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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

8 Tips for Perfecting the SAT Math

This Saturday, June 6th, thousands of students across the Unites States (and some abroad!) will assemble early in the morning to take the last offered SAT exam of the season. In order to prepare yourself as best as you can, why not read up on some tips and tricks? These will help anyone planning to take the exam on Saturday or in the future. It will help ACT test takers as well- the math sections test the same subject areas, just in a slightly different way.

I took a number of steps to prepare myself for the exam date when I was in highschool. Some of these  tips will seem like common sense- and they are!- but students sometimes need to be reminded of the little things. While I can give some advice regarding the entire test, I won't try to give specific tips in the reading and writing sections. Let's face it- math is my forte. Without further ado, here are my tips and tricks for preparing as best as you can for the SAT math section.

This screenshot is from my ACT math series. This kind of math will help with SAT prep!
Click here to view this playlist.
1. Do as many problems as you can before the exam.

While it's a little late to begin your preparations for this Saturday's exam, you can still make sure you know what to expect. The best way to prepare for the kinds of problems you'll see on the exam is to just do as many problems as you can. I suggest checking out CollegeBoard's practice page for sample problems for the math section. They also have a very quick problem of the day to keep your skills sharp! However, the resource I suggest most highly is, of course, our own YouTube channel. We've got playlists full of the tougher practice problems that show the problem being worked out by hand. View the playlists here.

2. Use the multiple choice.

Most problems in the math section of the SAT are set up with a question and a set of five multiple choice answers. The question will contain an equation, a graph, and any numbers and variables you need to solve the problem, and the multiple choice will usually be variations of just few numbers. I've seen A) -2 B) -1 C) 0 D) 1 E)2 pop up multiple times.

Often times, the fastest way to solve your problem and move on to the next is to simply plug the answer choices one at a time to any given equation you have. Here's a good strategy: if you have an equation, and your multiple choice are a set of numbers in order, plug in the middle answer and see if it works. Now you can tell whether you need a smaller or larger answer choice, and you only have to test two more.

3. Don't be afraid to skip problems.

One of the most important things to remember about the SAT is that they're not just testing your ability to do math problems. The SAT is also a measurement of your time management skills. If you had an unlimited amount of time to solve the 20-odd math problems per section, you'd probably choose correct answers with incredible accuracy. But, you only have up to 25 minutes for each section. If you come across a math problem that just makes you stuck, skip it. Mark down in your test booklet which problem that you skipped, and move on to the next one! 

4. Guess... sometimes.

On test day, you may come across a problem that you have no idea how to solve. You've already skipped it, solved the rest to the best of your abilities, and you're staring at this problem unable to figure it out. Don't worry! We've got a plan for this.

The way scoring on the SAT works is that if you answer a question correctly, you get +1 point. If you don't answer a question at all, you get 0 points. If you answer a question incorrectly, you get -0.25 of a point. The strategies vary between different SAT guides, but here's the strategy I used during my tests: If you can't eliminate any of the answer choices, leave the answer blank. You'd only have a 1/5 chance to get the problem correct, and you'll have a 4/5 chance of getting a quarter point taken away. If you can eliminate even one answer choice, go ahead and make the most educated guess you can. Once you've narrowed it down to 4 answer choices, you'll benefit more from guessing than leaving the question blank.

This strategy will work for all multiple choices of the SAT test, because they are all scored the same way. The only exception is the free-response math questions, where you fill in your answer on a grid. You do not lose points for missing these questions, so you should always write an answer in.

NOTE: If you're taking the ACT instead, this tip changes. The ACT scoring system only gives points for correct answers. There is no penalty for a wrong answer. Therefore, you should always guess if you can't figure out the answer.

5. Remember that the math section is "powered."

This means that the easier questions in each of the math sections are at the beginning, and the problems will get progressively more difficult as you near the end. Manage your time! Spend less time on the questions in the front, and leave yourself plenty of time for the last 10 problems.

6. Keep your answer document tidy, but handy.

The answer document is not something you'll want to spend a lot of time worrying about, but at the same time it is critical to make sure you're using it properly. Make sure that you only bubble one answer for each multiple choice question. Keep it free of stray marks so the scantron machine has no chance of getting confused. Try not to fold the document.

During multiple choice tests that used scantrons to grade in high school, I commonly answered all of the problems before bubbling the answer sheet. However, I had to change that strategy for the SAT. Think time management! I bubbled the answer directly after solving each problem on the test day. When the procter says "pencils down," you're done, regardless of how many bubbles you still have left to fill in.

7. Don't forget your calculator!!

In fact, take fifteen minutes the night before the test to make sure you're totally ready to go. Put your (approved) calculator with fresh batteries, a couple of #2 pencils, a water bottle and a snack, and your photo ID together on the kitchen table or wherever you will remember them in the morning. I also like to bring a sweatshirt to the test. Be as comfortable as possible, you'll be in your desk for a long time!

8. Sleep and eat well.

Preparing for the test date includes a few more things that you hear, like, every single day of your life. Get a good night's sleep before the test. Eat a good breakfast with protein (my go-to is oatmeal plus an apple with peanut butter!). Get to the testing site at least 30 minutes early. These tips might make me sound like a broken record, but they're just as important as anything else you'll learn from me today.

Once you've got all these tips down, relax. Take your test and do as well as you can. Remember that your teachers have been slowly preparing you for SAT math since about 8th grade. You can solve those problems!

Good luck from the Center of Math!


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