What to Know About SAT Math Grid-In Questions | College Admissions Playbook


Grid-in questions, or student-produced responses, account for about 22% of the 58-question SAT math section. As opposed to multiple-choice questions, where the correct answer is always one of the provided choices, grid-in items require test-takers to arrive at the right answer independently.

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Grid-in questions appear on both the calculator and no-calculator portions of the exam, and they come at the end of these two sections.

To succeed on grid-ins, students must first know the true basics – more specifically, the proper procedure for filling out their answer sheets. Each written answer must be flush with the leftmost or rightmost box, and you must also fill in the corresponding bubble below each box. Decimal points and slashes for fractions should occupy their own boxes, and only one bubble per box can be selected.

You can visit the College Board’s website to get more detailed instructions on how to record your answers for this question type.

The open-ended nature and strict rules of SAT math grid-in questions make them particularly daunting for some students. To better prepare you for these items, let’s analyze three common issues students tend to face with grid-ins and how to address them:

  • Not knowing how to begin solving a grid-in item.
  • Not knowing how to manage your time.
  • Not knowing how to “sanity check” your work.

There are also simple steps students can take to build their comfort level with this question type, outlined at the bottom of this article.

Not Knowing How to Begin Solving a Grid-In Item

Even though these SAT math problems have a different name and format, grid-ins are much like multiple-choice questions. In fact, they should be approached in a similar way: Start by assessing what information you have and what information you need, and then select an appropriate process for getting the information you need.

It is crucial to note that multiple-choice answers are often intended to trick you. So rather than looking at the answer choices immediately, you should rely on your background knowledge to create your own prediction. Only consider answer choices once you have a solution, because only then will you be able to eliminate each possibility intelligently.

Grid-in questions should be attacked just as you would any other math problem. Identify the helpful information and the processes or formulas you can use to answer the question. The key with grid-ins is ensuring you save yourself a few extra seconds at the end to fill in your answers correctly.

Not Knowing How to Manage Your Time

Students should allow themselves additional time for completing grid-ins. This extra time, measured in seconds rather than minutes, should not be interpreted to mean that grid-ins are harder than multiple-choice questions. Rather, the extra time is allotted to carefully fill in your answer sheet.

To get accustomed to the time allotment for grid-ins, always complete practice questions with a timer. Try completing several grid-ins in a row so that you are repeating the procedure and committing it to memory.

You can avoid wasting time on test day by learning in advance all the instructions for filling out your answer sheet. The instructions should become second nature to you so that you don’t spend time consciously thinking about them on exam day.

Not Knowing How to ‘Sanity Check’ Your Work

In this instance, a sanity check is a quick common-sense check that you should perform once you believe you have arrived at your final answer to a question.

There is no option, for example, for recording negative numbers on your answer sheet. For this reason, the right answer to a grid-in problem will never be negative. If you arrive at a negative number, this should be a red flag that you have made a mistake and that, time permitting, you should look over your work.

Another red flag may be getting a large percentage or fraction. For instance, imagine you have the following question from this practice test: “The table below classifies 103 elements as metal, metalloid, or nonmetal and as solid, liquid, or gas at standard temperature and pressure.” As shown in the table, of the 90 solids, 77 are metals, seven are metalloids and six are nonmetals. Of the two liquids, one is a metal and one is a nonmetal. Of the 11 gases, all are nonmetals.

The question to answer is, “What fraction of all solids and liquids in the table are metalloids?”

Your answer should be equal to a value smaller than 1, because 1 would imply that 100% of solids and liquids in the table are metalloids – and that is not the case. Therefore, if you counted 92/7 or any other top-heavy fraction, this should signal to you that something went wrong.

Another obviously wrong answer in a different question would be the angle of a triangle measuring more than 180 degrees. Always perform a sanity check at the end by asking yourself if your answer is feasible given what you know.

How to Get Comfortable With Grid-In Questions

Students preparing for the math section of the SAT should keep in mind both the content and sequencing of grid-in questions. Regarding content, these questions can cover any of the math topics you would typically encounter as multiple-choice questions: linear equations, ratios and so forth.

As for sequencing, while SAT math questions tend to be ordered from easiest to most difficult, know that the first few grid-in questions are easier than the last few multiple-choice questions. Therefore, you should always give the first few grid-ins a try and only leave the last few blank if you are absolutely stumped or running out of time.

If you are uncomfortable with grid-in questions, first try to stop looking at them as radically different from other math problems. Many of the questions you encounter in your math textbooks and math classes are open-ended, so you already have plenty of practice with similar items.

Because there are only 13 grid-in questions on the SAT math section, you may find that you quickly run out of questions to practice with. But there is good news: Since the multiple-choice and grid-in questions essentially cover the same content, you can pretend the multiple-choice questions are grid-ins. Just cover up the answer choices and fill in your responses on the answer sheet. You can easily print more answer sheets or photocopy a physical version.

Dread over SAT math grid-in problems can usually be traced to misunderstandings about the complexity of this type of question. Once students memorize the instructions for grid-ins, many find that the questions are not so intimidating after all.



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