Chapter 2: SAT Prep


Note:  This essay is the second of a three part series.  Refer to SAT I and SAT II for the complete SAT experience.

I asked the question as a high school senior and I have tried to answer the question as a parent. “Why do we have to learn this stuff? – I am never going to use it for the rest of my life.” As a parent I tried to explain that Greek history was more a question of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. However, math stood out stood out as a universal life skill, so I felt somewhat confident as I delved into my first SAT practice exam. The first few algebra questions were within reach, solving some simple equations, and I also dredged up the ability to solve a quadratic equation. But by problem 10, I realized that the Geometry that I loved with its adorable little proofs has had absolutely no part in my life for the past 40 years. None – total disuse atrophy. Who among us remembers that alternate interior angles are congruent, or that the sum of the angles in a polygon are 180(n-2), where n= the number of sides? I found myself rummaging through the deep recesses of my gray matter in a flailing attempt to revive long forgotten skills. It reminded me of the ending of the first Indiana Jones movie, when the curator puts the box containing the magic stones in a vast and dusty warehouse.

At problem 13, I experienced a reflexive collective clench of various anatomies – heart, throat and points south. Word Problems – and these appeared to be unchanged over the past 4 decades. There was the cyclist overtaking the runner, the one about two people working at different rates, and the question is how much time it will take them to finish the job together, the one about how much time it will take to fill a leaky swimming pool, and recipe questions about how to dilute a solution using ingredients with two different concentrations. The only novelty of these questions was the SAT’s nod to cultural diversity. Instead of featuring Tom, Dick and Harry, now there were ethnic names, such as Ahmad, Miguel, and D’Shawn.

My SAT prep book tried to convince me that the SAT was not out to trick anyone, but I’m not buying it. The multiple choices always included the most common wrong answer, playing on students’ comfort in finding answers that matched theirs. And then the other little trick was to add a sneaky extra step to the problem. For example, if the crux of the problem was to solve for “x,” brilliantly wielding multiple mathematical principles, the problem would then, as an afterthought, ask for the value of 2x. Of course you can bet the “x” value would be among your options. Okay, I’ll agree that this is nothing more than reading the question correctly, and I certainly wouldn’t want my airplane pilot to forget to multiply by 2, but I found this just really annoying, especially since I fell for this trick (2x+1)n times.

On to the reading sections. I felt more confident here, especially since I regard my vocabulary and general trivia knowledge as one of my most valued possessions. On the standardized test for medical school admission, there was a section called general knowledge, presumably to make sure that potential doctors were not total geeks. I distinctly remember a question about Sol Hurok. I did not exactly know who he was, and was not exactly sure what an impresario was, but was completely sure that they were one and the same. General knowledge was the only section I did well on and I appreciated the fact that it was culturally biased in my favor – going to school on the east coast and reading the New Yorker were a definite advantage. As I hit the vocab section, my confidence soared further when I discovered that the SATs had eliminated the dreaded analogies section, where you not only had to know the definitions of four words, but also the relationship between words in the absence of any context. They have now replaced this section with sentences that are missing a pair of words. I sailed through this section, though I think that the word “treacly” only lives on in the SAT or maybe in some Jane Austen novels.

The sections on grammar were more problematic, since there is no possible way to reduce the living organism called English to grammar rules. Here is a helpful tip from the SAT prep book:

Use the past perfect for an action begun and completed in the past before some other past action.

Example: “The foreman asked what had happened to my eye.”

Explanation: In this case, ‘what happened’ would be incorrect. The action asked and the action had happened (past perfect) are used because one action (regarding the speaker’s eye) is “more past” than the other (‘the foreman’s asking’).”

