Here are some things to consider:
- Are you going back to the passage after you get down to those two answers? If so, are you looking for key transitions/punctuation marks/ explanations, etc. or are you just aimlessly rereading without a clear idea of what you’re looking for?
- Do you ever start/stop reading halfway through a sentence? If so, make sure you back up to the beginning of the sentence or keep reading until the end; otherwise, you’re likely to miss important info.
- Do you confine yourself to the lines you’re given in the question, or do you read a little before/after as well? Or, conversely, do you read too far ahead and lose sight of the what the lines referenced actually say. Function questions often require information in the sentence or two before the line reference; other question types can usually be answered from the lines given.
- Do you consider whether the answer you’re choosing makes logical sense in the real world? (e.g. an answer stating that no scientific advances have recently been made is simply at odds with reality).
- Do you work from the more specific answer and check whether it is directly supported by the passage?
- Does one of the answer choices contain a synonym or synonyms for a key word in the passage? It’s probably right. Correct answer rephrase the passage. If an answer uses words verbatim from the passage, it’s probably wrong.
- Do you ever pick answers that are too extreme, or that are beyond the scope of what can be determined from the passage? (e.g. the passage talks about one painter and the passage refers to painters in general.)
- Pay careful attention to the topic of the passage — the correct answer will often refer to it, either by name or rephrased in a more general fashion (e.g. Frederick Douglass = an individual). Incorrect answers often refer to things that the passage mentions but that are not its main focus.
- Do you try to answer questions in your own words before you look at the answers, or do you rely only on the answer choices? This technique is not about trying to get ETS’s exact wording — it’s about anticipating what sort of information will be present in the correct answer so that you don’t get distracted by plausible-sounding wrong answers.
- If you are answering questions in your own words, keep in mind that you’re looking for the idea you’ve come up with. The actual phrasing might be very, very different from what you’re expecting, and may be written in a form you don’t immediately connect to what you’ve said. Part of what makes the SAT so challenging is the fact that you can’t always anticipate the angle that a correct answer will come from. Some questions can be answered correctly in multiple ways, but the correct answer that appears on the test will not always be the most obvious correct answer.
- Do you read too far into the questions and start to impose an interpretation or make assumptions that the passage does not directly suggest? You need to read literally, not speculate about what the author could be saying.
- Do you avoid choosing answers simply because they’re confusing? Whether an answer makes sense to you has no effect on whether it’s right or wrong.
I usually try to avoid clichés. Really, I do. I honestly don’t recall whether I ever had a penchant for them, but any tendency toward employing them in my writing was thoroughly beaten out of my by my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Gutmann (who unfortunately, it must be said, failed to make much of an impression on me otherwise).
That said, there are times when nothing but a cliché sums up a particular idea just right, the title of this post being a prime example. (I also happen to like the alliteration). It’s a phrase I find myself uttering repeatedly when I tutor. It’s important for people working at pretty much any score level, but it’s especially relevant to those in the higher range — assuming that you know how to do all, or nearly all, of the problems you’ll encounter, the details might be the only thing standing between you and your dream score.
Let me emphasize this: it does not matter whether you are capable of answering a question correctly if you do not actually answer that question correctly when you sit down the take the test. The scores that actually end up in front of admissions officers are what counts. They will not stop to think that hey, maybe that 680 should really be a 720 because that kid two rows over who wouldn’t stop kicking his feet against the chair kept distracting you. Admissions officers are not responsible for that type of speculation.
I am not saying this to scare you (ok, maybe I am, just a little) but rather to attempt to convey to you that you cannot take anything for granted when you take a test for real. It does not matter how many practice tests you’ve taken. I’ve worked with kids who took 30 or more and still managed to screw up on the real thing. It does not matter whether you’ve scored an 800 on every single one. When you get complacent and start taking things for granted, you get sloppy. And when you get sloppy, you make careless errors. And when that happens, soon enough you’re right back at 690. Or a 29. Or wherever it was you started from.
Or, conversely, if you have a tendency to get anxious, you must resist the tendency to either rush through questions or overthink them to the point where you can choose an answer choice that blatantly contradicts common sense without noticing that there’s anything odd about it.
And then there are my real cautionary tales: every year, I inevitably have one student who incorrectly bubbles anywhere from a couple of questions to an entire section, and ends up with score that they really don’t deserve.
