6 Tips For Math Excellence: How To Jump From An "A" To An "A+"

A new student of mine came to me with a difficult problem: “how can I go from an ‘A’ to an ‘A+?’”  Now, I know what you’re thinking… she needs to get a grip.  An “A” is an excellent grade, right?  Certainly.  But my student yearns to jump to the honors mathematics section, which is only reachable via an “A+.”  So now that I’ve established that this is a totally valid request, how do I make it happen?  How can someone, who is already achieving a high level of success, bridge that final gap to test taking perfection?  Here are six ways an “A” student can modify their routine to grab the highly coveted and often elusive “A+.”

  1. Master Mental Math – yes indeed, mental math will come in handy here. For most students struggling to nab that 100%, speed (or lack thereof) is often the culprit.  One of the key reasons why students can’t get through an exam quickly is because their mental arithmetic is lagging.  They spend an unnecessary amount of time either writing out arithmetic longhand or plugging numbers into a calculator.  Once you can fast track your brain to process the calculations on its own, you can shave a substantial amount of minutes off of each exam.  Translation: you will have more time to check through your exam once you are finished.
  2. Highlight Answers That You Are Less Than 80% Sure Of – once you finish your exam, you will need to double-check your work.  This is absolutely imperative.   But even if you don’t have time to review every single question and calculation, you can maximize your odds of a perfect score with a focused review.  For example, if you keep track of the problems that cause you a greater degree of difficulty and check those first, you will increase your chances of a flawless performance.  I advise my students to place a star next to any problem where their certainty is less than 80%.
  3.  Write Clearly And Neatly – silly mistakes are a huge reason for point losses on math exams.  Whether someone incorrectly copies the exam question or inadvertently mixes up the order of two variables, a simple and quick mental oversight can cost a student valuable points.  Unfortunately, these losses are not indicative of any lack of understanding.  Almost all students who fall victim to these errors have an excellent comprehension of the material.  Nonetheless, they are penalized for mental blips.  To avoid this pitfall, write neatly and clearly.  This will reduce your silly mistakes and allow your grasp of the material to shine through on test day.
  4. Take Several Timed Practice Exams Before The Real Deal – the key to solid exam preparation is mimicking the actual exam atmosphere during practice tests.  That means eliminating all distractions, sitting up straight in a chair, and working under a time constraint.  The more dedicated you are to this type of practice, the less intimidating the actual exam will feel.  As your nerves calm, your chances of nailing every question will go up.
  5. Stop Using Calculators On Homework And Exams – once your mental math is up to par, put your calculator away when it comes to basic arithmetic.  Not just on homework, but on exams as well.  Go through all the questions with just your mental calculations.  Your speed will increase, and with practice, so will your accuracy.  Then, after every answer has been completed, feel free to whip out your calculator to double-check your work. Now remember, I am not suggesting this strategy for those with weak mental math skills.  You must first exercise those mental muscles before doing away with your calculator.
  6. Pump Up Your Mental State Before An Exam Or Quiz – are you ready for some psychological pointers?  Look, I know you might be sneering at this tip, but I’m serious about this.  How you feel when you go into a test can adversely affect your performance.  Here is a quick list of pointers to make sure your mental state is steady and ready:
  • Arrive early to your exam so that you don’t spike your adrenaline levels.  If you rush into the exam with a great deal of stress, you could experience a crash in energy midway through the exam.
  • Take on a “Power Pose” for at least 2 minutes before the exam begins. “Power Poses” are stances that powerful or confident people often take. Believe it or not, striking a strong pose before an exam can lower your anxiety levels and boost your confidence.  For more information on “Power Poses,” check out the following article: How "Power Poses" Can Help Your Career.
  • Make sure to eat brain-boosting foods on test day.  Good food choices include protein rich items such as eggs, nuts, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Stay away from simple carbohydrates and sugars.

Getting an A+ is tough.  Not only does it require an excellent grasp of the material, but it also mandates a high level of discipline.  If you are truly dedicated to achieving this ultra high mark, then internalize these tips and study hard.  Good luck!


