How To Tackle the Most Difficult SAT Problems

For many students, the SAT (or the ACT) represents one of the biggest hurdles to getting into the college of their dreams.

And with such a wide variety of subjects, it’s crucial that students handle their “problem areas” – the tough questions, if for no other reason than to allow ample time for the more manageable exam questions.

In our years of helping college-bound students improve their SAT scores, we’ve found that the toughest questions often have the following two characteristics: the answers are both unexpected and unpopular.

Here are three examples…


1. To Solve Tough Math Questions, Make-Your-Own Formula

When test takers are given a mathematical question in verbal form, many draw a blank. They can’t connect the two hemispheres of their brain.

This isn’t too big a problem with simple questions of addition or subtraction. But when you need to use abstract algebra in order to quickly come to a conclusion – and you need to create that algebraic expression on your own – you’ll want to be confident and prepared.

For example…

The price of ground coffee beans is d dollars for 8 ounces and each ounce makes c cups of brewed coffee. In terms of c and d, what is the dollar cost of the ground coffee beans required to make 1 cup of brewed coffee?

This is actually not particularly hard (the answer is d/8c). The trick is – as these SAT questions become more complex – is not to let the words in the questions confuse you.

2. How To Solve Hard Vocabulary Questions

These can be hard for obvious reasons; if you’ve never seen a word, you’ve got a poor chance of guessing the definition.

For instance, if you don’t know ‘vicissitude,’ it will be difficult to correctly answer ‘a change of circumstances or fortune, often unpleasant.’

That said, there are some little-known tips that can help. For starters, see if you recognize part of the word. For instance, if the word ends with –ism, you know communism and socialism are schools of thought. This can help you narrow down your choices to definitions that might fit the same pattern.


3. How To Use Multi-Variables in Tough Algebra Problems

Sometimes in algebra sections, you’ll have to figure out one variable before you can get to the answer for another variable. For instance:

If 4(x+y) (x-y) = 40 and x-y=20, what is the value of x+y?

Again, this is a fairly simple example. In this, you don’t even need to know what x or y are individually. You can simply substitute 20 for (x-y) in the first equation, meaning 4(x+y) x 20 = 40, or 4(x+y) = 2, meaning x+y is ½.

However, there are more complex versions out there – and the trick is not to get bogged down in the details. If you’re wracking your brain trying to solve for x and then y, this question will take much longer than it needs to (and could take time away from the rest of your SAT questions).

Keep your eye out for tricky questions like these – and the ones above – and you should be able to avoid the worst of the hard questions.

To your college admissions success,

Scott Weingold

Co-Founder, College Planning Network LLC

Publisher, – The free educational resource of College Planning Network

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Editor's Note: Scott Weingold has been ranked the #1 “College Financial Aid Expert Worth Knowing About” in the entire country by  He has co-authored the book, “The Real Secret To Paying For College. The Insider’s Guide To Sending Your Child To College – Without Spending Your Life’s Savings.” Scott also publishes a popular free online newsletter, “College Funding Made Simple" which reveals insider’s tips, methods, and strategies for beating the high cost of college.

Scott is the co-founder and a principal of the widely renown College Planning Network, LLC – the nation’s largest and most reputable college admissions and financial aid planning firm. CPN is a proud member of the Better Business Bureau, the National Association of College Funding Advisors, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Scott, along with his college funding advisory team, helps thousands of families throughout the country with their college planning needs and offers a series of free educational webinars and workshops on “How To Pay For College Without Going Broke In The Process!” He's been featured or mentioned in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo News,, Voice America with Ron Adams, Crains Cleveland Business, and on Cleveland Connection with James McIntyre.  Scott has published numerous articles and is a professional speaker who has addressed thousands of audiences online and offline throughout the United States.  His actionable insights and candid, open approach have earned him & his team numerous media interviews, citations, and speaking opportunities, and his free online video workshop is one of the Internet’s most widely viewed pieces in the college funding space.