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Lucas Fink

Simplifying SAT Word Problems by Elimination

Hey, hey, c’mere. I have a secret. Lean in close. I’m going to whisper it in your ear. You see that picture of me looking all contemplative up there? Put your ear up against that so I can impart my SAT wisdom.

Okay, so it turns out it’s hard to make a jpeg talk, so never mind that. The secret is this: the SAT is a multiple choice test.

Blown-away, huh. No? Well, if you already know that, have you been using it?


How to make word problems easier to work with

Because the SAT is mostly multiple choice, you don’t really have to understand how to transform word problems into equations for a lot of the questions. You can use the answers to your advantage and totally circumvent it.

You don’t know where to start on a question? Did drawing the situation fall flat?

Then take a look at the answer choices. If there are concrete numbers there (and not algebraic expressions), then you should try putting some of them through the process that the word problem describes.


Using a number from the answer choices

Here’s a relatively low-level word problem:

At 8:00 a.m., there are exactly as many chocolate donuts as there are jelly donuts on a table in the teacher’s lounge. Within five minutes, 15 of the chocolate donuts are eaten, but nobody has eaten the jelly donuts. There are then four times as many jelly donuts as there are chocolate donuts on the table. How many jelly donuts are left?

  1. 5
  2. 10
  3. 16
  4. 20
  5. 40

So maybe you’re totally fine writing out the equation here. But like a lot of SAT questions, it can be a little hard to picture the math (especially if you’re feeling test anxiety).

In that case, you would definitely want to start checking the answers. Sometimes that may be a bit too slow, but most of the time it’s actually really fast.

Let me say that a little more clearly. A lot of the time, process of elimination is faster than straightforward math.

So where should you start? How about with (C). After all, Neither (A) nor (B) is divisible by four, which the answer probably will be, since the number of jelly donuts is four times that of the chocolate. And (A) is definitely too small.

In (C), there are 16 jelly donuts left, which means there must be 4 chocolate. If there are 4 chocolate donuts after the five minutes are up, there must have been 19 at the start. 19 chocolate and 16 jelly don’t match up, so that’s no good.

Let’s try (D), then, so we’ll have more jelly donuts. 20 jelly means 5 chocolate left. 5 chocolate remaining means 20 chocolate at the start. 20 and 20 match up.

And we’re done. Doing that in your head is even faster.


Practicing important math strategies like this

You should be using answer choices to your advantage as often as you can when you first start your SAT prep. You want to learn how the strategy works, when it works, and when it’s not applicable (because sometimes it isn’t). The best way to learn that is by experience.

Need practice problems? Magoosh has hundreds of them waiting for you.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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