Test Prep

Using Arithmetic on SAT Math

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Remember your multiplication tables? What about addition or subtraction drills? If it feels like ages ago that you were completing those problems in your math classes, you’re probably not far off. But in order to do well on the SAT, you’ll have to dust off those portions of your noggin once again.

To start, let’s cover what you’ll need to know. There are only six arithmetic operations you’ll ever need to perform on the SAT:


1. Addition (5 + 5)

2. Subtraction (5 – 5)

3. Multiplication (5 × 5 or 5 · 5)

4. Division (5 ÷ 5 or 5/5)

5. Raising to a power (5^5)

6. Finding a square root (√5)

If those jog your memory (and hopefully they do!), you’re on your way. While these might seem pretty basic, just know that you’ll have to be able to use them cold on the SAT. Plus, you’ll have to know when and how to use your calculator for help. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

The Result of Each Operation

It’s crucial to know what you’ll be required to do to answer SAT Math problems, but don’t go into the test thinking the test makers are going to give you questions like “Add 4 and 12” or “What do you get if you subtract 11 from 28?” Instead, you’ll have to recognize a few arithmetic terms and associate them with the appropriate operation:

- Sum or total – The result of addition

- Difference – The result of subtraction

- Product – The result of multiplication

- Quotient – The result of division

- Exponent – In the expression 5^2, the 2 is called an exponent.

The Order of Operations

Once you’re able to recognize which term calls for which operation, you can move onto actually completing them. And very often, solving an equation on the SAT will require several different operations, one after another. So why can’t you just go from left to right, completing each operation you see? If only math were that easy! Believe it or not, completing operations in different orders will offer you varying solutions — and that won’t cut it on the SAT where only one answer is correct.

Now, in general, the problems are written in such a way that you won’t have trouble deciding what comes first. But in cases that aren’t as obvious, use the following sentence:

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.

That’s PEMDAS for short, and it means you should complete the six operations in this order:

1. Do any calculations inside the parentheses

2. Take care of any exponents

3. Perform any multiplication and division, from left to right

4. Perform any addition and subtraction, also from left to right

Operating With A Calculator

It might seem like a calculator nowadays should be well-acquainted with the order of operations. And some certainly are! Others, not so much. Either way, you can very easily go wrong if you’re in the habit of punching in long lines of arithmetic.

My advice? Clear the calculator after every individual operation, performing PEMDAS yourself until you arrive at your answer. That will help you avoid confusing not only yourself, but also your device. When calculators are not allowed, make sure to write out all the steps on your paper to avoid careless errors.

Sometimes the problems on SAT Math are as simple as a little arithmetic — whether you’d expect it or not. Don’t be caught off guard by anything when you arrive on test day. Instead, brush up on everything you need to know for the SAT with our book Cracking the SAT.