Hence the point of this post.
Now, when I point out how s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully I work through questions, usually my students just roll their eyes and/or tune me out (and then they wonder why they didn’t do as well as they were expecting). But for what it’s worth, if you’re taking the SAT or the ACT anytime soon, here’s a quick list of things to pay extra close attention to:
- Put your finger or pencil on the page when you read the passages AND the questions. Misreading a key word can cost you easy points. NB: if you use your pencil, put the eraser side on your page — otherwise you will underline the entire passage, making your actual underlinings hard to distinguish.
- Do not jump to eliminate an answer before you’re clear on what it’s saying. If you can’t figure out what an answer is saying, don’t eliminate it just because it confuses you!
- When you do eliminate an answer, put a line through the entire thing, including the letter. Otherwise, you will get distracted by irrelevant information.
- When you work by process of elimination, double-check that the answer you’re left with makes sense.
- On SAT Writing/ACT English, make sure you plug your answer back into the sentence. Answers that make sense independently can be clearly wrong in context.
- When a question is presented in a complicated manner, take a moment and rephrase it in simpler words so that you know exactly what that question is asking you to do. Otherwise, you may inadvertently answer something other than the question in front of you.
- Pay attention to your notes. If you’ve circled/underlined important info in a passage, don’t overlook it when you go back to answer a question. The answer is probably right where you marked it.
- Do not rely excessively on the answer choices — they are there to confuse you, not help you. If you are a strong enough reader to get an idea of what information will be included in the correct answer, take a few moments and figure out what you’re looking for. Most of my students who couldn’t get past the low 700s have been stuck on the idea that because they could recognize the correct answer most of the time, they could learn to recognize it all of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how the SAT works.
- When you answer a question in your own words, write down what you come up with to keep you focused. I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone answer a question correctly on their own, then get confused when they looked at the answer choices.
- Don’t take a wild guess when you can take an educated guess with just a little more work. If you’re down to two answers, see if there’s a specific feature of one of them that you can use to improve your chances. Just hoping you’ll get lucky doesn’t usually work.
- As you go to fill in your answer, confirm that you’re bubbling in the correct question number. Just take a split second and do it. You’ll be grateful when you walk out of the test and don’t have to decide whether to tell your mom to call and cancel your scores because you think you might have accidentally mis-bubbled a whole section.
Just needed to do some venting. After I find myself saying the same things repeatedly, I start to think that perhaps I should just make a recording and just hit the “play” button whenever someone neglects to do one of these things…for the fiftieth time.
1) When you get down to two answers on Critical Reading, GO BACK TO THE FRIGGIN’ PASSAGE AND CHECK TO SEE WHICH ONE IT DIRECTLY SUPPORTS. Pick the most concrete, specific aspect of one answer choice, and check to see whether the passage explicitly addresses it. If it doesn’t, it’s not the answer. If one of the answers contains extreme language, start by assuming it’s wrong and focus extra-hard on connecting the other answer to the passage.
2) Don’t make wild guesses. Just don’t.
3) If you’re going to skip questions on the real thing, skip them when you’re practicing. Don’t answer them just for the heck of it. You’re a lot less likely to do everything you intended to do on the actual test if you’ve never done it before. Besides, most questions you should skip fall into the category of questions you had no idea of the answer to. See #2 for my thoughts on that.
4) If you know there’s a particular mistake you tend to make or a particular rule you always forget, take a pencil and physically write yourself a note IN CAPITAL LETTERS at the top of your page to look out for it. Otherwise, you’ll forget and just keep doing the same thing. Yes, actually write it down.
5) If you see the word “NOT” or “EXCEPT” in a question, put a huge circle around it so that you don’t accidentally answer the opposite.
6) Write down each step of Critical Reading questions *as you do them.* Sum up, write, sum up, write… You can write fast. And honestly, what you write isn’t that important. It’s more the fact that the act of writing forces you to clarify your thoughts at each step. I find it virtually impossible to work through a question without doing this, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a student who tried it willingly (and didn’t make the “ew, she’s not serious, that’s way too much work, I don’t really need to do that to get the answer” face). Yes, it’s a lot more work than most people are used to, but if done consistently, it keeps you from making those last few mistakes.
7) Think about whether the answer makes sense in the real world. Yes, the answer must be supported by the passage, but if it doesn’t make sense period, it’s probably not right.