5 Reasons Why Math is Awesome

When imagining the types of people who love math, your brain likely conjures up images of coke bottle glasses, pocket protectors, suspenders, and personality types riddled with social awkwardness.  I totally get it… math is lame and only complete weirdoes enjoy it.  But just for the record, I love math.  There, I said it.  You can judge me all you want, but believe it or not, I’m a relatively normal guy.  All subjects, from science to history, music to philosophy, fascinate me.  Math, however, has a special place in my heart.  How could this be?  How is it that this totally boring and bizarre subject has captivated my mind for so long?  Let me break it down.  Here are my top five reasons why math is awesome.

1. Instant Gratification

When I was in law school, I learned very quickly that my internal grasp and comfort with a subject would not necessarily ensure success on an exam.  For example, even if I felt like I knew the answer on an essay question, my response would be scrutinized with a fair amount of subjectivity.  The professor may not like my writing style, or alternatively he may disagree with my chosen approach.  The bottom line is that I could not gauge my performance very accurately after I completed my test.

But math is wonderfully different.  Once you become reasonably familiar with the subject matter, whether it is geometry, algebra, calculus, or whatever, you have a pretty good idea that you’ve answered a question correctly before it is graded.  Firstly, the answers usually seem to make sense if they are correct.  Secondly, you can usually test out your response to make certain that it works in whatever equation you were trying to solve.  So, when you take the time to review your work, you have a pretty solid notion of how you’ve done with each question.  When you’ve got it right, you know it.  It’s a pretty awesome feeling to walk out of a final exam with a reasonable certainty that you’ve nailed the questions.

2. Even Playing Field

Depending on your educational background or particular upbringing, you may have a stronger than average grasp of the English language.  This can provide a stark advantage in writing classes that is very difficult to overcome.  For students who are substantially behind with their reading and writing abilities, bridging the gap can be a tremendously tough task.  Vocabulary is often slowly developed over years of constant exposure.  It’s no wonder that children who grow up with a deep passion for reading tend to reign supreme above their classmates who sincerely dislike perusing novels and magazines.

But math is different.  No matter your background, regardless of how much time you’ve spent studying math, you can ramp up your abilities in a very short period of time.  The processes can be learned very quickly, and with the right guidance, anyone can turn their grades around within a semester.  All that is required on the student’s part is a heartfelt desire to improve.

3. Cool Real Life Applications

Even if you don’t want to be an engineer or a scientist, you cannot deny the awesome technological advances that have found their way to your doorstep with the help of mathematics.  Math is the keystone in our current understanding of the modern universe.  It is the tool we use to develop bridges, skyscrapers, and all sorts of complex machinery.  It is a core foundation behind computer science, the awesome subject matter that is responsible for so much of our incredible capabilities today.  Math is the language of our universe, and as we plow forward in our understanding of this vast landscape, we move closer to unlocking more and more incredible technological secrets.

4. Intimidating At First, Yet Easy To Master

So many students come to me after great frustration with math.  “Look,” they say, “I can handle all of my other classes, but I am truly hopeless with formulas and equations.  I just don’t get it.”  This is music to my ears.  Why?  Because (1) I realize this is complete nonsense and (2) I know that my student will be singing a different tune in a small time span.  Yes, I recognize that math can seem intimidating for students, but the truth remains that with a bit of focus, you can go from being a “C” student to an “A” student practically overnight.

If English is your problem area, you have a long road before you can improve.  It will take a great deal of time dedicated to reading, writing, and understanding basic grammatical rules.  Language is unbelievably complex, and a great deal of effort is necessary to lunge forward.  But with math, once you have opened your mind to the possibility that you can achieve greatness, you can make tremendous strides.  So, if you are committed, you can very quickly turn your greatest weakness into one of your most treasured strengths.

5. Math Prowess Commands Respect And Admiration

Whether you work as an engineer, doctor, or attorney, a strong command of mathematics earns you respect and admiration.  Even if your work does not require solid computational skills, your colleagues will generally presume you are an intelligent and competent worker if you can zip through basic calculations.

No matter where you go or what you do, people will constantly try to assess your intelligence until you have proven yourself.  Demonstrating a strong ability with numbers can put you ahead of the curve during an interview or a preliminary meeting.   This fact makes math even more fun to practice.  The notion that my reputation will be bolstered by my ability to process numbers quickly provides a terrific incentive to keep my math skills sharp.


