image source

I spend most of my SAT-related energy thinking about the math section. It’s the section about which I’ve had the most arguments with people in my line of work and far outside of it. Emotions tend to run high on both sides, which I understand completely because my own philosophy on the section has changed so much since I was in high school.

I was a math guy in high school. I looked forward to math class every day. I loved the satisfaction I got from constructing an elegant geometrical proof; I thrived on the sturdy reliability of algebra. I won awards for the best math GPA. I couldn’t wait to get to college and take harder, more complex courses in advanced mathematics.

But of course, like everyone, I still got questions wrong sometimes. I’d subtract incorrectly, or forget to distribute a negative sign, and feel my stomach sink when my teacher handed me back a 95% when I’d been sure a 100% was coming.

Despite mountains of evidence indicating that I was fallible and likely to make a few mistakes under pressure, I brute-forced the math section on the SAT because I knew no other way. It’s been too long for me to remember any of the questions and I’m fairly sure I never knew which ones I got wrong, but I do remember that I was devastated when my scores came back that I had only scored a 730 in math. I had done better than that in reading! FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU


Here’s what I wish someone had told me then, and one of the first things I tell all my students now: The SAT is not a math test. Or at least, it’s not like any math test you’re used to taking in school. SAT math sections are mostly multiple choice, for one. When’s the last time you took a multiple choice math test? Not to mention that they’re full of booby-traps, misleading diagrams, and intentionally difficult phrasing. Some questions that look a lot like straightforward algebra questions are put there not to see if you can do the algebra, but to see if you can spot the shortcut that lets you avoid the algebra.

Taking the SAT like you’d take a regular math test is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Sure, a knife is a deadly weapon and with it you might get lucky, but that doesn’t change the fact that the guy with the gun is going to be happy to see you.

Perhaps a less macabre way to put it is this: taking the SAT using only brute force math is like a Little Leaguer insisting on using a wooden bat, because that’s what the pros use, even though it puts him at a huge disadvantage since all the other kids use metal bats. If that kid then complains that the best kids in Little League are doing it wrong, then he’s basically asking that the playing field adjust to him, because he refuses to adjust to the playing field.

There are many who believe that brute force application of algebra and geometry is the only way to come by a good score on the SAT honestly, and while I respect their opinion, I disagree. I encourage you not to treat SAT math sections like a math test. Instead, treat them like SAT math sections—a different animal. Guesstimate to eliminate bad answers when diagrams are drawn to scale. Plug in real numbers instead of variables to clarify relationships. Try out answer choices to see which one fits.

If you want to drastically improve your score, you’re going to have to drastically change the way you take the test.