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Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

SAT Math: How to Tackle Word Problems

When most people hear “word problems,” they often think of the popular example of trains traveling at different speeds, or unrealistic applications of math. However, word problems represent how most people use math in everyday life, and the SAT includes these problems to test students’ ability to reason logically and solve problems.


For many students, the hardest part of a word problem is figuring out exactly what the word problem is asking of you. Not all word problems are created the same though, so we’re going to break down what you need to know so that you feel confident solving them on the SAT.


Types of Math Word Problems on the SAT


You could divide math word problem in a few different ways. You could do it by topic, for example, such as using the SAT subscores as your guide. Or you could do it by the type of solution the problem requires of you. We’re going to focus on the second way, simply because trying to divide word problems by topic would mean we’d have to cover virtually every math topic the SAT covers, which is way more than we could fit in a single post.


Creating an equation or a formula. In these problems, you’ll be given some information about a scenario and asked to come up with an equation or formula that represents that scenario. In fact, looking for the word “represents” in the question might tip you off that you’re dealing with a problem of this type. These are almost exclusively found in the multiple-choice questions, with different equations or formulas listed as the answer choices.


Solving for a value. This is the most common form of word problem. Based on the information in the word problem, you’ll need to come up with at least one specific value that satisfies the requirements of the problem. Examples include finding “how much” or “how many” of something in the problem, or finding minimums and maximum values.


Defining or interpreting. For these problems, you are often asked to interpret what a variable or a constant means in the situation described, or you might be asked what kinds of conclusions can be drawn from a survey. These types of problems often have no “math” involved, and instead ask you to think logically about a situation.


Tip: Being able to identify problems by type on the SAT is a useful prep exercise and can help you on the day you take the test. You may want to use the Math section from a free practice SAT test and circle all of the word problems. Then, read each word problem and assign it to one of the types. Doing this will help you see the commonalities between different types of questions and will allow you to spend less time on the actual test wondering what type of question you’re dealing with!


How to Approach SAT Math Word Problems


For every SAT Math word problem, there are two things to consider. The first is what we discussed above, which is to figure out what type of problem you’re dealing with to best identify what you need to do. Once you know whether you need to provide a definition, write an equation, or solve for a value, you’ve taken the first step.


The next step will be to do the math that you’ve identified you need to do based on the type of word problem. Let’s take a look at each one:


Write an equation/formula. For problems of this type and for problems that ask you to solve for a specific value, you will often need to understand how to “translate” a word problem into an equation, diagram, or graph that you can work with. Luckily, the SAT is very particular about how it uses words in its word problems, so you can always be sure that certain words are meant to relate to specific mathematical concepts. Here are some of the common phrases used by test makers to clue you in to what kind of math you’re looking for:


Word/phrase Mathematical meaning/symbol
Is, will be, is equal to, is the same as Equals, =
Plus, sum, increased by, added to, received Addition, +
Minus, fewer, difference, decreased by Subtraction, –
Times, product, multiplied by, of Multiplication, x
Divided by, quotient, per, for Division, ÷
More than, greater than Inequality, >
At least, minimum Inequality, ≥
Fewer than, less than Inequality, <
At most, maximum Inequality, ≤
What, how many Variable, x (or any other letter)


Solve for a value. With these problems, you might be given an equation as part of your information, but most likely you have to write an equation or formula and solve for the answer. You may benefit from drawing a diagram on some of these questions, especially if the word problem refers to geometric shapes but doesn’t already include one. This can help you visualize the information you’re looking for (the measure of an angle, for example) and help you focus on the right concepts to find the solution.


When translating a word problem into a diagram, make sure you follow the set-up as described in the word problem to the best of your ability, and don’t be fooled by your own diagram. For example, a problem may mention a right triangle, so you draw one. You may end up drawing a diagram that looks like a 45-45-90 triangle, but the problem is actually dealing with a 30-60-90 triangle. By labeling all of the information on your diagram and making a mental note that your drawings aren’t to scale, you can quickly make sense of most problems.


Defining and interpreting. With these types of problems, you often have the equation or formula given to you, and you just need to explain how a part of it works. If you’re not sure, consider whether you’re being asked about a constant or a variable, and eliminate any choices that don’t correspond to the type of value you’re looking at. You can also test the equation with different numbers to see how the value in question influences the equation.


Some problems involve your knowledge of statistical topics, such as understanding how to draw conclusions from surveys, or what factors affect standard deviation. For many of these problems, you’ll need to review these concepts in order to form the correct conclusion.


Examples of SAT Math Word Problems


The following example problems come from the College Board’s free SAT practice tests.


