The SAT math section can be nerve-wracking for many students. As a result, they tend to make silly mistakes in SAT math, leading to less-than-desirable SAT math scores. However, by learning to identify these mistakes and practicing strategies to prevent them, you can significantly improve your performance on test day. In this blog post, we’ll discuss how to recognize and how to not make stupid mistakes in SAT math. We’ll also share study tips and test-taking tips to help keep you focused and accurate.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- Avoid Mistakes During SAT Prep
- Avoid Test-Day Pitfalls
- In Summary: How to Avoid Silly Mistakes on SAT Math
- Frequently Asked Questions
- What’s Next?
Let’s first look at some tips for avoiding errors while you’re studying for the SAT.
Avoid Mistakes During SAT Prep
If you form good habits while prepping for the SAT, they will be ingrained behaviors that will help minimize careless errors on test day. So, let’s look at some common mistakes to avoid and good habits to practice.
Prep Tip # 1: Haphazard Studying Never Works
In my 15+ years of tutoring and coaching SAT students, a common misconception I’ve noticed is that students can prepare for the math sections by getting an SAT book and answering random SAT math questions from it. These students tend to make many mistakes and score below their desired scores. Why? Because you need to have a robust study plan to learn SAT math effectively. Haphazard studying never works!
If you have already been studying for the SAT, I’m sure you have noticed that there is a ton of material to learn. There are relatively few math questions on the test, but they can test you on nearly any math topic you have ever studied (and a few you haven’t!). So, for this reason, you want to be “rock solid” in as much SAT math as possible. Thus, it’s a good idea to use a topical study strategy, wherein you focus on learning just one topic at a time. Using this strategy, you’ll knock out each SAT math topic individually and be sure that you’re learning every topic you need to learn.
If you take a deep dive into every math topic when prepping for the SAT, you’ll more easily identify the concept tested in any SAT question. Furthermore, your muscle memory from having covered that concept in-depth during your SAT prep will kick in. This will allow you to glide through the problem. In other words, you have a slim chance of making a careless error on a topic you know well!
TTP PRO TIP:
Topical learning will help you work confidently and avoid silly mistakes.
Prep Tip #2: Practice Using Mixed-Topic Problem Sets
We have just discussed the power of topical learning, in which we concentrate on mastering one topic at a time. However, we must not forget, when engaging in SAT math practice, to complete sets of mixed practice questions.
Remember, on test day, you won’t see questions consecutively on just one topic. You’ll see questions on various topics one after the other. For example, you may see a graphing function question, followed by a range question, followed by a question about systems of equations. So, if you’re not prepared for such a question mix, you may get thrown off, leading to making silly mistakes.
So, as you work through your study plan, incorporate mixed problem sets in your study routine (just as our students do in our online SAT prep course). Doing so will help you answer questions more accurately and ensure that answering SAT math problems on various topics consecutively will be just another day at the office!
TTP PRO TIP:
Getting used to doing practice problems on various topics will help eliminate silly mistakes on test day.
Prep Tip #3: Take at Least Five Official SAT Practice Exams
While mixed problem sets are important, taking practice tests is also quite important because practice tests will prepare you for the rigors of test day. As you can imagine, if you have not taken any practice exams leading up to your real SAT, then it’s likely that the discomfort of test day will throw you off to the point where you will make silly mistakes throughout the exam.
So, to avoid that scenario, you should take official SAT practice exams at the end of your preparation. The College Board now offers a total of eight practice exams. If you can take at least five, you should be in a great spot.
By taking these practice exams, you will be able to see how it feels to get in the zone of taking the actual SAT. This practice should reduce any nerves or jitters, and thus keep you in the best headspace to avoid making silly mistakes.
TTP PRO TIP:
The more familiar you are with taking the SAT, the less likely you will be to make silly mistakes on test day.
Prep Tip #4: Memorize Important Formulas and Concepts
One common theme we have discussed is that being ready for the rigors of test day will help you remain calm and help reduce mistakes when taking the SAT. So, another favor you can do for yourself is to memorize important math formulas and concepts.
Imagine you see a question testing the quadratic formula. Wouldn’t it be nice to easily recall that formula rather than using energy to recall it? Or what about a question testing you on a 30-60-90 right triangle? Effortlessly recognizing that the sides have a ratio of x : x root3 : 2x, will be huge for you.
Of course, just because you’ve memorized a formula doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. However, the more pressure you put on yourself mentally, the more apt you are to make mistakes. So, every time something does not come easy to you, you may lose confidence or get distracted. This situation can lead to careless problem-solving errors.
