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Anika Manzoor

New SAT Math Tips: Active Reading on Math

You have might have learned of the active reading strategy on the SAT, which is when you go through the reading comprehension passages while underlining or taking notes to better remember and make sense of the material. But did you know that this skill can also come pretty handy on the math section? It’s true! Check out the following to learn how you can sharpen those underlining and note-taking skills (pun not intended) to help you excel on new SAT math.


Active Reading for SAT Math Word Problems

Let’s face it. A lot of math problems on the new SAT are basically mini-reading comprehension passages with a lot of numbers thrown in. By learning how to read actively and mark the important bits of the SAT word problems, you learn how to truly focus on what you need to know, thereby transforming what might initially look like this


funny math

to something a lot more manageable. And what’s great about active reading is that as long as you do it while you’re reading, it should be no more than a smidge longer than if you were just reading the problem passively while retaining so much more info.

Let’s check out an SAT word problem question taken straight out of sample problems available on College Board:

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 8.08.11 PM

Yikes, even I’m getting a headache looking at it and I’ve read it already. But before we get overwhelmed by all these words, understand that the key to approaching these types of problems is to draw our attention to the numbers first and what they mean in the context of the problem, and then on what we are looking for; these are the elements that we highlight in our active reading. Let’s see what that could look like:

math underlined

As I was reading, I stopped (for a nanosecond) at the number 1,000 and backtracked (for a nanosecond) to see that it is related to recommended daily calcium intake, so I highlighted “1,000” and its meaning, “recommended daily calcium intake” and I did the same for the amount of calcium in a cup of milk and a cup of juice. For the last sentence, which asks what we are supposed to find, you can see that I only marked the elements that will be in the equation as well as double-underlining “meet or exceed” because I wanted to avoid accidentally choosing the wrong inequality. You might have also noticed that I circled the numbers and instead of underlining them; this is so that I can even more readily identify what will go in the problem when I’ve understood what I need to do.

Of course, this is only one suggestion on how to read actively. I actually prefer jotting down the numbers and their abbreviated meanings in a list as I’m reading because it allows me to write out the equation that I need to figure out. The following graphic shows a variety of methods that you can use (color-coded for your convenience), so play around to find the method or combination of methods that’s most effective for you! And please remember: the more you practice active reading, the better and faster you will get at it, so don’t be discouraged if the process is a bit slow at first.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 6.17.12 PM

Now that we’ve practiced active reading to make this problem like this easier, why don’t try your hand at solving it?


Active Reading for Everything Else

Active reading can also help with questions that are not word problems. What accounts for a lot of avoidable mistakes on the SAT math section is when students misread the parameters the question or what they actually have to solve, so by marking this information will make it less likely for you to solve for the wrong thing. Take the following question for example, another sample problem from College Board, and try to figure out which parts you’d want to underline or circle.  

If a squared plus 14 a equals 51 and a greater than 0, what is the value of a plus 7 ?


If you said a > 0 and a + 7, then you’ve got it! In this case, circling a > 0 can force you to remember that a will not be the negative solution the quadratic equation. What’s more, knowing that a only has one solution here allows you to do something much simpler and more time-saving than factoring the equation or using the quadratic formula:

  1. Factor out the a on the left side to make it a(a+14) = 51
  2. Figure out that 3 x 17 = 51
  3. Plug 3 into a(a+14) to see that it works out perfectly

And if you circled a + 7, you probably will be more likely go back and add 7 to 3 instead of getting excited that you figured out a and put 3 as the answer. When I was studying for the SAT (a century ago), I had spent many a times beating my head on the table because I picked the answer choice for “x” when I really was supposed to find “x+1” or that I solved for inches instead of feet (as you will notice in the world problem example, I underlined the units in case they changed and messed with me in the problem). I hope that by applying active reading to the SAT math section, you’ll find yourself happier, with more right answers, and most importantly, with an uninjured forehead.


About Anika Manzoor

A 2013 graduate of Grinnell College, Anika dedicated her first few years as a newly-minted professional to teaching. In addition to being an SAT instructor, she served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at a Malaysian secondary school for two years. Considering that both opportunities allowed her to explore fun ways to teach and relate to students who were otherwise bored out of their minds, she is excited to share that expertise on the Magoosh High School blog.

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