About 25% of your total SAT Math section will be word problems, meaning you will have to create your own visuals and equations to solve for your answers. Though the actual math topics can vary, SAT word problems share a few commonalities, and we’re here to walk you through how to best solve them.
This post will be your complete guide to SAT Math word problems. We'll cover how to translate word problems into equations and diagrams, the different types of math word problems you’ll see on the test, and how to go about solving your word problems on test day.
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What Are SAT Math Word Problems?
A word problem is any math problem based mostly or entirely on a written description. You will not be provided with an equation, diagram, or graph on a word problem and must instead use your reading skills to translate the words of the question into a workable math problem. Once you do this, you can then solve it.
You will be given word problems on the SAT Math section for a variety of reasons. For one, word problems test your reading comprehension and your ability to visualize information.
Secondly, these types of questions allow test makers to ask questions that'd be impossible to ask with just a diagram or an equation. For instance, if a math question asks you to fit as many small objects into a larger one as is possible, it'd be difficult to demonstrate and ask this with only a diagram.
Translating Math Word Problems Into Equations or Drawings
In order to translate your SAT word problems into actionable math equations you can solve, you’ll need to understand and know how to utilize some key math terms. Whenever you see these words, you can translate them into the proper mathematical action.
For instance, the word "sum" means the value when two or more items are added together. So if you need to find the sum of a and b, you’ll need to set up your equation like this: a+b.
Also, note that many mathematical actions have more than one term attached, which can be used interchangeably.
Here is a chart with all the key terms and symbols you should know for SAT Math word problems:
Sum, increased by, added to, more than, total of
Difference, decreased by, less than, subtracted from
Product, times, __ times as much, __ times as many (a number, e.g., “three times as many”)
* or x
Divided by, per, __ as many, __ as much (a fraction, e.g., “one-third as much”)
/ or ÷
Equals, is, are, equivalent
Is less than
Is greater than
Is less than or equal to
Is greater than or equal to
Now, let's look at these math terms in action using a few official examples:
The correct answer choice is (B) 93.
Though the hardest SAT word problems might look like Latin to you right now, practice and study will soon have you translating them into workable questions.
Typical SAT Word Problems
Word problems on the SAT can be grouped into three major categories:
- Word problems for which you must simply set up an equation
- Word problems for which you must solve for a specific value
- Word problems for which you must define the meaning of a value or variable
Below, we look at each world problem type and give you examples.
Word Problem Type 1: Setting Up an Equation
This is a fairly uncommon type of SAT word problem, but you’ll generally see it at least once on the Math section. You'll also most likely see it first on the section.
For these problems, you must use the information you’re given and then set up the equation. No need to solve for the missing variable—this is as far as you need to go.
Almost always, you’ll see this type of question in the first four questions on the SAT Math section, meaning that the College Board consider these questions easy. This is due to the fact that you only have to provide the setup and not the execution.
To solve this problem, we'll need to know both Armand's and Tyrone's situations, so let's look at them separately:
Armand: Armand sent m text messages each hour for 5 hours, so we can write this as 5m—the number of texts he sent per hour multiplied by the total number of hours he texted.
Tyrone: Tyrone sent p text messages each hour for 4 hours, so we can write this as 4p—the number of texts he sent per hour multiplied by the total number of hours he texted.
We now know that Armand's situation can be written algebraically as 5m, and Tyrone's can be written as 4p. Since we're being asked for the expression that represents the total number of texts sent by Armand and Tyrone, we must add together the two expressions:
5m + 4p
The correct answer is choice (C) 5m + 4p
Word Problem Type 2: Solving for a Missing Value
The vast majority of SAT Math word problem questions will fall into this category. For these questions, you must both set up your equation and solve for a specific piece of information.
Most (though not all) word problem questions of this type will be scenarios or stories covering all sorts of SAT Math topics, such as averages, single-variable equations, and ratios. You almost always must have a solid understanding of the math topic in question in order to solve the word problem on the topic.
Let's try to think about this problem in terms of x. If Type A trees produced 20% more pears than Type B did, we can write this as an expression:
x + 0.2x = 1.2x = # of pears produced by Type A
In this equation, x is the number of pears produced by Type B trees. If we add 20% of x (0.2x) to x, we get the number of pears produced by Type A trees.
The problem tells us that Type A trees produced a total of 144 pears. Since we know that 1.2x is equal to the number of pears produced by Type A, we can write the following equation:
1.2x = 144
Now, all we have to do is divide both sides by 1.2 to find the number of pears produced by Type B trees:
x = 144 / 1.2
x = 120
The correct answer choice is (B) 120.
