GMAT preparation

Home > 6 math tips for standardized tests

Before the test

1. Don’t let points get away

When you’re studying for the SAT or ACT, don’t be content to let your wrong answers pass through without scrutinizing them.

Most students do many practice tests, but they don’t follow up on all their mistakes. Although an identical question is unlikely to be on the test, a similar one is almost certain to be there. If you don’t understand a problem, get a teacher, friend or family member to help you.

During the test

2.  Make astute guesses

The SAT has a guessing penalty, for every right answer, you gain one raw point and for every wrong answer, you lose one-quarter point. If you leave the answer blank, nothing happens. So better to leave it blank than to guess blindly.

That’s especially true if the subject isn’t your best.

While taking the SAT, don’t guess with temerity. And though the ACT does not have a guessing penalty, it pays to learn how to guess appropriately on that exam, too.

Oftentimes it is easier to focus on eliminating the wrong answers in order to get closer to the right answer.

3. Estimate

Sometimes the answers are far enough apart that you don’t really have to do any math. For example:

Q: Jack eats a half box of cookies on Monday. He then eats a quarter of the remaining cookies on Tuesday. How much of the box of cookies did Jack eat?

A: (A) 1/4  (B) 3/8  (C) 1/2  (D) 5/8  (E) 3/4

Since we already know that Jack ate more than half the box, we can eliminate A, B, and C without having to do any math.

4. Watch out for traps

If the answer seems too easy to be true, it probably is, especially on the more difficult questions. In the question above, with Jack and the cookies…even if we’re down to the answers (D) 5/8  and (E) 3/4, (E) is too easy to be right. Remember, Jack didn’t just eat another quarter of cookies; he ate a quarter of the remaining cookies. So the right answer must be (D).

5. Pay careful attention to the language of the question

Often, math problems are peppered with meaningless material meant to vex the test taker.

Q: A CD player chooses a track at random from three discs, each with 20 tracks. What is the probability that it chooses track 2 of disc 2?

A: The total number of tracks is 60 (3 discs x 20 tracks). If a track is chosen at random, the probability is 1/60, or one chance in 60.

Don’t get hung up on the ‘track 2, disc 2. It doesn’t matter what one—just that one was chosen randomly.

6. Beware of complicated formulas

Many students don’t attempt problems on topics such as series, permutations and probability because they think they don’t know the right formula. However, most SAT math problems respond to clear thinking rather than application of complex formulas. In fact, sometimes using a formula can complicate matters.

The following bold-faced words appear in this column. Try matching the words to their meanings.
1. astute a. recklessness
2. peppered b. shrewd or keen in judgment
3. permutations c. to confuse
4. temerity d. to be liberally sprinkled with
5. vex e. different arrangements
(1) b (2) d (3) e (4) a (5) c


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