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SAT Problem Solving Tips & Advice

Our recommended study approach and plan

The SAT problem solving questions are arranged in ascending order of difficulty. With practice, you will learn your personal abilities and limitations. However, you should probably not spend too much time with the first questions as these are the easiest.

If you have trouble with an early question, go back and re-read it. Chances are you made a misinterpretation. Also, you most likely will NOT want to skip any of these initial questions. You may not have time at the end to come back and, at a minimum, you should be able to at least eliminate a few answer choices through our dear old friend, process of elimination.

Mark what you are trying to answer

This is helpful advice for all sections of the SAT, but especially so for the math problem solving questions. You are allowed to write in your test booklet, so don't be afraid to mark it up -- particularly what you need to answer. The test writers will intentionally include incorrect answer choices that could be innocently selected as they equal other values included in the test question. On a related note, be especially careful to be on the lookout for such key question words as not and except. You should also be aware that the SAT test writers will sometimes change the unit of measure on you. We'll show you some practice questions that utilize these same techniques just in case you do not see what we mean!

Simplify problems wherever possible

Simplification should be your second best friend right after process of elimination on this section. The SAT 1 is not designed to make you do unnecessarily long calculations unless you do not find the simplification method. On this note, all SAT questions are meticulously designed. If you are given a piece of data such as 1 mile = 5,280 feet, there is a reason and it is most likely related to a perhaps not-so-readily-apparent simplification.

Work backwards when working forward proves ineffectual

Working forward is most effective and efficient when you instantly recognize the proper formula and method for answering the problem. (In this case, obviously work forward, and if your answer matches one of the choices immediately move on to the next question for the sake of time management.)

Working backwards, however, will be an effective tool when you have forgotten how to answer the question. We recommend you start with choice C which will be the median value of the answer choices. If choice C yields an answer that is too large, then you will instantly know the answer must be A or B. Conversely if choice C yields an answer that is too small, then you will know the answer must be choice D or E. 

Use your SAT practice time to try this out. You should soon be comfortable working backwards no more than 2 times per question, i.e. if choice C is too small and choice D is also too small, then you will know the answer must be choice E. This will make you more efficient with your time management skills and help you achieve the highest possible score on the SAT.

Use easy numbers when you need to plug in a value

With these questions, you will have to do the "leg work" yourself. Therefore, use easy small numbers. For percent questions, we suggest you use 100.

Approximation is useful when the answer choices are widely disparate

Should you encounter answer choices that are widely disparate, try approximation. For example, let's say you can closely guesstimate the answer to be 30% and the choices are 4%, 13%, 29%, 47%, and 81%, then you will know the answer must be 29%.

Draw diagrams when they are not provided and they would be helpful

Many students find this a useful technique. Just keep the drawings simple and don't fret over just how accurate your geometric object is. You will not receive any bonus points for drawing the best right angle triangle inside your test booklet!

Remain calm and rational

If you see a question (it would most likely be a word question) that you have no idea how to solve, examine the answer choices for help. This frequently happens with "time" questions. Here is an example:

Bob can finish a book report in 3 hours and Linda can complete the same book report in 2 hours. How long would it take both of them to complete a book report if they worked together?

This may look very intimidating at first glance. However, logic tells us that since Linda can do this report herself in 2 hours, there is no way it should take both of them working together more than this amount of time. (No assumptions about goofing off are required for the SAT.)

The real answer, if you are curious is 1 hour and 12 minutes.

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