So, you really need to rely on the sound of the sentence, but spoken English is a chasm away from written English, especially since the reference point for the SAT is something called “Standard Written English.” The idea behind SWE is that uniform usage among all English speakers will avoid any misunderstandings. Now that is one ambitious agenda, and the shadowy arbiters of SWE seem to be frozen in time. The prep book states that according to SWE, the word “mad” can only mean insane, therefore, “I am mad at you” is incorrect. You need to say “I am angry” and then there are other rules about whether you can say “angry at,” “angry with” or “angry about” depending on the target of your wrath. There is another section that provides a “draft” paragraph that you are supposed to fix. The samples were so wretched that I just wanted to scrap them all and rewrite them from scratch. One thing I know about myself is that I would much rather fix my own mess rather than someone else’s, a point most vividly illustrated by my revulsion in changing another kid’s diaper.

Finally, I reach the reading section, and nothing has changed. The paragraphs are as relentlessly boring as I remember. The SATs try to find topics that nobody is familiar with to create an even playing field, but the result is that the paragraphs are so boring that you want to cry out in agony. One paragraph did happen to discuss the potential causes of Alzheimer’s disease, which I happen to know something about, and I must say, the questions appeared to be written by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about, which may be a more general problem. Over the years of reading medical literature and writing reports, I have found that one of my study skills is the ability to stay focused, so you would think that I could manage this reading comprehension section. However, the key difference is that I have been lucky enough to be interested in what I read, which is a very different skill than staying focused on a topic that I couldn’t give a shit about, like the elements of a Corinthian vs. Doric column. The ability to maintain focus in the midst of utter tedium – that is the skill that the SAT evaluates. However, I hope that this is not a necessary college skill – if you pick your courses well, college should be all about intellectual curiosity and not dreary boredom.

I recall an envious comment about the newsman Walter Cronkite, who in the early days of TV, could broadcast hours and hours of presidential conventions through the mind-numbing details of caucuses, platforms and stump speeches. “Walter has a good ass for conventions.” Perhaps the same should apply to the SATs – you’ve got to get your ass in the seat, settle in, stay calm and go on to the finish line, and perhaps there will be a reward beyond the SAT, like becoming the “most trusted man in America.”

But if the SATs are mind-numbing, that means that going through the prep courses is repetitively numbing – more than the average person can bear. Maybe that doesn’t have to be the case. I am working on a scheme to teach basic math principles (once I learn them) and reading skills using more relevant material; these skills could then be transferred to the real test so that you would only have to be tortured once. My product will be titled the SexAT – hopefully a title like than would fly off the shelves, purchased by parents who will do anything to motivate their children. Last week the Wall Street Journal provided a list of the most common reference books purchased in the US. SAT prep books were listed at number one – a $214 million dollar market. If I could get just a piece of that …

Here is a sample math problem from the SexAT:

For his 18th birthday, Billy’s grandmother, who still likes to talk about her experiences at Woodstock, gave him a bag of condoms. She said with a wink, “You are a young man now, so whatever happens, just make sure that nothing happens.” Billy had made a vow of abstinence at his church group with Agnes, and so he gives 5/6ths of the condoms away to his friends Rex, Ace and Primo. He keeps the rest for himself, because years of boy scout training have taught him to always be prepared. Today at homeroom, Agnes intimates that she would be willing to break her vow during prom weekend, but when Billy looks in his bureau drawer, he realizes that his brother Rod has taken the four that he had been saving.

Question: How many condoms did he give away?

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e share the same letters like post, stop, spot).  The number of dashes indicates the number of letters in the word.  One of the anagrams will rhyme with either the previous or following line, giving you a big hint.  Your job is to solve the puzzle using the context of the poem.  Scroll down below for the answers.

Ah, geometry was my favorite, I loved each and every – – – – –

And I knew never mix a metaphor or let a participle dangle.

But that was 40 years ago, and now I must be a diligent sleuth

In the dusty recesses in my mind where I can – – – – – geometrical truth,

I will try to draw on life experience to enhance my atrophied smarts

But I will still need the patience of an – – – – – to endure the reading parts.

Answers: angle, glean, angel

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