SAT Tips: Guessing on Hard Math Questions


Not long ago the question above was the Question Of The Day on the College Board website and it inspired another blog post (found here), well this question is the question that keeps on giving (or teaching). Here we go again, taking this question apart so that you can learn from it and be ready for your SAT. Like many questions on the SAT you can look at them from multiple perspectives. We previously looked at this one for the content of the questions and what rules/terms you needed to learn, now we’ll explore what this question has to teach us about SAT strategy.

This question is a great example of how to guess effectively on the SAT. Guessing effectively is about making sure you guess only when the odds are in your favor and being aware of the predilections of the SAT question writers so that you can avoid their traps.  Most hard SAT questions are rife with traps for the unwary, if you know that you can use it to your advantage.

How do I know a question is hard? 

The first thing to think about, before we can even start to talk about how to guess on hard questions, is how to make sure that you know what a hard question is and where to find it on the test. Throughout most of the SAT (with the exception of passage-based questions), the questions are arranged in order of difficulty, with easier questions in the first third of a particular set of the same questions and the harder questions in the last third of the question type. Check out the graphic below, which shows two SAT math sections.

In the first section there are only multiple choice questions so the difficulty of the section is pretty clear (the first third or so is easy, next third medium, and the last third hard). In the second section, there are both multiple choice question and student-produced response questions (also called, grid-ins). Therefore, the difficulty “resets” once you reach #9, the first grid-in question. If you are always aware of where you are in the test, you can figure out the difficulty level and use that to guide your guessing.

Guessing on hard questions

Harder SAT questions are harder because more students answered them wrong.  so it’s more likely that the obvious answers are not the right answers. Remember: As a general rule, hard questions have hard answers. If you are ever faced with a hard question on the SAT and you don’t know exactly how to work it out, you can increase your odds of getting it right by eliminating answers that are too obvious (if you decide to do it at all, remember skipping is always better than wrong).

In the example above there are several answers that are just too obvious to be right on a hard questions. One of the things that immediately jumped out at were choices (C) and (D) which are just the numbers used in the question. This is a common SAT trap;  some answers try to entice you with “familiar” numbers. On hard questions numbers that are in the problem are exceedingly unlikely to be the correct answer. If you remember that you can become an amazing SAT test-taker and guesser!

Good luck and good studies!

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