I inadvertently struck a nerve a week or two ago when I suggested that you need to know more than just solid math to do well on the math portion of the SAT.

One (anonymous) commenter even left me this message on Psychology Today:

“This idea that the test is full of booby traps is ridiculous. You simply have to READ the question, figure out what they are asking, and then answer accordingly. You need to show that you understand the basic math concepts. The questions aren’t tricks. I had read a version of that assessment over and over again, and then took the test again as an adult and easily scored 800. BECAUSE I UNDERSTAND MATH AND CAN READ.”

But I’m sticking with my position: Solid math basics are essential, but not sufficient. If you want to ace this test, you need to be prepared not to be messed with by a test that’s trying to mess with you.

Take, for example, the following questions, all of which come from just one, lone, College Board practice SAT, and I believe illustrate the point that “solid” math knowledge alone is not enough (at least not while the clock is ticking and you’ve got about one minute per problem).

Exhibit 1:  

This appeared (to me) to be run of the mill parabola question, so I broke out the “Quadratic Equation” and jotted it down in the margins: y = ax² + bx + c.  Then, I did my very best to turn what they gave me, back into what I knew.

But I couldn’t get past that minus sign in between the “a” and the “x².” No idea what that meant.

Well I’ll tell you what it meant:

It meant that the “a” referred to in this problem (above) is not the same “a” that I learned about in “math”  — It’s just coincidentally also called “a”  — just like the one that’s usually located in the exact same position.  

But don’t be confused. It’s not THAT “a.”

MEAN….mean mean mean. Makes me scream.

Exhibit 2:

Looked like a 30 60 90 to me.

Wrong!  “Not drawn to scale” = dead giveaway.

And don’t let those (a + b)² send you down the “Pythagorean road” that you learned in math class, because it’s not that either (go figure).

This would be the fanciest “Sadness Gap” question I ever did see.

(Who would have thunk. Not me, that is for sure.)


Exhibit 3:

So (so so so so) proud of myself, and brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of trying out my newfound Polynomial clarification, I FOILed the thing.

In fact, I probably spent a good 2 minutes down FOIL ROAD — never arriving at the answer until after the bell, when I went back and looked, and went “dah, I can’t believe I did that.

They got me again.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis