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Dear Mitch,

A friend of mine recently bought an tee shirt, and when it came he called me up to tell me that in the package, besides the shirt, was some tissue paper, which is no big deal, but also a few sheets of wrapping that were printed with all kinds of really cool math questions and brain twisters, and all for free, not like he ordered anything extra like that. At first I didn't believe him or thought he was exaggerating because the only reason he even ordered the shirt in the first place was that he's seen me in mine and liked it. Well, when mine came, I didn't find any free math stuff, but I guess it's possible I didn't notice it and just threw it out. The only other thing I can think of is my shirt is bright red and his is green, but I can't figure out why that would matter. Anyway, the reason I'm asking is that he keeps saying the best thing in all the wrapping was something called "A Prime number of things that will get you a higher score on the SAT". But he's being really annoying about it and every time I ask him to read them to me or see if I can borrow just that page to copy he says he can't find it.

Did he make it all up, or is there really free stuff like that in everyone's package except mine?


Douglas Stern

Austin, Texas




Dear Douglas,

Your friend is telling you the truth. We recently started putting in a few sheets of wrapping paper we've made with all kinds of assorted math goodies on them. (Also, there are some things that are just helpful that do not have to do with math only, such as the SAT tips that apply to the verbal and writing sections). The reason you did not receive anything like that with your shirt is because, as I said, we only thought to do this a few weeks ago, and I'm guessing that you ordered and received your shirt before this policy. Now, since you certainly should not be excluded from the 'goodies' just because you had the foresight to order your shirt before they became as popular as they've grown in recent weeks (almost mysteriously, I might add), I would be happy to send you the exact same bits of fun trivia and questions your friend received. The problem is that without his help we cannot do that because the printing method we chose randomizes the facts so that people would sometimes get a whole new assortment and sometimes get a few that they were happy to already know how to answer!

So this is what I will do: I will send you a few pages of these printed wrappers, and, just to make sure you receive the one part that I can tell interests you, here are the "Prime number of things that will get you a higher score on the SAT" (That prime number, by the way, was seven).


1) On the multiple choice section, when you come upon a question that discusses a group of people being divided up into subgroups (either using fractions of the whole group or percentages), circle the fractions and/or percentages in the question (not the answer choices). Then look at the choices and see if any of them are numbers that to be true would require the story-teller to chop people up into pieces. If so, that answer is WRONG and you should CROSS IT OFF to eliminate it from the choices. Then check out another choice and see if that one also would require bloodshed. If so, CROSS IT OFF. Continue this method and you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that usually there is only one possible answer left. If there are two, then try one of them by plugging it into the story. If it works, that is it and you have your answer. If it does not work out correctly with the whole story, then it is wrong and the other remaining choice is your ANSWER.

EXAMPLE: At a faculty meeting, 2/3 of the teachers drank only orange juice, 1/4 of the teachers drank only coffee, and no teacher drank both orange juice and coffee. If the 5 remaining teachers at the meeting drank only ice water, then how many teachers were at the meeting?

A) 60

B) 50

C) 45

D) 30

E) 25

Starting at the bottom, choice E, 25 teachers....

Take 2/3 of them...BLOODSHED-CALL-THE-COPS!

Next, choice D, 30 teachers...

Take 1/4 of them to form a line for the coffee pot...1/4 of 30...BLOOD!!

Next, choice C, 45 teachers...

Take 1/4 of them to– HELP!!I"M SCARED...GET-ME-OUT-OF-THIS-MEETING!!!!

Next, choice B, 50 teachers...

Take 2/3 OR 1/4 of them, whichever seems more fun –


And so we are left with choice A, 60 teachers. 2/3 of the 60 teachers is 40 teachers, 1/4 of the 60 is 15 teachers, and the '5 remaining teachers' would complete the group of 60.

(Though, chances are, to tell the truth, if that meeting is like some of the faculty meetings teachers are required to attend, the instructors in the other choices who got chopped up or escaped were the truly lucky ones.)

