That math thing

So, unless you are taking the LSAT, you need to know some math.  Perhaps you are taking the LSAT because you want to get an advanced degree but don’t want to know some math, in which case, that is a crappy reason to go to law school.  Maybe you should read this post too.

A lot of people think they don’t like math or that they can’t do math.  Others don’t mind it, but have forgotten everything they used to know and don’t use the skill currently.  For those of you who fit into either of these descriptions, this post is for you.  While the GMAT, GRE, and SAT don’t actually try to test your math skills comprehensively, you do have to be really comfortable with some math.  And for the tiny slice of the discipline that you have to understand, you have to understand it really really well.

But that is okay!  It will serve you really well to learn this stuff!  Particularly if it currently gives you nightmares.  It just sucks to go through life as a professional, competent adult who is scared of math.

The stuff you need to know

The most important three skills for all the math-y tests are estimation, number sense, and basic function manipulation skills.  Estimation is an important TestSmashing skill — it isn’t particularly tested directly.  By number sense, I mean, do you understand zero?   fractions?  negative numbers?  what operations start to behave crazily in which bits of the number line?  Also, what are the differences between even and odd numbers?  Can you factor numbers into their prime factors quickly?  Cope with exponents? That kind of thing.  Unless you like to think about numbers, and be curious about them, this stuff is actually kind of hard to learn — it isn’t really a part of the math curriculum.  You just sort of have to notice it as you go along.  Basic function manipulation — the mechanics of algebra — are also super important.  Can you solve for x?  And not just, do you know how to if you sit down and think about it, but do you automatically start rearranging equations in your head — accurately — every time you see an x?

It also doesn’t hurt to know a few things about triangles.  And the GMAT has a pretty substantial emphasis on combinatorics and probability in the hard questions.  But if math makes you queasy, don’t sweat this stuff.  Focus on estimation, number sense, and function manipulation.  Once you’ve mastered them, then you can start to pick up the less central stuff.

The stuff you don’t need to know

Notation and jargon.  Avoid explanations or manuals that use a lot of either.  It is cognitively taxing and pays no benefits whatsoever on the tests.  (And very little in life, though it can be fun to throw a string of jargon into someone’s face if they aren’t taking you seriously enough.)

How to learn it

The very best self-study guide for learning and cementing the skills you need is Forgotten Algebra by Barbara Lee Bleau.  Units 1-15 are pure gold and on target.  Polynomials are almost never on the tests, so Units 16-22 are not so useful, but Units 23, 25-28, 31 will also help.  The book is great because it breaks everything down into micro-steps, gives lots of examples, has clear explanations and plenty of practice problems.  It is also great in its focus on number sense.  If you do one unit a day, you will be good to go in 2-3 weeks.

If you have found another book that you like, please let me know in the comments section!

How to love it

If you are mathphobic, the problem isn’t so much that you are incapable of learning the mechanical steps in Forgotten Algebra.  It’s that you have blocked your ability through boredom or trauma.  This is common and tragic, and there are books out there that could inspire you past the block.  The very first thing I would do is go read A Mathematician’s Lament.  It won’t take long.  It might make you angry, but the second half of the book, in particular, will pique your brain in a way it may not have been since you were a toddler learning to stand.   Hold on to this sense of joy, excitement.  This is the key to TestSmashing.

I’ll also re-iterate my recommendation of The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child.  It implements Paul Lockhart’s vision, and re-iterates through counter-example how very badly we teach math.  Some of the specific teaching tools he describes are also useful to get you to think about numbers differently, and in a way that will be rewarded by your test.

I know this is a lot of reading, but I think that this is actually time better spent that cranking through GMAT questions if you are mathphobic.  Once you have found the joy, the cranking through GMAT questions will actually be fun and even exciting.

Don’t just take my word for it

I wrote a while ago about how intelligence is not really the issue when taking these tests.  Guess what?  I was right!  The entire concept of intelligence as this immutable, etched-in-stone thing is totally, completely bullshit.  It turns out that studying for the LSAT makes you smarter.  You, dear test smasher, have within your power the option to exercise your brain more, and literally change its structure.  Woohoo!

My favorite quote from the article:

“A lot of people still believe that you are either smart or you are not, and sure, you can practice for a test, but you are not fundamentally changing your brain,” said senior author Silvia Bunge, associate professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “Our research provides a more positive message. How you perform on one of these tests is not necessarily predictive of your future success, it merely reflects your prior history of cognitive engagement, and potentially how prepared you are at this time to enter a graduate program or a law school, as opposed to how prepared you could ever be.

(My bolding.)  This is really great news for you.  This means that the test you are taking is not a measurement of your sum as a human being for ever and for all.  Instead, it is merely a snapshot of where you are on a particular set of skills at the moment.  This is really great news.

Except.  Now you have to act on it.  If you are performing poorly on your favorite test — or just performing more poorly than you like — you can’t just shake your fist at the sky and go about your life like you always have.  Instead, you have a choice.  You can change how you spend your time, and how you approach problems, and then see your score go up and your view of the world change.  Or, you can stay the same.  Your choice.  Change is really hard, and there is no harm, no foul, if you choose to not change. Life can be rich, wild, and wonderful for people with all levels of cognitive engagement.

But you gotta change your approach if you want to change your score.