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Controlling careless errors on the SAT Math Test

Top tips for controlling careless errors on the SAT Math Test.

Are "careless errors" preventing you from achieving your potential on the Math Test?

Are you tired of wondering what your math score might have been if you hadn't made preventable mistakes on problems you were sure you got right?
Please consider the recommendations in this article, including specific ways to
  • Adjust your approach to the SAT Math Test
  • Force yourself to slow down and focus
  • Make fewer mistakes on questions you know how to do
  • Raise your score!

Slow down

Top scorers know that to maximize their score, they need to get the easier questions right. If you know you sometimes fall victim to carelessness (also known as "attention errors"), it is a good idea to force yourself to take a little extra time on the questions you know how to do.
The wrong choices on the SAT Math Test often represent common mistakes—the kind of mistakes that are frequently made by students who are rushing or trying to cut corners. That's one of the reasons those wrong choices look so right, and why they can be so easy to choose by mistake. Your best defense is to stop rushing and stop cutting corners.

Get out of your head—do your work on paper

Write down every step of algebra problems. Label diagrams. Draw your own pictures if it helps. There are two big drawbacks of using mental math on the SAT:
1) If you come up with an answer that isn’t in the choices, you have to start at the very beginning of your calculations to figure out what went wrong. This wastes valuable time.
2) Many of the wrong choices represent common errors in mental calculation. So, if you make a mistake, you're still likely to see the answer you came up with—and it's wrong. These are the classic questions that you thought you got right...
If you write your work down, you drastically reduce the possibility that you will make an attention error.
Top tip for calculator use: Think it through first! On the calculator section, it helps some students to write down what they’re going to enter into the calculator before they actually start using the calculator. In this way, they ensure they don’t miss a step.

Circle key words in the question

Sometimes students assume they know what the question is asking, and accidentally answer the wrong question. Circling key words can help with this.
Example: If the radius of a circle is tripled, what is the effect on the circle's circumference?
(A) It is increased by 3
(B) it is increased by 9
(C) it is increased by a factor of 3
(D) it is increased by a factor of 9
Top tip: Circle key words If you make a habit of circling key words in math questions (in this case, radius, tripled and circumference), you are more likely to take the time you need to ensure success.
Top tip: Test values A clever approach here would be to try plugging in values:
  • Imagine a circle with a radius of 1
  • What is its circumference? .
  • Then, triple the radius—what is the circumference of the circle now? .
  • What happened? It was multiplied by 3, which is the same thing as increasing by a factor of 3.

Underline the question that is being asked

Sometimes a question will ask for something that is a bit unexpected...
Example: If 10x + 6 = 206, what is the value of 5x + 3?
(A) 20
(B) 53
(C) 103
(D) 203
This question asks for the value of an expression, not the value of the variable itself. Just to make sure you don't accidentally answer the wrong question, it can be helpful to underline the question: what is the value of 5x + 3?
When you underline or circle the part of the question that is what is being asked, you force your brain to downshift and focus.

Double check the question before moving on

If you can afford the time, try to get in the habit of taking an extra 5-10 seconds after completing every math question to make sure you are answering the question that is being asked. Then, select an answer and move on to the next question.
Top tip: Be smart with your time If you only have some of the hardest questions left in the math section and feel stuck, make the best guess you can. Then, with your leftover time, consider double checking the basic & medium questions. Remember, every question on the SAT is worth the same number of points, so catching a careless mistake on a more basic question is worth as many points as getting that last hard question right!
Good luck!

