Studying for SAT Math: Don’t Forget the Little Things

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This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by Courtney Tran at Veritas Prep.

Every time I teach SAT preparation classes, I tell my students that the math tested on the SAT is not difficult math. They are relieved to hear that the SAT math section is based on ninth-grade math standards, and they yawn when I review these basic math concepts with them. They then attempt a math section and are inevitably confused and frustrated by their frequent mistakes on seemingly easy questions.

No matter how easy a concept may be, without regular practice we are likely to forget how to apply it. It’s a common mistake, but it’s a dangerous one. As an SAT test-taker, you’re probably in your junior or senior year of high school, so it has been two or three years since you’ve worked with ninth-grade-level math. Even if you have since taken more complex math courses such as AP Calculus or AP Statistics, on the SAT you may find yourself over-thinking simple problems, making thoughtless arithmetic mistakes, perhaps forgetting important steps in simple calculation. These errors don’t result from a lack of understanding, but a lack of familiarity. It’s like writing in cursive; cursive isn’t at all inherently difficult, but even though elementary schools teach us how to write it well, many today have become very slow at it, or have forgotten how to write it simply because we haven’t had to do so in years.

Avoid this pitfall by reviewing SAT-level math concepts, including the easy ones. As boring and pointless as it may feel (especially to those who have taken intermediate advanced math courses), set aside some extra time out of your SAT preparation plan to practice concepts you probably haven’t studied in a long time, like translation and inverse proportionality. Check to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything important. (Some examples of simple but commonly forgotten SAT math concepts: How do you find the median of a list of numbers if there is an even number of items in the list? How are 30-60-90 and 45-45-90 triangles different from other triangles?) Remember: it’s better to fill holes in your memory ahead of time than it is to find one during your test.

Practicing SAT math problems is just as important. There’s a lot more to the SAT math section than the concepts themselves. The SAT focuses on certain math concepts, has a very distinct style of presenting math problems, and tends to re-use the same problem wording and format across multiple problems, sections, and tests. It’s also full of distracting answers and other tricks designed to pull test-takers’ attention away from the correct letter choice. In order to dodge tricks, it is important to understand both the math concept behind the problem and the SAT’s way of designing and presenting problems—in other words, how the test itself works. Easily the best way to understand how the SAT math section works is to practice it over and over.

Look, for instance, to this example. (Don’t feel too discouraged if it seems particularly hard. The SAT categorizes this problem as “difficult”, meaning that less than half of test-takers answered it correctly.)

To solve this problem, you need to understand that the sum of the internal angles of a quadrilateral is 360. You also need to know how to determine the number of sides of a regular polygon when given one of its internal angle measures. (The formula 180(n – 2) yields the sum of the interior angle measures of a regular polygon with n sides.)

These math concepts are quite uncomplicated, and are usually included in ninth grade math curricula. Many test-takers, however, haven’t worked with interior angle measures in years, or have forgotten that they ever worked with interior angle measures at all. The presentation of the problem makes this simple geometry question seem even more daunting because the idea of solving for a “hidden” polygon is not one most students encounter in high school. Fortunately, because the presentation does not change the basic math concepts involved in the question, the problem at its core is still just a geometry problem, far simpler than the problems involved in many junior- and senior-level math courses. Unfortunately, this also means that test-takers must master not only the math concepts tested by the SAT, but also the art of understanding the way the SAT presents problems.

The bottom line: Practice, practice, practice, even if you think you don’t need to. The test is tricky, the concepts are key, and the score boost will be worth it.

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