Thinking About Thinking - 2017


Is it Possible to Enjoy the SAT/ACT?

By Balaji Prasad

“I believe the right question to ask,
respecting all ornament, is simply this;
was it done with enjoyment,
was the carver happy while he was about it?"

~ John Ruskin

Reading, writing and 'Rithmetic – the 3 R's – have been important for a long, long time. They still are. The fact that colleges select applicants based on the 3 R's is a testament to this. The SAT and ACT tests, which are critical components of college admissions, are designed, explicitly, to test skills related to reading, writing and math. Colleges emphasize these skills because they consider these as core skills that drive performance, not only in college courses, but also in the careers that launch after college.

Building yourself for your future

The importance of the 3 R's goes beyond the typical justifications though. Anything that helps you understand the world better, think more logically, and respond more effectively makes for a more fruitful life. Reading enables you to learn things that you could not, otherwise; one cannot learn everything through personal experience alone. Mathematics enables rigorous ways of framing issues of importance in the real world, and provides the tools needed to analyze and reason through complexities that would otherwise be beyond us. And, writing is a form of expression that enables us not only to share what we know with others, but with our own selves. Writing is a form of feedback loop, enabling us to examine our own thoughts by forcing us to articulate them in a nuanced and disciplined manner.

So, while test performance is important and can assist in getting admittance to colleges, it would be shortsighted to be driven purely by that. But it is a great “starter" motive: colleges demand it, and you have to do it. For better or for worse, colleges force some learning, via the SAT/ACT testing, which might not occur otherwise. Oh well! Sometimes we do things for the wrong reasons, but end up with the right results. We have to be careful not to get in the way though. We get the benefits only if we accept, without resistance, that which appears to be forced upon us.

Mindset-building comes before mind-building

Motivation is a powerful force. Many things get done, if appropriately motivated. But it is often a challenge to find the key to open the lock behind which motivation sits. This is especially true, when you have been conditioned to believe that what lies behind the door is an ugly monster that you will need to do battle with. Unfortunately, tests do not have a great reputation, and are often seen as monsters by those who are forced to grapple with them. That is an unfortunate illusion.

Sometimes, the only way to overcome illusions is by confronting them. Monsters can be brought down to earth, and even seen to be gentler creatures than what you imagined them to be, once you take the time to get to know them. And therein lies the key. You have to take the time, and get your mind in the right place! Once you spend time with the SAT and ACT tests, you may begin to see that these are not quite the painful chores that you thought them to be. And, if you have someone sitting with you – an advocate – who thinks quite differently about these things, that person may be able to get you to see things a bit differently too. So some kind of a routine, and a committed coach, whether it is a parent or a professional coach can help you get to the right state of mind to tackle the SAT/ACT tests.

Overcoming inertia comes before anything else

Starting something that is stationary is not always easy. Whether it is mowing your lawn, developing your resume, or preparing for the SAT test, the first step can be excruciatingly hard. You just have to find a way to get started. Especially when you have a feeling that something is being forced upon you, you are likely to experience a force going in the wrong direction. If it is something you need to get done, you cannot afford to let that backward force play out. You need to counteract it with a force in the opposite direction so that the net force is in the forward direction. So how do you force yourself? Block time! Set aside a few hours every week at specific times, lock yourself in a room, and don't allow yourself out until you have done what you need to do. Or, make a commitment to going somewhere else, say to a library, at those times. Or, to a coach.

Things that have started can also be stopped. Unfortunately. Many people initiate efforts to stay fit, lose weight, or to wean away some addiction, only to find things coming to a grinding halt at some point. The start-stop-restart cycle repeats as you watch, almost helplessly. This kind of thing can happen as you prepare for a test like the SAT too. You might buy a book, even read some of it, do some self-tests, and then let things languish, because the motivation and adrenaline are not quite up to the task. So we have to do more than get started; we have to keep the engine running. Establishing a fixed routine, and having someone keep you on track is important. Once again, a parent or a coach can help with this.

Achieving escape velocity … to enjoyment

Faith and hope can take you only so far, which is what routines are about. We need to see results at some point. That is the feedback that tells us that our efforts are not in vain. Tests are quite good at providing such feedback. If you find that you are able to perform better on each new test, that is motivating. And, if you notice yourself approaching problems in ways that you didn't use to before, that is a kind of self-reflective feedback indicating self-development. Finally, if you find yourself starting to enjoy the process of developing your abilities in the 3 R's, you have arrived! The wheel now spins on its own, without the need for external people, routines and techniques.

Everything said here is applicable to other pursuits as well. The SAT/ACT tests are just an example of how we can reposition things that are sometimes forced upon us, and use them to build capability, and even to find enjoyment in. After all, isn't enjoyment the important thing in life?