Test Prep

How to Avoid Algebra on the SAT

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While algebra may be one of the most commonly used kinds of math, and one you might be most familiar with from your high school classes, there’s definitely a time and a place for it. And many questions on the SAT are neither that time nor that place. Using algebra on many of the SAT math questions can actually hurt your score, and you don’t want that. So, before you start shouting about how much you love algebra and can’t imagine not using it on the SAT, let’s go into more detail.

Why Avoid Algebra on the SAT


As difficult as it may be to come to terms with this, if you use algebra on the SAT, you’re doing exactly what the test writers want you to do. When the test writers design the problems, they expect you to use algebra to solve them. Many SAT problems have built-in traps meant to take advantage of common mistakes that students make when using algebra. For example, it’s easy to get confused when fractions are involved and solve an equation such as 4/3x=12 and find that x=16. (That’s not the correct answer, but it’s easy to see how it could be.) However, if you don’t use algebra, there’s no way you can fall into those traps.

Plus, when you avoid algebra, you add one other powerful tool to your belt: If you are on Section four of the SAT, you can use your calculator! Admittedly, some calculators can do algebra, but typing in a complicated equation is time-consuming, and can be difficult for the calculator to properly translate. Arithmetic, on the other hand, is easy for your calculator. (It’s why they were invented!) So, your goal, then, should be to turn much of the algebra on the SAT into arithmetic. How do you do that? I’ve got a trick that can help.

Turning Algebra into Arithmetic

Algebra uses letters in the place of numbers. But most people think about math in terms of numbers, not letters that stand for numbers. (For instance, you don’t go to the grocery store to buy x eggs or y gallons of milk.) So when you think about math on the SAT, you should try to use numbers as often as possible. To do that, my trick for you is to work backwards from the answer choices instead of trying to solve the problem using your standard math-class methods. This is called Plugging in the Answers (PITA), and it’s one of my go-to approaches for the SAT.

While PITA will work on a lot of problems, it won’t work on all problems. Three ways to know that it’s time for PITA are:

- The answer choices are numbers (no variables).

- The question asks for a specific amount such as “what was the first payment.”

- You have the urge to write an algebraic equation to solve the problem.

I also recommend taking SAT practice tests to better familiarize yourself with when this approach is appropriate. In classes, you solve word problems by using equations. Then, you check your solution by plugging in your answer to see if it works. Why not skip the equations entirely by simply checking the four possible solutions on the multiple-choice questions? One of them has to be the correct answer!

Using PITA Strategically

By jumping right to Plugging in the Answers, you don’t have to do any algebra to find the solution. Even better, you’ll seldom have to try more than two choices, and you will never have to try all four. (Note that you can use this technique only for questions that ask for a specific amount, though, so be on the lookout for that.)

To ensure you’re making the best use of your time, I recommend starting right in the middle of the answer choices. The SAT likes to keep problems organized, so the answers will always be in either descending or ascending order. Use that to your advantage! First try (B) or (C). If you don’t get it right on your first try, determine whether that number was too high or too low and plug in an appropriately lower or higher answer choice!

Do yourself a favor and avoid algebra on the SAT when there’s a better alternative. It’ll save you time and keep you from making mistakes caused by falling into the test writers’ traps. Of course, the key to effective SAT prep is familiarizing yourself with the test and finding the best strategies for you before test day. For more on the math section and every section of the test, check out our book Cracking the SAT.