Math word problems: do you love them or hate them?

Chances are you hate them. Most students struggle with math problems that contain more words than numbers. Translating sentences into equations is not always the easiest thing to do.

Despite the challenge, there is no way around word problems. Most of the math questions on the SAT and ACT deal with more words than numbers. Remember, the SAT and ACT are tests designed primarily to test your reading ability, not your math skills.

So how do you tackle word problems? How do you sift through the cornucopia of words to drill down to the important math equation?

The answer is quite simple: use your pencil to draw and show what you know. Often by drawing the information you know, you can create an easy shortcut to the correct answer.

For example, let’s say you are given the following question (taken directly from the College Board website):

A special lottery is to be held to select the student who will live in the only deluxe room in a dormitory. There are 100 seniors, 150 juniors, and 200 sophomores who applied. Each senior’s name is placed in the lottery 3 times; each junior’s name, 2 times; and each sophomore’s name, 1 time. What is the probability that a senior’s name will be chosen?

A) 1/8

B) 2/9

C) 2/7

D) 3/8

E) 1/2

So many words here! But don’t freak out. Take it slow and start with your pencil:

Draw one block to represent 100 seniors, another block to represent 150 juniors and one more block to represent 200 sophomores. Now, you also know that the senior’s names are placed in the lottery 3 times. So draw two more blocks next to the senior’s block, each identical to the block representing 100 names. Draw two blocks for the juniors, each representing 150 names. Finally, sophomores don’t need an extra block.

Once you have your drawing, now comes the easy part. Probability, you might recall, is nothing more than a fraction. The numerator is the number of desired outcomes and the denominator is the number of total outcomes. By using your blocks, you can see that the total desired outcomes (senior’s names) is 3 blocks of 100, or 300. The total outcomes is all of the blocks added together: (3 x 100) + (2 x 150) + 200 = 800. In other words, the probability is 300/800 or 3/8. The correct answer is D.

Even though this is a hard question according to the College Board, it becomes quite easy when you draw things out.

When you are faced with math problems that seem to have no solution, start drawing! Getting your pencil to paper will help you organize what you know and guide you towards finding out what you don’t know.

Learn more test prep tips by contacting CROSSWALK, the Monterey Peninsula’s resource for test prep and tutoring. Also, read 2400 SCORES: 24 Life Lessons to Demystify the SAT and Boost Your Score by Brooke Higgins for SAT-specific tips.

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