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user LeahMildredSmith
    I run out of time during both math sections, mostly the one without the calculator. I just took the first practice test available on Khan Academy, and got five wrong, and five unanswered. I need help with time management..... I am in AP calculus AB right now and tend to approach each problem with thought, but the more I practice, nothing is happening! The only way I can understand the problem is by taking a long time. HELP! I want to do well I really do! I am taking the Subject Test in mathematics this weekend Jan 21st and want to make sure I don't mess up their too. Is there anything you guys think I should study to prep me besides attending Calc and practicing regular SAT math questions...? Sorry this is two questions in one post.
    (27 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Dafna Slobagurvsky
      For me, the hardest part of time management is making myself move on and leave one unfinished if it's taking more time than I thought it would. I think it can be a disadvantage to be too gritty about these tests--I know that for me anyway, I don't guess and move on as often as I should, and then I get to the end and there's no time left but lots of questions I know perfectly well how to answer. My friend said something I think is useful about that: Read a question, and immediately ask yourself, "is this a question I already know how to answer, or will it take a little thought?" If you could probably answer it but it's more complicated, then guess, mark it and move on. You can always come back to it. Good luck on the subject test! : )I take the SAT this weekend as well.
      (40 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Kartiki  Bhatnagar
    Hi!
    I really need help. I am having lots of problems in the SAT calculator section. One, i am not used to using a cal. as I am an indian and we are not usually taught to use calculator and secondly, I am having time management issues. I always take 15 minutes more and then also I get 10-11 answers wrong. Mostly it is because I start worrying about the grid-in questions.
    What should I do to improve my time management in this particular section and also with my cal.? PS. My cal is fx-82MS.
    Thanks!
    (10 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Raivat Shah
      What grade are you in? I recommend first getting used to a calculator and then attempting the questions. For me, it took me around 1.5 years to get used to my GDC (Graphical Display Calculator), but once you're used to it, you can save a lot of time on test day! Comment below with your doubts and the student community at KA can help you solve 'em :) Good luck with your preparation!
      (14 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Abby Stewart
    Hey, I was just wondering what strategies work for slowing down during the math sections, even when your nervous...it's kinda hard to slow down and think very clearly when you are sitting, taking the real SAT. At least, it is for me :) Any advice?
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user abhijitvempati
      I have the same issue as well. But I did one small thing during my practice. I sit 5 mins before the section starts and take deep breaths. The fact that taking deep breaths is being said everywhere is something I see all the time -- I know it may sound touche, but it really works. Your mind slows down and the anxiety decreases, letting you focus more.
      And when you are seeing an easy question, finish it off and check it IMMEDIATELY. Slowly go through the steps and make sure your calculations are all right. I pumped my score from a 690 to a 750+ in math! And that is just by getting the easy ones right!
      I hope this helps!
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user kittycat8d
    Hi, when I took the PSAT I noticed that a good chunk of question in the math section I was never taught before in class how to do it, and still haven't learned, what am I supposed to do in a situation of not knowing how to do a problem whatsoever, is there a way to figure it out without guessing? Thank you!
    (10 votes)
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    • mr pink red style avatar for user Allen Ho
      The SAT and PSAT are tests designed to test for college readiness. They can also only test you on information that you have learned. However, many of the problems on the test can take some problem-solving skills to figure out. Try to solve the easy problems first and then solve the harder problems. Work on each hard problem for a minute or two, and if you can't find a solution there, guess. It's best to guess a single letter instead of guessing random letters too. If you find that you can't understand what the question is asking, familiarize yourself with common math words.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user edwinsalamea123
    Alot of the time my problem is not understanding what the question is asking for and i end up answering something totally different and that is my biggest mistake . Any tips?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine seed style avatar for user v y
      I guess you just underline vocab or terms/numbers that seem important and relevant (basically cut through the "fluff" of the problem and find the neccessary details). Once you identify those numbers or important math-related terms, your job is so much easier because you get an idea of what the question's topic is (example: seeing radius makes you think of circles).

      Overall, underline key terms that stand out and read carefully/read the question twice.

      I don't know if this helps or not, but good luck! I've got the PSAT in less than 12 hours (yikes!).
      (13 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Mehak Verma
    Hi! I'm really bad at the math section and I've been practinf the sat this whole summer but I feel like I'm still not getting better at math! I un stand one problem and then the next problem is a challenge for me. And also how much time does it take to prepare for the sat? I've been studying 3-4 hrs a day. Sorry for asking 2 questions at once!
    (2 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Shawn∞J
      I'll begin by answering your second question.
      The amount of time required to prepare for the SAT depends on the person . Some people feel that a month is adequate while others feel a period of 3 months or greater is sufficient. As to the time spent per day, its pretty much the same, some people feel an hour a day is a LOT where as some people feel 3-4 hours is good enough. So It really depends on you.

      Now regarding to your first question, math can be difficult if your basics are weak (as mine once were:-) so strengthening your basics and a few other advanced concepts should get help you score well. If you need help with you basics, Khan Academy has a whole section of videos and exercises dedicated towards mathematics, just type in the concept name (Eg: Linear Functions) in the Khan Academy search bar and select the related topic video.

      I hope this helped :-)
      If you have any other questions feel free to ask...
      (12 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user James Mazer
    I have ADD and often find that the lengthy word problems are especially difficult for me to solve. I have trouble picking out the important parts of the problem, and find it very difficult to decipher the information given in the problem. Is there any way for me to approach these sorts of problems in a way that would make them easier and less confusing?
    (3 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Matthew Johnson
      There are some easy ways to do word problems, just follow these steps:
      1. How many things are there? Write them down…
      2. How many is sentences are there? These are those parts of the problem where it says "the total volume of both tanks is 206ml." Some of these are less obvious, such as the understood "is" of width times height is area. There will always be the same number of is sentences as things.
      3. What will we call the things? Here, we assign our placeholders to the things we identified. Some, such as area or perimeter, may be expressed in terms of the other things (e.g., h*w or 2w+2h, respectively).
      4. What are the open sentences we will use? The open sentences are the mathematical forms of the is sentences. Here, the total area of the two tanks is 200, will become A1+A2=200.



      I hope this helps!
      (8 votes)
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Diamonds.Shatter
    Hey Mia,
    One thing that will cause you to make errors while solving questions in the non-calculator section is to panic. Move swift, but stable and write all your calculation down so that are sure of your work. This way when you question whether you did a mistake, you will have it written down on paper and not on your short-term memory. This will save you time so that you don't start your work all over again. You can retrace your calculation from that point and not from the beginning. Little things like these will help you save time. And again, make sure you don't panic or stress yourself.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kwame Acheampong
    do wrong answer choice decrease my marks
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user sachleen.dhaliwal1
    I'm in 9th grade, I am planning to take it in 11th grade, I am thinking to start preparing now and practice every day till the day of the test! I want to get a head start, is that a good idea?
    (2 votes)
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    • female robot amelia style avatar for user Johanna
      If you practice effectively for that long, you'll probably be really well prepared! You could also take the SAT earlier if you're liking the scores you're getting on practice tests. The earlier you take it, the better you'll know what sorts of colleges you could get into and so on.
      (2 votes)