Example of Creating an Equation/Formula

How to solve: We can tell we need to come up with our own formula based on the answer choices and the word “represents” in the problem’s question. We need to find the formula that represents what the original price of a laptop was in terms of p, what Alma paid for it.


Let’s make x the original price of the laptop. In this case, x would be multiplied by .8 to get to the sales price (representing the 20% discount). The sales prices would then be multiplied by 1.08 to account for sales tax. This means that p=(1.08)(0.8)(x). We need to isolate x, so we need to divide both sides by 1.08 and 0.8. That gives us D as the correct answer.


Alternate method: Many problems requiring you to create your own equation are not too difficult, but they can get tricky when there are several steps involved or several variables. You can substitute a number for the variable you’re solving for to find the solution that way. For example, you can set $100 to be the original price of the laptop. Multiply it by .8 to find the sales price, and then by 1.08 to find the price that Alma paid. Then plug the price Alma paid into the answer choices to find the correct answer.


Example of Solving for a Value

How to solve: The word “maximum” tips us off that we are looking for a specific value and that we’ll be dealing with an inequality (see above). Given the information in the problem, we can write this inequality to start: (weight of driver) + (weight of truck) + (14x, or the weight of the boxes) ≤ 6000.


Because we’re told that the weight of the driver and the truck equals 4,500, we can replace that part of the equation: 4500 + 14x ≤ 6000. Now, all we need to do is solve for x. Subtract 4500 from both sides to get 14x ≤ 1500. Then divide both sides by 14 to get x ≤ 107.14… The answer is thus 107.


Note: Pay close attention to how you need to round when working with inequalities. Although this particular decimal probably wouldn’t have made you think to round up, if the result of the division had been 107.9999 you should still round down in this case because the number you’re looking for needs to be less than that value.


Example of Defining/Interpreting

How to solve: Again, the use of the word “interpretation” lets us know what type of problem we’re dealing with. In this case, 12 is a coefficient for the variables n and h, which are the number of landscapers and the number of hours respectively. We can thus rule out choices B and D, since those answers define 12 as a constant in place of these variables.


Since this equation is used to calculate the price of a job, we can be sure 12 represents a dollar amount as reflected in choices A and C. To figure out how things are affected, we can substitute simple numbers for n and h. When both are equal to 1 (there is one landscaper who works for one hour), then 12nh=12(1)(1)=12. When we increase both of these numbers to two, then 12nh=12(2)(2)=48. We can thus rule out C, because the price increased by more than 12 when we added another hour. Choice A is the best interpretation.

How to solve: This is an interpretation problem dealing with statistical concepts rather than interpreting an equation. To be able to “solve” you’d need to know what factors contribute to a reliable conclusion and see what was missing from this survey set-up. In this case, the correct answer is D.


In order for reliable conclusions to be drawn, a sample must be selected at random from the population to ensure that the sample is representative of the population, which in this case is the entire town. By choosing people at the same restaurant on one day, the researcher is possibly biasing their results by narrowing their sample to “people who like this one restaurant.” Because the sample is not representative, choice D identifies the factor that makes the conclusion unreliable. The other choices are factors that, given what we know from the problem, don’t negatively impact the conclusion.


SAT Math Word Problems Tips


As you may have noticed in the last example, you’ll still need to be familiar with math concepts and understand how they might show up in different situations to really feel confident taking any problem on. Here are a couple of other tips worth mentioning:


For most problems, there is more than one way to solve it. We showed this with the first example, where we provided an alternate method for solving a problem. If you find yourself stumped on a problem (we’ve all been there!), then move on to other problems and return to the one that tripped you up later. You may find that you see what you need to do more clearly.


Read carefully. The SAT test makers put a lot of care into how they write math word problems. Be sure to carefully read the question so that you don’t misread something and solve for the wrong thing. (The test makers may even include the answers that result from these common misreadings in the choices!). It’s difficult to read a question correctly once you’ve misread it. If you’re a fast reader who tends to skip over things, try mouthing the words silently as you read. It will force you to slow down just enough that you won’t miss anything, but not so much that you won’t have time to finish the test.


In general, preparing for the SAT Math section requires a multi-faceted approach. You need to be able to identify the types of questions you’re dealing with, know mathematical concepts and how to use them, and deal with other testing issues like rushing through the end or dealing with test anxiety. To help you get started, check out our free SAT Guide that includes 8 of our best test prep tips!


For more information about preparing for the SAT, check out these posts below:


30 SAT Math Formulas You Need to Know

25 Tips and Tricks for the SAT

5 Common SAT Math Mistakes to Avoid


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Short Bio
Gianna Cifredo is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, where she majored in Philosophy. She has six years of higher education and test prep experience, and now works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida and is a proud cat mom.