You might also get a geometry problem as a word problem, which might or might not be set up with a scenario, too. Geometry questions will be presented as word problems typically because the test makers felt the problem would be too easy to solve had you been given a diagram, or because the problem would be impossible to show with a diagram. (Note that geometry makes up a very small percentage of SAT Math.)
This is a case of a problem that is difficult to show visually, since x is not a set degree value but rather a value greater than 55; thus, it must be presented as a word problem.
Since we know that x must be an integer degree value greater than 55, let us assign it a value. In this case, let us call x 56°. (Why 56? There are other values x could be, but 56 is guaranteed to work since it's the smallest integer larger than 55. Basically, it's a safe bet!)
Now, because x = 56, the next angle in the triangle—2x—must measure the following:
56*2 = 112
Let's make a rough (not to scale) sketch of what we know so far:
Now, we know that there are 180° in a triangle, so we can find the value of y by saying this:
y = 180 − 112 − 56
y = 12
One possible value for y is 12. (Other possible values are 3, 6, and 9.)
Word Problem Type 3: Explaining the Meaning of a Variable or Value
To help juggle all the various SAT word problems, let's look at the math strategies and tips at our disposal.
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SAT Math Strategies for Word Problems
Though you’ll see word problems on the SAT Math section on a variety of math topics, there are still a few techniques you can apply to solve word problems as a whole.
#1: Draw It Out
Whether your problem is a geometry problem or an algebra problem, sometimes making a quick sketch of the scene can help you understand what exactly you're working with. For instance, let's look at how a picture can help you solve a word problem about a circle (specifically, a pizza):
If you often have trouble visualizing problems such as these, draw it out. We know that we're dealing with a circle since our focus is a pizza. We also know that the pizza weighs 3 pounds.
Because we'll need to solve the weight of each slice in ounces, let's first convert the total weight of our pizza from pounds into ounces. We're given the conversion (1 pound = 16 ounces), so all we have to do is multiply our 3-pound pizza by 16 to get our answer:
3 * 16 = 48 ounces (for whole pizza)
Now, let's draw a picture. First, the pizza is divided in half (not drawn to scale):
We now have two equal-sized pieces. Let's continue drawing. The problem then says that we divide each half into three equal pieces (again, not drawn to scale):
This gives us a total of six equal-sized pieces. Since we know the total weight of the pizza is 48 ounces, all we have to do is divide by 6 (the number of pieces) to get the weight (in ounces) per piece of pizza:
48 / 6 = 8 ounces per piece
The correct answer choice is (C) 8.
As for geometry problems, remember that you might get a geometry word problem written as a word problem. In this case, make your own drawing of the scene. Even a rough sketch can help you visualize the math problem and keep all your information in order.
#2: Memorize Key Terms
If you’re not used to translating English words and descriptions into mathematical equations, then SAT word problems might be difficult to wrap your head around at first. Look at the chart we gave you above so you can learn how to translate keywords into their math equivalents. This way, you can understand exactly what a problem is asking you to find and how you’re supposed to find it.
There are free SAT Math questions available online, so memorize your terms and then practice on realistic SAT word problems to make sure you’ve got your definitions down and can apply them to the actual test.
#3: Underline and/or Write Out Important Information
The key to solving a word problem is to bring together all the key pieces of given information and put them in the right places. Make sure you write out all these givens on the diagram you’ve drawn (if the problem calls for a diagram) so that all your moving pieces are in order.
One of the best ways to keep all your pieces straight is to underline your key information in the problem, and then write them out yourself before you set up your equation. So take a moment to perform this step before you zero in on solving the question.
#4: Pay Close Attention to What's Being Asked
It can be infuriating to find yourself solving for the wrong variable or writing in your given values in the wrong places. And yet this is entirely too easy to do when working with math word problems.
Make sure you pay strict attention to exactly what you’re meant to be solving for and exactly what pieces of information go where. Are you looking for the area or the perimeter? The value of x, 2x, or y?
It’s always better to double-check what you’re supposed to find before you start than to realize two minutes down the line that you have to begin solving the problem all over again.
#5: Brush Up on Any Specific Math Topic You Feel Weak In
You're likely to see both a diagram/equation problem and a word problem for almost every SAT Math topic on the test. This is why there are so many different types of word problems and why you’ll need to know the ins and outs of every SAT Math topic in order to be able to solve a word problem about it.
For example, if you don’t know how to find an average given a set of numbers, you certainly won’t know how to solve a word problem that deals with averages!
