Improbable Isn’t Impossible

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We had a rough weekend. What should have been a relaxing weekend away was hampered by my wife becoming extremely ill on Saturday night. After a long, slow, traffic-filled car ride home on Sunday, my 11-month old son had a very difficult night of illness. I was recounting the story to my mom and she declared “It’s contagious then.”

My mom’s reasoning follows a version of Occam’s Razor, which states that with competing hypotheses in play, you should choose the one that requires the fewest assumptions. In this situation (one person gets sick then another person gets sick) a contagious bug is the most likely solution. But it’s likely, not certain.

My son’s sickness could have been the result of a long car ride, or a hot day, or some completely unrelated bug. Those aren’t likely solutions, but they are possible. When you’re working on data sufficiency, it’s very important to remember that distinction.

Imagine a problem where you’re asked to determine whether some value is even. Maybe the first three values you check yield 2, 4 and 8 respectively. At that point you can conclude that it’s likely the value will always be even (and given limited time you may just need to select that answer). However, you don’t KNOW the value will always be even. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Test fractional values- Positive fractional values get smaller when squared. That’s a unique property that can yield different results and help you find that a statement is insufficient.

2. Test negative values- Don’t forget about the negatives! They often produce different results.

3. Test 0- Zeroes are not only useful to check, they’re usually very easy to calculate!

4. Test 1- Just like 0, ones are easy to plug in and have several properties that can help give you different results.

Remember, just because something is probably true, doesn’t mean it must be true and testing different kids of numbers can help you strengthen your hypothesis.

 What To Do When It All Goes Wrong

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As I write this Brazil is losing 5-0 to Germany in the World Cup Semi-Final. Which is being played in Brazil. Brazil hasn’t lost a competitive match in Brazil since 1975. Everything has gone wrong.

For Brazil it started with an injury to star forward Neymar, got worse with the suspension of star defender Thiago Silva and continued with clinical German passing picking apart the defense. Everything has gone wrong.

After years of doing test prep, I know several students who have similar stories. They’ve mis-bubbled entire sections, they’ve gotten completely flustered, they’ve spend the entire test feeling sick. What do you do in that situation?

First of all understand that a bad test day doesn’t necessarily mean you had a failure in preparation. Sometimes things just go bad. Next, understand that what happened in the past is gone and done, and no amount of worrying can change that. Finally, don’t think about the future. There ARE going to be other test days and other chances, and you will have a shot to prove what you know.

So in that moment, what can you do?

1. Stay in the moment- If things have gone so wrong that you can’t redeem your score for now, realize that you’re never going to get a better opportunity to practice in realistic conditions. Embrace that! Take the time to get used to the surroundings, and put in a couple good sections that you can build on for next time.

2. One question at a time- Sure, it sounds cheesy, but it’s absolutely the right move. The fact of the matter is that students are often very poor judges of their own performances in the heat of the moment. What felt like a disaster at the time may not have been that terrible. If you keep going strong, there still may be time to make up for any shortcoming you had! I’ve had several students tell me about their awful test experiences before receiving a really good score in the mail!

3. Find hope in the experimental section- If you encountered a section that went completely wrong, remember it might have been experimental! This is especially good advice for those of you taking the SAT, because as the SAT prepares to make changes, current test takers are likely to be guinea pigs for future types of test questions. But those new and funny questions are experimental and don’t count in your score. The only way they can hurt you is if you allow them to fluster you for future sections!

Good luck and here’s hoping you don’t need any of this advice!

 

 Not All Help Is Helpful

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My son isn’t old enough to go to school yet, but when he is I’m sure I’ll struggle with the urge to do his homework for him, rather than letting him figure it out on his own like this mom.┬áThere’s something telling in the story the author of the article tells, where she makes a massive contribution to his essay, and ends up with a grade of 73. There’s no doubt that she understands good writing better than her son (and probably better than his teacher), but that doesn’t mean she understands how best to accomplish the task that he was given.

Here’s the takeaway: not all help is helpful. There are lots of people who are going to want to tell your how to prepare for your test. Most of them will be well-intentioned. Many of them will be wrong.

Make sure that YOU are the one seeking out good information. Make sure that your sources are well-informed. Make sure that you know what you need to do well enough that you can sort the good advice from the bad.

This is your process. Take control.

 The Future of Online Education

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I read a very interesting article in the New York Times┬álast week about the internal debate at Harvard Business School about how to integrate online education into their programs. It’s a challenging question. While HBS has a firmly established position and doesn’t have to jump on every new trend, online education has the potential to be so disruptive to the industry that to resist is a risk.

The straightforward fact is that we are only scratching the surface in the realm of online education, and what we’ve already done is very impressive. Having worked on the project personally, I can attest to just how revolutionary and useful something like Barron’s online GMAT course is. There are many people who can’t afford individual tutoring sessions for their prep, whose study sessions are on the go, or who want to supplement a more traditional method of study. In the Barron’s course you get something that adapts to you, finding your problem areas and helping you address them.

The internet has changed the way we think, and in an era of six-second attention spans we need to adapt. The tried and true test preparation methods that your parents used may be just as relevant to you as the pay phones they grew up using.

If Harvard Business School needs to adapt to the new realities in online education, so do you.