, etc.). Knowing how many you need to get right to get there can help you strategize about which topics to focus on and which to ignore.

I expect people will also use this to speculate about how they might have done after tests (e.g., “I’m pretty sure I only got 5 wrong and I answered everything else—what might my score be?”).

Now that the Daily PWN email list has been going for a while and I’ve got some good data on the questions, I thought I’d compile a list of the ones people are missing most frequently. If you’re looking for a quick skill sharpening on some tough problems, why not give these a try?

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As I did for the last iteration of the SAT, I’ve been collecting the explanations I write on my Q&A sites for Official Test questions in a Google Spreadsheet for easy reference. The new test is still new, so I haven’t been asked MOST of the questions yet, but I figure it’s time to get this page out into the world. If you’re working through the official SAT practice tests and you have a sneaking suspicion that the official explanation is unnecessarily complicated, well, then here’s a way to get a second opinion.

PS: Download the Official Tests here.