Basic Math Skills: Definitions, Examples and Improving Them

Updated January 30, 2023

The image shows manicured hands using a calculator with a laptop in the background.

From calculating financial transactions to measuring spaces and objects, math skills are an important part of everyday life. Improving your basic math skills can help you get a job, perform better in your current position and make your personal life easier to manage.

In this article, we discuss basic math skills, how you can improve them and how having basic math skills can improve your job search.

What are basic math skills?

Basic math skills are those that involve making calculations of amounts, sizes or other measurements. Core concepts like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division provide a foundation for learning and using more advanced math concepts. Being proficient in basic math skills will help you both in the workplace and your daily life.

Related: Math Skills: Definition, Examples and How To Develop Them

Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division

To do anything involving math, you will need to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide basic numbers. Knowing these basics is extremely helpful, especially when dealing with money. For example:

  • Addition: You and two co-workers pay $5 each for a $15 pizza: $5 + $5 + $5 = $15.

  • Subtraction: You and two co-workers share a $15 pizza. You and one coworker pay and want to determine how much the third coworker owes: $15 - $5 + $5 = $5.

  • Multiplication: You and two co-workers have $5 to spend each for a pizza and want to know what price pizza you can afford: $5 x 3 = $15.

  • Division: You and two co-workers share a $15 pizza for lunch and each person wants to pay their share. You would use division to figure out the cost: $15/3 = $5 each.

Read more: Numeracy Skills: Definition and Examples


A percentage is a portion of a whole, per 100. You'll need percentages for tasks like figuring out tip amounts, calculating sales tax or deciding how much to shrink your workforce. For example, you took a business associate out for dinner and the bill was $50, plus $8 for taxes. You want to leave a 20% tip for good service. In this case, it would be $10 based on the $50 charge.

Related: How To Calculate Percent

Fractions and decimals

Fractions are a portion of a whole number and a decimal is the numerical representation of that fraction. For example, $1 can be broken down into fourths (a fraction, represented here as 1/4) or 25 cents.

In another example, a box contains 12 widgets, but the customer only wants six, or ½ of the box. The whole package would be 1.0 in decimals with half being 0.5. Additional basic skills involving decimals include rounding to the nearest tenth or hundredth and mentally estimating quantities.

Related: How To Divide Fractions: Tips and Methods To Use

Visual representation of data

Often numbers are presented in visual formats. A basic math skill to learn is how to read and understand charts and graphs. Being able to read the axes, trend line and data points will help you gain a deeper understanding of underlying data. It will also help you make graphs and charts to better illustrate your points.

Related: Types of Graphs and Charts

Solving for an unknown

Solving for an unknown variable is a basic algebra problem. Algebra is a part of math that uses letters and other symbols to represent numbers and quantities in a formula or equation. A variable is an alphabetic character (A, B, etc.) that represents a number in an equation. Solving for the unknown might be as simple of B = 20 + 20. The unknown variable (B) is the sum of the two numbers, or 40.

For example, Juan needs to earn $600 this month and earns $20 every time he walks a dog for one of his neighbors. The “unknown variable” Juan wants to solve for is how many dog walks he needs to earn the required amount. With basic algebra skills, Juan would be able to create a simple formula for this equation (20 x Y = 600) and solve for the unknown variable of Y.

Related: 50 Jobs That Use Algebra

How to improve basic math skills

There are four main ways you can improve your basic math skills:

1. Use workbooks

Math workbooks provide sample math problems to solve and are a great way to practice your basic math skills. Often, math workbooks will provide instructions and advice on how to complete the problems as well as answers so you can check your work. If there's a particular topic in math that you find challenging, look for a math workbook that focuses primarily on that math skill.

2. Take a class

Basic math classes are offered both online and typically in-person at local colleges and learning centers and can be extremely helpful in bolstering your understanding of basic math concepts. . Math classes provide the advantage of more detailed instruction and the ability to ask questions if you are confused about a topic.

3. Ask for help

If you know someone who has strong math skills, ask them for help. Let them know which areas you find challenging and see if they have any advice. Friends, family members and co-workers can provide a new perspective or perhaps explain things in more relatable terms than a formal instructor might.

You can also hire a tutor to give you one-on-one attention either in person or online. They can give you example problems to help strengthen your skills and answer any specific questions you may have.

4. Practice

The best way to improve your basic math skills is to practice. Using your skills consistently can ensure you maintain your proficiency. Try to avoid using a calculator for every problem you come across or asking someone else to calculate a math problem for you.

Seize every opportunity you can to use your basic math skills and they will grow stronger over time. Moreover, many industries and professions require pre-employment math testing to be considered for positions, so it’s always recommended to keep your math skills strong.

Basic math skills in the workplace

Here are just a few examples of how you may use basic math skills in the workplace:

Calculating taxes

Knowing how to calculate taxes is vital to running a financially stable business. You will need to know how to figure out sales tax, income tax, property taxes and more. While there are tools to help you calculate different taxes, knowing how to arrive at these numbers will help you to understand the financial situation more comprehensively and avoid financial mistakes.

Giving presentations

Business leaders often make decisions based on data. If you're making a presentation, you need to be able to back up your claims with facts and figures. Knowing how to create various graphs, charts and diagrams to explain and present your numerical findings, as well as how to understand them when others present is a common requirement in the workplace.

Read more: 6 Types of Presentations To Use in the Workplace

Calculating salary and raises

As an individual, if your salary is $60,000 a year, you’ll want to know how much a weekly paycheck will be. Additionally, if your supervisor gives you a 10% raise, you’ll want to know how much additional income that is. Being able to calculate the numbers most important to you will help you make better decisions about where to work and how much you can afford to spend in your personal life.

Related: How To Calculate Gross Pay With Examples

Determining time estimates

You can use your basic math skills to keep tasks to schedule. For example, you have a project due that has 10 equal parts. You have already completed three parts in nine days. When your manager asks how long the rest of the project will take, you can use basic math skills to provide them with an estimate of three days per task or 18 workdays total.

Read more: 6 Ways To Optimize Your Daily Schedule

How to highlight basic math skills

Here’s how to highlight your math skills when applying for jobs:

On your resume

To highlight your basic math skills on a resume, give real-world examples. For example, if you're a cashier, rather than saying you're good at adding and subtracting, you could say:

  • Able to quickly figure out the change a customer is owed in my head.

You can also reference your basic math skills when describing your job duties. For example, a marketing analyst may write:

  • Produced clear data visualizations to demonstrate the effectiveness of various marketing campaigns.

The goal is to highlight your use of basic math skills rather than outright stating them. You can do this in any section, such as your work experience, special skills or even in the cover letter.

Related: The Best Job Skills to Make Your Resume Stand Out

In a job interview

During a job interview, you may be asked to demonstrate some of your basic math skills. For example, someone hiring a cashier may ask a candidate a few sample questions, such as how much something should cost if it has a 10% discount. To prepare for the interview, practice your basic math skills beforehand and work on completing problems in your head.

If the employer doesn't test your basic math skills, you should look for a way to mention them. As with your resume, you should give real-world examples of how you have used basic math previously. If this is your first job, you can also mention some of the math courses you have taken along with what you learned.

Related: Math Interview Questions (With Example Answers)

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