Test strategy is a skill that’s completely separate from the topics the SAT covers. It’s not math, it’s not critical reading, and it certainly isn’t writing. But it is something that they’re testing you on, whether they like it or not.
And I say “whether they like it or not” because this is something that you can work to your advantage. The SAT’s goal is to give an objective number to your academic skills, but they can’t get around the fact that standardizing the test opens up a non-academic skill.
And I’m about to give you one of the best examples of SAT strategy.
You can plug in a concrete number to a variable pretty often on the SAT, and there are two times you can usually do it: when there are variables throughout the question and answer choices, and when there’s only a variable in the question. That second case is what we want to look at here.
Let’s say we have an SAT question like this:
Linda’s Cosmetics is has manufactured 6,000 tubes of scarlet lipstick and 4,000 tubes of soft pink lipstick this year. The company will manufacture another 6,000 tubes of lipstick before the end of the year. How many of those tubes to be manufactured must be soft pink in order for both colors to be exactly half of the total yearly production?
Before tackling this by plugging in, you may want to try ball-parking to save some time. But, if nothing jumps out, we still have a course of action.
Starting from the Middle
The simplest way to start plugging in is to start from the middle. Because of the way SAT answers are set up, ascending or descending, C will generally be the median number of the five. Trying C first can help point out if a number is too high or two low, and thus eliminate two other answers with it (A and B or D and E) if C itself doesn’t work. Clearly, that saves us time, rather than starting from the smallest number and working up one by one. By starting with C, ideally we never have to plug in more than two numbers.
Lets try it. If we pick 3,500 for the soft pink lipstick to be made, then we can say that 2,500 tubes of scarlet will have to be made (because the question says there will be 6,000 more total). Then add the numbers together.
3,500 future tubes + 4,000 already made tubes = 7,500 soft pink tubes, total.
2,500 future tubes of scarlet + 6,000 already made = 8,500 scarlet tubes, total.
So C doesn’t work. And we can tell that it’s because it’s too low… we need more soft pink lipstick to be half of the total. So we should, then, pick higher. If you plug in D, 4,000 tubes, you’ll find it works out perfectly. And we only plugged in twice.
To be real about it, though, the relationship between answer choices and the question isn’t always so clear on SAT math, and you may not know whether you need to use a higher or lower number. In that case, just start from C anyway, and move whichever way your instincts take you…you’ll still get there, in the end.
On the other hand, sometimes the relationship is obvious right off the bat. This is often a time when you might feel comfortable with the algebra as is and decide not to plug in. But sometimes it’s a good chance to use an advanced technique, which we will discuss in another post.