NOTE: This rule, which I call the 'People, livestock and balloons rule', only works for things that can not be divided up any way that seems convenient. So, for example, it would not apply to pounds of grain, which you could divide into tenths, thirds, fourths, or whatever is necessary.


Example: If the question mentions a circle drawn inside a triangle and then gives all kinds of measurements in square roots, and irrational numbers, and then, ten sentences later, asks which of the shapes has the larger area.... HELLO???? Look at your drawing and see which one fits inside the other.....

3. In % questions, when the story has the price or amount going up and down or down and up in percents, the correct answer is NEVER "stays the same".

Example: A man makes 100 dollars a week at his part-time job. He receives a 10% raise, but a few weeks later the manager sees him making 'Martian faces' at any customer who enters the store wearing green. On St. Patrick's Day, the manager observes this behavior and decides enough is enough. He immediately reduces the man's pay by 10%.

Question: How much is the man now making?

Is he back to 100 dollars a week?


HE CERTAINLY IS NOT MAKING THE SAME AS BEFORE THE UP AND DOWN PERCENT CHANGES. He originally went from $100 to $110 (with the 10% raise, because $10 is 10% of a hundred). But then, when he has his pay reduced by 10%, it is 10% of the 110 dollar salary, and that turns out to be 11 dollars. Eleven dollars reduced from 110 leaves 99 dollars. That is how much he now makes. He is worse off and, we hope, will think harder before making Martian faces at anyone.


Example: You must know the word "integer".

Question: Is zero an integer?

Question: Is negative 5 an integer?

Question: Is 1 1/2 an integer?

Answers: Yes for zero, Yes for negative 5, No for 1 1/2.

What is an integer?

Well, for the real definition, look in the back of any decent math book, or try a regular dictionary. But real definitions can be hard to remember. So here's my definition for you: An integer is any number that you see located on a big dot on a number line on the wall of an elementary school classroom. Is zero on a big dot? Yes. Is negative 5? Yes. Is 1 1/2? No, that is usually found on one of the smaller dots between two big dots -- if it is represented at all. Big dots.

5. Make friends with the number 51. People who write tests love the number 51. Why? A lot of reasons, but here's a favorite: It looks prime and a lot of people think it is prime. (Remember, a prime number is one that is only divisible by itself and the number one).

51 is divisible by 3. 3 goes into 51, and it goes into it 17 times.

That's right, 17 x 3 = 51. And don't forget it.



6. On the writing section, when they present an issue and tell you to take a side and defend your position, do that and do not go back and forth arguing for both positions. HOWEVER, it is VERY IMPORTANT to toss a little bone to the other side (the position you do not take). You do this in your beginning and then explain it away and move onto your big side. For example, if the issue is whether or not elephants should all be shot and stuffed so that when people go on safaris they won't have to hear their loud roar or have their view blocked, and you decide NO, you think elephants should remain alive and well, start with a little bone for the other side.

Try something like this: 'Although a loud roar can be frightening and scare a baby or wake a napping grandmother, these annoyances are minor compared to the great splendor and importance of the large creatures, and it is our job as people to do what we can to assure that they have the freedom to live and inhabit their region as nature intended.' Etc.

Why? Because it increases the writer's credibility more than a beginning that says something like: You gotta be a psycho to want to kill an animal. SERIOUSLY A PSYCHO, even if it's a tiger attacking you, let them be animals!!!!!

7. A weak skeleton has more value than a perfect skull.

What?? When writing the essay part of the SAT, you are given a very limited amount of time. It is important to pace yourself at least enough so that you do not hear the buzzer ring while you are completing a masterpiece of an introduction. Better (though certainly not great) would be to have a weak intro, a weak body to your essay, and a weak conclusion with real sentences that make sense. The reader knows you had very little time and were out of your mind from getting up before noon on a Saturday, so the standard is fairly low. BUT if you just do an introduction you have not really shown that you even understood the method by which they were trying to torture you. Besides, 'weak' is an opinion. The reader may love it.

Hope this helps!