Perfect800: Tricks to high scores on the SAT Math

July 11, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Posted in SAT Advice | Leave a comment

In our experience teaching SAT classes and tutoring one on one, we have come to realize that many students who understand all of the concepts don’t score an 800, or even above 650 in many cases.  In fact, most students who take the SAT have already learned every concept the exam tests, and in fact are often learning subjects well beyond the scope of the exam by their junior year.  Why is it then that these students still miss so many questions on the exam?

We’ll explain.  Collegeboard, creator of the SAT exam, needs to find a way to differentiate all the students who take the exam, many of whom are at similar ability and education levels, in order to lend credibility to the SAT.  Since the Collegeboard has to make the exam viable for all college-bound students, it cannot ask questions based on more advanced math concepts that some students may not have encountered yet. Due to these reasons, the SAT math section uses various tactics to try and ascertain which students have the deepest understanding of these concepts and thus earn the highest score.

1) Intimidating questions – Questions that may not actually be that tough, but a scary graph or new technique will have several students saying “I’ll skip this one and come back to it later…”
Counter: Always take notice as to where the question is within the section.   If there is a very tricky or intimidating problem towards the beginning or middle, odds are that the question itself is pretty simple, but Collegeboard is attempting to frighten you away from the question.

2) Confusing / tricky-worded – The SAT Math section is part reading comprehension.   Since often the underlying math concepts aren’t too challenging in and of themselves, Collegeboard often employs confusing / tricky language to get students to solve for the wrong variable, pick a related (but incorrect) answer choice, or miss out on a crucial piece of information. Inevitably, the student spends more precious time on the question than it warrants.
Counter: Always take time to thoroughly read each question and MAKE SURE you know what is being asked, before you begin computation. We understand that the impulse is to start “doing math” as quickly as you can in this timed environment, but unfortunately the Collegeboard knows this and they will trick you if you don’t manage your time to thoroughly read the question and understand what is being asked.  Underlining key words in each question can help you with this exercise, and so can double checking that you are answering the right question every time you bubble in an answer choice.

3) Hidden Methodologies – There is a finite number of concepts that the SAT can test, and so they (understandably) come up with unique and often inconspicuous (hidden, not obvious) ways of testing these concepts.  If the SAT wants you to use the pythagorean theorem, it will rarely ever (perhaps never) suggest this to you, rather it will be something that you have to determine on your own, and this is the step that is often the most difficult for students.  This extends beyond the pythagorean theorem to operations such as cross-multiplying, recognizing “special” triangles (45- 45- 90, 30-60-90), simplifying expressions, employing the difference of two squares, attempting to plug in the answer choices to find the correct answer, permutations vs. combinations, and many others.
Counter: Always remember to be creative in your approach to solving SAT problems.  If you are trying one method for 30 seconds to a minute and haven’t gotten anywhere, chances are there is an easier method for solving the problem that you are missing.  Being able to recognize which method to use for which question simply comes from practice.

In closing, there are many reasons why students equipped with all the necessary math knowledge don’t always score well on the SAT math section, but the main one is unfamiliarity with the exam.  Just like any teacher, the Collegeboard employs several tricks to throw students off and reward those who have studied more and have paid closer attention to the details of the exam.  Honing in on these details isn’t easy, but will become increasingly natural as you practice SAT math questions.  Happy practicing!


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