Not too long ago, there was a famous gambler by the name of Amarillo Slim.
He was renowned for winning bets that he had no business winning by finding his edges within the confines of the rules.
For instance, he once won a 100 yard dash against the fastest thoroughbred in Texas because he got to choose the track: he chose a fifty yard up and back course and by the time the horse was able to turn around for the second half, he had crossed the finish line. Similarly, he beat a world renowned tennis player in ping pong because he got to choose the paddles and, after training for a month, beat him in a game played with frying pans.
Although one of the lessons here is to be careful who you bet against, the lesson we are more interested in is how creativity within the rules can be the key to solving a problem—even one that is a challenge to beat.
And that is why, when facing a standardized test like the SAT or the ACT (or the GRE or the SSAT or the LSATs), you might not get to pick the problems, but the key to success is knowing that you get to pick how to solve them.
In other words, when facing a daunting opponent like a quadratic derivatives question at the end of the multiple choice on the No-Calc section, it is fair to be overwhelmed. The most important tool you have, however, is that you get to determine how you and this opponent face off. If you feel comfortable, you might choose good old fashioned math, but perhaps if you feel like that puts you at a disadvantage you might choose a strategy like “choosing values” or “plug-in answers”; you might use a math concept that your math teacher said was unacceptable, but which you practiced with your tutor; you might decide to eliminate answers based upon previous experience with these questions; you might choose to skip the question altogether and come back to it with fresh eyes and more information from later questions.
The bottom line is that, despite plastering the word standardized wherever they can, these tests are really choose-your-own-adventure books. You might not get to determine your opponent, but you do get to decide the terms upon which you will face them.
You can outrun a thoroughbred, as long as you get creative.
How to Stand out in College Admissions: A review of Cal Newport’s book "How to Be a High School Superstar"