Word Problems on the SAT Math: A 7-Step Game Plan



Word-based math problems can be challenging, but they don’t have to be. Here is a 7-Step game plan to help you remain composed when you sit for the SAT math section.

Step 1: Breathe!

Do not freak out! I have witnessed numerous highly capable students freeze when confronting a seemingly impenetrable block of text. Do not waste your precious time drawing a blank in your mind; instead, take 10-15 seconds to breathe, compose yourself, and then remember your game plan. Yes, this will reduce the amount of time you have for the rest of the section; however, in the long run, you will have saved yourself at least 5 minutes of unproductive panic.

Step 2: Do you have enough time? If so, continue. If not, skip.

As you’ll probably be aware, not all word problems on the SAT math section are of the same level of difficulty. This is attributable to not only the complexity of the problems themselves, but also to your own familiarity and comfort with various concepts. Take a moment to assess how long you think it will take you to solve the problem. Depending on how far along you are in the section, it may be prudent to skip the problem altogether and return to it at the end.

Step 3: Identify the question stem.

Regardless of how easy or difficult a word problem appears to be, it is imperative to first identify both the answer as well as the form of the answer that the question stem seeks. Is the question asking for a number or a percentage? A mathematical expression or an equation? Oftentimes, I see students make careless errors despite reaching a valid solution because they haven’t paid enough attention to what is being asked of them.

Some students find it useful to draw a box around the question being asked. Other students prefer to underline and/or circle key words in the text. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that you can easily identify what you are looking for.

Step 4: Translate what you are given.

Much of the work associated with a complicated word problem entails translating information from words to mathematical expressions. Indeed, this is how most engineers and mathematicians approach real world conundrums. Take each sentence you are given and convert it into an easily digestible expression or relationship. As you get more familiar with translating, you will develop short-hand that will allow you to become more efficient during the real test. Your goal should be to reference your own shorthand instead of the cumbersome text itself.

Some more tips on translating:

● Take care to be organized and legible.54ed

● Do not try to keep all the information in your head.

● Pay attention to units and conversions (e.g. mile vs. feet).

Step 5: Make inferences and work backwards.

Most word problems are not straightforward “translation” questions. Instead, they require you to make conceptual leaps through the combination of multiple expressions. It is your job to think about which combination of expressions will give you the answer for the question. In doing so, you will often have to work backwards from the question stem itself. Pay close attention to the numbers/units/expressions referenced in the question stem as they hold key insights about the correct path to take. Provided that you’ve done a good job of translating, though, you should not have to reread sentences word for word, again and again.

Step 6: Return to the question and reframe.

If a solution to the question is not immediately apparent, an alternative strategy is to reframe the question stem in terms of the information and inferences you’ve amassed. Changing the way a question is phrased - without making substantive changes to its meaning - can often be very enlightening. Always ask yourself: How can I use the information I’ve been given to solve the problem?

Step 7: Check that your solution matches the answer choices.

Sometimes, word problems will have mathematical expressions or equations as answer choices in place of numbers. In these cases, you will have to do some algebraic manipulation to get your solution to look like one of the answer choices, especially if your method is different from the one used by the test maker. To prepare for these scenarios, it is a good idea to practice and become comfortable with algebraic manipulations. With enough practice, you will be able to identify equivalent expressions within minimal effort.

Taking the SAT is a critically important part of the college process. This intimidating, confusing test can be significantly demystified by a supremely qualified tutor. Cambridge Coaching SAT tutors, like Ya Sheng, understand the central importance of the SAT, but we also understand that the SAT needs to fit into your life, which (we hope!) is packed with lots of other stuff. We emphasize a highly structured and systematic study process—not just doing more problems—as the best path to a higher score. That means that, even though you will have to do a lot of work to reach your best score, we’d like to make sure you only do meaningful, score-raising work.

Check out our SAT tutoring!

Thirsty to learn more about studying for the SAT? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!

Mastering the SAT Reading Section

7 Test Day Tips for the SAT

Plugging in Numbers: The Top Strategy for the Math Section of the SAT and ACT


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