Think Differently: Part I


One of my life goals is to be on Jeopardy. I don’t have the encyclopedic trivia knowledge of a Ken Jennings or a Brad Rutter, but I like to think that given the right categories on the right night I could win. I stumbled across a Jeopardy fan forum online a few weeks ago and found a game that intrigued me. The game is called Think Differently. The goal is to give a correct answer that as few of the other players will give as possible.


For instance, if asked to name a U.S. President lots of people would likely name Barack Obama or George Washington, making them less than ideal choices. William Harding or John Tyler would be much better answers as they are far less likely to be chosen by many other competitors. The game asks you to do divergent rather than convergent thinking, which many would argue is a better test of intelligence.


Aside from enjoying the game, I was drawn back to thinking about SAT essays. Imagine a prompt that asks you to discuss a leader with big ambitions. Who would you talk about?


Take a minute and think about it and then scroll down.















I hope you didn’t say MLK or Hitler. Unfortunately, the chances are very good that one or both of those men popped into your head, and they certainly fit the category. However, they’re such obvious answers that they are likely to headline thousands of answers. Consciously or not, graders are likely to compare what you have to say about Hitler or MLK about what others are said, and you are very unlikely to have done the best analysis of either man in the thousands of essays that are out there. So I encourage you to think differently.


Instead of MLK and Hitler, what if I discussed Woodrow Wilson and Chip Kelly? Wilson had grand ambitions for the League of Nations in the post-WWI world as a steadying force that might prevent a global conflict. Kelly believed that a fast-paced spread attack could work just as well in the NFL as it had in college football. Both men are leaders with big ambitions and both give you a great opportunity to discuss the themes presented in the prompt. They’re also much less likely to be cited by many other test-takers. Your analysis of Woodrow Wilson or Chip Kelly is very likely to be the best analysis of those leaders that your grader reads all day. By thinking differently you can differentiate yourself, lessen the competition and improve your chances of getting a great score.


Stay tuned for the next blog in this series in which I describe how you can prepare to give unique answers.

 Is the SAT Changing Already?


You may have heard that the re-designed SAT is coming Spring 2016, however you may see hints of the new test showing up this year.

A few notes for those of you planning on taking the SAT in 2015:

1. If you see a section that looks very different from what you’ve practiced, it’s probably experimental. Some students have reported seeing these sections as the test makers try to calibrate the difficulty for the roll-out of the new test. If the section is experimental it won’t count on your score. The key is not to worry. Just relax and do your best.

2. The form of questions in non-experimental sections may be slightly different. It’s really just rumors we’re hearing at this point, but it seems like the new question styles may be seeping in so that the transition to the new format will be a little more dramatic. I don’t think that demands a bit shift in strategy, but for the sake of “just in case” it might be a good idea to spend half an hour looking at some of the new SAT sample questions at

3. Some SAT essay prompts are starting to look very ACT-ish. That’s a sentence that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to someone who isn’t immersed in the college prep world, so let me explain. ACT essay prompts typically present some kind of problem and ask you to find a solution that produces the most social good. Traditionally, SAT prompts have posed a more abstract question like “Is honesty always the best policy?” and asked you to argue a side. It’s not a huge change, but it is a change and if I were planning on taking the SAT in 2015, I’d make sure to write a couple practice ACT essays to fill out my prep.

As you can see, there’s nothing to worry about, but being aware of the ways the test may shift over the next year can be helpful to anyone who plans to take the SAT during this transition period!

 2013 Examples for Your Essay


We have reached that time of year where the “Best of 2013” stories start popping up on all the websites you frequent. Take a moment and click through a few of them. The information you find there may just be useful.

Current events are a great way to connect generic essay prompts to more concrete ideas that readers more easily connect with. The problem is that current events seem not to stay current very long and the constant flood of information we receive tends to wash out the relevant bits to the prompt in front of us when test day stress kicks in. So how do you get the focus you need while still maintaining a broad pool of examples from which you can draw?

That’s where those top stories lists can come in handy. Current events provide concrete examples that can help prove a point, without needing significant explanations to explain their significance. For instance, if I said “George Zimmerman” in an effort to explain something about race relations, “stand your ground laws”, or criminal justice in the media, you will instantly understand what I was talking about. If I said the “Boston Marathon bombings” you could instantly connect that to ideas of terrorism, how social media has changed news, or how people come together in a time of tragedy.

Hopefully those connections show you how handy current events can be for connecting abstract ideas to subjects that your readers will instantly understand.  Let’s use the following prompt as an example to see how this might work:


“Do we value only what we struggle for?”


This is exactly the type of prompt question that many students will struggle with because it doesn’t immediately call to mind relevant examples. It seems too abstract. However, if you’ve recently looked over a list of current events, you’re likely to find something that you can connect with this topic. For instance, if you’re trying to show that we do only value what we struggle for, you might bring up the murder case of Aaron Hernandez. You might discuss his NFL career and how he’d just come into millions of dollars and a comfortable lifestyle. You could then make the argument that he didn’t value his freedoms until there were taken away from him, and that if he’d struggled more he would have been less likely to put himself in position where he would lose that freedom.

If instead you wanted to say we don’t only value what we struggle for, you might bring up the royal baby, Prince George. For the people of Britain his birth wasn’t a struggle or a burden, but they got immense joy from his birth. They value another life that can continue their line of royal succession without having to struggle.

Take a look at those best of 2013 lists this week. You might just find an example that will help put your essay over the top!