Stepping Up Your Math Confidence: The Girls' Guide to Fearless SAT & ACT Math

When I first started tutoring almost a decade ago, I thought that if I just taught the content of the SAT or ACT, as well as a few helpful time-management strategies, everyone would get it, improve their scores on the first try, and happily go off skipping through the Van Wickle Gates at Brown.

Boy, was I mistaken.

Throughout the years, what I’ve learned instead is that most of my students—especially high school girls—need much more than what they can learn for free on Khan Academy or YouTube. They need not only a test prep expert they trust and respect, but also a coach, a cheerleader, a sometimes-therapist. And many teenage girls also need a fiercely intelligent female role model who can break their internal SAT and ACT glass ceilings.

Teen girls need someone who can build their confidence. Especially in math.

Unfortunately, test confidence and math confidence are rare in our female teen demographic. That can translate not only into trends in enrollment and career development (I vividly remember being one of 7 women in my 200-person Intro to Engineering class at Brown) but also into test results. For example, there’s a 40-point SAT gender gap, with teenage boys coming out on top.

While I’m not a sociologist, I’ve garnered enough life and test prep industry experience to make several observations and draw some of my own conclusions. I think that more than anything, that gender gap is a confidence gap.

The number one thing I’ve noticed:

Somewhere around middle school, when teenage girls are first going through puberty, many of them lose their math confidence. Maybe it’s all the strange hormones surging through their bodies at the time, or a new sense of themselves as sexual objects with all the shame our culture places on that, or a concern about the judgment of peers who still think it’s not cool or attractive for girls to be smart, especially at math. Whatever it is, girls stop raising their hands in math class, and the invisible yet totally distracting and sabotaging over-analysis takes hold instead.

The result? Analysis paralysis when presented with an unfamiliar math problem, an obsession with being perfect, and a complete fear of taking action if there’s no guarantee...and answering fewer questions on the math sections of both the ACT and SAT. In other words, a lack of math confidence. And the strong possibility of a lower score.

Even more than on the ACT, the key to the SAT Math section is confidence, pure and simple. Here’s why:

1) The 20-question No Calculator section takes away the very math confidence “crutch” many students hide under. You actually have to do your scratch-work and make a decision about what 18 x 22 is (it's 396) and go on to the next step to answer the question. A confident student doesn’t get distracted by fear, makes the decision, and moves on. An under-confident student worries and second-guesses, and thus loses both focus and time.

2) The Grid-In questions at the end of both the Calculator AND No-Calculator sections require students to stick by their answers—and produce those answers out of thin air themselves instead of guessing between 4 provided answers. Again, that’s a big pit of time-wasting worry for a test-taker without strong math confidence.

3) Many of the questions require facing uncertainty and taking a risk, even if the initial attempt at solving the problem fails. This is precisely what our culture has trained girls NOT to do.

For example, let’s take a simple question from the first College Board practice test:

15) If (ax+2)(bx+7)=15x2+cx+14 for all values of x, and a+b=8, what are the two possible values for c?

Most girls I coach for the SAT will just draw a blank and move on, convinced they don’t know enough to answer the question, because they’ve never done one exactly like it before. They won’t even take the first step, which is using FOIL to expand the left side of the equation...something they all know how to do!

I’m not saying that after taking this first step, they will all get it right. (The answer is 31 and 41, if you were wondering.) But they’ll never get it right if they don’t just start doing what they can and seeing if the second step presents itself. Does that make sense?

Girls, listen up:

This attitude will cost you points, cost you grades, possibly cost you admission to your dream school. And that’s just now.

In life, this attitude could cost you promotions, clients, record deals, the love of your life, Olympic medals...anything that requires you to believe in yourself and tenaciously pursue a goal.

So, after that scary dose of reality, I want to offer some solutions.

Here are my top 4 ways to boost your SAT Math Confidence (and hopefully life confidence, too):

1) Know what math topics are on the SAT. There’s Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics. That’s it. There’s a finite list of topics. They can’t draw from everything. If you know those, you have everything you need to ace the SAT Math section.

2) Know your arithmetic cold! For the No-Calculator section, one of the most helpful things you can do to prep is review your times-tables, perfect squares up to 252=625, cubes up to 103=1000, powers of 2 up to 210=1,024, and basic fraction to decimal to percent equivalents. Helpful bonus: your Pythagorean triples!

3) Take the first step, even if you don’t yet know how to get to the answer. Since there’s only so many math topics the SAT could be testing you on, and you know them all, the key to answering the question has to be something you know. See the logic? It can’t be something you don’t know, because there is a limited list, and you mastered all of those. So, just take the first step, even if you don’t know where it will lead you. 90% of the time, the next step will present itself.

4) Adopt some strategies to increase your decision-making facilities and decrease mental chatter. Whether it’s power poses (a favorite of mine because I’ve seen them really change girls’ confidence instinctively), some anti-perfectionist mantras, or practice getting comfortable with what you see as failure, mental and emotional resilience in the face of scary situations will serve you well with SAT math.

Yes, the stakes of the SAT and ACT are high, but in order to up your math confidence, you have to learn to get on the other side of failure and realize that the benefits outweigh the costs. What do I mean? I mean that since you have so much to gain (on the test, in life) by learning to take intellectual risks, it’s time to figure out some lower-stakes ways to get comfortable with risk.

The best way to do this for the SAT? Take mock tests! Fail fast, hard, and often. The sooner you let yourself make mistakes, the sooner you can learn from them and realize that trying when you’re uncertain won’t kill you.

And if you still need help, I’d love to take you under my wing and be your confidence cheerleader. I’ve helped lots of girls up their math confidence and their test scores (and hopefully, their sense of what they’re capable of!). Book your Ace the Test: Game Plan and we’ll get started.