What makes a score “high enough?”

What makes a score “high enough?”

Note: I originally published this piece in 2011, but with the addition of the August SAT, it seems particularly relevant. Whereas the October SAT was the make-it-or-break-it test for a lot of seniors in the past, the possibility of just one more retake in October might now seem very appealing. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re trying to decided whether to make one last go. 

If your scores are borderline, how do you decide whether it’s worth it to go all out for a school or simply let it drop? In other words, at what point is it truly worth writing that supplement and shelling out $75 for an application?  (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.

Ask yourself what you’re missing

When I’m working through Critical Reading questions with a student, I regularly encounter the following scenario:

The student reads and understands the question without a problem.

The student goes back to the passage, re-reads and accurately summarizes the section in question, then formulates a general idea about what information the correct answer should contain.

The student looks at the answers but fails to see one that clearly fits.

The student’s eyes start to glaze over with panic as he stares at the page.

At this point, I usually interject nonchalantly, “So what are you going to do now?”

Student (looking sheepish): Uhhh… I don’t know?

Me: What happens when you work through the whole question carefully and then nothing seems to work?

Student: Is it (C)?

Me: Don’t guess. What do you do when you think you know what the right answer is going to say but none of the answers say it?

Student: No, wait, I think it might actually be (B).

Me: I said don’t guess. What’s the question you need to ask yourself when this happens?

Student: Uhh… I don’t remember

Me: I somehow feel that we’ve had this conversation already. Like, oh I don’t know, two or three or five hundred times. C’mon, this is probably going to happen when you take the test, and you need to know how to handle it.

Student stares blankly.

Me: What am I missing? What am I not seeing? That’s the question I always ask myself. If I’ve worked through the whole thing carefully but still don’t see the answer, that’s a sign that I’ve missed something. I’m either focusing on the wrong thing, or I’m just plain thinking in the wrong direction, and that means I need to go back and reconsider my original assumption. See how I’m turning it back on myself and taking responsibility for not knowing the answer? The people at ETS didn’t mess up; the answer is there, it’s just not something I’m not expecting. If I’m not getting it it means I’ve overlooked the necessary information.

Look, I did the exact same steps you did, and I wasn’t sure about the answer either. That happens to me too. But the difference is that I didn’t just decide to guess when I didn’t see the answer right away — I went back and tried to figure out where I went wrong. And if you seriously want to get every question right, you have to be willing to do that as well.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I tend to have this conversation most frequently with students scoring 700+ — they’re so accustomed to spotting the answer immediately that they’re simply flummoxed when they don’t, and then go into all-out panicking/guessing mode. Needless to say, this is not a particularly helpful strategy for getting to 800.

So for the record, when you think you’ve figured everything out but actually haven’t, here’s what to do:

1) Assuming that you’ve correctly understood both the question and the passage, start by crossing out the answers that absolutely, clearly do not make sense. Make sure you cross out the whole answer, not just the letter; when your visual field isn’t being cluttered by extraneous information, it’s easier to focus on what’s left.

2) Now, carefully read the answers that remain. You might have simply misread something or overlooked a key word the first time around. If that’s the case, you’re done. But if not…

3) Go back to the passage and look for specific textual elements that usually indicate importance: if you have a colon or dashes or italics or strong language (e.g. “most”) or a major transition like “however” or “therefore,” the information around it is probably going to be key, and the correct answer will probably restate it in some form.

Make sure also that you have the necessary context for the lines in question; sometimes the right answer won’t make sense if you only consider the lines referenced. Remember that “function” or “purpose” questions regularly go either way: sometimes you need to focus on the lines given, and sometimes you need to focus on what comes before or after, and there’s absolutely no way to tell upfront which one it will be. If you haven’t read both places and can’t figure out the answer, chances are you’ve been focusing on the wrong place.

4) If you’re still stumped, start with the most specific (usually the longest) answers and pick a concrete aspect to check out. If an answer mentions that an author was criticized on “moral grounds” but the passage only indicates that she was criticized because her work was challenging aesthetically (i.e. it didn’t conform to traditional notions of beauty), you can eliminate that answer.

Remember that the correct answer might be phrased in much more neutral or general terms than the passage itself; if an answer accurately describes what’s going on in the passage but does so neutrally while the passage is fairly negative or positive, it’s probably the answer.

Remember also that you shouldn’t eliminate answers simply because you find them confusing; your understanding has no bearing on whether they’re wrong or right.

5) If you still truly have no idea, skip the question and come back to it if you have time. It’s not worth wasting five minutes on if there are other things you can answer more easily.

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…)