Understand that solving an SAT Math word problem is a two-step process: it requires you to both understand how word problems work and to understand the math topic in question. If you have any areas of mathematical weakness, now's a good time to brush up on them—or else SAT word problems might be trickier than you were expecting!
Test Your SAT Math Word Problem Knowledge
Finally, it's time to test your word problem know-how against real SAT Math problems:
1. No Calculator
2. Calculator OK
3. Calculator OK
4. Calculator OK
Answers: C, B, A, 1160
1. For this problem, we have to use the information we're given to set up an equation.
We know that Ken spent x dollars, and Paul spent 1 dollar more than Ken did. Therefore, we can write the following equation for Paul:
x + 1
Ken and Paul split the bill evenly. This means that we'll have to solve for the total amount of both their sandwiches and then divide it by 2. Since Ken's sandwich cost x dollars and Paul's cost x + 1, here's what our equation looks like when we combine the two expressions:
x + x + 1
2x + 1
Now, we can divide this expression by 2 to get the price each person paid:
(2x + 1) / 2
x + 0.5
But we're not finished yet. We know that both Ken and Paul also paid a 20% tip on their bills. As a result, we have to multiply the total cost of one bill by 0.2, and then add this tip to the bill. Algebraically, this looks like this:
(x + 0.5) + 0.2(x + 0.5)
x + 0.5 + 0.2x + 0.1
1.2x + 0.6
The correct answer choice is (C) 1.2x + 0.6
2. You'll have to be familiar with statistics in order to understand what this question is asking.
Since Nick surveyed a random sample of his freshman class, we can say that this sample will accurately reflect the opinion (and thus the same percentages) as the entire freshman class.
Of the 90 freshmen sampled, 25.6% said that they wanted the Fall Festival held in October. All we have to do now is find this percentage of the entire freshmen class (which consists of 225 students) to determine how many total freshmen would prefer an October festival:
225 * 0.256 = 57.6
Since the question is asking "about how many students"—and since we obviously can't have a fraction of a person!—we'll have to round this number to the nearest answer choice available, which is 60, or answer choice (B).
3. This is one of those problems that is asking you to define a value in the equation given. It might look confusing, but don't be scared—it's actually not as difficult as it appears!
First off, we know that t represents the number of seconds passed after an object is launched upward. But what if no time has passed yet? This would mean that t = 0. Here's what happens to the equation when we plug in 0 for t:
h(0) = -16(0)2 + 110(0) + 72
h(0) = 0 + 0 + 72
h(0) = 72
As we can see, before the object is even launched, it has a height of 72 feet. This means that 72 must represent the initial height, in feet, of the object, or answer choice (A).
4. You might be tempted to draw a diagram for this problem since it's talking about a pool (rectangle), but it's actually quicker to just look at the numbers given and work from there.
We know that the pool currently holds 600 gallons of water and that water has been hosed into it at a rate of 8 gallons a minute for a total of 70 minutes.
To find the amount of water in the pool now, we'll have to first solve for the amount of water added to the pool by hose. We know that 8 gallons were added each minute for 70 minutes, so all we have to do is multiply 8 by 70:
8 * 70 = 560 gallons
This tells us that 560 gallons of water were added to our already-filled, 600-gallon pool. To find the total amount of water, then, we simply add these two numbers together:
560 + 600 = 1160
The correct answer is 1160.
Aaaaaaaaaaand time for a nap.
Key Takeaways: Making Sense of SAT Math Word Problems
Word problems make up a significant portion of the SAT Math section, so it’s a good idea to understand how they work and how to translate the words on the page into a proper expression or equation. But this is still only half the battle.
Though you won’t know how to solve a word problem if you don’t know what a product is or how to draw a right triangle, you also won’t know how to solve a word problem about ratios if you don’t know how ratios work.
Therefore, be sure to learn not only how to approach math word problems as a whole, but also how to narrow your focus on any SAT Math topics you need help with. You can find links to all of our SAT Math topic guides here to help you in your studies.
Want to brush up on SAT Math topics? Check out our individual math guides to get an overview of each and every topic on SAT Math. From polygons and slopes to probabilities and sequences, we've got you covered!
Running out of time on the SAT Math section? We have the know-how to help you beat the clock and maximize your score.
Been procrastinating on your SAT studying? Learn how you can overcome your desire to procrastinate and make a well-balanced prep plan.
Trying to get a perfect SAT score? Take a look at our guide to getting a perfect 800 on SAT Math, written by a perfect scorer.
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Courtney scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology. She is passionate about bringing education and the tools to succeed to students from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she believes open education is one of the great societal equalizers. She has years of tutoring experience and writes creative works in her free time.