Short-term prep vs. long-term prep

Short-term prep vs. long-term prep

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.

Short-Term Prep

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. (more…)

Guessing and skipping problems

Guessing and skipping problems

Of all the discussions floating around about SAT prep, the one I find most irritating — and pointless — is the guessing vs. skipping debate. I’ve heard all the debates by now, and I’m just not interested. I’m not a statistician, but after five years of teaching and writing what are essentially logic questions, I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting fallacies. I’ve also seen how things play out in the real world, where poorly thought-out guesses rarely pan out (at least when I’m watching).

The “guess if you can eliminate x number of answers” approach is based on the assumption that test-takers can reliably identify incorrect answers and that they will not eliminate the correct answer. From what I’ve seen, that is not even remotely a valid assumption. Certainly not for low-scoring students, but often not for higher-scoring ones either. (more…)

On being realistic (sometimes there is no shortcut)

As you may have heard, June SAT scores are back. And if you’re reading this, chances are you’re looking to improve your score this summer and thinking about what might be possible. Maybe you want to crack 1800…or 2000…or even 2300. You’ve got about three months, which is plenty of time to accomplish…something. If you’re unhappy with what you’ve managed to accomplish on your own, you might be thinking about thinking about taking a class or working with a tutor, or maybe you’re just planning to keep plugging away on your own. Regardless of your (or your child’s) situation, however, there are some things you should keep in mind.

So a little reality check. Some of this is going to sound awfully blunt, and probably more than a little harsh, but here are some things to keep in mind:

The SAT is hard.

Good grades are no guarantee of a high score.

Your score is the result of what you know, whether you can apply that knowledge instantaneously and under pressure, and how well you manage yourself on the particular test you happen to get; it is not something you are entitled to because you attend a particular school or have spent x amount of time or money being tutored, or even because you work hard.

Most people will, by definition, score somewhere around average.

If there really were tricks you could use to ace the exam, lots of people would get perfect scores instead of about 300 out of 1.5 million.

However hard you think you are working, there are other students out there who are putting in much, much more. If you want to equal — or surpass them — you need to be willing to work just as hard.

You are being compared to hundreds of thousands of your peers, including the very top students in the United States and some in other countries; the curve is designed to reflect that.

A tutor is not a miracle worker.

There is a skill level below which short-term strategy-based prep is usually not effective. A score below 600 after a significant amount of prep is usually a good indicator that there are a number of fundamentals missing, although higher scorers are often missing particular key skills (e.g. identifying the topic of a passage) to various degrees.

If you are missing skills, getting to the next level will require a huge amount of work, whether your score goal is 1600, 2000, or 2400. It’s as much about where you’re starting from as it is about where you want to go.

The SAT does not work like tests in school. It’s designed to gauge how well you can apply your knowledge, not whether you can simply cram in a bunch of words and formulas, to be forgotten as soon as you walk out of the exam room. If you haven’t mastered skills to the point where they’re automatic, you will not be able to apply them — or even be able to figure out when to apply them — to the test.

Today’s eleventh and twelfth grade textbooks are written at the same level that ninth grade textbooks were written at fifty years ago. If you don’t read anything other than textbooks and Sparknotes summaries, with the occasional Wikipedia article thrown in, you will most likely not be prepared for Critical Reading.

No tutor can compensate for two or five or ten years of accumulated deficits in a couple of months, never mind four or five sessions, and it is not fair or realistic to expect one to do so. A student who doesn’t know words like “surrender” and “compromise” and “permanent,” or who has reached the age of 17 without being able to consistently recognize the difference between a sentence and a fragment, is going to hit a wall unless they are willing to spend huge  amounts of time filling in some of those gaps on their own.

Now that I’m starting see lots of students who are missing important middle-school vocabulary and some who are missing basic elementary school vocabulary, I realize that Stanley Kaplan knew what he was talking about when he said that SAT prep should begin in kindergarten.

While the majority of my students improve, sometimes very dramatically, some of them do not; occasionally, their scores even go down. And students who come to me for a handful of sessions with middling scores, genuine knowledge gaps, and an unrealistic sense of just how much work they’ll need to put in to get the next level, rarely see any significant progress. (Note: taking three or four practice tests doesn’t count for much when there are people taking twenty or thirty…or more.) On the other hand, someone who has all the basics in place and just needs a little push to get to the next level might get where they want to be in a session or two. I’ve seen it happen more than once, but those people really did have things pretty much in order to start with.

