Learn to Solve Three Different Types of Algebra Problems


A guest post by Veritas Prep

Algebra problems on the SAT may take several forms, but they generally involve some variation on solving for a variable or expression.   Read through this article to see the process of working through a few variations of those “solve for x” or “what is the value of x?” types of problems.

1.     The standard “what is the value of x” problem:

This kind of problem will generally involve an equation involving the variable whose value you have to find.

Let’s say that you’re given the equation 5x + 14 = 2x +47.

To find the value of x, you have to solve for x in this equation.  Do everything you need to do to isolate x on one side of the equation (making sure to always apply the same operations to both sides of the equation) and get everything else on the other side of the equation.

In the equation 5x + 14 = 2x + 47 , you’ll want to get all your xs on one side. You can do this by subtracting 5x or 2x from both sides; I’d recommend subtracting the 2x from both sides so you don’t have to deal with negatives.  Then you’ll have 3x + 14 = 47.  Next, you’ll want to subtract that 14 from both sides so that you can have x’s on the left side and numbers on the right side.  Then, you’ll have 3x = 33. Finally, to isolate x, you’ll need to divide both sides by 3, so you end up with x = 11.

Be aware of potential SAT trickiness in these kinds of problems. The SAT loves to ask you for the value of 2x or x squared or something along those lines, when your impulse is simply to solve for x.  Be sure to read the question and be sure you’re actually answering it before moving on!

2.     The “in terms of” problem:

This kind of problem will generally involve an equation that contains multiple variables and/or constants and will ask you to solve for one of those variables in terms of the others.

For example, let’s say you’re given the equation 3A + 5B = 6C + 3 , and you are asked to solve for B in terms of A and C.

Solving for a variable in terms of other variables/constants entails the same process as simply solving for x. It’s a little bit strange because there are multiple variables involved, but don’t be intimidated: the process is the same. You simply need to do whatever you have to do to isolate the variable that you are solving for in terms of the other variables. In this case, for example, you need to try to isolate B.

To do this, in this case I would subtract 3A from both sides of the equation first. That leaves us with 5B = 6C +3. Then to isolate B, simply divide both sides by 5 and you will get B = (6C + 3) / 5.  Problem solved!

3.     The “value of an expression” question:

These are the somewhat impossible-seeming questions that give you several equations and then ask for the value of another expression involving some combination of those variables.

Two favorite SAT tricks for these questions: if in doubt, try to multiply (or divide) the given equations by one another, or stack them and add them to one another, and see where that gets you.  Most likely, one of those will get you where you need to be (or at least very close).

Example:  xy = 5 and x+y =7 .  What is the value of  x²y + xy² ?

First observation: there is no easy way to solve this using standard algebra.

Second observation: the two given equations involve x and y, and the question is asking about an expression involving x² and y² .  The only way to get from one to the other would be to multiply the equations together (or to square one of them – but if two are given, it’s more likely that the SAT wants us to multiply them together).

Multiply the two equations together and we have (xy)(x+y) = x²y + xy²  — which is exactly the expression we’re looking for!

If xy = 5 and x+y = 7, and (xy)(x+y) = x²y + xy², then x²y + xy² must equal (5)(7) = 35.  Problem solved!

Now you have a good foundation for a variety of the most common SAT algebra problems. Go forth and practice using SAT problems – and tune in next time for some wise words on functions!

Plan on taking the SAT soon? Veritas Prep runs a free online SAT prep seminar every few weeks. Register here!

Bobby Touran is the founder and CEO of ApplyKit. ApplyKit helps students manage their entire college application process and also provides key resources to help them excel every step of the way.