If you’ve been wondering why things have been a bit quieter around here for the past few weeks, there are 3 reasons:

  1. I’ve been scrambling to finish this book so that I can ship it off to print.
  2. I’ve been trying to keep up with all the great questions I’ve been getting at qa.pwnthesat.com.
  3. I started grad school this month and I’ve been trying to adjust after close to 10 years away from academia.
The third reason is pertinent right now, because for a class on finance (which I think will be quite good) I was assigned some preparatory work over the summer, which included some online quizzes. I want to quote a question from one of them here, and then explain why it’s a bad question. And then hopefully parlay my personal anecdote into insightful test prep advice for you, using my extreme perspicacity. Wouldn’t that be splendid?

If you have a present value and an interest rate, you can calculate a future value.

True / False

I don’t expect y’all to be experts in finance (nor should you expect me to be until a few months from now) but the formula being referred to here is a simple one: FV = PV(1 + i)n, where FV = future value, PV = present value, i = interest rate, and n = number of periods the investment will earn interest.
So if you have PV and i, you should be able to calculate FV for any n. In other words, if you know the  present value of an investment is $1000, and you know the interest rate is 5%, you should be able to tell how much that investment will be worth in 1 year, 2 years, 10 years, 100 years, etc. You should be able to find “a future value.” I picked “True.”
The answer they were looking for is “False” because you can’t solve the equation without also knowing n.
So yeah, I got a question wrong. Alert the media. But also take note of the imprecision in the way the question was written. The question asks whether one could find “a future value” given a present value and an interest rate. I maintain that one can: the value 2 years out is a future value, as is the value 3 years out and the value 8 years out. I can find all of them. So I can find “a future value.” Many, in fact.
If the question writer really wanted an answer of “False,” she should have asked whether one could find “the future value.” You cannot find “the future value” without knowing how many periods into the future the interest will compound.
This drove me absolutely nuts for days, but the bottom line is that not everybody writes tests the same way, and I had to adjust to the way these dumb online tests are written just like you have to adjust to the way your US History or Physics teacher writes tests, and just like you must adjust to the way the SAT is written.
In each question, in all three subjects, every single word matters, both in the questions, and in the answer choices. Every single word has been wrangled over and vetted by multiple test writing professionals, and is in there for a reason. The wording of questions on the SAT is extremely deliberate and precise. You will never, never have to wonder whether a test writer wrote “a” when he meant to write “the.” The sentence means exactly what it means. I take comfort in that, and I wish every other test I’ll ever have to take would follow the same guidelines.
Just like that simple finance question drove me nuts, the absolute precision of the SAT might drive you nuts for a while. But if you want to get to a place where you can dominate this test, you’ll have to adjust. Each and every word matters.