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SAT Math Word Problems: Examples and Strategies to Conquer Tricky Questions

By Akshay R on April 23, 2024

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Are SAT math word problems harder than other math questions? It's a fair question! Word problems can feel tricky, but they're really just testing the same math skills in a slightly different way. With a few strategies, you can turn those wordy challenges into solvable equations

Key Steps to Word Problem Success

Word problems on the SAT can seem tricky, but with the right approach, they're totally solvable! Here are some key steps to turn those wordy challenges into clear equations:

  • Read Carefully: Don't rush! Read the problem at least twice to identify its core elements. Underline key numbers and phrases.
  • What Are They Asking? Determine what the problem wants you to find—an amount, a rate, a percentage. This will guide your approach.
  • Assign Variables: Use letters (like 'x' or 'y') to represent unknown quantities. This helps translate words into math.
  • Set Up Equations: Consider the relationships between the variables. Do they add up to a total? Does one represent a percentage change of another? Use this to form equations.
  • Focus on Concepts: Often, SAT word problems test basic math concepts (rates, area, proportions) in disguise. Identify the underlying math principle.
  • Check for Practical Answers: Does your answer make sense in the real world? Did you get a negative distance or an age of 250? If so, there might be an error in your calculations. A quick check can save you points.

Types of SAT Word Problems

Word problems can be tricky, but knowing the common types and the math behind them gives you a huge advantage on the SAT.


These problems involve the relationship between an object's speed (rate), the time it travels, and the distance it covers. Here is some basic information about these kinds of problems.

  • Key Formula: Distance = Rate x Time
  • Essential Understanding: If you know two out of the three variables (distance, rate, time), you can solve for the third.
  • Units are crucial! Ensure they match (e.g., miles per hour vs. feet per second).

Example Types:
  • Simple Motion: A train travels at 75 mph for 4 hours. How far did it go?
  • Relative Motion: Two cars leave from the same point at different speeds, heading in opposite directions. How far apart are they after a certain time?
  • Average Speed: A cyclist travels uphill at 10mph and downhill at 20mph for equal amounts of time. What was their average speed? (Note: it's NOT just the average of 10 and 20)


Geometric problems deal with shapes (squares, circles, triangles, etc.), their areas, perimeters, and sometimes volumes.

Essential Area Formulas:
  • Rectangle: length x width
  • Triangle: (1/2) base x height
  • Circle: πr² (where r is the radius)

Perimeter: The sum of the lengths of all the sides of a shape.

  • Box: length x width x height
  • Cylinder: $$\pi r^2 h$$ (where r is the radius and h is the height)

Example Types:
  • Calculating Areas/Perimeters: You have a rectangular garden with a perimeter of 80 feet. What are some possible dimensions?
  • Missing Information: A circular pool has an area of 100π square feet. What is its diameter?
  • Geometric Relationships: A square's diagonal cuts it into two right triangles. If you know the diagonal's length, can you find the side of the square (using the Pythagorean theorem)?


Percentages represent a part out of a whole (a portion out of 100). They're used to describe increases, decreases, discounts, taxes, and more.

Essential Skills:
  • Calculating a Percentage of a Whole: If a test is worth 100 points, and you get 85%, what's your score? (0.85 x 100 = 85)
  • Percentage Increase/Decrease: A town's population grew from 20,000 to 25,000. What's the percentage increase? ((5000 / 20000) x 100 = 25% increase)
  • Applying Discounts/Markups: A $150 jacket is on sale for 30% off. What's the final price? ($150 x 0.30 = $45 discount, so $150 - $45 = $105)

Proportions and Ratios

Proportions show that two ratios (fractions) are equal. They're useful when quantities change in a directly related way.

Essential Setup: (Quantity 1) / (Quantity 2) = (Quantity 3) / (Quantity 4). Be sure your units are consistent across the proportion!

Example Types
  • Scaling Recipes: If a recipe calls for 3 eggs for every 2 cups of flour, how many eggs do you need with 8 cups of flour?
  • Map Scales: On a map, 1 inch represents 50 actual miles. If two towns are 4.5 inches apart on the map, what's the real distance?

SAT Math Word Problems

Below are some hard SAT math word problems with answers and explanations for you to gauge your understanding of how to solve these problems.

Problem 1: Probability

Problem: A bag contains 5 red marbles, 8 blue marbles, and 7 green marbles. If one marble is drawn randomly, what is the probability that it will be blue?

