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Decoding the SAT: Part 2


Half of all students usually hate math. Consequently these same students feel the same way about the SAT math. But the good news is that students don’t have to be math geniuses to ace the math section on the SAT. These tests have very little to do with the math they are used to. As a matter of fact, not much of the math resembles the math questions that are found in the average math class.

When a student reaches the math section on the SAT, they often freeze up. They seem clueless because the question types look unfamiliar leaving them to automatically assume they don’t know the information and therefore often resolve to leave it blank. But understanding the math section is the key to doing well. These questions DO contain information that most students actually know but the problems have been disguised to look scary and create panic among students.

Even many smart math students are in shock when they get their test scores back. Usually it is because they approached the SAT just like their normal math class. They probably spent a long time working out every problem and made sure they showed all their work. This is fine for school but not on a test of time-management. Reality is, no one will ever see their work in their test booklet because the tests are graded by a machine that reads only the separate bubbled-in answer sheet.

Normal math questions at school are direct and to the point whereas SAT math questions are more obscure and devious in nature. The good news is that they are not higher math like Trigonometry, Calculus or College Math but generally contain some Algebra, Geometry or just plain ole arithmetic. These concepts are usually disguised with crazy symbols or strange figures. Most students don’t realize that the questions are designed to trick them so often they will fall for the “dummy” answer. (This is the one that the test-makers want you to pick.)

There are two sections of math: Multiple-Choice and Student Response. The first section will contain five answer choices and the second one will have no answers at all to choose from. It is important to read each question carefully with a critical eye to find out what it is asking. A student’s first thought when they approach the math section should not be, “How do I calculate to find the answer,” but it should be “Where’s the pattern–what’s the fastest way to find the answer?” By eliminating long calculations, the mistakes are minimized and the time cut in half.

Even though calculators are permitted at the actual test, the questions are designed to where students can generally answer all the math problems without one. This can save time and minimize mistakes since the more the calculations-the bigger the chance of mistakes. Look closely at what the question is really asking and students can find that it is probably an easy answer that requires less work than they thought. Learning pertinent strategies will help students “see the math and not do the math”.

Math drawings and diagrams found on the SAT should not be taken at face value. They often  don’t reflect the question and are missing information that confuse students on what the correct answer should be. Redrawing the figure or creating something totally different can result in understanding the problem and not falling for the wrong answer.

The test booklet also contains some math formulas so if a student forgets them then just turn to the front page of that section. There are also no proofs on the geometry questions and sometimes strange looking problems are really just two different figures put together and both need to be separated and their own formulas used on them.

Setting up the problem is usually the hardest part of the math section. If students can set up two plus two then it is easy to figure out the answer. Sometimes the real math is hidden inside a story and needs to be found, extracted and then set up into a math equation.

One of the most important things that students need to be aware of is that math terms are crucial to know when taking an SAT. If students don’t know words like: product, tangent, integer or bisect, then it will be very difficult to answer the question. Three words that are often mixed up are mean, mode and median and are sometimes found in the same question.

On the multiple-choice section students can often derive fast answers by substituting, canceling, reducing or estimating or by knowing simple things like anytime you add or multiply even numbers-the answer is always even. Also by simply knowing the order of the SAT answer choices means that students should never test more than two answers or they have just wasted their time.

The student-response section contains no answer choices but student must transfer their answers to the grid-in box on the separate answer sheet. There are a lot of common mistakes that need to be avoided in this section. Mainly there are only four spaces so longer answers will have to be reduced, mixed numbers must be converted and there will never be a negative answer. There is also no zero in the first column and all four boxes must be filled up when it comes to a continual decimal answer.

But just like every other section, the SAT must follow the same patterns, rules and standards–even in the math section. The test-makers repeat similar concepts in which answers can be derived at by using logic and critical thinking to find quick answers. There is a long, tedious and foible way to answer the math questions and then there is an easy, clear and fast way to achieve the right answer.

The section is really a logic test using math as the medium. Often learning to work a problem backwards, thinking small or looking for the hint in the question that points to the answer is all that is needed to work an otherwise scary looking math problem. The test-makers are not necessarily testing how smart a student is in math but rather testing their critical thinking skills on a math problem.

The creators of the test make sure there is a long way and a short way to work out each math problem. Each one can be answered in 30 seconds or less once a students understand the shortcuts and strategies and then practice the correct way with actual test questions from The College Board.

Approaching these tests with a very critical eye is essential for doing well on the math section. It doesn’t take a genius to get the high math scores but it does take knowing the hidden, recurring patterns that the test-makers always use. Once a student masters this, they will find themselves doing very little math and this will make 100% of students happy.

Jean Burk is a homeschooling mother and author of College Prep Genius: The No Brainer Way to SAT Success! She has been the featured SAT expert for FOX, CBS, NBC, and The Homeschool Channel. Both her children received full-ride scholarship offers because of their SAT and PSAT scores. Her revolutionary program is taught in schools and homeschool co-ops across the country and helps thousands of students raise their SAT scores as much as 600 points.

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