## The SAT Is a Test of Character

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Things I learned as an SAT tutor:

- The reading section is harder than the math section.
- The test is so
*long*. - Sometimes, in very rare, fleeting moments, the test can provide a pinprick-size insight into a student’s character.

I want to write about the third one. I was working on the math section with a student and we got a question along the lines of “How long is a pencil that fits end to end inside a can that’s 4 inches wide and 3 inches tall?” My student wasn’t sure how to go about solving it — what kind of problem it was, what technique fit, what formula the numbers were supposed to go into, etc. So I got around to suggesting that maybe she should draw a picture of it, and she produced the above meditation.

But before she did, she stared at the problem for a moment (just a moment), and, I think, was peripherally fixated on the blank space underneath the question where she was supposed to show her work. And for a fleeting moment before she fell back on sarcasm, I got a glimpse of what it’s really like to take that test (I’d suppressed my own memories of it, of course).

Try to remember, despite the unpleasantness: you are in the latter, harder stages of a section, the minutes left have dwindled to the single digits, you’re starting on a fresh page, there’s a large-ish swath of blank space expecting you to fill it, and you just *don’t know how to do this problem*.

The right thing to do in this situation is so difficult: you have to *pick up your pencil* and you have to *fill in the blank space* even though you don’t know where it’s going to take you. You have to push your own thoughts forward without a destination in sight. The very counter-intuitive secret of improving on the SAT is that sometimes, on a test, under a time limit, you have to explore the possibilities of a question. (For some reason, “show your work” as taught in the classroom seems to imply that your work is a by-product of knowing how to do a problem, rather than the means to that end.) My student, in this case, couldn’t press herself to *draw the pencil in somewhere*.

In my experience, this was consistently the difference between students who made strides. It’s not a hard and fast prescription — some students could boost their score a hundred points on a section just by filling in some gaps in their knowledge and getting some practice. But for the ones looking to go from good to great, the difference was ** how they handled the blank page**.

As an SAT tutor, you in fact have little control over how much your students improve after a certain point. For the good ones looking to break through, I wish I’d figured out sooner what I could do to help. I think I’d ease up on the notion of categorizing a problem and trying to figure out what the right approach is from a repertoire. Instead, I’d give them problem after problem that’s not complicated, but not conventional, and I’d tell them they can’t move on until they’ve broached their thoughts on the blank page.

**Adventurousness is a skill.** If students can get practice trying an approach out, pursuing it, discarding it, modifying it, playing with the premise of a problem, immersing themselves in it, *learning to pursue their thoughts rigorously*, then they can conquer the blank page.

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