The town of Halloweenville welcomes hundreds of trick-or-treaters every Halloween. There are 1000 houses in the town, with address numbers 1-1000. All of the houses are black except for houses with the following characteristics: Prime numbered houses have an orange stripe on them. Houses whose address number end in 7 have an orange door. Houses whose address number have an integer as a square root have white ghosts painted on them. If a trick-or-treater picks a house at random, what is the probability that that house has both an orange stripe and white ghosts?

A) 0

B) 1/1000

C) 1/500

D) 1/100

E) It cannot be determined

Answer: A

Trick! Sometimes there are problems that require more logic than math. This is one of those problems. Orange-striped houses have prime numbers as addresses. Houses with white ghosts are square numbers. Any square number (other than one) MUST have a factor other than 1 and itself, so there cannot be a house with both features.

Three things are meant to throw you off. First, it’s a word problem. Second, there’s irrelevant information thrown in there. Third, the question asks for a probability which throws many students off.

Keep your cool and analyze what the question is asking for, and you’ll avoid these tricks and grab a nice treat: a correct answer.

There’s a new app out there that allows you to take a picture of an equation with your smartphone, and the app will solve it. Before you start grabbing your phone to download it, here are three important things to consider.

1. It’s a Tool, Not a Magic Cure- Much like a calculator, this app is a tool that can be very useful when used correctly and under the right circumstances. Need to figure out whether the giant TV you want to buy will fit on the wall space you have? Sure, jot the equation and solve away.Trying to figure out how many jelly beans are in the jar to win a prize at the local fair? Write out an equation for your volume estimates and snap the picture. Trying to learn how to solve quadratic equations? Stop right there. If you don’t have the proper underlying knowledge first, you aren’t just taking a shortcut, you’re potentially setting yourself up for disaster.

2. Technology isn’t Perfect- Neither are we! The problem with that combination is that we often expect technology to be perfect and that can lead to bad consequences. If you attempted to type 9 + 2 into your calculator and the result came up 101 you wouldn’t take that answer as truth. You’d recognize that the sort of answer you should get should be around 10, and you might even be able to work backward to find that the mistake you made was entering 99 + 2 on accident. However, if you’re snapping a picture of an equation you don’t really understand and the software interprets the numbers wrong, or you don’t take the picture correctly, you may end up proceeding off a bad result!

3. You’re Never Going to Be Able to Use That on Your Test- We want to test the processor that’s mounted above your shoulders, not carried in your pocket. Using a shortcut when time is of the essence makes sense, but knowing that you don’t need the shortcut when it comes right down to it is even better.

Consider the following question:

Which of the following values of y produces an x that is closest to 0?

A) 24

B) 21

C) 20

D) 16

E) 14

Here’s a question designed for a calculator, you might say. But let’s set the calculator down for a moment and break this down. Realize that a problem like this is designed to be solvable. Let’s look at it step-by-step.

Step 1: Ask yourself how *could* this be possible? It’s a useful question to ask whenever you encounter a difficult problem, whether inside the test prep world or outside, but it’s an especially useful question to ask in a situation such as this where you know there is some possible and not extremely difficult solution. Here, the answer to the question is that this must be true:

That’s our path toward a solution.

Step 2: Make the information you have look as much like your projected solution as possible. How do we make a base of 8 into a base of 2?

So, we can start to break down the second piece of the equation into:

Step 3: Analyze. Now we must find what value of is closest to the value in the equation above. Again, you might be tempted to pull out a calculator, but resist the urge. appears to be an ugly jumble of numbers and symbols. What does it mean? Think about what powers of 2 mean. It means is twice as big as which is in turn twice as big as and so on. is only 1/64th as big as so subtracting it out doesn’t move us very close to . is still the value of y that gets us closest to 0, and B is your correct answer.

I know that we spend a lot of time here talking about improving your scores as much as you possibly can and pushing small advantages as much as you possibly can. But sometimes it pays to get a little perspective.

I was recently over at my parents’ house cleaning out the last of my old stuff from the garage. I came across the printout of my PSAT results. This immediately triggered two thoughts:

1. I can’t believe I saved this

2. I wonder what I got

That second thought is the one I want to focus on right now. It’s interesting that someone who is immersed in the test-prep industry doesn’t even know what he got on the PSAT. And that’s completely okay. That score and that number didn’t define my life. It was merely a means to an end. A stepping stone toward the next phase of life. Fifteen years later those results have become irrelevant in my life.

I have some students who obsess about every question, every point, every wrong answer. Sometimes you just need to step back and take a wider view. Absolutely you should make every effort to do your very best work. But occasionally you need to consider what’s really going to matter 10 years down the line.

Keep working hard, but keep perspective!