I do my best to be really clear about just what I can and cannot likely accomplish in a given timeframe, but it’s a very fine line between being honest and being discouraging. I don’t want to turn away someone I could genuinely end up helping. I’ve seen enough kids pull off huge and unexpected jumps to know that it’s not my place to judge what someone is or is not ultimately capable of doing, but I don’t want to encourage people to harbor unrealistic expectations either.

I realize, by the way, that I probably shouldn’t admit all of this publicly — doing so can’t possibly be good for business — but given how convinced everyone seems to be about the existence of quick fixes, I feel responsible for saying something.

At some level, I think that the test-prep industry’s claim that there really are little “tricks” has become so ingrained in people’s psyches that they don’t fully grasp just how hard it is to raise a score, especially a Critical Reading score, until they see that 490 or 550 or 570 staring at them — again — from the computer screen. It seems impossible that they should have done what seemed (to them) like a huge amount of work and paid a lot of money, only to end up right back where they started. They don’t understand just how precisely the test has been calibrated to keep producing the same results. They hire a tutor because they think there really is some sort of magic shortcut (more than one parent has said I must know “all the tricks,” wink-wink, nudge-nudge) and are consequently very rudely shocked by just how hard they or their child will have to work to break through to the next threshold.

No matter how upfront I am about the limits of my abilities, though, I still feel responsible (and vaguely disingenuous, even though I’ve made it clear that I can promise nothing) when a student doesn’t improve. Then I start to wonder whether other tutors really do have secrets that I don’t know about.

Believe or not, I’m not trying to discourage anyone who’s less than over-the-moon about their SAT or ACT score. If you’re planning to study for this summer (and yes, I will post some actual test tips, not just whine about the decrepit state of the American school system, although I might have to get a few more posts about that in before I move on), by all means, you might actually succeed in raising your score hundreds of points.

Occasionally, like yesterday, I’ll get an email from a kid who did nothing other than work through my books and practice diligently, but who nevertheless managed to raise his CR and Writing scores by 400 points. Emails like that make my day, actually my week. They reassure me that people who put in the work actually can improve by that much, regardless of what the College Board claims.

Basically, you get out what you put in, tutor or no tutor. Most of my best students, the ones who make the 100, 150+ point improvements per section, have been incredibly self-driven. They experimented with strategies, hunted down old exams on the Internet, and read Oliver Sacks for pleasure; and when they came to me with questions, it was because they had worked through things as far as they possible could and were genuinely stuck. The ones who were dragged by their parents, who would clearly rather have been somewhere else… Well, some of them actually improved rather impressively, too (didn’t think I was going to say that, did you?), but they did stop short of their potential. The ones who did the work in only the most perfunctory manner, however, the ones who showed no interest in really understanding the test, and who expected me to give them a secret that would allow them to reach their goal without really having to think…Would you really be surprised if I told you that they almost always ended up disappointed?

So don’t think that improving is impossible. Lots of people do it, sometimes by quite a bit. But don’t expect a 200-point improvement to fall in your lap either. Or, for that matter, be hand delivered to you on a silver platter.

Some advice for those of you disappointed with your SAT scores

I know I’m posting this a day late, after some of the “omigod I got my scores back” hysteria has subsided, but please forgive me: I’m recovering from several weeks of what can only be described as book-formatting hell (columns are a dangerous, dangerous thing when it comes to Word), and frankly I could barely stand to look at my computer yesterday.

So if you are by chance scouring the Internet looking for some advice about what to do for your less-than-stellar SAT scores, here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts.

A couple of months back, when Debbie Stier was giving a talk about Perfect Score Project at Bronxville High School, I suggested she open her segue into the SAT-prep part of her talk with three big questions, which I’m going to pose to you now:

1) Where are you and why?

2) Where do you want to be?

3) What are you realistically willing to do to get there?

I ask these questions because it’s very tempting to assume your score was a quirk of fate, or of the curve, or of the fact that you didn’t get quite as much sleep as you should have, or of the kid who sat in front of you tapping his pencil incessantly and making it just impossible for you to concentrate the way you obviously would have been able to otherwise… Scores don’t usually go way up on the real test; if anything, they tend to go down because you’re under so much pressure.

When you’re convinced that your score just had to be the result of some seemingly minor external factor — especially if that score was a lot lower than the ones you’ve been getting on practice tests — the natural reaction is to jump to take the test again as soon as possible because you just want to get it over with and never have to look at another prep book again, and hey, maybe you’ll luck and get an easier test and your score will go way up and then you’ll just be done. I call these “rebound tests,” and unfortunately, scores on them tend to be almost identical to the scores on the original test.