Answer: 2/5

  • Probability = Favorable Outcomes / Total Possible Outcomes
  • Favorable (blue) = 8 marbles. Total = 5 red + 8 blue + 7 green = 20 marbles.
  • Probability of Blue Marble = 8/20 = 2/5.

Problem 2: Rates

Problem: A car travels at an average speed of 60 miles per hour for 3 hours. How many miles does the car travel?

Answer: 180 miles

Explanation: Distance = Rate x Time. Distance = 60 mph x 3 hours = 180 miles.

Problem 3: Geometry (Area)

Problem: A square has a perimeter of 28 inches. What is the area of the square?

Answer: 49 square inches

  • The perimeter of a square = 4(side). Side length = Perimeter / 4 = 28/4 = 7 inches.
  • Area of square = side x side = 7 inches x 7 inches = 49 square inches.

Problem 4: Quadratics

Problem: The area of a rectangular garden is 96 square feet. Its length is 4 feet longer than its width. Find the dimensions of the garden.

Answer: Width = 8 feet, Length = 12 feet

  • Let width = x. Then, length = x + 4.
  • Area of rectangle: Length x Width = 96. Solve the quadratic equation: x(x+4) = 96 --> x = 8 (width) and x+4 = 12 (length).

Problem 5: Statistics (Mean)

Problem: Sarah scores 82, 78, 90, and 86 on her first four math tests. What does she need to score on the fifth test to have an average of 85?

Answer: 99 points

  • Desired average = 85, and the number of tests = 5. So, the sum of all scores should be 85 x 5 = 425.
  • Sum of first 4 scores = 336. To reach the desired sum, she needs 425 - 336 = 89 points on the fifth test.

Problem 6: Work Rates

Problem: John can wash a car in 30 minutes. Sarah can wash the same car in 20 minutes. If they work together, how long will it take them to wash the car?

Answer: 12 minutes

  • John's work rate per minute: 1 car / 30 minutes
  • Sarah's work rate per minute: 1 car / 20 minutes
  • (John's rate) + (Sarah's rate) = (Combined rate)
  • Let x be the time they take working together. (Combined rate) = 1 car / x minutes
  • Solve: (1/30) + (1/20) = 1/x --> x = 12 minutes.

Problem 7: Unit Conversion

Problem: A recipe calls for 1.5 liters of milk. How many cups of milk is this? (Assume 1 liter is approximately 4.2 cups)

Answer: 6.3 cups

Explanation: Unit conversion factor: 1 liter is approximately 4.2 cups. Multiply: 1.5 liters * (4.2 cups/liter) = 6.3 cups.

Problem 8: Inequalities

Problem: The sum of three consecutive integers is less than 150. Find the largest possible value of the smallest integer.

Answer: 48

  • Let the three consecutive integers be x, x+1, and x+2.
  • Their sum: x + (x+1) + (x+2) < 150
  • Simplify: 3x + 3 < 150 --> x < 49. The largest integer smaller than 49 is 48.

Problem 9: Percent Change

Problem: A store has a sale where all items are 20% off the original price. If a jacket originally cost $80, what is the sale price?

Answer: $64

  • Discount = 20% of $80 = $16
  • Sale Price = Original Price - Discount = $80 - $16 = $64

Problem 10: Compound Interest

Problem: You invest $5000 in a savings account with a 3% annual interest rate, compounded yearly. How much money will you have in the account after 5 years?

Answer: Approximately $5796.37

Explanation: Use the compound interest formula: A = P (1 + r/n) ^ (nt) Where: A = final amount, P = principal, r = interest rate (as decimal), n = compounding frequency per year, t = time in years Substituting the values: A = 5000 (1 + 0.03/1) ^ (1*5) = approximately $5796.37

Closing Thoughts

Word problems don't have to be a source of stress on the SAT. By understanding a few key strategies and the types of problems you'll likely encounter, you can approach them with confidence. Remember, practice is essential to mastering these skills!

Need extra help deciphering word problems or want to practice with real-world examples? Join Schoolhouse! Our free peer tutoring and small-group sessions offer targeted support for SAT math, including word problems. You'll get personalized explanations and strategies from fellow students who are focused on helping you succeed. Join an SAT Bootcamp today and boost your word problem skills! peer tutoring, for free.


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