You must be so smart

When people say that to me, I have bite back the temptation to say, “And you must be so boring.”  Really, guys, intelligence is such a BORING topic.  If you want to compliment me on my courage or my integrity, I will go all gooey.  Compliment me on my intelligence, and I’ll either want to fall asleep or punch you in the face, depending on my grumpiness that day.


Intelligence is a trait that anyone reading this blog has in abundance.  If there are differences between people, the variation occurs at a not-interesting level.  It’s sort of like having a bank balance of $3,274,971.03 versus $2,974,817.71.  In both cases, you are fucking rich.  Drawing any kind of meaningful inferences about the wealth of either balance owner is ridiculous and BORING.

I have a niece who is not quite two yet, and she has mastered walking (and running!) and is in the process of learning to communicate effectively in English and Spanish.  While I think she is the awesomest little tyke on the planet (at least until I have kids), she is nothing special.  Any girl or boy her age is mastering the profoundly complex skills of walking and language.*  These require way more cognitive processing power than anything on the SAT, GMAT, LSAT or GRE.  I promise.  Even scoring an 800/180.  And each and every one of you has accomplished that!*  So why the hell can’t you do this?

Well, in addition to learning to walk and talk, kids learn artificial boundaries on their abilities.  This is a tragedy.  Teachers tell kids (who, remember, have just mastered the amazing skills of walking and talking) that somehow, they are “bad at math” or are “a little slow.”  Parents respond not by punching said teacher in the face (okay, that would be wrong, because solving problems with actual violence is wrong) but by getting anxious, yelling at their kid, setting lower expectations, medicating them, or whatever solution they see to this problem that isn’t really a problem.

The problem we should be trying to solve is the lack of patience, perseverance, creativity and joy in learning in the teacher and parents, not some sudden loss of the ability to claim new skills by the kid.  After little Johnny has sat down hard on his butt for the hundredth time after trying to figure out that walking thing, adults don’t turn to each other and say wisely “oh, well, I guess Johnny just isn’t good at walking.  I guess we’ll encourage him to major in screaming his head off — a skill he has shown great promise in from birth.”  Instead, we laugh and coo and cheer.  Johnny laughs (or cries a bit) and pulls himself up again (’cause goddamnit everyone around me seems to be going places.  I want to too.) and tries to move a foot forward, but doesn’t have his balance right and ends up on his butt.  Again.  Until one day, he takes his first step.

For the few insightful teachers who approach teaching math this way, the “slow” kids start doing college level math after a year of teaching that allows the kids an opportunity to find the inherent joy of math.  Read this: The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child to learn more.  (And yes, full disclosure, I make money from Amazon if you click that link and end up buying the book.)

So what does this have to do with test prep???

Standardized tests purport to take their takers, line them up, and order them on the basis of … something.  Now, the psychometricians at ETS would agree with me that these tests are not “intelligence” tests, but the schools sure do treat them that way.  So do your peers, teachers, and probably parents.  The very hardest thing I run up against when teaching students these tests are their fixed beliefs about their own intelligence and how much they can accomplish given their limitations.  Time and time again, I have found that they are perfectly capable of doing absolutely everything the test asks of them, but their belief that they are “just not good at math” or “just not good at taking tests” and that those traits are immutable makes them bomb the test anyway.

So, the very first thing you need to do to do well on your test?  Believe that you can and insist on smashing every single fucking question type into smithereens.  Don’t give up until you have.

* Of course, there are people who are born with limits and cannot learn to walk and/or talk.  This rant does not apply to them.  They are also probably not taking these tests.  If you were born with some physical limitation and never learned to walk for that reason, you are still fucking smart so go smash the test!

Say Whaa?

This blog is my attempt to share with you how I have learned to conquer most of the standardized test question types used on the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, and SAT.

I became a TestSmasher over ten years ago, back when I was a professional musician who was trying to pay the bills by working for one of the big test prep companies.  I started working for them because they paid better than the receptionist jobs I had been working before that, but over the two years or so that I taught the graduate and professional school tests, I fell in love with them.

WHAT!  You LOVE the tests?  Are you crazy, girlfriend?

Yeah, okay, I know.  I’m weird.  I’m not the only one, though.  There are others.  These tests have a magnetic lure: frustrating, surprisingly sophisticated, a source of universal anxiety.  If you spend enough time on them, though, it becomes pretty clear that they are completely breakable.  And if you break them, well, that is pretty intoxicating, and has the side benefit of making it possible to pursue any institution of higher learning that suits your fancy.

That is what I did: in 2001, I had a sudden realization that if I continued to pursue making my way in the world on the basis of my music, I was going to turn into a miserable, bored, rotten shell of my former self.  So I decided to get a degree in something useful.  I wasn’t sure what.  But at least I was prepared for my standardized tests!  I took the LSAT and the GRE.  The LSAT score got me into several of the top law schools, but the GRE turned up the magic 800/800/800 (this was back when there was an analytic section).  It gave me the courage to apply to a PhD program I was sure would never look at a musician who hadn’t taken math since high school.  Well, I applied, and between the GRE scores and the serendipitous fact that I was going to be the second professional musician to go through their program — the first had blown everyone away — I was accepted.

When I got to my new grad school classes, a funny thing happened.  I did incredibly well.  Better than the engineers and economists who had relevant training for my program.  It turns out that teaching these damned tests was a profoundly useful experience to succeed in grad school!  Not really the teaching, but the TestSmashing.  Taking a slew of similar problems, analyzing their structure, and finding the key to the correct answer, every time, is what “research” of any kind requires.  That, and a cussed refusal to stop until the back of a problem has been broken.

So, my goal for this blog, and the private tutoring I offer, is to teach test-takers how to TestSmash.  Not just, and even not really, so that they can get into grad school or college, though that is important.  But also to have fun, learn an incredibly useful skill — one that is at least as valuable as the substantive skills these tests purport to test — and send a big F.U. to the folks at ETS who devise these questions.  It’s hard work — it isn’t just the bag of tips and tricks that will increase your score by some small margin offered by the big companies.  It is the profound, meaningful work of transforming how you think about authority, intelligence, your own abilities, and what you are looking for out of life.  It involves some math and some verbal skills, of course, but the focus of these tests are on other skills.  They just pretend to be about math and verbal.  By recognizing all of this, I hope to share with you how to transform your test prep days/weeks/months into something that isn’t just a vast waste of time and money or a soul crushing exercise in EgoSmashing.

So get out your sledge hammers, and let’s smash some tests!