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Question

Dear Mitch,

I noticed this week that you've been responding to questions about the SAT test, which of course is coming up this Saturday. My friends and I really appreciate them and at first I didn't believe it when I heard that the ones you post are totally original and almost always more helpful than the ones in the well-known review books and courses that everyone seems to be following. So, even though everybody's been saying it in their letter to you this week, I'm gong to say it too: I KNOW IT'S VERY LAST MINUTE, but since we are still studying, would you mind posting a couple more between now and the test?

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Evan C.

Tampa, Florida

Answer

Dear Evan C.,

It will be my pleasure!

Since you did not specify whether you'd prefer a tip for the verbal section, the math section, or the writing section, and since the last two I responded to this week about the SAT exam were ones for the verbal section, here's something that students have told me they find a big help on the mathematics section.

Most people who are taking the SAT exam at this point in the school year have already taken it once (though certainly not all), and most people who haven't are at least starting to realize how soon the test is and have cracked open some review book or another. SO...by now most students have heard the suggestion/technique called "plugging in". IF you haven't though, no problem, now's your chance!

O.K. 'plugging in' refers to several different but related methods for arriving at an answer to a math problem without having to go through all the steps of solving a problem from scratch the 'old-fashioned' way. It most often applies to the math questions which are multiple choice (though it can be applied to other types as well), and it is based on the simple premise that it almost always requires more 'thinking' and 'careful work' to solve a given problem to arrive at its answer than it does to pick out the correct answer from a small menu of possibilities, all of which are presented to you right there in the space following each question. As it happens, this is one of the few ideas that one can find in any decent review book or even the most sophomoric of all SAT courses that I happen to agree with; it often is a good idea to just start plugging in than to sit and stare at it without trying anything proactive enough to force the extra bit of focus that can sometimes make the whole difference.

O.K. Now one step deeper into this 'plugging in' idea comes the question that is comprised primarily of variables (usually in the form of letters like x,y,z, or a,b,c,...), and, then, another half-step deeper and we come to the answers which are either in number form or a mixed form of letters and numbers. So, here's the thing: most test-takers have either heard or read that when plugging in numbers of their own selection, they should remember to make them easy numbers, like 2 or 3 or five, and this is often sound advice. After all, why waste time and energy and increase risk of error by plugging in unnecessarily large numbers to snowball the challenge? And I would certainly agree with this notion... why complicate our experience even one unnecessary bit during such a time-sensitive testing situation? BUT, here's the thing: by moving from the phrase 'easy numbers' to the example of 2, 3 or 4, for example, makes one leap quickly over a shaky bit of logic. WHAT??? Well, in the context of these questions, one should realize that the word 'easy' does not always mean small. In fact, 'easy' should mean readily applicable to the question you are trying to answer. Sometimes these numbers are small, but other times they are either large, huge, or extra huge. How does one figure out what those numbers should be? Well, several ways. Here's one, and, I think, the easiest one: If you are selecting your own numbers to plug in, read the question carefully to figure out what the basic subject matter and story is. You are highly likely to discover that it is a question with at least one but possibly two or three or four or five UNIT changes, even if they never use the word 'unit' (they won't) and even if they never use the word 'change' (they won't).So you'll see different but related units of measure in the same question/answer combo, such as inches and feet, or inches and yards or inches and miles. So HERE'S WHAT YOU DO: When selecting numbers to plug in, select numbers that bump you from one type of unit they present to the next one up (the next larger-sized unit). So, for example, if the question is about inches and feet and it says "x number of inches.... will give how many feet?", Do not plug a 2 in for x or a 3 or a 5, as these are small numbers but NOT "easy" (helpful) ones. Try 12. Since 12 inches makes one foot, if it says x inches for every 3 feet, or whatever, you plug in a 12 for x and you get 12 inches or one foot. So if they tell you a man paints x inches of the wall every y hours, but his brother Jon paints z inches of wall for every q hours, plug in a 12 for x. 12 inches completed every y hours, so that's one foot completed every y hours, so in 5 hours, 5 feet of the wall are painted.

I will show another example, from a real SAT exam (of the past, NOT the future; though, frankly, they've been known to repeat favorites with shockingly little change made to them from one year to another).

"A watch loses y seconds for every x hours....

At this rate, how much time will the watch have 'lost' in one week?"

For y plug in 60.

For x plug in 24.

Now you have this:

A watch loses 60 seconds ((ONE MINUTE!!)) for every 24 hours ((ONE DAY!!)). So, one minute per day, means in one week (7 days) the watch will have lost 7 minutes. Easy, right?

Finally, if the question is just like that, but the answer choices are also just letters and/or letter/number combinations, then there is one final step. After you finish your work on the problem, you must TRY each answer choice PLUGGING in the SAME numbers for each variable to see which one matches. So if one choice is 10/x hours, and you plugged in 24 for x in the question, you must plug in 24 for x in the answers to find the one that matches. And that's it for now, because after plugging in for the last forty minutes, I am now pulling the plug for the night. Good night. And good luck.

Hope this helps,

Mitch