The SAT Math’s Algebra word problems are one of the most intimidating parts of the SAT. They’re also the second most common category of question you’ll see on the SAT, as they make up over 10% of the entire math test. SAT word problems test a student’s abilities to apply the math they’ve learned to real world problems. They might look tricky, but here are some ways of getting past them.
For practice tests and step-by-step breakdowns of word problems, check out our SAT Math Mastery books! They break down every type of SAT Math question, provide example questions, and contain test prep advice from a tutor with over a decade of experience!
Identifying an SAT Math Word Problem
You should expect a wide variety of SAT word problems on the SAT Math test. Sometimes you’ll set up equations; sometimes, you’ll plug in given values. Frequently, you’ll do both. The base math in these problems tend to be fairly easy, however. What they’re testing you on is your ability to get information out of the problem.
Some word problems will provide you with an equation, and then give you a word problem to solve that will involve that equation. Other SAT word problems will spell out an equation with words. They might say something like “when 5 times a number is added to 14, the answer is 24. What is that number?” When it does this, you’ll want to replace any unnamed numbers with variables like x or y. So, the sentence above might become, when five times x is added to 14, the answer is 24.” We can write that out as 5*x + 14 = 24, and then we can solve that for x.
Setting Up a Word Problem
The most important task to do on an SAT problem is read carefully. This seems obvious, but the details trip many students up. The SAT word problems love to incorporate small twists and turns that a student rushing through can skip over. Sometimes, they set up a problem that requires you to find x, but then actually asks you for what x + 5 is.
Often, the word problems will include a lot of information. To prevent being overwhelmed, practice identifying key values, variables, and equations. Circle them or write them down; do whatever it takes to get them somewhere you can see them. If you’re having a hard time visualizing what you need to do, draw some diagrams. Don’t try and keep the whole problem in your head, get it on the paper so you can look at it and see if it makes sense.
Christian Heath has some particular advice for these problems, if the wording is giving you trouble. Translate their words into your words; translate your words into math symbols. Write out what they mean, then write what that would look like in an equation.
Solving an SAT Math Word Problem
If you’re completely lost, try the alternate strategies of plugging in values and testing answer choices. This can take up more time than an ideal solution process. However, if you’re really lost, it’s better to start plugging things in than sitting around, panicking.
To test answer choices, just pick an answer choice and plug it in for the value they’re asking you to find. Does it make sense there? If not, try the next answer choice.
Last but not least, ensure that you always finalize the question by providing exactly the value they’re asking for. If they ask for the distance, make sure you’ve got the distance. If they ask for x + 5, make sure the answer you’re circling is x + 5. Double checking your answer against what the question requests takes a couple of seconds, and can stop you from making a foolish mistake.
That’s all! Now go forth and solve some SAT Math word problems! If you want more SAT and ACT prep advice sure to join our mailing list for a free 27-item checklist and 30-day free SAT email course.