Don’t overlook the ACT

Don’t overlook the ACT

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I’m often a tutor of last resort. That is, people find their way to me after they’ve exhausted other test-prep options (self-study, online program, private tutor) and still find themselves short of their goals. Sometimes very, very far short of their goals. When people come to me very late in the process, e.g. late spring of junior year or the summer before senior year, there’s unfortunately a limited amount that I can do. Most of it is triage at that point: finding and focusing on a handful of areas in which improvement is most likely.

Not coincidentally, many of the students in this situation who find their way to me have been cracking their heads against the SAT for months, sometimes even a year or more. Often, they’re strong math and science students whose reading and writing scores lag significantly behind their math scores, even after very substantial amounts of prep and multiple tests. They’re motivated, diligent workers, but the verbal is absolutely killing them. Basically, they’re fabulous candidates for the ACT. (more…)

If you keep getting down to two Critical Reading answers and always pick the wrong one…

If you keep getting down to two Critical Reading answers and always pick the wrong one…

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.
The devil is in the details

The devil is in the details

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. (more…)

A random list of things my students refuse to do (maybe you’ll actually try them)

A random list of things my students refuse to do (maybe you’ll actually try them)

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. (more…)

“Certain” doesn’t mean “right”

“Certain” doesn’t mean “right”

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). (more…)

Familiarity is not mastery

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.