“Locksmith? Please come as soon as you can! It’s about to rain and I’ve locked my keys in my convertible with the top down!” Ouch. Most of us have done things just as painfully stupid … or, is it just me. What’s going on? How is it that we can sometimes behave like total neanderthals? (I apologize if you, your relatives, or your significant other is a neanderthal.)*

The screw-up comes because we’ve bypassed our brains [hidepost]in favor of a standard response to the problem in front of us. We are so focused on the way we usually do it–in this case, unlocking the car door with a key–that we overlook the obvious and simple solution.

Enter the GRE and SAT quantitative sections. The “right way” to do any given math problem was drilled into our heads in junior high and high school math classes. We did that particular problem type over and over again. We showed our work. We lost points if we didn’t follow the method step-by-mind-numbing-step. Now, whenever we see a familiar problem on the SAT or GRE, we start following the steps, showing our work as we go.

News flash: the testmakers left the top down on the convertible! If you are looking for the key you learned in high school, you are wasting time. Since the GRE and SAT are timed tests, you are not expected to do much in the way of long calculations. If you find yourself doing a ton of calculating, you missed a short cut somewhere.

Example: Which quantity is greater? 1/16 + 1/4 + 1/7 OR 1/6 + 1/16 + 1/4

If you started looking for a common denominator, tell the locksmith, “nevermind,” and put away your phone. Just eliminate the fractions both have in common; 1/4 and 1/16 are common to both sequences, so eliminate them. You’re really just comparing 1/6 to 1/7. 1/6 is the larger fraction, so that’s your answer; no math necessary.

As you work practice problems in preparation for the test, STOP … DROP … and ROLL (hmmm … seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before). StopDrop your pencil. And … errr … Roll your eyes over the problem looking for that shortcut. You KNOW it’s gotta be there. when you find yourself starting on a long series of calculations.

WARNING: this takes practice. So break out those practice problems and begin searching for shortcuts.

*No neanderthals were harmed in the writing of this post.[/hidepost]