A Math Professor Takes the SAT


I’d like to share a fascinating article from Forbes.com. Steven Salzberg is a professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University. He took the SAT along with his daughter, and his observations about it are very revealing. As a person whose job involves high level math skills, Salzburg should be a good judge of how well the SAT tests math abilities. His conclusion is intriguing: Speed, not math ability, is actually the most critical skill. In Salzburg’s opinion, the math problems on the SAT are fairly easy, and can be solved by anyone with decent math skills. The tricky part though, is answering the questions within the very short time limits allowed. In other words, the ability to solve problems quickly is what separates those who perform well on the SAT from those who don’t.

For me, Salzburg’s observations further support my belief that prepping for the SAT makes a big difference in scores. The SAT is a “coachable” test specifically because it’s designed to trip students up – they are required to answer a lot of questions in very little time. Spending too much time, or making careless mistakes, can destroy the scores. If the SAT really was a test of math ability only, we wouldn’t have so many tutors specializing in SAT prep – because good high school math classes would be sufficent! To this end, a good tutor or class should focus not just on content, but also on pacing and timing.This is also why it’s beneficial to do multiple practice tests, using a timer to simulate the real thing – the more comfortable a student is with the speed required to finish, the better they will likely do on the real thing.

So if you are gearing up to take the SAT, I do recommend taking prep seriously. Self-study works for some kids, but for most kids its worth investing in a good tutor or test prep class. Test scores are still one of the top factors colleges consider when making admissions and scholarship decisions. Any time or money you spend on test prep can be considered an investment in future options, and may even help you land more merit aid.

Read the full Forbes article here. (And try to ignore the annoying ads. Grrrr.)