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.

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.

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 complicated 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 get down to one answer by process of elimination, double-check that the answer actually makes sense.

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.

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.


Among the tidbits of wisdom that I attempt to impart to my students is the fact that it doesn’t really matter if they understand a particular rule/concept/strategy after I’ve explained it to them once. The real test is whether they can apply at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning, when they’re still not 100% awake, and, oh yeah, are in the middle of taking an exam that will play a very significant role in determining where they spend the next four years of their lives.

In general, I do my best not to pile on the pressure for my students (they’re certainly under enough already, and I certainly don’t want to be responsible for anyone having a nervous breakdown!), but every now and then, when someone needs a reality check about what’s involved in really and truly mastering a concept, I give them that little speech. Usually it’s met with a small giggle and a look of minor incredulousness. Until they actually go through the process of taking the SAT and end up sitting in front of question 9 in section 10, desperately trying to wade through four-and-a-half hours of test-taking fatigue and figure out just what is wrong with the stupid sentence already, most people don’t fully appreciate what it means to understand comma splices.

So let me spell it out. If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, you might not quite believe, but trust me, it’s something to keep in mind as you prepare. True mastery of a particular concept, whether it be comma splices, dangling modifiers, or right triangles, means that you can always recognize when it’s being tested. Always. No matter how tired you are, no matter what you were doing beforehand, no matter how much room the people in the next room are making, no matter what angle it’s being tested from — the knowledge is just there.

If you can usually recognize comma splices on the SAT but use them rampantly in your own writing, that means you don’t fully understand them — which means that you still have the potential to get fooled on the exam.

Likewise, if formulating a clear thesis statement and composing an argument that adheres consistently to it something that’s just beginning to sink in for you, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to pull it off on the real test. This is not just a question of “getting familiar” with how the SAT works. Until you get to the point where it’s an extension of a real-life skill, one that you consistently apply in your actual schoolwork, there will always be an element of chance. (If you don’t believe me, ask a kid who got a 12 on the essay without doing a single practice run: I can virtually guarantee that coming up with a clear thesis and keeping their argument directly focused on it is something they can do in their sleep.)

I think, by the way, that this is part of why so many people perceive the SAT to be so “tricky.” If you’ve just brushed up on a couple of things for the test but haven’t fully assimilated them, of course you’re going to miss things; it’s inevitable, especially since the test is written to exploit those misunderstandings.

What does this mean in terms of studying? Well… I’ll put it this way. For most people, the inclination is to study until they’ve gotten more or less where they want to be. And then stop. But that doesn’t really work: just because you did incredibly well on one practice test doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily do as well on the next test (unless, of course, you really do know what you’re doing). So take another one. And another one. Do it until there’s absolutely no way you can possibly score below a certain level, even on your worst possible day. And when you go back and review the questions you’ve missed, make sure that you’re not just looking at the questions themselves but rather at the underlying concepts they’re testing. If you have trouble with subject-verb agreement, take a book and try to identify the subject and verb in every single sentence; if your ability to identify dangling modifiers is hit or miss, try writing some of your own. If you can produce it correctly, you’ll be a lot less likely to overlook someone else’s error.

You might not be able to master everything, but you can pick a handful of concepts that seem well within your control and focus on them. Even three or four more questions per section could boost your score well over 100 points.

The bottom line is that you never know just what’s going to happen when you go in and take the test. If you perceive your score as the result of chance, whether particular the test is “easy” or “hard”… well, chances are you’re not going to do nearly as well as you could have. Or, at the very least, you’re going to feel as if the whole experience is somehow beyond your control. But if you’ve trained yourself past the point of mastery, the whole experience might actually border on. . .maybe not quite pleasant, but at least not so bad.