8) If you see any sort of comparison in a Writing question, especially at the end of a section, pay attention to it; chances are it’s a faulty comparison. If you have a tendency to miss these, see #4.
9) Physically cross out answers as you eliminate them. Put a line through them completely. Don’t get lazy and stop after one or two. Your goal is to look at the smallest amount of information possible at any given time. Don’t give yourself more things to get distracted by.
10) Playing process of elimination does not absolve you of the responsibility to think. When you’re done eliminating answers, make sure that whatever you’re left with actually works. If it very clearly doesn’t, go back and reevaluate.
Like familiarity and mastery, certainty and correctness are two concepts that people often have a tendency to get confused out there in standardized test-land.
So for the record, I would like to state unequivocally and without qualification that it is entirely possible to be both absolutely certain and absolutely wrong. I don’t think that that’s a particularly radical — or even disputable — concept, but something about standardized testing makes people go a little cuckoo and reject what would otherwise be relatively commonsense notions.
To reiterate: if you are taking the SAT and are absolutely, totally, utterly convinced that the answer to a particular Critical Reading question cannot possibly be (C), your strong sense of conviction has no bearing whatsoever on whether the answer actually is (C).
Now granted, if you really know what you’re doing, the chances of that kind of conviction being way off base are substantially reduced, but it’s the principle of the matter that I’m concerned about here.
And besides, I see relatively high-scoring students eliminate correct answers all the time because they’re totally sure that those answers can’t possibly be right.
Why bother to insist so hard on this distinction? Well, when people talk about eliminating answers and guessing, they often base their suggestions that people guess if they can definitely eliminate one or more answer on a fallacy — that students can 1) reliably distinguish between right and wrong answers and are therefore 2) only eliminating answers that are actually wrong.
Yes, some answers are clearly absurd; I’m not going to dispute that. But not all of them are. In fact, when tutors assume that students can reliably recognize wrong answers, they also overlook another rather important piece of information: wrong answers are written to sound eminently plausible, even if they’re, well, not. They’re also written to capitalize on the average high school junior’s knowledge gaps, hence their reputation for being “tricky.”
Note, if you will, my repeated use of the word conviction earlier in this post. Critical Reading answers that contain the word conviction are very often correct, which may seem odd and random to anyone who hasn’t spent lots of time talking about words — particularly alternate meanings of words — with high school juniors.
Would you like to guess what most of my students say when I ask them what conviction means when used in a context like the one it’s used in above?
They say it has something to do with criminals.
The fact that it might have an alternate meaning quite literally does not occur to them. Most of them have either not seen it used as the noun form of convinced, or if they have, never realized that it actually had that meaning.
Occasionally a parent will tell me that they decided to go over some vocab with their child and were absolutely astonished to discover how poor said child’s vocabulary was. They’re not talking about the “hard” words either — they’re talking about the second meanings of common words, like conviction and bent. It simply never occurred to them that their child could not know those things.
I usually just shrug and say that their child is normal; most of my students don’t know those meanings, and the ones who do frankly tend not to need me. It doesn’t do much to reassure them — they’re really and truly freaked that their children don’t know these words. They’re looking at the SAT from the perspective of a college-educated adult and taking for granted that their teenagers hold the same (relatively sophisticated) assumptions about how English works when in fact most of them haven’t yet developed the ability to think about language with that kind of nuance.
In case you’re wondering, this isn’t just a digression — it does relate to my original point about guessing. Because most test-takers don’t realize that conviction means “being convinced” and instead think it might have something to do with Law and Order, what do you think they do when they see it appear as an answer choice? That’s right, they cross it off. Immediately. Because they’re absolutely certain that it has nothing whatsoever to do with what the sentence or the passage is talking about. Except that of course that word captures precisely what’s going on in the sentence or the passage.
It’s interesting: I had no particular preconceptions or agenda about the SAT when I first started tutoring it. It was simply something I’d always been able to do naturally and happened to be good at explaining to other people. But the more I look at the test, the more I realize how absolutely brilliantly constructed it is. Occasional ambiguities aside, it does a truly remarkable job of pinning down the exact areas that teenagers tend to have the most trouble with and testing them in ways that reveal gaps pretty baldly. (That’s why opponents of the test have to insist so vehemently that it’s meaningless.) I don’t deny that certain shortcuts and “tricks” aren’t very effective in some cases, but they only work if someone already has a pretty sophisticated level of understanding.
