Why Good Students Score Poorly on SAT Math - Part I

SATWe spoke with a student the other day over the phone who was near tears. She had a 3.9 GPA, always got A’s or an A- at worst in math class. But she was absolutely devastated by her math score on the SAT before she came to us: 530. How can she, a bright student with a near perfect GPA, have only gotten a score barely higher than average? Surprisingly this isn’t all too uncommon. A lot of very good students struggle with SAT math and underperform to their ability level. The solution is almost always focused preparation for the SAT with strategies that are specifically designed to tackle the types of problems you will see on the test. Here’s part one of our five-series article on why we see good students like the one mentioned above struggle with SAT Math.

  1. SAT Math Rewards the Result, Not the Effort

If you’ve ever taken an advanced high school math class such as calculus or the taken the AP Calculus test, you may have noticed that the right “answer” only counts for 20% of the points possible on a particular question. Or maybe the high school teacher will say something along the lines of “Show your work! The correct answer is worth only 1 point but showing the correct method is worth 4! You get partial credit if you set-up the problem correctly but make an arithmetic error.” This is pretty typical of high school math classes. However, the SAT is a multiple-choice exam and the test can only tell if you got to the correct answer or not. It doesn’t know or care how you got there. Multiple choice questions are rare if not non-existent in high school math. As a result, high school students have been trained to solve math problems “the right way”—in other words, the way the teacher wants them to show their work. While this is great for demonstrating understanding of the rigorous math concepts behind your math class, it’s not so great on the SAT. Oftentimes, the fastest and most efficient way to solve problems on the SAT isn’t the traditionally-accepted high school method. The traditional method is actually slower and more prone to error on SAT math problems.

Consider the following problem:

The average (arithmetic mean) of A and D is 15, and the average of B and C is 30. What is the average of A, B, C and D?

A. 7.5
B. 15
C. 22.5
D. 30
E. 45

If you were to do this problem the traditional way, you would show your work by setting up the equations:
(A + D)/2 = 15, (B + C)/2 = 30
(A +B + C + D)/4 = ???

You would then do some algebraic manipulations to solve for the unknown average of all four terms. This might take you about a minute and a half, which is actually less than the average amount of time you’re allotted for the math sections of the SAT (you are typically given 25 minutes to complete 25 questions). Time is tight so you cannot afford to do unnecessary work.

The “unorthodox” but efficient way to do this problem is to use the multiple-choice nature of the test to your advantage and rather than trying to arrive at the right answer, instead eliminate the incorrect answers. We are given the averages of two out of four numbers and then asked to find the average of the entire set. If one set has an average of 15 and the other has an average of 30, averaging all of the numbers should results in an average between 15 and 30. When we look at the answer choices, C is the only one that could possibly be correct. By using unorthodox methods that might get you points off on a high school math test, we were able to solve the problem in less than 30 seconds.

As a result, “good students” who are rewarded for showing their work and using the traditional methods in their high school classes are punished on the SAT. On top of that, if you make a silly arithmetic error after setting up the problem correctly, you don’t get partial credit on the SAT. The SAT cares about the result only and the best strategy is to get to the correct result in the most efficient way possible.

Check back for the remaining 4 tips over the next few weeks!

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