Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
  • M.A., Secondary Education Seton Hall University '93
  • J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School '00

Fred Hargadon

Dean of Admission

  • Swarthmore College
  • Stanford University
  • Princeton University

Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
  • Certified College Planner
  • Principal, Betterton College Planning

Seamus Malin

Admission Expert

  • Harvard University
    Dir. of Financial Aid
    Asst. Dean of Admission
    International Office Director

SAT Questions…Easiest to Hardest

Math   Strategies   SAT
Karl Schellscheidt -

Most students know that the problems on any given SAT section are ordered, in general, so that they progress from easiest at the beginning to hardest toward the end. Here’s an example that illustrates one way you can use this knowledge to increase your score.

In a twenty-question practice math section, one of my students answered number seventeen incorrectly. The problem involved increasing a price by 10% only to then decrease the new price by 20%. The question was, “What percent of the original price was the final price?” Her answer was 90%. She arrived at her answer by quickly adding 10% to the original 100% to get 110% and then simply subtracting 20% from the 110% to get her final answer of 90%. Sounds easy and somewhat logical, right?

The problem, I told her, is that what you did was too easy. This was a number seventeen out of twenty. Do you really think this question was designed to test whether you can add 10 and then subtract 20 from 100? No, absolutely not. When you add 10%, you are adding 10% of P, the original price. When you subtract 20%, however, you are subtracting 20% of the newly increased price, 1.1 P, from the newly increased price to get 88% of the original price.

The point here is not to teach you percent problems. So if you didn’t understand the math above, do not fret. The point is that if you are doing a problem at the end of the test and it is ridiculously easy, you probably missed something. Review the problem and try to figure out what you missed. If you cannot find what you missed, leave it blank because the “easy” answer will be wrong. Avoiding a wrong answer at the end will help you maximize your score.

A quick clarification: If a problem at the end is easy because you found some really nifty way of doing it, or its solution involved a stroke of brilliance or keen insight on your part, you are probably correct and should answer.

Another way to think about this concept is as follows: Picture yourself in a large hall surrounded by dozens of other test-takers on a given Saturday morning. When you get to an easy problem toward the end of a section, ask yourself this question: Is this problem so easy that everyone in the room is likely to get the same answer I got? If the answer is yes, you probably missed something. Either skip the problem or go back and try to find the catch or trick. If the answer is no because you caught something in the problem that you think others will miss, you are probably correct. Answer and move on to the next problem.

One final note: If you do a problem at the beginning of a test section and it is easy, do not second guess yourself. The problems at the beginning are supposed to be easy. Answer them quickly and move on to the next one. You will need the extra time toward the end of the test section.

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