I don’t want to make anyone paranoid about crossing off answer choices or encourage the “everything is a trick mindset.” That’s not productive either, and that’s not fundamentally what the SAT is about. What is productive is to take a few moments and actually consider what an answer choice is actually saying before you get rid of it.
A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t restate what an answer is saying clearly in your own words, you don’t understand what it’s saying well enough to make a conclusive judgment about it. Forget about it and work from the answer choices that you truly do understand; think about what they’re actually saying too before you cross them out.
In case you haven’t noticed, the grand theme here is that you have to keep thinking at every step, and that you have to be honest with yourself about what you do and don’t know. Because once you’ve thought things through, you can go ahead and be pretty certain about what you’re doing –and sometimes that’s the best you can ask for.
Just wanted to take a moment and point out a point that often gets overlooked:
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been exposed to a particular concept if you don’t actually understand that concept.
Nothing, nothing annoys me like the idea that doing well on the SAT or ACT is just a matter of “getting familiar with the test.”
It does not matter how many times you look at a vocabulary word and say, “Yeah, I’ve seen that before” if you do not actually know what the word means. Ditto for functions, Venn diagrams, dangling modifiers, and pretty much everything else that could get tested.
And by the way, it’s really not enough to go over a given concept once of twice. Just because you learn something on Saturday doesn’t mean you’ll still understand it on Tuesday, or that you’ll be able to recognize when it’s being tested the opposite way around, especially when you’ve been up since 6am and can’t stop listening to the kid in the next row tapping his pencil against his desk.
I’ve had students with whom I spent weeks going over comma splices. They were certainly very familiar with the idea of comma splices, and they could even spit back the correct definition of them (well, most of the time).
What they could not do, however, was either consistently recognize or correct them. And why could they do neither of these things? Because they had never learned to recognize what a sentence was, and thus had no idea when they needed to put a period or a semicolon rather than a comma between statements — something they should have mastered in elementary school. (Yes, I am actually suggesting that elementary school students be explicitly taught to recognize sentences — the horror!)
The problem had nothing whatsoever to do with the test itself; it showed up in their actual writing as well. The test was simply catching the problem, not creating it. In other words, it was doing exactly what it was designed to do. And ultimately there was no way to truly compensate for 10+ years of not knowing in a handful of sessions. We’d go over the concept, do 10 or 20 or 30 examples, they’d seem to get it just fine, and the next week we were back at square one. These were, incidentally, students scoring in the high 600s/low 700s — not the sort of kids who are typically thought of as needing remediation.
So to be clear:
“Familiarity” means being familiar with something. That’s it. It’s often related to understanding, but it does not by itself lead to understanding.
“Mastery” means understanding something at such a deep level that you pretty much can’t get it wrong, no matter how tired or stressed you are. It means you can roll out of bed and nail it, even if you haven’t really studied it for a while and it’s presented in a slightly different way than you’re used to seeing it.
It’s possible to have very little familiarity with the SAT or the ACT and still do extremely well on them; it’s also possible to be extremely familiar with those tests and still do very poorly.
Mastery is what ultimately leads to improvement, but it takes a lot more work to achieve.
When people “SAT prep,” they have a tendency to lump it all together in one undifferentiated mass. So here I want to talk about the differences between these kinds of preparation and what different types of students can realistically expect to gain from them.
I tend to classify anything from a couple of sessions through about three months as short-term prep.
Short-term prep itself falls into two categories: the kind that focuses narrowly on improving a small number of skills, and the kind that focuses primarily on finding strategies that will best leverage the student’s existing skills.
On the whole, I find that short-term prep is most successful for high-scoring students who know their strengths and weaknesses and have identified a few specific goals to accomplish. In my experience and quite contrary to popular test-prep wisdom, it can actually be much simpler to raise a score from somewhere above 650 to an 800 than it can be to raise a 570 to a 650 — or even a 610. There’s almost no way to hit the high 600s, or even the mid-600s, without having solid skills, and at that point improving one’s score primarily becomes a question of identifying and focusing on a handful of discrete concepts. When a single problem such as timing in involved, it is sometimes enough to work through a representative sampling of questions to illustrate various principles and strategies, which the student can then practice applying independently.
