We’ve gotten several requests from our readers for tips on the SAT math section. Lucky for you, this is the easiest section on which to improve. Math? You ask yourself. Really? But I hate math. Hold up! Answer me this:
What is the most important part of any SAT section? It’s to answer the questions correctly. How do you find answers to SAT math problems? The test gives them to you.
Wait what? Yes, my friend, the answers are just waiting for you. The College Board gives you choices A through E. One of those is the right answer. So just check their answers, one by one, against the restrictions in the problem, using that famous multiple-choice strategy we all know as process of elimination, to find the one right answer out of the five provided. This strategy is often called PITA (“Plug in Their Answers”) or TTA (“Try Their Answers”). You use this strategy when you’re given an equation or a system of equations or a geometric figure and asked to solve for the value of an unknown variable, or when you’re given a word problem that asks for a specific number of something which the answer choices A through E represent.
This is the beauty of the TTA strategy: you don’t have to solve an equation to find the right answer. The trick is to go backwards: start with an answer choice and then either confirm or disconfirm its validity. Students often forget that the SAT is a logic test, not a math test. If you keep that in mind, you don’t have to do much math at all.
Often, the first place you’re able to use the TTA strategy is on the very first math problem, which typically consists of a linear or quadratic equation in terms of an unknown variable x. They ask you to solve that equation for x, and you automatically think, “Hey, this is linear, just isolate x and get everything else to the other side of the equation,” or “Hey, this is quadratic, just factor this to find its roots or use the quadratic formula.” These steps may be simple and few, but even so, there are still too many opportunities to make silly mistakes. Forget a negative sign? Write a four that looks like a nine? Freak out at the funky radical that your quadratic formula just pooped out? Not fun. Using the TTA strategy saves you from making those mistakes. We know that one of the answer choices A through E must equal x, so let one answer choice equal x and see if both sides equal each other. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Too easy, you think? C’mon Lili, I don’t need to use a friggin strategy to solve an equation like that. Maybe not. But let me tell you, it helps IMMENSELY when you get to word problems near the end of the section, since those tend to be the most difficult problems for students to tackle (Visualizing the math in word problems is hard enough without being timed, right?).
Let’s say you’re faced with a percentages word problem. You’re asked for the number of students who take a French course in a group of 300 students, based on the percentage of students who take Spanish and those who take both French and Spanish in that group of 300.
It’s easy to make a mistake when translating the percentages into actual numbers of students, and when accounting for the overlap of students who take both language classes. TTA can save you from making those mistakes, and now, on more difficult problems, it can also save you a gargantuan amount of time. Try answer choice C, and suppose that C) 80 students are taking just French. Test that against the percentages you’re given – these are the problem’s “restrictions” – and so on, with each answer choice, until you find the correct answer.
Keep your eyes on the prize. You’re after the answers. The right ones are right in front of you.
Note: The SAT Subject Test (SAT II) for Mathematics is a much more content-based test than the SAT’s math sections, so this advice only applies the SAT math sections. For more information on the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests, and the difference between the two, click here.