The Math section of the SAT Reasoning test is arguably the most important one for STEM students. It is the section where you show you brilliance and talent in the language of science and engineering. Some of the finest STEM schools in the United States (like the ones you are applying to) have an SAT I Math range that starts somewhere in the 700s, which might become even higher when restricted to STEM departments. So what makes the difference between a student who can confidently get a 700+ and another who can’t? From my experience, the main difference is not the knowledge someone stores up in his or her head, in the end the test covers the math we all have finished by our 2nd year of high school, trust me on this one. The main difference lays in the way we deal with the test. The SAT Math test is heavily based on tricky questions that can force you to make the wrong choice under the influence of a miniscule slip in basic calculations or misinterpretation of the given information in the question. So the ideal way to approach the test is to be really prepared for these kinds of tricks College Board use frequently, they are extremely basic and you might not believe they can trick you, but this is basically the way to get tricked by them!
So this guide is basically a list of the most frequent basic error people make when filling the bubbles. I remind you, you will not believe some people make these mistakes, but you’ll probably not believe the number of people I know who fell to these tricks:
(x+y) is not x + y, it’s x +2xy+y
3 is not 9, it’s 27.
There is fundamental relation between the radius and the diameter of a circle: Diameter = 2 * Radius. Occasionally, you will be given a diameter in a question that requires the use of a radius (ex. Calculating area of a circle).
The sum of the measurements of angels in a triangle is 180 degrees. The most common errors in this regard is placing the number 190 instead of 180, and the number 80 instead of 90 (messure of right angle).
Get yourself familiarized with the special right triangles (30,60,90 and 90,45, 45) this will save
you a lot of time to use for the more conceptually challenging problems. Some people might end
up approaching triangle questions using the Law of Sines or the Law of Cosines. This is definitely
not necessary, even for non-right triangles. It will take much more time than needed. Don’t even
think about it. Remember, you can probably split a non-right triangle into two right triangles and
use the properties of similar triangles.
Now this point is especially important; you need to look for what the question asks for. This is
absolutely the most important advice I can give. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about,
the question might be stated so that you calculate x (say, a median of a set of numbers, or one
side of a triangle) but you’re asked to find x2 instead of x. this is a basic example, but it comes
in a variety of ways. And yes, there will be an answer among the choices that corresponds to the answer you were tricked into finding. The most effective way to overcome this trick is to, say, underline the givens and circle the required variable, just so you can make the distinction.
When it comes to diagrams, you need to actually know what a certain label is representing. Some diagrams can be tricky. For example, you are given a number of angle measurements in a certain shape and you are asked to find two more. You do your math and use your knowledge of geometry to find out the other two. The unknown you are asked to calculate, x, is not one of these angles, but rather the complementary angle of one of them. This is a basic example but you should know what I mean.
Eliminate answer choices! Some answer choices can be eliminated because they don’t
fit the criteria of the desired answer choice. For example, you might be asked to find x
or the absolute value of x, negative numbers don’t fit here! The length of one side of a triangle
is restricted to the values between the sum and the difference of the other two sides… and so
on, there are some basic facts that are often ignored while they shouldn’t be.
The area of a triangle is ONE HALF * HEIGHT * BASE, must people easily forget the
one half and come up with wrong answers.
If you are absolutely stuck in a question and need to make a guess by substituting answers
and see if they work, start with the middle value. Use logic to determine if you expect a larger
or smaller answer. This will help you eliminate answer choices and make a smarter guess.
I’ve seen a lot of people messing this up; if you were given two values, say -9 and -3, and the question asks for the smaller value, you might be tempted to mark your answer as -3, but according to the number line, it’s actually -9. Now obviously you’ll probably be presented with more than 2 numbers, and you’ll probably have to calculate them from other information in the question, but you should get the purpose of this point.
The trickiest part of the Math section of the SAT is, in my opinion, the statistics and data analysis part. If you are not used to the types of data tables you’ll be presented with in the test, it’ll become very easy to come up with wrong answers. They are easy to understand if you spend some time understanding them before the test.
The questions are of varying difficulty. But guess what, they don’t vary in value. Don’t spend a lot of
time on one question. If you feel like you didn’t get the idea from the first time you read it, just move
on and grab other points, and you’ll probably have time to return and think about it.
The test’ level of difficulty takes an ascending pattern; the further you get in the section, the harder the
questions. This leads to an important note: if you solve one of the last 3-5 question very quickly and
without using a lot of brain energy, you probably got it wrong. This is referred to as the ten-second rule.
The last and most important advice: PRACTICE. This is the only way to figure out your weak points
and identify the many, many tricks College Board use in their tests. Many books are helpful for the math
section, but I would personally recommend McGraw Hill’s SAT guide and Dr. John Chung’s SAT Math.
The latter is much harder than the actual test, but that’s essentially a good way to master the real SAT
Dealing with tricky questions on the SAT Math Section