Why Good Students Score Poorly on SAT Math – Part II


Last week, we began a new 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. Today, we’ll take a look at a second tip where tricky problems and specific language can really clue you in. Always read SAT problems carefully!

2. SAT Math Problems Are Trying to Trick You

In part two of our five part series on why good students sometimes do poorly on the SAT, we talk about how the SAT can be very tricky in how questions are written.

Do you think your high school math teacher is designing tests to be hard by putting in little tricks, traps and gotcha’s on every problem?  Probably not, unless you have a really mean advanced algebra teacher!  Typically, for high school tests, you know what each question is asking for and if you studied hard, the test should be pretty straightforward.  Your teacher wants to make sure you learned what he or she taught you, not trick you into a lower grade.  The SAT is different.  It’s mean.  It constantly tries to trick you into making faulty assumptions or picking the trap answer choice.  Now we’re not necessarily saying that the test writers are mean (even though some probably are), but that there has to be enough trickiness on the test so that very few people each year actually get a perfect score since the SAT would not be very useful to colleges if 10% of students got perfect scores—some colleges have acceptance rates that are lower than 10%!  Some of this difficulty has to come from traps and zaps on certain problems that only the most astute students (or the most prepared ;) ) will catch onto.  Have you ever seen a diagram on the SAT with the label “Figure Not Drawn to Scale?”  That’s usually a dead giveaway that the test is trying to trick you.

Consider the following problem:










If u = 45? in triangle DEF above, how much greater is the perimeter of triangle ABC than the perimeter of DEF?

(A) 0

(B)  4

(C)  12 – 4?2

(D) 16 – 4?2

(E)  16

As you can see, the question has the dreaded “figure not drawn to scale” disclaimer.  Here, the SAT has intentionally drawn the figure to look like two equilateral triangles side by side.  But in fact, both triangles are actually isosceles.  Also, while they look like they are the same size, they are actually very different in size with triangle DEF being smaller than triangle ABC.  If you made the hasty assumption that they are congruent, then you may have mistakenly chosen answer choice A.

This isn’t the only way the SAT can trick you either.  Have you ever seen a question ask “What is the value of a2” as opposed to just a?  Well if you solved for a and forgot to square it, guess what the most popular trap answer will be?  Yup, both a and a2 will be possible answer choices on the test and students who aren’t paying attention will mistakenly choose the answer choice corresponding to the value of just a.  Pretty tricky, right?  The lesson is to know all the tricks and traps that the SAT uses to snare you in a trap answer choice and think like the test writers.  Once our students know all the tricks and the strategies to avoid them, their scores really jump!

Check back for the remaining 3 tips over the next couple weeks! If you missed Part I of this series, you can read it here.

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