SAT: Decoding the Math Section
- Wednesday, September 05, 2012
Many students—sometimes it seems like about half of them!—hate math. Consequently, these students feel the same way about the math portion of the SAT. But the good news is that students don’t have to be math geniuses to ace the math section. These tests have very little to do with the math students are used to. As a matter of fact, not much of the math on the SAT resembles the math questions found in the average math class.
When students reach the math section on the SAT, they often freeze up. They feel clueless because the question types look unfamiliar, leaving them to automatically assume they don’t know the information and therefore often resolving 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.
Even many confident 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. The reality is, no one will ever see the 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 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 ol’ 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 them to pick).
There are two sections for math: “Multiple-Choice” and “Student Response.” The first section will contain five answer choices, and the second 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. The students’ first thought when they approach the math section should not be, “How do I calculate to find the answer?” but “Where’s the pattern—what’s the fastest way to find the answer?” By eliminating long calculations, mistakes are minimized and time cut in half.
Even though calculators are permitted at the actual test, these questions are designed so that 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. If they look closely at what the question is really asking, students will often find that it is an easy answer that requires less work than they thought. Learning pertinent strategies will help students “see the math and not do the math.” For example, if all the fractions contain denominators larger than the numerators, then naturally the answer must be less than one since they are proper fractions.
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.
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