Chess Applications to Standardized Test Prep

In May 2008, I graduated with two diplomas, one from The Dwight School and another from the International Baccalaureate. Thanks to some good grades, my college essay about winning the United States Amateur Team East and decent SAT Scores, I was able to get into Brandeis University, a top-tier school. In addition to eventually giving me a source of income as running Premier Chess is now my full-time job, chess has allowed me to excel in the SAT and other standardized tests, thanks to three fundamentals applications: problem solvingskills, stamina and work ethic.

I will often ask a student a question that he does not know the answer to. Rather than spending time taking the appropriate steps required to determine the solution, he will sometimes say “I don’t know”. In these cases, I remind the student of the thought process, which could be applied to any problem on a standardized test:

  1. Write down your opponent’s move. (Write down notes about the question.)

  2. Ask yourself why your opponent went there. (Dig deeper and ask yourself about the challenges of the question.)

  3. Brainstorm and decide on 3-4+ viable candidate moves. (This step is already done for you in a multiple choice test like the SAT).

  4. Analyze each move further and decide what you think is likely the best move. (Process of elimination.)

  5. Once you see the “best move”, see if you can find a better move. (Look to see if any other answers make sense.)

  6. Do a blunder check, making sure you did not miss any tactics. (Double check your work. Did you make any simple arithmetic mistakes?)

  7. Make the move and write it down. (Finally, make the move! Don’t overthink it too much as instincts are key.)

Non chess players are often surprised when I tell them tournament games could go up to 6+ hours. Most serious tournaments these days have a time control like 40/120, SD 30, d10. This time control means that each player has 2 hours to make 40 moves and then another 30 minutes for the rest of the game. Before each player’s time starts ticking each move, the clock waits 10 seconds. The first game of the 2018, Carlsen-Caruana World Championship Candidate match was 115 moves and 7 hours long and ended in a draw (tie). Playing long tournament chess games has helped me build sufficient stamina to sit down for long periods of time to focus. While this has led me to some not-so-good habits, like conducting many all-nighters at the library and writing papers in college, it has also given me what it takes to sit down and perform well in a several hour long test like the SATs.

Chess and standardized testing preparation both require a good work ethic. In both areas, it is better to study a little every day then a lot once or twice per week. Consistency is key. It is imperative that we apply real-world applications, rather than studying out of a book. One can study opening, middlegame and endgame theory and take lots of chess classes but he will not improve if he does not play. For a chess master, I have read realtively few chess books; I can count on my hand how many I have read cover to cover. However, unlike a majority of players, I have played in over 950 tournaments and have gone over all my games. Similarly, I personally got better in my SAT studies, primarily by taking lots of practice tests and learning from my mistakes. As my good friend Paul Njau from Make a Difference Now often says, “The first time you make a mistake, it is a learning experience. The second time you make it, it is a true mistake.”

Many high school students will stop playing chess because they see it is a distraction from their studies and college preparation. However, I once was recruiting some of our Grace Church High School students to travel with us to the 2018 High School Nationals. When one student told me that he would like to go but his parents would not like the fact that he was taking a weekend from his college preparation. I then did some digging and forwarded him my college essay and he was inspired. The fact that he ended up winning a trophy for second place in his division definitely ended up being a nice addition on his college resume. Chess has a strong correlation with higher test scores, thanks to its fundamental lessons regarding problem solving, stamina and work ethic.

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