Why Good Students Score Poorly on SAT Math – Part III

Today we continue a 5-part series on SAT math tips for smart students who are struggling to keep their SAT math scores high. In Part I we learned that the result is rewarded, not the effort. Part II taught us that SAT math problems can be very tricky. Today, we’ll look at why the SAT math section is unlike anything you’ve ever come across.

3.      SAT Math is Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before

In part three of our five part series on why good students sometimes do poorly on the SAT, we talk about how SAT math is just weird and very different from high school math.

It’s likely that the types of problems you will see on the SAT, especially the more difficult ones, will be problems that you have never seen in your life before.  Consider the following SAT problem:

In a gym class, there are just enough hoola hoops, ping pong tables and soccer balls so that every 3 students had to share a hoola hoop, every 4 students had to share a ping pong table and every 8 students had to share a soccer ball.  If the sum of the number of soccer balls, hoola hoops and ping pong tables in the class was 48, how many ping pong tables were in the class?

Huh?  Unless you’ve got a really cool math class called “Advanced Concepts in Problem Solving”, it’s likely that you won’t even know where to start on this problem and there’s really no “easy formula” that you could have learned in high school to help you.  Don’t worry though, a lot of other bright students in advanced math classes are going to be in the same boat.

Upon closer inspection though, you might see that this is actually a least common multiple problem that has been dressed up and disguised to obfuscate what approach to use.  Once you’ve unlocked the crux of the problem, the rest is pretty simple.  Feel free to post your solutions in the comments section below!

So why does the SAT ask such strange questions?  The SAT could just make its problems harder by just using more advanced math concepts from trigonometry or calculus, but then students who have taken advanced math in high school who know all the fancy formulas would have an instant advantage.  Because this kind of problem isn’t typically taught in the high school math classroom, it puts everyone on the same level from the senior just starting pre-calculus to the freshman math prodigy who is about to take real analysis.  The SAT also does not want to be a test that you can “memorize your way to success” on.  As a result, the SAT needs to put very unique, puzzle-like questions on the test that involve some kind of math, but the difficulty isn’t in the math itself, it’s in the problem-solving and reasoning part of it.  You need to “de-code” the problem first before you’re able to solve it.  However, there are only so many ways that the SAT can make problems ‘weird’ and once you know how to recognize and de-code these problems and know how to apply the strategies for them, a lot of the difficulty of the test evaporates.

Finally, this kind of creative problem-solving is a great skill to have in college and in the real world.  Anyone can memorize a formula and plug and chug their way to the answer, but it takes something special to be able to see a problem you’ve never tried to solve before, break it down and arrive at the solution in a novel way.  Colleges want to graduate students with creative thinking and problem-solving skills so the SAT naturally rewards the students who can think this way.  It’s also why Veritas Prep trains its SAT students to become better thinkers and problem-solvers.

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