I am a test preparation teacher and tutor. My bread and butter is the SAT. The test is a bit of a sham, but it’s still the measuring tool of choice for American universities. If you want to get into a college, you take this test. If you fail, you face the consequences. I’ve spent thousands of hours with students, in groups and one on one, teaching them the ropes. I’ve worked with corporations and on my own. I have taken mediocre scores and propelled them forward into greatness. I have former students wandering the halls of most any university you can name. But it isn’t easy. It takes work, from me and from them. Not everyone needs prep, but those who do are missing something vital, something I have to teach them.

I don’t teach math, reading, and writing. I teach gaming.

I don’t teach math, reading, and writing. I teach gaming.

Slack-jawed students stare at SAT books like they’re written in another language. To the uninitiated, they essentially are: How would you solve a problem that has wingdings of alien faces in place of the numbers? How about a crudely rendered cactus where there should be a lettered variable? How would you tackle a problem that is entirely made up of variables, or one that references a graph that doesn’t exist?

The only good answer to these questions is that you’d start with what’s possible and work toward what isn’t. You’d start with what you do know for certain and fill in the blanks on the things that you’re missing. You’d walk right past the door to the final boss because you don’t have that key yet, and you’d return when you did. That’s how it’s done in Hyrule and that’s how it’s done here.

On the SAT, like many other standardized tests, nothing is as obvious as you’d like it to be. Instead, everything is twisted, ever so slightly, away from the ordinary. Originally, the test was designed to see how prepared a student was to enter college, but today, it is nothing of the sort. Though the letters SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test, they now stand for absolutely nothing: The SAT, stripped of its acronym status, has also been stripped of its academia. In place of that supposed stricture, you’ll find logic and reasoning to the nth degree in a place where words exist only to test your ability to figure out words, where shapes and numbers are printed only to test your ability to manipulate them. It’s an exercise in personality, choices, and diligence. All you have to do is adapt.

The first thing I teach my students about any test is just that. They’ve played these games before, but never with these stipulations. The gamers in my class understand immediately when I say there’s a difference-like switching from Halo to Call of Duty, or Final Fantasy VII to Final Fantasy VIII. You’ve seen these things before: You’ve read, you’ve done math, you’ve corrected sentences, but there’s something else at play here. This test is from a different designer and he has different ideas in mind for you. Discover what he wants if you plan to beat the system.

The SAT will let these students know exactly what it wants for an answer. Buried within every tedious problem, there is a nugget of usefulness. If they want “37x” instead of a regular “x,” they will tell you. If they ask you what the “geometric mean” of two numbers is, chances are they’ve also provided you with the equation to derive it. Even the way they’ve named their writing questions is a leading proposition: “Improving Sentences” and “Identifying Sentence Errors.” Think about the difference between those two titles-how the former isn’t terrible but requires a bit of work, how the latter has an error that needs only be pointed out-and you’ll see how generous the test makers really are. Though it might seem like the answer to a math question is just barely out of reach, the designers are going to make sure that a good student takes his time and works around to it.

Can you trust that what you’ve done up until this point-a little practice, a little experience-will lead you to your goal, be it Princess Peach or Stanford admission?

There is no expectation of prior knowledge beyond the order of operations (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction) on the math, and the timbre of good English for all the rest. How many tests do you know that give you 90% of the formulas you’ll need to answer the questions right there on the page? The SAT does-including reading passages from which to mine your answers for the comprehension portion to a box full of circles, triangles, and other details to aid students in the math.

What it really comes down to is confidence. Can you apply those formulas? Can you trust yourself to guess that a word that sounds bad-like “truculence”-means something bad? Can you test a theory in the moment and find the telltale signs of progress or digress? Can you trust that what you’ve done up until this point-a little practice, a little experience-will lead you to your goal, be it Princess Peach or Stanford admission?

To put it in terms we can all relate to, let’s focus on a game. In 1998, the puzzles in Ocarina of Time gave all of us gamers more than we bargained for. Pushing and pulling cubes, the infamous Water Temple-it was inarguably frustrating at times, but it was also worth it. Think back: When a set of bars slid down before you, sealing the way ahead, there’s no way you thought, “Ah, whatever. I give up.” You thought: “What can I do to open them?” You would walk around the room and look for switches or try to apply your old skills in new ways. You’d pull out your weapons, or hold up your shield – anything but give up. When, with the mirror shield on your back, you wandered through a beam of light only to see it reflected cleanly across the room, you didn’t think, “Oh how pretty.” No, if you’re a real gamer, you thought, “That’s going to be useful.”

This is the exact skill that any good test taker must have, and utilize, at all turns. When faced with the impossible, a gamer looks around and focuses on the familiar. What worked when you were ambushed by a squad of elites and a platoon of grunts in Halo: Combat Evolved will almost certainly keep you from getting demolished by a crowd of zombies in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Even if it doesn’t, at least you have a starting place where half of the challenge-the crushing, unknowing part-is already behind you. A few tweaks to tactics, a little experimentation with weaponry and there will be nothing left but the sweet sounds of victory, be they the spattering of purple blood or the crunch of dusty bones.

Checking in with yourself to correctly appraise your situation is incredibly important, and it’s something that gamers do better.

Furthermore, when tactics fail and we still hit the wall, we gamers tap into another power that most mortals lack: our ability to take stock. So you can’t make it through this room running and gunning-what else could you do? That all depends on what you have with you. In modern RPGs like Skyrim, the solution could be as simple as rifling through your inventory only to find that spell tome you needed, or a potion that momentarily doubles your damage with a bow and these small realizations could easily spell the difference between life and a fun experiment with ragdoll physics (thanks, Giants). Checking in with yourself to correctly appraise your situation is incredibly important, and it’s something that gamers do better.

I often ask my students what about the test they enjoy and what they fear. Their fears are nearly always mundane: “triangles–I can’t stand triangles.” My follow up is always, “Why?” When they can’t come up with a good answer–because I forget the formulas, because I have trouble understanding all of the involved vocabulary–I take them back to square one. Why? Usually, when a student takes stock of his abilities, he finds that what he thought was once impossible is now far from it. Maybe it was difficult before, but perhaps his Spanish class or, if he’s lucky as well as super nerdy, his Latin class, has made all of those vocabulary issues disappear. Like a gamer faced with insurmountable odds, my students are forced to look at their weaknesses as opportunities to experiment with a new tack. In the end, like a Spell Tome of Fast Healing hidden amongst so many notes “From A Friend,” these skills and their potential effects on overall confidence blow the expectations out of the water. In the face of that adversity, rifle through your belongings–trust that you can overcome, and facilitate the win.

There’s an inherent difference between the way we, as gamers, see the world and the way that others do. My best students are gamers-kids whose skill sets need only be tweaked, not taught to them, and I suggest that we all own what we have. Our ability to solve problems is what puts us ahead, both in virtual worlds as well as the real one. Our courage, even in the face of failure, is what keeps us there. Play hard.

Cj Hayes is a teacher and writer working in Santa Cruz, California where he lives with his wife and dog, and blogs at www.cjhayestutor.com.

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