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How to Gain (or Lose) 30 IQ Points — Instantly!

Free up your short-term memory by writing down information that allows for quick notes when you're stumped.

How to Gain (or Lose) 30 IQ Points — Instantly!

Hint: Your Pencil Is Smarter Than You Are

Now that you know the tricks your brain can play on you on the SAT, you can better appreciate the importance of being hyper-cautious in every aspect of your work on the test. Remember: any mistake on the SAT costs you valuable points; the computer grading your test does not forgive "just silly" mistakes the way your teachers in school often do.

One powerful tool you have right in your hand is your pencil. Einstein himself was fond of saying that his pencil was smarter than he was. If someone that smart relied on his pencil, maybe we should, too. You'll understand why using your pencil all the time as you take the SAT is so critical once you understand a bit more about another aspect of your brain's operation.

When you think, your brain shuttles information back and forth between your long-term memory (what you know) and your short-term memory (what you're thinking about, for example, when you solve a problem). Unfortunately, the human brain has very limited short-term memory capacity. Psychological experiments have shown that the brain can store about seven items (such as the seven digits of a new phone number) in short-term memory without much difficulty. Beyond seven items, the short-term memory soon becomes overwhelmed (a new area code as well as a phone number is much harder to remember than simply a new phone number).

When your short-term memory becomes overwhelmed with too much information, you've got two big problems. First, your thinking ability drops to zero. Literally. Your brain turns to mush.

You can prove this phenomenon to yourself. Ask someone to write down a ten-digit number on a slip of paper and then to read it out loud for you to remember.

You may have to focus a bit but remembering the number's not too hard, right? What's the big deal? Wait a second, we re not finished with the experiment yet.

Now ask this person to give you a simple problem to solve in your head—as you retain the ten-digit number. The problem has to be one that requires thinking, not reciting a fact from your long-term memory (a simple math word problem works, or asking for the definition of a difficult word).

Once you've solved the problem, state your solution and then recite the ten-digit number. Have your friend check the number against the slip of paper. (If the number wasn't written down, your friend may have trouble remembering the number accurately, too.)

Did you solve the problem and remember all the digits correctly? Almost everyone flubs either the problem or the digit or both. Even if you're a supergenius who solved the problem and remembered the number, you'll have to admit that you really had to focus to do so.

So the first problem with taxing your short-term memory is that you have a much harder time even thinking. A couple of items to remember won't have much of an impact, but beyond a few and each new item you try to retain in short-term memory costs you IQ points, literally.

The second problem with taxing your short-term memory is that you are often unaware of when you've reached your limit. The result? Near-total amnesia. I'm not kidding, and if you think about it, you'll realize that this happens all the time. Tell me whether you've ever had the following experience.

You sit down at your desk to read an assignment: an article for a science course, a chapter from a history book, an essay for your English course, whatever. You work your way through the text carefully, maybe underlining key parts and taking notes. As you read, you have no trouble whatsoever following along, understanding each and every point the author makes.

Finally, you finish the assignment and close the book. And suddenly you realize a very weird thing: you can't remember what you just read. Oh sure, you remember the basic topic, maybe even an idea or two. But otherwise the rest of what you read is a total fog to you.

I know that happens to you because I know it happens to everyone. Here's the explanation. Reading the assigned text closely and carefully, you probably overtaxed your short-term memory somewhere in the first paragraph. So what does your short-term memory do when it "fills up"? It dumps the old information to make way for the new. When your short-term memory filled up with information after the first few sentences, it continually dumped the earlier information to make way for the new—otherwise you wouldn't be able to read.

Notice that you weren't aware of the problem—that you couldn't remember much of what you'd just read—until you finished the assignment. Now imagine that happens to you on the SAT. Not a good situation in which to find yourself now, is it? The limits of your short-term memory affect you everywhere on the SAT: on math problems as well as on the reading passages. Every time you "do something in your head," you're taxing your short-term memory and leaving that much less brain power for thinking. In other words, the more analysis you do in your head, the dumber you get.

The solution? Write down as much as possible in your text booklet when you're solving questions. Each time you write something down, however small a step, you free up your short-term memory and thereby give yourself more brain power to think with. That's what Einstein was talking about. Write down as much as you can (using abbreviations, of course), no matter how simple or easy or "obvious" it is. Any little math step of a solution? Write it down. Using process of elimination on a sentence completion choice? Write it down. Locating the main idea of a reading passage? Write it down.

If, when you're taking the test, your pencil isn't either writing something down or poised—I mean this—at most a few inches off the page, ready to jot down something every five to ten seconds, then you're doing way too much thinking in your head. In short, you're handicapping your thinking ability big time. The more you use your pencil, the smarter you become. The SAT is hard enough; don't make it harder than it has to be.

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