Common SAT Errors Students Make (and How to Avoid Them)

Guest Post By Miriam Holt, Academic Advisor


Answering a question that the problem didn’t ask

This error is extremely common because the SAT often asks students to find values that are tangentially related to what a normal person would expect the answer to be,*and* the expected answer is nearly always included as one of the answer choices.  Students should always read the problem twice before beginning to work on it AND should read it a third time after doing the work and just before bubbling in the answer.  This is crucial.

Mental Lock: Students don’t know where to begin, so they waste time staring at the question.

As soon as a student reads a problem, that student should immediately begin writing down *anything*–any possibly-related formulae, any picture that could illustrate the problem, any table that could organize the data,  any equation that could describe a relationship between two variables–and then look at the written material and try to draw connections or conclusions.  Most SAT math problems require students to have a flash of insight, which is almost impossible without writing information down and then looking at it carefully.

Making careless errors like dropping a negative sign or adding instead of multiplying

Students should write everything down, avoiding relying heavily on mental math, and should check the problems at the end of the section if time allows.

Getting stuck #1

Students should remember to check the first page of every math section for useful formulae.  This page includes the Pythagorean Theorem.  The SAT math section LOVES the Pythagorean Theorem.  If it seems to be impossible to find the information a question asks for, it’s probably because a student forgot about this theorem.  Students should try looking for, or creating, right triangles in the picture.

Getting stuck #2

The SAT’s other favorite formula is the average formula: average of A and B is (a+b)/2.  If it seems impossible to find the information a problem asks for and the Pythagorean theorem isn’t helping, the student should try thinking about averages.

Getting Stuck #3

We naturally tend to begin with simpler pieces of information and move toward more complicated pieces, such as from the legs of a triangle to its hypotenuse, but sometimes the SAT requires students to move in the opposite direction.  If the radius of a circle is known and the circle is inscribed in a square whose area is unknown, the square’s area can be found by working backwards: the radius can be doubled to find diameter, and the diameter can be reinterpreted as the hypotenuse of a 45-45-90 right triangle whose leg lengths can be calculated.  Once calculated, they can be squared to find the area of the square.

Being generally rusty/clueless about arithmetic, algebra, and geometry

Students need to practice math skills regularly to be comfortable with the math tested by the SAT and to be able to solve the problems quickly.

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1 Comment + Add Comment

  • Thank you for these great strategies and tips! Practicing SAT/ACT questions is essential to doing well on the test, but it becomes extremely tedious at times. Parents should also help their children find other ways to practice SAT questions to relieve some of the stress. Teaching children test taking skills early will give them an advantage too. Fun educational games or make your own games are a great way to provide variety and reduce stress in their studies.

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