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Show your work on the SAT/ACT!
  • Calendar Oct 08, 2021
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
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student solving a math problem by showing her work

If I were to look over your diagnostic exam, on a scale of 1-10, how do you think I would rate how neatly and completely you show your work?

I ask this question of each student during the SAT/ACT test prep consultation. Almost all students give an answer of 5 or less. There are few tests I see that I would rate as higher than a 3. Most problems have nothing written down. A few problems have a couple things jotted down, but nothing that would help me understand how they solved the problem.

Over the years I’ve worked with students of all levels on the SAT. Whether the student’s score is in the 1500’s or 800's, I’ve yet to meet the student who couldn’t improve his or her score significantly with an increased attention and dedication to showing work on the SAT. 

So if it is such a simple way to improve one’s SAT score, why is it that, almost without exception, students show so little work when they take a diagnostic exam with us? Why is it so hard to get students to change their habits? I’ve heard every reason you can imagine, but here are the most common, with my thoughts on each.

"It takes too long to show my work. This is a timed test!"

It’s true that it does take time to show one’s work. But is it really true that not writing your work down and doing it in your head or on the calculator speeds things up?

In my experience, no, it doesn’t. For several reasons.

Errors are a huge time sink on the SAT/ACT. Anything that you can do to minimize mistakes is going to save you a lot of time on the test. The more clearly you show your work, the less likely it is that you’ll make time consuming errors. You'll also likely find them more quickly. Work through a complicated problem with little and disorganized work shown, and it will be quite challenging to discover your mistake without completely re-working the problem.

Secondly, when you show your work consistently, you’ll find that showing your work AS you are thinking each step through does not add as much time as you might think. You don't through the problem in your head, and only then tacking on the extra chore of showing the work. You show your work as you think the problem through. This doesn't add nearly as much time as you think.

"I don’t need to show my work on the easy ones."

“But Vince, ok, yes I agree that I should show my work on challenging problems. But why do I need to do it on the easy ones? It’s definitely a waste of time to show my work on problems I’m definitely going to get right!”

Good question.

FIrst, you probably aren’t as good as you think you are at evaluating which questions are the easy ones. These questions are tricky. The College Board wants to disguise tricky questions as relatively straightforward ones. They are written to mislead and misdirect. They predict the types of errors you are likely to make. Even the “easy” questions on the SAT have opportunities for error (though they might be fewer.)

But more important than this, and I’ll be frank, is the hubris in this response. Is there really a question that there is no chance you’ll make an error on? How many times have to looked at a homework problem (one much simpler than the ones you see on the SAT) and realized you missed it because you added 2 + 3 and got 6? How many times have you looked at a question you missed on a test and slapped your forehead, saying “Ugh! I can’t believe I did that!”?

I’ve been working with students on SAT prep for 18 years. If I’ve learned anything (from my students and from personal experience), it’s that there is no such thing as a question so easy that it can’t be missed, and there is no mistake to trivial that it can’t be made if we don’t treat the problem with respect.

Treating a problem with respect means giving it our full attention and effort. Every problem should be given its “fair hearing”. When we decide a problem is “easy”, we rush through. We are thinking about the next problem before this one is finished. We skip “simple” steps.

Each step you skip, even simple ones, is an opportunity for error. The likelihood of making an error on any individual step might be small. But add up 200-300 steps over the course of the math section(s) of the SAT/ACT, and even a small chance of error adds up to avoidable mistakes.

"I don’t know how to do it...why should I show my work? I don’t even know what to show!"

First off, get rid of the expectation that you should know how to solve a problem as soon as you look at it. Certainly that may sometimes be the case. But remember: just because you don’t know how to solve a problem from the get-go doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to solve it.

Too often, I see students look at a problem, then look up into space as they think the problem through. After a minute or so, if they haven’t come up with any ideas, they move on. Inspiration didn’t strike.

What those students haven’t yet learned is that we can induce inspiration. Inspiration is the result of two or more ideas colliding, either consciously or subconsciously. Many tough SAT/ACT problems are just an idea collision away from a solution. If you can connect idea A with idea B, the problem is as good as solved. For that collision to occur, you need to distill the distinct ideas, hold them each individually in your mind, and compare and collide them with each other. That's tough to do while looking at a confusing block of text. We’re hoping for a random collision, which isn’t great for a high stakes test. We want something better than hope.

So, why not create the environment for inspiration? Start by writing down what you DO know. Write down the given info, the formulas and theorems, definitions, principles, etc that you know that are related to the problem. This is time you would just be thinking, so why not write info you are going to need to use anyway while you think?

When you see discrete pieces of information written out in an organized way, it’s MUCH easier to discover the connections between those ideas. When you are writing out a piece of info, it’s much more likely that your mind will be much more focussed on that idea, and how that idea might be related to other ideas you’ve written out. I’ve written before about “writing is doing”. Part of why “writing is doing” is that writing something down creates the mental space and time to focus on something that might have just been overlooked otherwise.

So, instead of spending 45 seconds staring up at the ceiling as you think the problem through, why not spend that 45 seconds writing down everything you DO know about the question? Create the conditions for inspiration to strike!

Pump your score by showing your work!

Showing your work is, for most students, the simplest way to improve their test scores. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy! Maintaining discipline over the course of a four hour test and doing things the right way, without fail, is not easy. It takes practice to build up the habits you need so that, on test day, showing your work neatly and completely has become second nature, rather than something you are arguing with yourself over every problem.

In your preparation for SAT/ACT, make showing your work a habit you practice and develop on EVERY problem!

Is your son or daughter looking for guidance in their SAT/ACT prep? Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email to schedule a free diagnostic exam and test prep consultation.


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