ACT & SAT: are they winners’ games?

I didn’t expect Farnam Street to relate so directly to college admissions, but it does, and in a way that is as important as it is deep.

According to the post linked above, the outcome of a “winner’s game” is determined mostly by the actions of the winner; the outcome of a “loser’s game” is determined mostly by the actions of the loser.

So, in a winner’s game, superior skill matters, whereas in a loser’s game, it’s consistency that matters.

Everyone acts as though the SAT and ACT are winners’ games.  And, for middle-tier scorers, they probably are.  But for high scorers, these tests are loser’s games, 100%.

In other words, you don’t get from 1400 to 1550 by becoming smarter or more knowledgeable. You get there by consistently avoiding mistakes.

You show me a 1400 scorer, and I’ll show you someone who already has the necessary knowledge, but who also experiences some combination of anxiety, hubris, wandering attention, and/or magical thinking when it comes to answering the hard questions.

Getting rid of such bad habits is really hard. That’s why so few people get perfect scores.

That’s also why high scores are so prized.

Test anxiety

Students suffering from test anxiety often make things worse by misunderstanding the nature of successful preparation work.

They think: “my goal is to have new knowledge and new techniques.”

But that’s wrong. The right goal is to have new habits.

Under pressure, all people follow their habits.  So if you don’t have new, well-established, constructive and functional habits by Test Day, you’ll just automatically revert to what you did before.

And of course, when you do what you used to do, you’ll get the score you used to get.

The alternative is to painstakingly train new and better habits in the weeks (months?) leading up to Test Day. Then, under pressure, you’ll thrive.

(Also check out my book, specifically Chapter 9, Stress.)

2019 admissions scandal

“There is a front door, there is a back door, and I’ve created a side door.” William Singer may have been thinking outside the box, but I suspect he’s soon going to be in a different (and much less metaphorical) sort of box — one well-suited for lots and lots of thinking.

Anyhow, I’d like to mention a few related points.

First is that while only the “side door” is illegal, the “back door” (i.e. endowing a building in exchange for admission) is, let’s just say, worth our while to re-examine, as a society. (Plenty more to say here, but I’m sure others will make this point better than I can in the coming days.)
(UPDATE: Sure enough, here’s The Guardian’s take.)

The other points I want to make involve my experience as a test-prep professional and student coach.

Some years ago, I had the exquisitely horrible experience of preparing a student for an admissions test so well than the student got in despite what had been impossible odds… and yet I prepared the student in such a narrow way that the student wound up dropping out of that college later due to lack of ability to keep up with the demanding pace.  (Since then, I’ve focused my test-prep on becoming a brighter student rather than on becoming a better test-taker.)  My point here is that on balance, the system still more or less works to reward merit and to discourage cheating.  It just doesn’t do it as well or as strongly as it should. This can be fixed.

Also, please indulge me as I run some numbers.  Median lifetime earnings for a college graduate is in the $3.5MM to $4.0MM range.  A standard deviation’s worth of admissions score increase correlates with a 3% to 7% increase in lifetime earnings, which is in the ballpark of $200,000.  One standard deviation’s increase, while no mean feat, is well within the capability of a skilled and experienced coach to catalyze. And presumably these numbers are even higher in certain predictable circumstances.  What these folks have tried to buy is more closely equivalent to three standard deviations’ change in prospects, so worth over half a million (present-day) dollars. My point here is that the expenditures made by these families, while both illegal and unethical, are otherwise arguably economically rational. So it should be no great surprise that this sort of thing goes on, because it’s a good return on investment if you don’t get caught (and if you frame your kids as an investment). There will always be a taker for this sort of thing.

To be clear: I’m not condoning it; I’m not aware of it in my circle; and I actually do scout for it in order to protect the integrity of the related professions in my area. I’m just saying that part of the current function of the higher education system is to lock in class privilege, and it has become more efficient in this respect than is probably a good idea.

Math under pressure

This outstanding TED Talk by Barnard’s president is mainly about choking under pressure. But how interesting that the example Professor Beilock spends most time on is girls’ learning math.

One of the excellent points she makes so well is that there’s a difference between knowing how to do something, and being able to do it when the pressure’s on.  And as you have probably experienced yourself, the pressure is in some sense always on.

I’ve experienced this since my school days, and I’ve done my share of studying this issue and experimenting with various best practices. When it comes to preparation for math tests of any kind, I consider this issue to be of equal importance to actually learning math.

I know. It sounds like heresy. But I know it’s right. So we use a three-pronged approach to preparing for math tests and math competitions alike:

  • Learn the necessary math to fluency
  • Identify and resolve all your performance/execution issues (per the above)
  • Strengthen your ability to critically deconstruct and to creatively synthesize

We give equal weight to these keys to success, because we understand that it isn’t just about what you know. It’s also about what you can do, and how you feel when you do it.