Conversely, if you easily recall any formula you need, you’ll feel less pressure and more effortlessly move through SAT math.
TTP PRO TIP:
Having important formulas and math concepts memorized will ease mental pressure and help you avoid making careless errors.
Use Flashcards for Memorization
Flashcards are a great way to memorize key concepts. In the Target Test Prep course, we provide a set of math flashcards, but we also encourage students to add their own. You can put anything you want on a flashcard, from the slope-intercept form of a line to the steps for completing the square.
So, get all the math formulas and concepts you need to memorize on flashcards, and study your cards daily. Doing so will help you improve your SAT math skills and put your mind at ease on test day. The better you feel, the better you will perform, and the fewer mistakes you will make!
TTP PRO TIP:
Use flashcards to memorize key concepts and formulas.
Prep Tip #5: Use an Error Log
Thus far, we’ve discussed ways to prevent yourself from making silly mistakes. However, try as you might, silly mistakes will happen! So, it’s important to have a way to track and fix these mistakes, to prevent them from happening in the future.
Many students preparing for the SAT find that creating an error log helps them improve their accuracy. An error log provides them with real-time error analysis. An error log helps track errors such as using the wrong formula, solving for the wrong variable, making an arithmetic mistake, or a host of other reasons for missing a problem.
While you can create an error log “by hand,” using a course with a built-in error log is more efficient. For example, in the TTP course, we make it easy for students to add any incorrect question to their error log and categorize it appropriately. That way, students have a firm grasp of the mistakes made and the reasons behind those mistakes.
So, whether you use a premade error log or a manual one, one of the most powerful things you can do to reduce the likelihood of making a silly mistake is become aware of the errors you tend to make.
TTP PRO TIP:
An error log will help you recognize and avoid making score-eroding errors.
Avoid Test-Day Pitfalls
In addition to avoiding errors during your SAT prep, you can take steps on test day to minimize the probability of making silly mistakes.
Test-Day Tip #1: Don’t Rush
A major issue that I find most SAT test-takers running into is wanting to get through the SAT math section as fast as possible. Almost all of them fear that they won’t finish the section on time, which is why they rush. However, here is the problem: when we rush, in anything we do in life, we make mistakes! So, rather than rushing just to get through, we need to learn how to get faster organically to be efficient and decisive when attacking SAT math questions.
The Navy SEALs have a saying: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Remember this mantra! Answer each math question at a pace that allows you to proceed smoothly. Rushing leads to silly mistakes. So, work at your own pace and avoid breakneck speed.
TTP PRO TIP:
Speeding up by rushing won’t do you any favors when you’re solving SAT math questions.
Test-Day Tip #2: Make the Clock Your Friend, Not Your Enemy
Because the SAT is a timed exam, learning to beat the test clock is critical. You need to develop a time-management strategy. Not having one is the equivalent of driving somewhere without directions. You’ll underspend on certain questions and overspend on others. All of this poor timing will lead to committing silly mistakes.
So, you must develop a time-management strategy and stick with it on test day! For example, if you know that you want to spend about an average of 1 minute and 15 seconds on each non-calculator math question, and you’ve successfully done so on your practice exams, then be sure that you also do so on the actual exam.
Of course, the time it takes you to respond to various questions will vary. If you go over slightly on certain questions and under slightly on others, that is OK! The key is to continue using the timing techniques that helped you perform well on your practice exams. Changing your timing strategy on test day will undoubtedly throw you off your game and lead to more silly mistakes!
TTP PRO TIP:
Perfect your timing strategy, and then use it on test day to prevent exam mistakes.
Test-Day Tip #3: You Can Revisit Questions If You Have Time
As you progress through your exam, mark up your test booklet. Use symbols to classify each question. For example, if you are sure that you nailed a question, put a big X through it. If you had no idea and guessed on a question, put a frowny face by it. If your answer to a multiple-choice question wasn’t one of the answer choices, mark the question with a couple of question marks. Then, if you have time at the end of the section, you can revisit some of the questions you marked.
The questions you should choose to invest your extra time in are those on which a careless error could have been made, such as calculating an answer that was not one of the answer choices. Or perhaps you solved for variable y instead of x in an algebra question or determined the cosine of angle x rather than the sine. In any case, if you can catch and remedy these errors, you’ll limit the number of silly mistakes that remain.
TTP PRO TIP:
Find and fix careless errors if you have the time at the end of any section.
