What's the connection between cooking and math tested on the SAT and ACT?


I started cooking in earnest about two years ago. For the first few weeks, I was an unmitigated disaster in the kitchen. I would run around with utensils in both hands, jumping from pot to pan, spilling things and frantically trying to mince the garlic that was already supposed to have been sautéing for five minutes. Despite the fact that I was producing mostly palatable meals, the process was stressful and overwhelming, and left the kitchen looking like an EPA-designated superfund cleanup site.

I began doing some reading, and quickly discovered my problem: in my eagerness to get cooking (both figuratively and literally), I had overlooked the concept of mise en place, a French term meaning everything in its place. The idea of mise en place (pronounced meez ahn plahs) is simple and obvious––to get all of your ingredients assembled before the cooking begins, so that once the flame is on, you’re ready to go without having to race for a dash of this or chop a half cup of that. Once I established my mise en place, the whole ordeal turned into a pleasure. I was more efficient; my meals instantly became more delicious; my stress level in the kitchen plummeted while my confidence rose. I was even able to tackle more advanced recipes with relative ease, and to start improvising and applying my own creativity. It turns out that it was all about getting myself set up for success––the rest followed naturally.

Believe it or not, mathematics––especially the kind tested on the SAT and ACT––is much the same as cooking, though not in the way you might think. Rather, it’s less about following a recipe, and more about getting yourself organized. When those who don’t have experience in the kitchen start cooking, they experience failure not because they’re incapable of boiling pasta or slicing mushrooms, but because they skip crucial parts of the initial planning. Similarly, when students struggle with SAT and ACT math, it’s often not because they don’t know how to manipulate an equation or reason through a process, but because they attempt to dive in immediately before planning their attack.

For these students, it’s time for some math mise en place. To illustrate, let’s consider a common “tough” ACT math problem involving averages.

The average of a set of 5 numbers is 37. When one of the numbers, x, is removed and replaced with another number, y, to create a new set of 5 numbers, the average of the set becomes 33. The value of x is how much greater than the value of y ?

A. 4

B. 5

C. 10

D. 20

E. 35

Around 90 percent of students will see this problem and give up on it immediately. This is a shame, because with some math mise en place, it becomes very solvable. First, we assemble the tools (the average equation).


Now that we have an organized way of expressing the information, we set up our mise en place for both situations separately.

Two Equations

There’s only one thing we can do, and that’s solve for the unknown sum of each set. We do so by multiplying both sides by 5 in each equation.


Once we get those, we know the difference between the number taken away (x) and the number put in its place (y), because those are the only numbers that must account for the difference in the sums of the two sets. The difference is 20, so choice D is correct.

Instead of trying to handle the entire problem at once––juggling all the mathematical ingredients at the same time––splitting things up and setting them into an organized, well-defined structure makes all the difference.