Let me give you an example. In the past year, I’ve worked with two students who already had 800s in both Math and Writing but whose Reading scores lagged more than 100 points behind. Both of them came to me with very specific issues: one needed work only on timing, so we talked about how getting the gist of each paragraph from reading the first few sentences eliminated the need to waste time trying to comprehend every single word, and about how to identify overall structure quickly by reading topic sentences.
The other student needed work understanding hard humanities passages, “function” (purpose) questions, and “big picture” questions. The former jumped to an 800 from a 680 after only a single meeting (I had also done a couple of sessions with him months earlier, before the PSAT) and a few practice tests; the latter rose to a 720 from a 650 after about three months of more or less consistent work. We starting off just doing the most difficult humanities passages I could find so he could practice figuring out the important points without getting bogged down in confusing language, then worked up to full tests.
Short-Term prep for lower-scoring students (below 600) students can be effective, but its maximum benefits tend to show up in the Math and Writing sections, which are rule-based and relatively straightforward. In my experience, it rarely produces the kinds of significant gains in Critical Reading that higher-scoring students see.
Here I do have to mention that students with solid skills who are just beginning SAT prep may not score well because they haven’t learned to transfer their skills to the test; there’s often a very big difference between someone who scores a 550 CR on their-first ever practice test and someone who’s still scoring 550 after a year of prep. Provided that they are willing to spend lots of time learning vocabulary and do not have difficulty thinking strategically, a student starting at 580 and aiming for a mid-600s score can sometimes learn enough to parlay their skills into a 50-70 point increase in the space of a few months. (If they want to spend more than a couple of months prepping seriously, however, they can often raise their scores well into the 700s).
For students scoring persistently below 600 (let’s define persistently as after six months or more), however, short-term prep is usually a much dicier prospect. In such cases, a sub-600 score is usually an indicator of multiple missing skills, and the amount of work involved in acquiring those skills is what sets Critical Reading apart from the other two sections. As one article I came across recently termed it, reading is ‘three-dimensional” problem. No matter how self-contained a passage may seem, it always has a real-world context; the more familiar the reader is with its subject matter and the conventions of its genre, the faster and easier the reader will be able to understand it.
There’s also the decoding aspect: students who never learned to read phonetically are often either stymied by unfamiliar words and will come to a grinding halt when they encounter them, or simply plug in a similar-looking word that causes them to misunderstand the passage. When this type of confusion happens repeatedly, students can end up with only the most fragmentary idea of what they’ve read. A lack of familiarity with complex grammatical structures (multiple clauses, non-essential clauses, inverted subject-verb structure, separation of subject and verb within a sentence) and the ability to intuit where a sentence or a paragraph or an argument is going can also severely impede comprehension and make reading an excruciatingly slow and confusing process.
The real problem, however, is that fluid comprehension results from the interaction between all of these skills, in ways that researchers do not entirely understand. What researchers do understand, however, is that the relationship between the acquisition of individual skills and overall reading level is exponential. *All* of the skills must reach a critical point before their interaction results in a jump to a noticeably higher level; drilling concepts in a single area has limited effects. And because, as I discussed in my last post, because persistently low scores often result from a combination attention and memory issues as well as self-management difficulties and lack of contextual knowledge, it can be extraordinarily difficult to find success with a strategy-based approach.
That’s not to say that these students can’t improve from long-term, skills-based preparation if they are willing to work very, very hard, simply that there are no quick fixes when someone has so many gaps across the board. When the College Board says that test-prep doesn’t make much of a difference, this is what they mean, and in this sense I can’t help but agree with them. Trying to do short-term prep with a very weak student has made me realize how well-constructed the SAT really is. What seem like simple tricks to a 700-level student are actually huge obstacles to one scoring 250 points lower.
While long-term prep (six months+) might seem like the better option, the reality is that its efficacy varies widely and, as is the case for short-term prep, depends on the particular student’s needs.
In my experience, there is usually no way to raise a below-600 Reading score to 700+ (or even 600+) without serious, sustained long-term effort, and students who are aiming to cross a major score threshold should be aware of the work involved in achieving such a goal.
