Dangling modifiers, the GMAT, and the dangers of over-complication

Dangling modifiers, the GMAT, and the dangers of over-complication

In an attempt to better understand the grammatical issues that students studying for the GMAT typically find most challenging, I’ve started — belatedly, I admit — dipping a toe into the Sentence Correction forums on beatthegmat and gmatclub

The experience is something I can only describe as a flashback to the days when I used to read students’ obsessive parsing of SAT grammar questions on College Confidential. I don’t dispute that there’s a lot of helpful information, and some really outstanding analysis, but a lot of what I read also makes me want to bury my head in my hands and groan. 

To be fair, many of the students posting are not native English speakers, or come from countries where the English spoken is sufficiently different from standard American English that what’s on the GMAT might as well be a foreign language. That’s a huge challenge, and I’m not denying that. (more…)

Yes, you can delete ACT scores; no, you shouldn’t just keep taking the test

Yes, you can delete ACT scores; no, you shouldn’t just keep taking the test

After my recent post discussing why it’s not a good idea to treat real SATs or ACTs like practice runs, a tutor wrote to ask me to weigh in on the ACT’s score-deletion option and its effect on the test-prep process. In truth, I probably should have covered it in my earlier post, but since I didn’t (mea culpa!), I’m going to discuss it here. 

So first, for those of you who aren’t familiar with ACT scoring policy, the ACT takes the concept of score choice to a level beyond that of the SAT. Most colleges will allow you to select which set(s) of scores you want to send, but a few holdouts — including several Ivy League schools — still require you to send all of your scores. If you take the SAT, you do in fact need to send everything; however, if you take the ACT, there’s still a back door into score choice.  (more…)

Do a few questions before you get to the test

Do a few questions before you get to the test

For those of you taking the SAT tomorrow (and scouring the Internet for a few last-minute tips), here’s a small one that could actually have a significant effect on your score.

To introduce it, a personal anecdote (notice how many time the word I appears in the following sentences). About five years ago, I was going over a student’s QAS score sheet from her first real SAT. She was a good student and strong test taker, and in fact she’d scored a 2200. It was pretty much in line with her practice tests, but when I looked at the scoring breakdown by section, something leapt out at me: virtually every question she had gotten wrong came from the first three sections. And when I read over her essay, I saw that it was, well… Let us say it was not her best work.

At that point, I put two and two together. “G,” I said pointedly. “Were you awake when you started this test?” (more…)

A little fear is not a bad thing

A little fear is not a bad thing

I confess, I get nervous when my students tell me that they feel confident. Well, some of my students, at least. You’d think I’d be happy to hear that, right? I mean, I’m a tutor — shouldn’t I want my students to feel confident? Yes, of course… When it’s merited, that is. But confidence is unfortunately not always merited, especially when it comes to standardized testing. What some students know and what they think they know are often not the same thing at all. And in those cases, a small helping of fear can be a lot more effective than all the confidence in the world.

At this point, I think that it’s helpful to distinguish between types of confidence:

On one hand, there’s the kind of confidence that results from genuine mastery of material, or from sustained, regular preparation. My students who have made 100+ point leaps, especially in reading, do not score 520 one day and 670 the next. No, their increases come in fits and starts. They go up a bit, they plateau, sometimes they go down a little, and eventually their scores start to go up again. They put in the work, and they do lots and lots of practice. (more…)

The SAT and…crossword puzzles?

When people ask me whether I enjoy my job, my usual response is something along the lines of, “Some people do crossword puzzles, I write SATs” — the implication being that I view the test as a sort of amusing intellectual game. The other implication, of course, is that I don’t actually do crossword puzzles.

Or, well, didn’t.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was walking downtown with a friend, I got hungry and made him sit with me in Koreatown while I indulged a late-night craving for kimbap. In return, he proceeded to pull out the NYT crossword puzzle and insist that I help him with it. I groaned and told him for the thousandth time that I’m just not good at crossword puzzles (I write SATs, isn’t that enough?!), but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and after I managed to figure out a couple of clues (“River’s movement?” Ebb and flow), I sort of had to admit that was having fun.

The following week, he offered to buy me dinner in exchange for helping him with the Sunday puzzle, and since I obviously wasn’t going to turn down the prospect of a free meal, I found myself once again hunched over the Times magazine. As we worked through the clues, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the crossword puzzle and the SAT.

On one hand, that wasn’t exactly a revelation. Crossword puzzles are about reasoning with language, sometimes understanding a given phrase in its usual meaning, sometimes understanding it in a completely different — and completely unforeseen — way. (My personal favorite? “An expert in locks.” Answer: wigmaker). What’s more, you never know which angle you’ll have to approach a clue from: you could tie yourself in knots trying to think way outside the box, only to have the answer be staring you right in the face all along.

The premise of all that wordplay is that language is flexible — it can twisted inside-out and batted around and used to suggest meanings that are entirely unexpected yet perfectly and incontrovertibly logical. And in order to do well, you have to become equally flexible in response.

Sound familiar?

I was reminded of the infamous Aunt Sylvie question, which I promptly pulled up and showed to my friend; he answered it in about five seconds with flawless reasoning, pointing out that he’d only been able to do so because he’d spent the previous two hours looking for double meanings!

Now, sitting down for half an hour and taking a stab at a puzzle isn’t exactly going to be a magic pill that boosts your Critical Reading score 100 points instantaneously. Those things are hard; it took my friend and I a couple of hours of reasonably steady work to do the Sunday puzzle, and we’re both adults with college degrees, not to mention professional SAT tutors. And neither of us could have finished the puzzle alone. If you do decide to try one, I highly suggest that you do it with a parent or another adult. And although you might figure out a few clues upfront without too much trouble, be prepared to get frustrated.

If you stick with it long enough, though, you might see your mindset start to shift. You’ll start to look for alternate possibilities faster and realize that you might end up having to think in the opposite direction from what you originally thought. There’s also a chance you’ll start to see the SAT like more of a game and less of an unfortunate fact of high school life.

Hey, it’s summer. You’ve got time.