One of my jobs at LogicPrep is to help students prepare for the ACT and SAT. Unsurprisingly, this involves spending lots of time working on, thinking about, and discussing ACT and SAT problems. These are activities some might seek to avoid, reminders of stressful days spent in examination rooms and the fraught process of college applications. While I understand the aversion, however, I do not share it. It is not that I enjoy the cutthroat arena of standardized testing (I do not); it is simply that these tests, while imperfect, represent an opportunity to develop a skill I value deeply in myself and those around me: the ability to solve problems.
In 1945, Hungarian mathematician George Pólya wrote his short text, How to Solve It, an exploration of problem solving methods drawn from mathematics but applicable in a wide variety of problematic settings. Its introduction lays out the following four-step process, to be used when presented with a new and vexing problem:
1. Understand the problem
Susie is a rising junior in high school interested in applying to a competitive university, and she needs to take the ACT or SAT. This is a problem for her because she knows little about either exam, has a very busy course load at school, and does not consider herself to be a good test taker. Her older sister Jennifer, always a model student, earned a very high score on the ACT but was still rejected from her top-choice school, and Susie worries this may happen to her.
2. Devise a plan
Susie decides to meet with a tutor her friend recommends, and she and the tutor plot a course of action together. Since Susie is swamped with schoolwork, it is important she spread out her test preparation as much as possible, so she plans to begin the process the following weekend. She schedules a mock ACT and a mock SAT at a local testing center to determine which exam is a better fit, and she schedules weekly sessions with her tutor to work on relevant math topics, as math is her weakest subject. She aims to take her first official exam in the spring, leaving open the option of taking the test again in the summer and fall.
3. Carry out the plan
Susie finds that the ACT is a better fit for her than the SAT, since she doesn’t mind its strict time limits and actually enjoys the Science section, much to her friends’ disbelief. She and her tutor begin a thorough review of important math topics, including linear and quadratic functions, right triangle trigonometry, and systems of equations. Though she takes a couple of weeks off from her ACT prep for an important soccer tournament (which her team wins), she completes the homework her tutor assigns her and doesn’t lose momentum. In April, Susie performs well on her first official exam, but she decides to shoot for a higher math score and takes the June test as well, ultimately achieving her goal score.
4. Reflect on your work
When Susie applies Early Decision to her top choice school and is admitted in December, she takes a moment to reflect on her work over the preceding year. Though it is not her style to boast, she feels proud of her accomplishment and is glad she set aside the time to thoroughly prepare for the ACT. Starting early had been a good idea; it made her feel more optimistic about her odds of success and allowed room for unforeseen interruptions to her preparation – her victory in that soccer tournament turned out to be a nice boost to her college application, and an experience with teammates she will never forget.
If Susie could have done one thing differently, it would have been to worry less about her sister’s performance on the ACT and in the college admissions process. Jennifer’s experience was instructive, but it was only one data point in a sea of possible outcomes (and Jennifer’s second-choice school turned out to be a perfect fit for her). Comparing herself with Jennifer was counterproductive, for everybody is different and follows a different path in life. Susie is now more confident in her ability to solve challenging problems on her own, and when faced with life’s next major problem, she will know how to solve it: just take things step by step.