THE BLOG
02/28/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

How Pop Culture and Comedy Can Help Millennial Teens Ace the SAT

Beware the Ides of March! If you're a high school student slated to take the SAT this year, you and Caesar may have more in common than you'd think. Shakespeare's soothsayer may have been describing the ill-fated emperor's imminent assassination, but his ominous assertion could just as easily have been applied to a teenager gearing up for the spring's College Boards. The March SAT, the second of seven tests offered throughout 2013, is considered the most popular test for high school juniors because it falls a few months before Advanced Placement exams - "A.P.s" in the parlance of overburdened, Ivy League-aspiring teens - and six to eight weeks after mid-terms. In fact, so many of the nearly three million high school students expected to take the SAT this year will be taking the March 9th test that it's currently causing more Gen-Y stress than a sold-out Carly Rae Jepsen concert.

Way back in the 20th century, when my fellow Gen-Xers and I were in high school, preparing for the SAT was a lot less intense. Sure, we knew the SAT was important, and sure, if you had proto-Tiger Mom parents like mine, you were reminded of that importance on a daily, if not hourly, basis. But the culture of hysteria that now surrounds The Most Important Test Of Your Life had yet to surface, and the biggest source of our adolescent anxiety was not being able to name the latest group on Yo! MTV Raps.

Today, things are different. At Catalyst Prep, the college preparation company I founded in 2006, we receive so many anguished Please-help-us-if-Cody-doesn't-get-a-2340-he'll-never-get-into-Harvard emails that we've semi-seriously entertained the idea of lobbying the American Psychiatric Association to list mild to moderate I'm Never Gonna Get Into Yale as a seasonal mood disorder in the DSM-IV. If you don't happen to be a high school junior or, even worse, an iPhone bill-paying, driver's permit-fearing parent of a high school junior, you may have a hard time conceptualizing the degree of dread the SAT now incites in students. The best way to get a sense of the utter torment teenagers endure the hours before taking the SAT is to picture being notified of a tax audit while reviewing your shriveled 401(k) while waiting in a hospital room for the biopsy results of that weird-looking brown thing that's caused you to surf WebMD for the last three weeks. It's nerve-wracking, and given the SAT's three hour and 45 minute duration, the panic isn't exactly short-lived. The latest, 2400-point version of the SAT, unleashed in March, 2005, consists of 170 questions in math, grammar and critical reading, and a 25 minute essay, which ranges from broad philosophical questions like "Is creativity needed in today's society?" to controversial "out of left field" questions, such as the infamous reality TV prompt that sucker punched students on March 12th 2011.

So, what's a Millennial to do besides find solace in the angst-ridden Facebook status updates of his or her fellow test-takers? I've found that the most effective way to defuse test anxiety and boost scores is to coach students in a way they find appealing: with pop culture and comedy. Can't recall the definition to "hackneyed," a word that only seems to exist on standardized tests and in David Denby's New Yorker film reviews? No sweat -- just think of that Glee episode where the kids convince Mr. Schue to ditch his tired, conventional, utterly banal songs in favor of Salt-n-Pepa's bawdy "Push It." Having trouble remembering how to graph parabolas? No problem -- let's just graph Justin Bieber's curiously parabola-shaped head, and you'll never puzzle over a y = 3(x - 2)2 ever again. Can't explain what subject-verb agreement is if your GPA depended on it? No worries -- just take a gander at Kim Kardashian's tweets and see what can be gleaned from her like, eww, gross attitude toward proper grammar. In short, what we've discovered is that learning how to ace the SAT and other standardized tests can actually be enjoyable. (Ok fine, maybe "enjoyable" is a bit of a stretch, but at least non-torturous.)

Levity's impact on learning is supported by neuroscience. Whether your preferred delivery method is Stephen Colbert (mine) or Garrison Keillor (my 76-year-old mother's), anything that makes us laugh engages both hemispheres of our brain, so when we lampoon the SAT and get students to relax, we're not just alleviating test anxiety, we're tuning up minds to think more analytically about problems requiring deep deliberation. Here are three tips if you or someone whose cell phone bill you pay is taking the SAT this spring:

1. Avoid Writer's Block by Preparing Examples in Advance. Although the essay prompts vary from test to test, the SAT uses the same themes over and over again (like Independence vs. Following the Crowd), so if you prepare a novel and a historical figure or artist who apply to a wide range of prompts, you won't draw a blank. Make sure you pick an individual that you can write about authoritatively and a book that doesn't involve extremely good-looking teenage vampires.

2. Generate Headlines As You Read. Having trouble determining the main idea in reading passages? Think about the headlines on sites like TMZ. Headlines like "Lil Wayne Ain't No Tupac" are eye-catching and informative because they involve a subject (Lil Wayne) and a verb (ain't no). (Well, a quasi-verb.) Generate "headlines" as you read and you'll have no problem summarizing the point of each passage.

3. Don't Get Punk'd. Making careless errors on math problems? Chances are you're being bamboozled like a contestant on hidden camera shows like MTV's Punk'd. Just like a guileless celebrity who is so drawn in by what's in front of him that he fails to realize Ashton Kutcher is lurking in the bushes, students tackling SAT math problems are vulnerable to ignoring all the signs that they are facing a trick question. To avoid being duped, students should always underline key words that can alter the solution to a problem, words like: even, odd, positive, negative, consecutive and integer.

Once you recognize the SAT's formulaic patterns, you'll realize it doesn't take a soothsayer to predict what's going to be on the test. As Shakespeare sort of says in Julius Caesar: "The fate of the SAT is not in the stars, but in ourselves."

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