Conquering SAT Math Word Problems

By Jason Breitkopf, Director of Faculty.

One of the most anxiety inducing aspects of the SAT is the inclusion of word problems on the Math sections of the test. Word problems, especially those on the SAT, have entered the popular consciousness to the point that television shows like the Simpsons, as well as movies, and standup comedians regularly make jokes about impossible word problems plaguing their protagonists. Interestingly, though, word problems were the only method of solving math for most of human civilization. Modern math notation that we consider regular math was only developed by mathematicians in the Arab world and western Europe beginning the the 1500s. According to researchers at the University of Buffalo and St. Lawrence University both the ancient Babylonian and ancient Egyptian civilizations used word problems extensively to solve common mathematical problems in everyday life.

To our modern eyes, completing a word problem feels generally unnecessary and overwhelming. From the time each of us has completed third grade, we are comfortable with the signs and symbols of basic math, and solving a basic equation by jotting down a few numbers, a multiplication sign, and an equal sign seems far simpler that writing out the problem in text. And while students received more and more instruction on how to navigate word problems through elementary, middle, and high school, most students are still far more comfortable entering numbers into their fancy graphing calculators than slogging through a word problem.

Word problems on the SAT provide a particularly difficult challenge to many students since the focus of the SAT is not a demonstration of the student’s knowledge, but whether the student can problem solve under pressure. One way the College Board applies pressure to students on the SAT is the timing mechanism. The other method for applying pressure is the wording of questions. This is as true on the grammar and reading sections as it is on the math sections, however, since word problems already cause a great deal of anxiety in students, the SAT word problems can seem particularly challenging.

Not only are the word problems on the SAT written in such a way as to be as confusing as possible, but the SAT writers often include far more information than students need to solve the word problem. Students frequently struggle to recognize what information is important or useful in solving the word problem and what information is extraneous or included merely to provide context for the word problem.

The secret to defeating an SAT word problem is to understand that it is a puzzle, and treat it accordingly. Often, puzzles are couched in a story, which provides the reason for the problem to exist. The first step is beating the word problem is to visualize what is being described in the word problem. Since many of the SAT word problems are based on situations that can exist in the real world, understanding how things actually work can help a student properly frame the word problem.

An important step in defeating word problems which most students skip is to take them apart. Many students try to solve the problem all at once. Instead, deal with a word problem one sentence at a time. Is this sentence just the story, or is something mathematical occurring? Even within a single sentence, a word problem can have present a student with multiple facts and pieces of information. Break it down, piece by piece.

Write everything down. Every student who takes the SAT has two of the most powerful tools ever invented: a pencil and paper. Take notes on the information the word problem is giving you. Students who try to keep track of all of the information from a word problem in their heads are setting themselves up for failure. Always remember that this is a puzzle test and that there is a time limit. Everything about the test is designed to make students rush. Writing down information not only helps students manage that information, but it often slows students down just enough to help them avoid silly mistakes.

Ask yourself two questions: “What do I know?” and “What do I NOT know?” This will help students identify information that is helpful in solving the word problem, as well as identify extraneous information. What makes word problems on the SAT so difficult is not that these problems provide too little information, it is that they overload students with too much information. Since all problems on the SAT must be solvable, the test writers cannot write questions with too little information.

Finally, use process of elimination on the answer choices. If a student can solve a word problem mathematically, then finding the correct answer in the answer choices is a simple final step. Often though, the word problems on the SAT do not involve mathematical calculations, and some of the problems contain answer choices in the form of sentences or equations. In that case, use process of elimination to identify and cross off answer choices that don’t work or are not logical.

Despite the challenge that word problems present to most students, it is possible to defeat them by following a few simple steps.