SAT Tip: Seven Quick Math Strategies

SAT Tip: Seven Quick Math Strategies
By working backwards from the answer choices, estimating where possible, and following other simple tips, you can ace the SAT math section (Photograph by Gregor Schuster)
Photograph by Gregor Schuster

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

Even if you are a student who struggles with math, a good SAT score is within your reach. It’s not just what you know but how you apply that knowledge that counts on the exam, and you will need strong SAT strategies to help you get the best math score possible. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Watch out for extra steps. You may need to find x + 6 instead of x, or you may be asked about a ratio but have to solve for the two parts of the ratio first—and you can bet the two parts of the ratio will be possible answer choices, tempting you down the wrong path. Keep your “eyes on the prize” and always know what you’re actually solving for.

2. Write down any key numbers, variables, or phrases first. This is the step most students skip, but we need to give our brains the chance to absorb all the pieces of information the SAT question provides. Don’t just scan the question and race to the answer choices. Your first instinct about how to approach the question may not be the fastest or most accurate.

3. Work backwards, using the answer choices. Sometimes just doing the algebra will be the simplest way to the get the correct answer, but backsolving (also called plugging in) is a great strategy to check your work as you go. Go through the answer choices and plug each one into the question.

4. Translate word problems carefully. Make sure you really understand the concepts underlying the question in a word problem. One or two words can radically change the meaning. Don’t rush these challenging questions, even if the math seems fairly obvious.

5. Estimate whenever possible. If the answer choices are far apart, or if you’re running out of time, try approximating and estimating—rounding numbers to the nearest integer and trying to streamline your calculations. You can often eliminate one or two answer choices as illogical, based on broad estimation, even without doing the math.

6. For percentage questions with unknown values, choose 100. This will make the math much easier and you won’t have to convert back and forth from the actual number to percentages. This is especially great for those “sales” questions, such as “A dress is marked down 20 percent on Wednesday …” Making the original price of the dress $100 saves a lot of time and effort.

7. Replace variables with easy numbers. Substituting abstracts like “x” with easy-to-work-with integers like “2” and “3” keeps questions manageable. Just be sure to keep the numbers small and make sure they are allowed by the definitions in the question. (It helps to know what an “integer” is.)

Remember, if you finish an SAT section early, go back and review the questions, re-checking your work. You might have made a couple of easy mistakes that could cost you points, and you won’t get extra credit for finishing early.

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