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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Snover

...a pool full of leaves

I often tell my students to think of their minds as a pool full of dirty leaves. I used to have a job as a PMA, or Pool Maintenance Assistant. At the beginning of the season, the water in the pool would have a dark tea color, and there would be a thick layer of leaves on the bottom. The filter, once turned on, could clean the water, but it did not have the power to stir the water up enough to move the leaves on the bottom. Likewise, the vacuum didn’t have enough suction to handle wet leaves, and it would often clog. Even working by hand was a nightmare: the leaves were so heavy that trying to scoop them up with a net was impossible. You would strain your back and tire out after only a few minutes, or you would bend the skimmer pole.

Eventually we clever PMAs figured out a solution -- stir up the leaves so that they started floating around the water. By using the skimmer as a whisk (or convincing some poor soul to get in and use his feet), you could get the leaves up off the bottom. Once they were stirred up, you could use the net and skim off the ones that rose to the top.

Our brains work this same way. Very few people have powers of recall that enable them to go down into the murky tea-colored water of their minds and pull up the leaves from the bottom. This is especially impossible when you are on the clock and under pressure, as you are during the SAT. So, you have to “stir the leaves” so to speak.

The purpose of studying is to get access to the useful stuff that has sunk to the bottom of your mind. Once you have learned a concept, it usually stays in your brain. However, it will sink down and eventually be covered by the other things that you’re learning all the time. To get these concepts up from the depths, you must stir them all up so that they’re floating closer to the top where you can grab it. As soon as you stop stirring, the material will sink once again.

So, when we discuss shortcuts, formulas, traps to avoid, or strategic advice for time management and question order, a student must find a way to keep those leaves floating near the surface. No matter what info you’re trying to recover, it will never work to just wish you had a stronger vacuum, or a skimmer pole that won’t bend. We have the tools we have, and the trick is learning how to use them to get the job done. Even stirring for just a few minutes can get the stuff mixed up enough to be useful when you're on the clock.

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