Starting Test Prep Early: Smartasses are Smart

People often ask me how I became the Sultan of Standardized Tests, the Baron of the Bubble, and the Prince of POE, or they just ask how I got so good at taking tests. It’s taken me a bit but after ruminating on the question I think I’ve arrived at not only an answer but advice that will let others try to develop some of the same talent. The answer I’ve arrived at is “I was a smartass as a kid.” Now I know that sounds crazy but keep reading and I promise it will make sense.

Consider the skills that define a proper smartass:

  1. Attentiveness to detail (in order to point out flaws and oversights made by others).
  2. Precision of language usage (in order to take, twist, or make fun of what others say).
  3. Strict adherence to rules but in odd or unusual ways (in order to make those rules work for him).

Looking back, my misspent youth (and my record 39 detentions in my freshman year of HS for being a “smartass”) was merely training for my future career. Let me illustrate for you a day in the life:


In high school I actually used to call it “Specific Day,” it was my personal holiday from listening to what people meant to say and instead focused on literal meaning.


In both of these “incidents” I was completely accurate but probably wasn’t “right,” and certainly wasn’t well-behaved, since I was being purposefully bothersome to my teachers.

Now consider the skills tested by the major standardized tests (ISEE, SSAT, SAT, GMAT, LSAT, GRE, and to a lesser extent ACT):

  1. Attentiveness to detail and precision of language usage.
  2. Utilization of rules (or math formulas) in new or unusual ways.
  3. Connection of information presented in unusual, atypical, or disaggregated format.

One should be able to clearly see the close connection between the skills needed for test success and those needed for proper smartassery. The ability to discern fact from fiction, meaning from interpretation, and assertion from assumption allows for true excellence in testing, school, and word games of all types. Most smartasses are criticized for this very skill. Most smartasses are taught that they are being “too picky” or “overly specific” (whatever that means). Because most social interaction is based on “understanding” of what someone means rather than on listening to what they say and responding precisely to that and nothing else. The greatest problem with this “understanding” is that it’s rooted in habit rather than logic or comprehension. Most test are specifically designed to force the test-taker to overcome habit and apply rules ruthlessly, appropriately, and in a context that they have not applied most of those rules before.

Let’s look at the following typical admissions test reading comprehension question answer choices:

The primary purpose of the passage is to

(A) fault critics for focusing too much on Johnson’s descriptions

(B) criticize Johnson’s writing for straying from the classic detective novel

(C) evaluate an author’s career and describe different attitudes towards it

(D) evaluate the ability of detective novels to explore character development

(E) compare contrasting points of view concerning detective novels

A large part of getting this question right stems from an understanding of the distinction between the words fault, criticize, evaluate, and compare. The ability to evaluate the dictionary meanings of those words rather than common usage (which often blurs nuance) produces a more clear understanding of what makes an answer choice right or wrong. It’s these subtle distinctions that most smartasses have owned for their personal pleasure. Here’s one more example, from our favorite whipping boy of a standardized test, the SAT. This question was answered correctly by 17% of the people who answered it:

By producing many different and diverse works, Chan revealed her ——- as an artist.

(A) talent (B) objectivity (C) versatility (D) timidity (E) experience

This version, on the other hand (where only choice A is different), was answer correctly by 89% of the people who answered it:

By producing many different and diverse works, Chan revealed her ——- as a artist.

(A) audacity (B) objectivity (C) versatility (D) timidity (E) experience

Now, I completely understand how one might expect the answer to relate to art since the topic of the sentence is an artist, however that would completely ignore the context of the sentence and the definitions of the words “different” and “diverse.” These two versions of this question show key points about doing well on standardized testing. First, to do well on a standardized test, a test-taker must be able to avoid distractions and focus on the things that truly impact the answer (critical reading and analysis of information). Secondly, a test-taker must be attentive to the literal meaning of the words on the page rather than the social implications (attention to detail and distinguishing between interpretation and inference).

So how does all of this help you or your child? To excel on standardized tests, test-takers have to learn to bond with their inner smartass, have to embrace the idea that while the use of words in most social context is fairly fluid definitions, are not, and have to understand how and when to critique and how and when to criticize. If you’re a parent and you want to help your child develop an appreciation – nay joy (possibly a perverse joy, but joy nonetheless) – in language, embrace the smartass in your child, encourage the word play, and enjoy the ride. The next time your child tells you “I can get the remote but I won’t” embrace the challenge and reply “That’s completely fine, I still might give you your allowance this week.”

  • Steve

    This is a great post thanks..

    I’ve never of thought of it this way. I tend to just focus on the apparent rudeness of their reply. I might have to give my children a little more slack

  • Mike

    Good post. Another way to look at this is that the test MAKERS are smart asses, and if you want to do well on their tests, you have to play by their rules.

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