Test-Day Tip #4: Work Carefully
We already discussed not rushing through an SAT math question. One way to slow yourself down and to avoid making careless errors is to work carefully as you solve each question. Take time to read each question carefully and make sure you understand what it asks before you start solving it. Look for keywords and underline them to help you focus on the most important information. Also, jot down important notes or formulas on your scratch paper while reading a question.
For example, if you have a word problem about the number of red and blue hats, you can easily write out “b = the number of blue hats and r = the number of red hats” as you read through the problem. Doing so will help ensure that you understand what you are reading.
Also, when solving each problem, be hyper-focused on the step in front of you. For example, if you are thinking about the next step in a math calculation before completing the current one, you will probably commit a silly mistake. I know that you want to get through each problem quickly, but your mind needs to focus on one thing at a time! So, careful reading and calculations will help curb any silly mistakes.
TTP PRO TIP:
Reading and performing calculations carefully helps reduce silly mistakes.
Test-Day Tip #5: Calculate with Care!
While calculators can be helpful tools, too much reliance on them can lead to errors.
First, make sure your calculator is on the list of approved ones to use. Also, make sure it has fresh batteries if needed. Finally, ensure that it is in the correct mode (degrees vs. radians). Additionally, don’t rely solely on your calculator. Use mental math, shortcuts, and other tips and tricks or problem-solving strategies when possible.
Most importantly, make sure you know how to use your calculator! The night before the SAT is not the time to learn how to use your calculator’s app on conic sections! You don’t want to stress out on test day because you forgot how to use a particular calculator feature. Stick with what you practiced and are familiar with, and you’ll avoid calculator errors.
TTP PRO TIP:
Your calculator is a great tool, but blind reliance on its capabilities can lead to avoidable errors.
Test-Day Tip #6: Don’t Get Trapped
The SAT math section is notorious for setting traps for test-takers. Unfortunately, these traps may lull you into a sense of security when, in fact, you have just fallen for one! Below are two traps that cause some of the most common SAT math mistakes.
- Answer choices can fool you. The choices include wrong answers that are the result of making common mistakes. For example, let’s say you (incorrectly) solved x^2 = 49 as only x = 7, instead of the correct answer of x = +/- 7. You can bet that one of the (wrong) answer choices will state that x = 7. You’ll choose that (wrong) answer and confidently move to the next question, unaware that you just made a careless mistake.
- The notorious “figure not drawn to scale” trap is pervasive on the SAT. For example, you might see what looks like a right triangle (but the little box in the corner is missing). Just below the figure, the warning “figure not drawn to scale” is clearly stated, but you overlook it. If you then use the Pythagorean theorem, which is used only for right triangles, to calculate a side length of the triangle, you will have fallen for the “figure not drawn to scale” trap. And, of course, your trap answer will be among the answer choices.
TTP PRO TIP:
Watch out for common traps on the SAT. Even if your calculated answer matches an answer choice, you don’t necessarily have the correct answer.
In Summary: How to Avoid Silly Mistakes on SAT Math
In this article, we have considered strategies for avoiding making careless errors on the SAT. We have covered 5 tips to use during your prep and 6 tips to use on test day.
Prep tips include:
- Haphazard studying never works.
- Practice using mixed-topic problem sets.
- Take at least five official SAT practice exams.
- Memorize important formulas and concepts using flashcards.
- Use an error log.
Test-day tips include:
- Don’t rush.
- Make the clock your friend, not your enemy.
- You can revisit questions if you have time.
- Work carefully.
- Calculate with care!
- Don’t get trapped.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Most Common SAT Math Mistakes?
Students make content mistakes, the kind resulting from not knowing how to do a problem, and they make non-content mistakes. Non-content mistakes include things such as using the wrong formula, solving for the wrong variable, making a simple arithmetic mistake, not reading the problem carefully, and many others.
You can minimize non-content mistakes by using an error log. An error log will allow you to recognize and be aware of the types of errors you make, and thus avoid making them.
Why Do You Keep Making Careless Mistakes on SAT Math?
If you don’t learn to identify and recognize the errors you make, you will be doomed to repeat them. Use an error log to help avoid making the same mistakes over and over.
Avoiding silly mistakes on the SAT math section is essential for achieving the highest score possible. By being mindful of common errors, double-checking your work, managing your time effectively, and practicing regularly, you can minimize these errors and feel more confident on test day. Staying focused and staying calm are also key ingredients for a successful SAT experience.
Sometimes, though, you’ll encounter a problem that you have no idea how to solve. It’s important to have an SAT guessing strategy in place at those times. That way, test day will go as smoothly as possible, even if you encounter a bump or two in the road.