We've Got Your Number
Seven Tips to Ace
the CLT's Math Section

By Gabriel Blanchard

"Quantitative Reasoning" may have an intimidating ring to it. But don't worry—CLT's staff are here to help.

Students are always pursuing a higher CLT score. The first two sections (Verbal Reasoning and Grammar & Writing) are often covered here at the Journal, at least indirectly—it’s rather in the nature of great books! But what about improving on the Quantitative Reasoning section?

Now, far be it from us to encourage a “rubber stamp” outlook on education. The purpose of education is to produce a well-rounded, intelligently critical, sensitive, and upstanding person: those traits don’t map neatly to a numerical score. Nonetheless, one thing a score does map neatly to is Did I get the answers right?, which doesn’t substitute for an education but is a pretty good index of having gotten one. So we do have a few tips for the Quantitative Reasoning section that we’d like to offer our students as they prepare for springtime exams.

1. This may sound obvious, but there is no substitute for a high-quality education in mathematics. However, what we often forget here is the most important part of a high-quality course in math: practice, practice, practice! Do extra problems from your math textbook, especially the harder (or “challenge”) problems. This helps you learn to think logically and apply formulas correctly, by building it into you as a habit instead of as a skill, like tying your shoes or riding a bike.

In particular, you may benefit by choosing to take one of our practice tests, which are available both online and in our Student Guide. This will help familiarize yourself with the exam generally, as well as with the Quantitative Reasoning section.

2. Not every textbook teaches in quite the same way. Look at a handful of different math textbooks that use different teaching methods. If you find one that helps you understand something about math that you didn’t before, that alone is time well-spent. (The dreaded “word problem” is especially useful here, because it ties mathematics to concrete subject matter that we can more easily think about.)

3. Don’t forget the classic divide and conquer strategy! As you’re going through the questions, you’ll encounter some that you aren’t able to solve immediately. When you do, make a guess—if this seems like weird advice, take a look at tip #7 below!—and then decide whether this question belongs on List A, B, or C.:

  • List A—Tortoise Problems: you can solve it, but it’ll take time
  • List B—Mystery Problems: you’re not sure whether you can solve it
  • List C—Brick Wall Problems: you’re not familiar enough with this kind of problem to solve it

Once you’ve got answers recorded for every question, use your remaining time to solve the problems as a way to check and correct your guesses: first go through List A, and if you finish that one, go through List B as well. This helps give you the best chance of getting the highest number of right answers.

The Quantitative Reasoning section is arranged from easiest to hardest, so strategy #3 here will mostly mean going in order. But remember, this “easiest to hardest” arrangement is based on an average of students. Any individual student will probably differ from the average at least a little; you may find some of the later problems more straightforward, based on your own gifts and talents.

I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it as well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand ...

Ada Lovelace

4. Beware the sunk cost fallacy: it may be counter-intuitive, but if you get stuck, skip to the next problem. You may be tempted to keep worrying at the question until you’ve got an answer; the trouble is, this wastes time you could be spending on other problems. If you get stuck, just note down how far you’ve gotten in that problem (remember, scratch paper is your friend!) and move to the next one.

5. Look out for signs of early errors. The Quantitative Reasoning section of the CLT was designed to be used without calculators; you shouldn’t need to use your scratch paper for much more than simple arithmetic and applying formulas (remember, those are in the side panel labeled “f(x)”). If you find yourself composing long strands of calculation by hand, you may have missed or misinterpreted an early part of the problem—go back and check.

6. Don’t give up! It’s a common mistake to become confused, panicked, or discouraged on encountering a problem you can’t see how to solve, and thinking that everything that’s left will be even harder. Nine times out of ten, this is just our brains overreacting! Take a short break, a few deep breaths, and stretch for a moment. Often, that will be enough to settle yourself and spot the solution.

7. When all else fails? Guess. If you’re truly stumped, and you’ve already answered everything you can, guess! It might just find you the right answer. And remember, your score will never go down because of a wrong guess: answering a question is always to your advantage.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large, and did not quite fail Algebra II. He lives in Baltimore.

Thank you for reading the Journal! You can find some more general tips for improving your CLT score here; or, if you feel like passing the time with a deep thought or two, you might check out our series on the Great Conversation.

Published on 19th April, 2023. Page image of an abacus, a manual computation device sometimes called an “analog calculator.” (Please note that, as a type of calculator, using an abacus is not permitted on the CLT.)

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