Now, to be clear, if you did genuinely happen to be ill or in need of a root canal (I do actually know of a kid that happened to), then yes, by all means, sign up for the next SAT so that you can get see what your score is like when you’re healthy and lucid. But absent some sort of serious mitigating factor, it’s well worth your while to stop, take stock, and figure out what you need to work on before plunging back in to the real thing. Unless there are one or two superficial thing consistently holding you back (e.g. timing problems on CR but zero comprehension issues), there might not be a quick fix. This is especially true if you’re trying to break through a major barrier (high 500s to 600+, high 600s to 700+, etc.). Those “walls” exist for a reason, and usually if you want to get past them, something substantial has to change. Otherwise you just end up beating your head against them.

Think of it this way: although you may not find the thought of being stuck in SAT-prep land for another six months particularly appealing, you’ve still actually got some time. True, if you want to apply early, you should be done be October, but still… that’s a pretty long while. Even if you’ve got big gaps, you can go some way toward plugging them.

This is, however, where question #3 above comes into play. I can’t count the number of times parents have told me earnestly, “But my child really wants do well on the SAT,” as if merely wanting to do well were enough. I can’t say I’ve ever worked with anyone who didn’t want to do well. That’s not the point. The point is that you have to be willing to sit down and struggle, maybe for longer than you’d like, and perhaps admit that you don’t know everything after all. It also means that you might have to devote more of your summer than you’d like to studying: if you just can’t do it, that’s perfectly fine, but you probably shouldn’t expect your scores to skyrocket in October. Again, it’s about being realistic and knowing just how much you can honestly handle.

I’ve worked with a handful of kids who had major lightbulb moments after just a session or two: they suddenly “got” what it was the test was trying to do, and they saw the logic behind it. But then they went and the worked on their own. A lot. And not because anyone was forcing them to. They brought a wonderful sense of curiosity and enthusiasm because they saw studying for the test as an opportunity to actually learn something that went way beyond the SAT (one of them turned into a huge Oliver Sacks fan and wrote his essay for Columbia, where Sacks teaches, about him).

So before you rush to take the test again as soon as possible, think about what you actually need to accomplish between where you are now and where you hope to be. Then ask yourself what specific steps, if any, you’re actually willing to take to get there.

The five second rule

When a student who consistently runs out of time comes to me, one of the first thing I try to do is pin down what exactly is causing them to slow down. In the absence of a serious comprehension problem, I frequently find that as they work through the sentence completions and encounter words they don’t know, they simply stop and stare.

I can almost hear the little voice in their head saying “Wait… I’ve seen this word before… It looks really familiar… We talked about it in English class last month… It means like “stubborn” or something, right? I think…” Meanwhile the seconds and then the minutes tick by, and they’re still struggling their way through the same medium-level question.

As I constantly have to remind my students, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what the wrong answers means as long as you do know what the right answer means. In other words, if you see a word whose meaning you’re absolutely certain of and it fits the sentence perfectly, it’s the answer, and you need to just pick it and move on. The fact that there might be three or four other words whose meanings you’re not sure of is completely irrelevant. The point is to answer the questions correctly, not to know the definition of every single word.

What happens, however, is that students see the unfamiliar words and assume that they know far less than they actual do. For those trying to break the 600 mark, that reaction is a disaster because it causes them to 1) get easy-medium-ish questions wrong that they should be getting right, and 2) waste huge amounts of time so that they run out of time and end up missing additional questions at the end of the section that they could have answered correctly.

One of the major mental adjustments that people have to make when they first start studying for the SAT is the fact that the exam tests flexible knowledge — the stuff you know so well that you can pull it out on autopilot, not the stuff you tried to cram last night or last week and that only got stored in your short-term memory. If you don’t know a word when you see it and don’t have any tools (roots, etc.) for figuring it out, there really isn’t much you can do about it on the spot. If that word hasn’t been stored in your long-term memory, the reality is that sitting and staring at it probably isn’t going to help, no matter how much it feels like it will; if anything, it’ll simply take time away from other things.

When I work through sentence completions with people, one of the major things I focus on is getting them out of staring mode and into “let me focus on something else” mode. The moment I see their eyes start to glaze over, I say “next.” Usually, that’s about five seconds after they’ve looked at the word. (To be perfectly honest, it’s probably more like a second or two, but if I called this post “the one second rule,” I’m not sure anyone would bother to read it. ). Inevitably, they’re startled, but I’ve learned that if they go any longer, they’re going to get stuck.

Consider this sentence:

Arsenic is a notoriously ——– substance; its ——- of groundwater poses a danger to the health of millions of people around the world.