The Importance of Mental Math

Dazzling pocket PCs are aplenty for the children of today.  Kids roll into the classroom with iPhones, Blackberries, and various Android devices capable of supporting myriad complex applications.  We are living in a wonderful age where handheld computers help us tremendously and continuously.  Alongside all of the fancy apps (that allow us to manage everything from our finances to our fantasy football teams) is a standard utility application that accompanies every smartphone: the basic calculator.  Need to carry out some quick arithmetic to figure out how much money you owe your buddy?  Pull out your phone and type away.  It's that simple.  So why the heck do kids need to memorize the multiplication table?  Because it is still crucial to a successful math career and a promising life thereafter.  Don't believe me?  Here are four reasons why mental math is still tremendously important and absolutely foundational.

1. Confidence Is Key

You have likely heard people utter the following nonsensical words: "I'm not a math person."  Hmmm.  Well, I guess some people have it and some don't.  I used to think that I must be a math person because I enjoyed it and was good at it.  Lucky me, right?

Wrong.  Let's break it down.  People often derive enjoyment from activities that they are comfortable with.  You typically find that the best basketball players love basketball, the best writers love English class, the best artists love painting, and so on and so forth.  So, it naturally follows that achieving a high level of skill in a particular area could induce an accompanying feeling of pleasure.  This may not be 100% true, but there is certainly a very high correlation between proficiency and enjoyment.

Once a child starts thinking that math is hard or they are simply unable to compete with their cohorts, the downward spiral of poor math performance ensues.  Kids believe they are not good, they don't try as hard, and eventually they are the not-so-proud owners of a slew of subpar grades.  In contrast, those kids that simply believe they are good at math will soar to the top, diving into the material and confidently attacking their math homework.  These kids will continuously feed their positive beliefs about their math abilities and eventually perform well throughout high school.

So how do you embed these positive beliefs?  Enter mental math.  Once you can master the multiplication table, something that is fairly simple to learn with some daily practice, you can uproot those negative beliefs about your math abilities.  You will suddenly feel confident and able, and this will inevitably influence your approach and attitude as you climb higher and higher through the math curriculum.  Confidence is the utmost important component to math success.  If you nurture it early on, you will have no problem reaching the top.  How am I so sure?  Because this is precisely how I began my successful journey in mathematics.

2. Mastering The SAT

You may not like the SAT, but you must learn to live with it.  It is several hours on a Saturday morning that will prove to be, pound for pound, minute for minute, the most important component of your college application.  Think about it like this: you will have spent hundreds of hours taking exams during your high school career, but the SAT, a mere three hours and forty-five minutes, will prove to be exponentially more critical to your success than any one of those subject exams.

Accordingly, your mental math skills are critical.  Why?  While it’s true that calculators are now allowed on the SAT, you will seriously hamper your progress if you rely on the device for arithmetic.  No matter how much you hate multiplying and dividing in your head, you need to get comfortable with it in order to race through the math section.  Even if you understand the operations and principles, the time constraint will get you if you're still working out basic multiplication on the keypad of a calculator.  That's why mastery of arithmetic is critical for a high SAT score.

3. Quick Mental Math = Better Performance On Tests

Even if your school teacher permits the use of calculators on an exam, solid mental math will bolster your confidence and increase your speed.  When I was in high school, I was so fast with mental multiplication that I wouldn't even use my calculator until I had raced through the entire exam.  This then gave me ample opportunity to review my answers and make certain that I had not fallen victim to a silly error along the way.

The ability to quickly make calculations in your head will pay dividends in all high school subjects including calculus.  It simply does not cease to be useful.

4. People Presume High Intelligence Accompanies Computational Skills

Now, as silly as outside perceptions are, they are quite critical to your eventual success in the business world.  Accordingly, you want people to have great first impressions of you.  One terrific way to dazzle your acquaintances and coworkers is commanding an excellent expertise with numbers.  When people reach into their pockets to grab a calculator, you can stand their calmly and shout out the answer before your friends have had a chance to even load their calculator application.  What will the reaction be?  "Wow, you're smart."  No joke.

Let's be real on this point.  Wowing your friends and coworkers isn't going to make or break your career, but it will certainly grease the wheels as you travel down the career highway.  People will develop a presumption of intelligence about you, and you can harness that presumption to reach your goals.