Math 1 Subject Test vs. SAT Math Test

Posted by Jacob R. on 12/16/19 11:00 AM

SAT math 1If you want help deciding whether to take Math 1 or Math 2 Subject Tests, there are a dozen websites that will guide you through the decision process. But once you’ve decided on Math 1, how do you know what to study? Chances are you’ve already been studying for the Math Section of the SAT, so you might want to know what topics you have to add. The College Board website lists the topics on the Math 1 Subject Test, but a cursory glance reveals that all of those topics also feature on the regular SAT. Yet, the two tests are not the same, and knowing the differences can help you master your Math 1 Subject Test and round out your college application. Fortunately, as an experienced tutor in both levels of Subject Test and the SAT Math Test, I’m here to help.

A Note about naming

To avoid confusion, in this article we will always use “SAT Math Test” to refer to the math portion of the regular SAT and “Math 1 Subject Test” or just “Subject Test” to refer to the SAT Subject Test for Math 1.


Different Purpose à Different Format

The SAT Math Test examines how analytical reasoning enters everyday life. The Math 1 Subject Test, on the other hand, tests understanding of math. This subtle difference manifests in a few ways. There are no grid-in questions on the Math 1 Subject Test and you do not get the reference table of geometric areas and other facts that the SAT Math Test provides. The biggest effect of this changed focus is fewer long word problems on the Subject Test. The SAT Math Test loves to introduce a real-world equation with a long paragraph of context, all of it irrelevant to solving the problem. You won’t find those questions on the Subject Test, however. There are still word problems, but the language in them tends to be terse and to the point, a density that can be useful when scanning for clues.


While the SAT Math Test splits between calculator and no calculator sections, the Math 1 Subject Test allows calculators the whole time. This means that familiarity with your calculator becomes a premium. Furthermore, while a simple algebraic calculator is sufficient to solve all problems on the SAT Math Test, there are usually a couple questions at the end of the Math 1 Subject Test that require a graphing calculator. Some students may already use graphing calculators, but if you do not yet have one, you should consider investing in one for the test. It will make several problems accessible to you that might be challenging or even impossible without graphing.


The biggest scoring difference between the two tests is that the Subject Test features negative scoring, which docks you a quarter of a point for every wrong answer. This means that, unlike that SAT Math Test, where it is always worth hazarding a guess even if you have no idea, guessing is less likely to raise your score on the Math 1 Subject Test. Although this discourages wild guessing, if you can cut down your possible answers to only two or three options by process of elimination, it is still worthwhile to guess.

In addition to the guessing penalty, the scoring breakdowns are different, with scores tending to cluster in the higher range. For example, while getting 10% of the questions wrong on the SAT Math Test would give you an approximate score of 730, on the Math 1 Subject Test it would be a 760. The percentiles are also different, although selection bias muddles comparisons. For example, A 750 on the SAT Math Test equates to approximately the 96th percentile, while on the Math 1 Subject Test, it’s the 92nd percentile. A 700 on SAT Math Test is the 92nd percentile but would be the 74th percentile for the Math 1 Subject Test. This reflects different testing pools because students taking the Subject Tests are more likely to be high performing and focused on applying to college. For this reason, the overall score is the best means for comparison.

Subject Matter


While functions occasionally show up on the SAT Math Test, the questions usually cover basic concepts like defining domain and range, determining the graph of a function from its equation, or finding the point of intersection. All of these show up on the Math 1 Subject Test, but the Subject Test also explores deeper into the topic. You are much more likely to see problems about compound functions, symmetry, and function transformation so reviewing those is an easy way to help jump the gap between the two tests.


Like functions, the difference in Trig is not so much a matter of inclusion as one of focus. Geometry makes up only about 10-15 percent of any given SAT Math Test, but can make up more than 40% of the Math 1 Subject Test, with Trig alone taking up as much as 8%. This means much more room for questions about angle relationships, side length rules, special triangles, and similarity ratios. The Subject Test also regularly includes Trig Identities and the Law of Sine, which are extremely rare on the SAT Math Test.

Solid Geometry

The increased focus on Geometry extends beyond two dimensions. While 3D geometry still makes up only 4-6% of the Math 1 Subject Test, it is still worth spending some time reviewing common topics such as the 3D distance formula; the relationship between linear, area and volume growth; and how to find volume and surface area for the major shapes. The Math 1 Subject test also extends beyond the SAT Math Test into topics such as inscribed and rotational solids. These questions remain relatively rare, but if you are aiming for a top score, you’ll want to review them.

Overall, the two tests overlap far more than they diverge, and a solid preparation for one will likely help your scores on both. However, by following these guidelines on the differences, you can make your studying more efficient and maximize your score for the Subject Test.

National tutoring companies develop generalized curricula aimed at a broad population, the so called "average students." They do not tailor their curricula to you because customization is expensive and time-consuming, so their tutors are all trained to teach the same modules, in the same order, over and over again. We believe that a tailored program is a basic prerequisite for any effective tutoring relationship, particularly for high school students navigating the SAT. We build each tutoring relationship around each unique student. Before you even meet with a tutor, like Jacob, you will take an official exam and input your results into our SAT software; based on your diagnostic results, your tutor will outline the content, structure and pacing of your first session.

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Taking the SAT soon? Check out some more helpful blog posts below!

The Standardized Test Super Power

Word Problems on the SAT Math: A 7-Step Game Plan

Mastering the SAT Reading Section

Tags: math SAT subject test, SAT, math