Give yourself five seconds to come up with words to plug into the blanks. If you can’t come up with anything, just say whether each blank is positive or negative.

Now, when you look at the answer choices, you’re going to deal with each side individually, starting with whichever side you’re more certain of. Left or right, it doesn’t matter.

Go in order, (A)-(E).

If you know that a word won’t work, eliminate the entire answer; if you don’t know what a word means, keep it.

For each word, you have a maximum of five seconds to decide.

Repeat for the other side. Five seconds max.

Do not allow yourself to think, “well, maybe if I just stared at this word a little longer,” I might figure out what it means,” or “let me try plugging this word into the sentence and seeing how it sounds…” Just say “yes” or “no.” You can go back and plug in once you get down to a couple of answers.

If you go back and plug in your remaining answers and still aren’t sure, give yourself five seconds to decide what to do. You can guess, skip entirely, or circle it to come back to later. But you have to decide — you can’t just sit and stare.


Arsenic is a notoriously ——– substance; its ——- of groundwater poses a danger to the health of millions of people around the world.

(A) volatile . . anticipation

(B) edifying . . deprivation

(C) noxious . . contamination

(D) destructive . . purification

(E) benign . . pollution

How was that? If you usually have time problems, that was probably a much faster pace than you’re accustomed to working at. It might even feel a bit breathless. But yes, in order to finish on time, you do actually have to work that fast.

For the record, the answer is beside the point here; the point is the process. But you can scroll down for the answer.

The same is true for passage-based reading questions, by the way. If you’re consistently staring at answer choices for more than a few seconds without actively figuring out whether it’s right or wrong, you’re going to get into trouble. That doesn’t mean you have to answer the question in five seconds, just that staring at answer choices without actually engaging with those choices (thinking about how they relate to the main point, rephrasing them in simpler language, going back to the passage to check out something specific) will get you nowhere.

The answer is (C). If you did happen to get the question right, congratulations. You might, however, be thinking, “ok, fine, I tried it your way, but I would have gotten it right anyway — it wasn’t really that hard.” To which my response would be, “I appreciate that you might have gotten this question right anyway, but this is about 1) using time to maximum efficiency, and 2) working as systematically as possible so you don’t make careless errors — you know, the kind that can knock you down from an 800 to a 720, or a 700 to a 620. Besides, there will be other, harder questions that you will end up wasting huge amounts of time unnecessarily on if you don’t train yourself to make decisions quickly on the easier ones.

If you don’t know why you’re picking the answer, you probably shouldn’t pick it

I’ve now uttered these words so many times this week that I feel compelled to post them. As you may have guessed, the typical conversation that elicits them goes something like this:

Me: So what made you pick (C)? Tell me how you got that answer.

Student: Ummm… I’m really not sure.

Me: There must have been something that made you pick it… Can you give me some idea of how you came up with it?

Student: (Giggles uncomfortably. Shrugs). Ummm… I really don’t know what I was thinking.

Me: If you’re really have no idea why you’re picking an answer, that’s usually a sign that you haven’t thought hard enough about what you’re doing.

In case you haven’t noticed, the SAT is a test that requires you to think (duh). That’s not to say that you have to focus obsessively on every little detail, but you can’t afford to tune out either.

A “reason” for picking an answer can be something as simple as a gut feeling. From what I’ve seen, they’re right far more often than not, and usually when I press someone to explain those “gut” answers, it turns out that there was a logical thought process there that they just didn’t quite know how to put into words.

It’s also fine to pick an answer based on knowledge of the test: if you’re struggling with a tone question and know that “wry” is usually right when it appears as an answer choice, you can pick it even if you don’t totally get what’s going in the passage. Or on a “function” question that asks you to identify the purpose of a particular line, if you know that correct answers tend to be short and phrased in a very general manner, you can probably make an educated guess. You might not always get the answer right, but at least you’re basing your answers on the way the test usually works, as opposed to the desire to just get the question over without leaving it blank.

One of the most frustrating things for me as a tutor is that unless the student willingly and actively decides to abandon the “guess and get it over with” mindset, my ability to help them is seriously curtailed.

As I incessantly remind my students whenever they ask me what a word means or what a question is actually asking, I won’t be there to feed them the information when they’re actually taking the test. I’m happy to explain AFTER they’ve tried working through the question on their own, but I need to see them try it with their actual level of knowledge so that I can help them figure things out even when they’re *not* entirely sure what’s going on. My job is to get them to the point where they can do it on their own because ultimately they’re going to have no choice but to do it that way.