SAT Tip of the Week: How To Attack Problem Areas on the Math Section

The SAT is a beast of a test, and not some seemingly ferocious beast that turns out to be cute and cuddly: it is a true monster with fangs and all. While acknowledging that the SAT is a force to be reckoned with, like all monsters, the SAT has certain “Problem Areas” that students tend to find more dangerous than others (the fangs and fire-breath, to continue our already stretching metaphor). Here are three techniques to help conquer these problem areas and thus de-fang our foe. OK, enough metaphor!

1. Learning Vocabulary: Memorizing vocabulary is time consuming, but need not be hard. Here are two good techniques to help memorize a lot of vocabulary.

Repetition:

Repetition really is the easiest way to build long term memory. Take a word and a definition that you don’t know. Look at it once then wait one minute. Now look at the word and try to think of the definition. Its tough right? Now take that same word and repeat the definition seven times. Now wait one minute. Maybe remember the word is a bit easier? Did you get it? If not try it again. Repeat the word and definition seven times. Now wait two minutes. I bet you can still recall the definition! This process can be used for a whole list of words. For some reason, seven seems to be a good number of repetitions to make things stick. Do this for ten words, wait five minutes, then quiz yourself. Reward yourself with five minutes of a TV show you love while you are waiting, just make sure you don’t get so into the show that you forget you are studying.

Narrative or Picture Creation:

Memory is aided by activating different parts of the brain. The language area is most used in memorizing novel words, but anything that creates a narrative or picture will help to create memories that stick much easier. As an example, lets take the word obstinate, which means stubborn. The sounds in this word can be associated with some image that both conveys sound and definition. When I think of this word I picture my friend Nate, except he is composed of a rock called Obsidian and telling a green peace worker that recycling glass is stupid. Obstinate: stubborn.

Here is an example of a challenging math problem:

Each tick mark is equally spaced from the next, which letter represents –y?

The first place to start with something like this would be to plug in numbers. If I assume each tick mark is 1 and plug in 4 for x, I get x=4, y=-2, and -y-x = -2 . According to the equations, -y-x should equal 8. This is a bit of a pickle! Rather than give up, let’s start with what we know. If we define each tick mark as 1, than what we know is as follows:

x+2 = x-y therefore,

2 = -y or y = -2

and

x+4 = -y-x   substituting y for -2 we get x+4 = -(-2)-x —> x+4 = 2-x —> 2x = -2 —> x = -1

Let’s put it all together by putting our new numbers into the equations given by the problem. If z = 1, y = -2 and x = -1, our new number line will read as follows:

-y = 2 which would correspond with point C, and we are done! This question required a little algebra, but wasn’t too bad once we stated the things that were told to us by the question.

3. If An Error Is Hard To Spot, Check Nouns, Passive Voice, Awkward Phrases, and Idioms

Let’s look at an example sentence:

After a decline in the modern era of feminine characters that exhibit little agency and define themselves through their male relationships, there has been a resurgence with fictional characters that embody a classical form of femininity.

After reading this sentence with and without prepositional and descriptive phrases to see if an error pops out, the first possible non-obvious errors to check are noun agreement, passive voice, and awkward phrases. A noun agreement error is generally a problem with nouns that should all either be plural or singular, but are, in fact, different. For example, “The boys always wore their required trousers, but never their hat.” In this case “boys” wear “trousers” and should also wear “hats”. The noun error is not a problem with the above sentence. Passive voice is a reversal of normal sentence construction, often using the word “by”. For instance “The ball was thrown by John,” instead of the active “John threw the ball”. Passive voice isn’t always wrong, but it’s often stronger to put a sentence in the active voice. It is also important to check for any of the classic indicators of awkward phrasing like “being”, “is because”, or sometimes “having been”. Neither of these issues are present in the example sentence.

If there aren’t errors with verb agreement, pronouns, parallelism, redundancy, awkward phrasing, or modifiers, essentially the only errors left are problems of idiom. These can be really tough to spot, but they aren’t impossible. These are generally problems with prepositions, specifically prepositions that don’t match the words that comes before them. There are two phrases with prepositions in the underlined portion: “resurgence with” and “form of”. The phrase “form of” seems alright. You could put that in a different context and would sound fine: “Copying is just another form of flattery.” The phrase “resurgence with”, on the other hand, seems weird: “There has been a resurgence with new orders.” It should be “resurgence of new orders.” Voila! We have identified the idiomatic error!

These are just a few techniques to help with problem areas of the SAT, but, with a little practice, they may help to slay the beast called the SAT. Happy studying!

Still need to take the SAT? We run a free online SAT prep seminar every few weeks. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.