The most successful students I’ve had by far are the ones whose parents came to me with the understanding that test-prep was likely to be a long-term project, one that would require consistent work, and who were actually willing to put in that work — or whose parents were willing to force them to put in the work. The father of one of my students kept a massive index-card box full of vocabulary flashcards with which he would proceed to torture his son on a daily basis. It took a year, but he played a huge role in getting his severely ADD (but extremely smart) son from a flat 500 CR to a 670.
Let me repeat that, by the way: not a quick fix, a year.
This type of prep typically involves acquiring skills that for whatever reason are either not being mastered or not being learned period in school. It also tends to involve some fairly intensive remediation, and that simply takes time. You wouldn’t try to learn a year’s worth of chemistry in one hour a week for a couple of months, would you? So why on earth would you treat the SAT that way? And I would argue that that is in fact a valid analogy: Critical Reading tests concrete, specific comprehension and reasoning skills that can be taught much the way any subject can be taught — the only difference is that those skills are not, for the most part, being taught in the classroom, and tutoring must often replace school rather than complement it.
I used to argue with Debbie Stier about the amount of time an average student should reasonably expect to spend studying for a 100+ point increase, but having learned the hard way when enough of my mid-range students didn’t improve after a couple of months, I now concur with her assessment of a year. It’s a safe bet that you’ll need that long to digest new skills to the point where you can apply them on the fly in a high-pressure situation when you’ve been up since 6am and are sure that you just completely blew the last section. Trust me: it takes a long time.
Given the time, I now treat Reading much the way I used to treat Writing and don’t even bother looking at the test until we’ve worked through the various skills that it involves. It may not be fun to spend a couple of months just discussing how passages are organized (anecdote, commentary, main point, counterargument), but surprisingly enough, it’s a whole lot easier to transfer skills to a test once you actually have them.
For students who start off scoring very well (700+), however, burnout can be a real danger. For them, it makes the most sense to focus in on their weakest areas and spend some time focusing seriously on them rather than take test after test after test for months on end (although granted, if their biggest problem is managing the whole test itself rather than any specific skill, then taking lots of practice test might be necessary.)
There is such thing as a point of diminishing returns, and it’s not pretty once someone goes too far past it — especially if their parents are demanding perfect scores. I’ve worked with some kids who kept prepping way past the point where it was beneficial for them to do so, and eventually it got to the point where it felt like an exercise in futility for both of us. They clearly no longer cared, and I was exhausted and increasingly uncomfortable trying to hold their interest when it was obvious they just wanted the whole thing to be over.
At a certain point, you either have to put in the effort to really get yourself to the next level or decide that you’re happy with what you have.
I know that some of you won’t believe me, but I feel obligated to reiterate this here:
An SAT score is only one part of your application. While a low score can keep you out, a high score alone will not get you in. No admissions committee at any elite (non-technical) school will take an otherwise undistinguished kid with a 2350 when they can take a kid with a 2250 — or, horror, a 2200 — and something genuinely interesting to contribute. It is not worth spending all your time trying to get a 2300+ if doing so will come at the expense of other parts of your application.
I’m not going to say much about medium-term prep here (4-6) months except that I find it occupies and awkward middle ground: it isn’t quite long enough to build and solidify skills from the ground up, but it is often long enough to become frustrating for a kid hovering around the 2200-2250 range and trying to break 2300/2350. If someone wants to spend time just memorizing vocabulary, that’s fine, but there are better things to do with one’s time than spend months obsessing for the sake of what often comes down to five or six questions on the entire test when simply working more carefully could accomplish the same goal in a few weeks.
For a 600-650 ish student who needs a combination of skill- and strategy-work, however, it can be very effective — assuming the time is used effectively.
I realize that this post has already become a bit long-winded (try as I might to be succinct, I just can’t get past my habitual verbosity — what can I say, I like to ramble on…), so I’ll just say this:
I’ve seen the greatest number of problems arise when people expect long-term results from short-term prep, so whichever one you choose, adjust your expectations accordingly. Take a hard look at your score, your skills, your goals, the amount of work you’re honestly willing to put in, and what you want to get out of SAT prep. If you don’t want to spend months memorizing vocabulary and your goal is to get the test over with a soon as possible, you’re probably best off looking for some short-term strategy-based prep; if you’re starting at a 550 and won’t settle for anything less than a 700, plan on a year, and expect to do a lot of work. There is no one-size fits all, and the best you can do is to choose the option that most suits your needs and be aware that your score will be a reflection of your choice.