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Thinking Fast and Slow on the SAT

Thinking Fast and Slow on the SAT


As humans, we all have to think, and one time we really, really have to think is when we’re taking the SAT.  It’s literally a test of thinking.  So part of preparing for the SAT is understanding how you think, exploring ways to improve your thinking, and then implementing improvements.  


In this article, I’ll discuss the differences between two systems of thinking coined by Daniel Kahneman as “Thinking Fast” and “Thinking Slow.”  Both of these systems are useful in their own way.  The goal is to make you more aware of which type of thinking you’re using at any given moment, but especially while preparing for and taking the SAT.  Once you can recognize the differences between these types of thinking, you get a measure of control over which one you’re using. 


Thinking Fast


Thinking Fast means using your intuition to make a split second decision.  It’s exactly what you’ll want if you’re out in the wilderness and you come face-to-face with a hungry mountain lion. It’s also indispensable for athletes who need to make decisions such as whether to pass or shoot a ball in a very short space of time.  Our brains are amazing at intuition.  A professional basketball player sees the motion of a defender in her peripheral vision and instantly knows she needs to pass the ball to a teammate.  A jeopardy champion sees the “answer” and knows he has the ability to form the “question,” allowing him to click the buzzer faster than his competitors.  However, one time Thinking Fast isn’t going to work is when you’re taking the SAT.


Thinking Slow


We start almost all situations by Thinking Fast, but after the second or two it takes to accomplish that initial thought, we often have the time to reconsider.  That extra time gives us the opportunity to focus on details that our initial glance may have missed, consider the implications of those details, weigh multiple options and strategies, and apply multi-step decision making procedures.  The problem with Thinking Slow is that it is hard work.  Not only is it basic human nature to have these two types of thinking, it’s also human nature to avoid the choice that requires more work. When you are taking the SAT, you will have the time to Think Slow on every question, but sometimes you’ll have to remind yourself that Thinking Slow is worth the extra mental effort.  


Math Example


Just yesterday, I asked one of my SAT students “100 is what percent of 55?”  My student initially answered 55.  I told him that wasn’t correct and gave him a chance to try it again.  On the second try, he took about a minute to work on the problem and utilized both his scratch paper and calculator.  He then came up with the correct answer of 181.818…


When I asked my student how he got his first answer of 55, he told me he mis-read the question to say “55 is what percent of 100?”  Daniel Khaneman tells us in his book Thinking Fast and Slow that “if a satisfactory answer to a hard question isn’t found quickly, [you] will find a related question that’s easier and will answer it.”  In other words, my student didn’t randomly misread the question – he misread it with the purpose of making it easier.  


Not only do we humans have a tendency to oversimplify a question, but the evil geniuses who write the SAT will exploit this tendency to the max.  When you are practicing SAT questions and it takes you two tries to get a correct answer, it’s important that you’re not satisfied with the result.  Don’t tell yourself “I’ll get it right when it’s the real test” because you won’t.  The SAT won’t give you a chance to submit a second guess.  You need to be aware of when a question takes you two tries and thoughtfully analyze what you did wrong on the first attempt.  One strategy to address this is to always re-read a math question before moving on to the next question.  Acknowledging that you are fallible opens the way to effective and habitual double-checking strategies.  


Reading Example


Give this SAT-style sentence completion question a try by selecting the word that most logically completes the sentence: 


They left the restaurant feeling ________, having indulged in all 5 of the chef’s delicious and generous courses.  

A) comprehensive 

B) exemplified 

C) fulfilled

D) satiated


When faced with this question, the majority of my SAT students select the incorrect answer of fulfilled.  This is because after reading a sentence about eating a lot of food, they are looking for a word like “full.”  They know that “fulfilled” isn’t exactly the same thing as “full,” but because they don’t see any other good options, they decide that close is good enough.  On the SAT, however, close is exactly the same as completely wrong.  Even worse, the evil geniuses who write the SAT know exactly how to include the close-but-not-quite-right answers that will entice a student’s Fast Thinking brain.  


