How to Handle a Hard Question on the SAT

Most students slip up because the miss tricky wording or hidden clues. Photograph by Thomas Vogel

This tip for improving your SAT score was provided by Jake Davidson at Veritas Prep.

Hard questions on the SAT are what separate good scores from great scores. Most students get tripped up by tricky wording or hidden clues and either give up or end up guessing on the difficult SAT questions. This prevents those students from reaching their optimal score, simply because they did not know how to approach a difficult question.

Since the SAT generally increases in order of difficulty, students are easily able to identify which questions are difficult. For writing and math, the hard questions fall near the end of their respective section or subsection. For critical reading, the same is true on vocabulary. When it comes to straight reading comprehension questions, there is no predetermined order of difficulty, so the hardest questions can come anywhere within the section.

Part of the problem with hard questions is the simple fact that students know when the difficult questions appear. There is a mental stigma attached to these questions, and sometimes students psyche themselves out before even trying to understand what the question is asking. The other problem is that these questions are specifically designed to confuse and trick students.

The actual content of the question is rarely that much more difficult than a medium question. At the core, the SAT is still asking students to identify the subject-verb error or the area of the triangle. What makes these questions tough is that it takes a while to unpack the question and progress toward a solution. Below are some tips and tricks that can help any student succeed on the difficult questions and stand out among his or her peers.

Remain calm and take your time. On math and writing, early questions shouldn’t take that long. This means students should have ample time to examine and complete the more difficult questions. Often students try to rush through these and end up making careless errors. These problems are filled with potential trap answers that depend on students panicking or speeding through a question. It seems too simple to be effective, but the truth is, if you take your time and are confident you can solve the problem, the chances you will succeed on the particular problem are much higher.

Be wary of quick answers. The majority of difficult questions are multistep and multitiered. If you find yourself answering rather quickly, the answer is probably wrong. These questions take a lot of steps and should be thoroughly examined and thought through logically. If you found an answer choice quickly and the problem seemed pretty simple, it most likely is because the test makers worded the question and answers in a manner that would lead you to this erroneous solution. Too often students fall prey to this. They can avoid these careless mistakes by taking a step back and checking their work if they find an answer choice quickly.

Do the first step. Sometimes, on math in particular, difficult questions seem so complex that it doesn’t seem worth trying to solve the problem. On these questions, the SAT is testing your critical reasoning ability. By taking the first step and logically thinking through the problem, you are able to strip back the complexities and get straight to the arithmetic. Usually, the math on these problems isn’t actually that difficult. What is tough is reasoning through the question and figuring out a pattern or method to solve the problem. Since students are so used to just solving problems, this change of pace can throw students off.

By doing the first step, students are able to get into the rhythm of the question and realize that the question isn’t so difficult after all.

If students are able to succeed on the difficult questions, they will see a dramatic increase in their scores and be able to compete at the top percentiles of the SAT. Utilizing these tips will help students go from good SAT scores to great ones.

Plan on taking the SAT soon? Take advantage of Veritas Prep’s free SAT resources, including free SAT video lessons.

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