Why You Should Avoid Doing a lot of Math on the SAT

SAT Math, SAT Test

When I used to tutor SAT prep, it was nails on a chalkboard to me when students said with despair, “I’m just bad at math.”

“Right,” I would say. “You’re probably also bad at building bridges, dancing the lead in Swan Lake, and performing open heart surgery. Why? Because you haven’t properly learned and practiced how to do those things. Just because you don’t excel at something now does not mean that you are incapable of doing so. Math can be really tricky, but I know that if you change your attitude and put forth the effort, it will get a lot easier for you. Besides, the cool thing about the SAT is that it really has little to do with how good you are at math. Rather, the SAT tests your math habits.”

I have worked with several students in the McLean and Great Falls areas who are phenomenal math students, taking the most challenging courses offered and garnering top grades, but who started out really struggling on the math sections of the SAT. The reason for this is quite simple. SAT math is not difficult, but determining which math you need to do on the SAT is hard, and it takes a lot of practice to perfect.

Consider the following problem to illustrate this idea:

Each of 5 people had a blank card on which they wrote a positive integer. If the arithmetic mean of these integers is 15, what is the greatest possible integer that could be on one of the cards?

Right away, the math prodigy student taking multivariable calculus begins formulating equations at near calculator speed to maximize one of five variables. Utter madness.

Rather, a question such as this requires a bit of logical thinking and proper setup. Good SAT students contemplate before acting. They figure out exactly what is being asked of them before they jump in to start solving an imaginary math problem of their own creation.

For this problem, a great SAT student would think like this:

1. Ok, I have 5 different positive integers whose average equals 15.

2. This means that when these 5 integers are added together and divided by 5, the result is 15. (A+B+C+D+E) / 5 = 15

3. By multiplying both sides of this equation by 5, I now know that my 5 integers added together equal 75. A+B+C+D+E = 75

4. I need to figure out the highest value that one of these integers can be. Let’s say I want E to be my highest value.

5. What I know about this simple addition equation (A+B+C+D+E = 75) is that if I want to make E as high as possible, then A, B, C, and D need to be as low as possible.

6. The problem tells me that each card contains a positive integer. It does not, however, say “different” integer.

7. The lowest positive integer is 1. Therefore, I will make A, B, C, and D all equal to 1. 1+1+1+1+E = 75

8. Now I have a simple algebra problem where I need to solve for one variable. I subtract 4 from both sides to arrive at E = 71.

This process was not difficult. There are no differential equations or advanced number theory involoved. Students often get caught up in the idea that they need to be using specific formulas to solve problems and that plugging in numbers and assigning variables are taboo. However, these beliefs will do more harm than good. You need to have the right systems in place and you need to train yourself to avoid math in favor of logical reasoning, counter-intuitive as is may be.

To improve your math score, stop worrying about math! Instead, focus on SAT math (there is a difference!) and the strategies you need to conquer it. There are countless materials and resources available to help you accomplish this. Should you need guidance, please email me at [email protected]

Planning for the SAT: Why You Need to Think about the Test Well Ahead of Time

If you’re panicking about SAT prep, stop! Well, actually, let me clarify: if your student isn’t taking the test for six more months, stop panicking. However, if your student is taking the test in a week and he hasn’t even so much as looked at a practice test, I hope you have a teenage savant on your hands.

Yes, preparing for the SAT can be extremely stressful for both students and parents, but having a preparation plan in place will be your single greatest tool in destroying the test. What I love so much about the SAT is that, with the right mindset and concerted effort, nearly any student can garner an impressive score on the test. What is troubling is that most students do not.

Finding a Happy Medium

The SAT can be a phenomenal way to boost a college application. Theoretically, a junior with less than stellar grades could intensely study for the SAT for a year, get an incredible score, and bolster his college apps. But that’s not the way the world works. Most likely, the student who puts a year of focused study into preparing for the SAT is the student who has a 5.5 GPA, is president of three honor societies, and is working on a cure for cancer when she’s not volunteering at the orphanage.  I get it – it’s unrealistic to expect the average student to put in the tremendous effort it takes to get an incredible SAT score.

I hear from many parents that their students’ schedule is too busy to prep. To that I say: Does he not have a summer vacation during which he could devote a few hours each week? Why can’t he cut his World of Warcraft time in half for a few months? Does she really need to attend that many social functions each week? If 5.5 GPA, Nobel-recipient-in-the-making girl can devote hours each week to test prep for a year, I don’t think three to four hours a week for a few months is too much to ask.

Beginning to Plan for the SAT

So what can you do to maximize scores that is realistic? To start, make sure that your student takes a full-length practice SAT and ACT sometime in the window of the second half of sophomore year and beginning of junior year. With all colleges now accepting either test, students have the advantage of choosing which test is best suited to them. Some students may find that the ACT is more up their alley. Students should know fairly early on which test they will take so that they can focus their preparation efforts on that test alone.

This practice test will be your student’s guiding light in preparing for the SAT. It will initially serve as a diagnostic highlighting what skills need the most work and later as a benchmark for measuring progress on the next practice test. The next step will be to create a goal score and range. Doing so requires students to have some idea of their college aspirations.

A tutor or prep course can be a great way to keep students focused and accountable and to provide guidance on goal setting and the best ways to prepare. Ultimately, though, the student will determine how productive his prep efforts are. All practice is not created equal and this may be the single most difficult concept for students to understand when it comes to test prep. Doing a few math exercises here and there is not going to cut it. Your student must have a plan in place in which practice tests are scheduled and time is devoted to reviewing every last incorrect or omitted question within his range. The key to maximizing one’s SAT score is learning from one’s mistakes.

Whether your student decides to go through formal prep or go it alone (this is a topic for another day), she must plan her prep well in advance, taking a diagnostic, setting a goal and range, and scheduling as many practice tests and review sessions as possible, especially in the four to five months leading up to the test.

If you need guidance or advice on your student’s prep program, please email me @ [email protected].