A Slow Thinking brain, on the other hand, can take the time to consider the exacting nature of this test and realize that since fulfilled isn’t a perfect fit for this sentence, it can be eliminated as an option.  If the student can also eliminate comprehensive and exemplified, then the process of elimination proves that satiated must be the correct answer.  


When I discuss this question with students who initially selected fulfilled, I’m often struck by their awareness that A and B can be eliminated and C is not quite right.  Even knowing that, they still don’t select D because they didn’t know the definition of satiated.  According to Khaneman, we tend to underestimate the importance of things we don’t understand.  This may explain why my students are so hesitant to conclude the word they don’t know is the correct choice even when it’s the only one left. 


Thinking Slow on a Timed Test


At some point in the tutoring program, just about every student tells me they had to jump to a conclusion because there wasn’t enough time to solve the problem the long way.  This is understandable because the SAT is a timed test.  However, the SAT gives students approximately 1.5 minutes for each question, which is usually sufficient to answer the question completely and double check your answer.  Don’t let that ticking clock force any unnecessary errors.


If you find yourself getting incorrect answers because of rushing, try taking a practice test using a stopwatch rather than a timer.  In other words, take a test module at a steady, natural pace, taking the time for Thinking Slow on every question.  When you’re done, look to see how much time it took.  Many of my students are shocked to find that when they work without rushing, they’ve completed the module under the time limit anyway.  If you did take more time than was allowed, at least now you know how much time you need to shave off. This will put you in a better position to decide how to adjust your pacing or when to do some strategic guessing.


Taking the Time to Study


When you make a decision by Thinking Fast, sometimes your next step is to search for justification.  Logically, we know that considering the reasons should happen before making the decision, but oftentimes we humans do it backwards.  Studying for the SAT is a perfect example.  You don’t want to study for the test, so you start thinking of reasons why you shouldn’t have to.  One of the most potentially convincing reasons is that most colleges are now calling themselves test-optional. This means that you can still apply to these schools without taking the SAT or ACT at all.  To the Fast Thinker, the test-optional movement can serve as a justification for not taking the test or just taking it “cold turkey.”


But let’s Think Slowly about this. Applying to a college is not the same thing as being accepted. Plus, once you are accepted at a competitive college, you’re going to be academically challenged.  Strengthening your reading and math skills now and learning effective study strategies will improve your chances of success in your future college classes.  There are also financial considerations.  Many schools will give higher merit aid to students with strong test scores.  Some will meet your financial need with grants rather than loans if your test scores will bring up their averages.  This could have a huge impact on your life after college.  These are compelling reasons to not only take the test, but to put in the work to get the highest score you can.  


How to make sure you’re Thinking Slow


Thinking Fast (aka using your intuition) is a great skill for many aspects of life, but it will lead to wrong answer after wrong answer on the SAT.  If you are getting ready to take this important test, you need to be aware of when you’re jumping to conclusions and practice strategies that will slow down your thinking.  Here are some strategies you can implement right away to make sure you’re Thinking Slow:


  • If an answer looks too easy or too obvious, check carefully to see if it’s a trap
  • If an answer is close but not exactly right, then it’s wrong.
  • Re-read every question before moving on to the next one, especially in math
  • Show your work
  • Look for keywords and logical connections
  • Use the process of elimination
  • Take a practice test with a stopwatch rather than a timer
  • Don’t be satisfied when you take two tries to get to the answer – analyze the error that prevented you from getting the question correct on the first try
  • Remind yourself that accuracy is more important than speed


Remember the SAT is an opportunity to prove that you’ve got what it takes to succeed in college.  The test is designed to reward students who are able to go beyond their intuition and take the time to really analyze the details.  It also rewards students who take the time to study and practice.  So what are you waiting for?  Get some SAT practice questions, and take them slow.


Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman