Your scores don’t have to be perfect, just high enough

A while back, one of my students came to me mystified about why a classmate of hers with an SAT score of only 2170 had been admitted to Princeton. She was perplexed by the fact that Princeton had picked him over thousands of applicants with higher SAT scores. My response was that the score, while a bit on the low side for Princeton, was nevertheless high enough to put him in the range for consideration, and that he must have had some characteristic that made him particularly interesting to Princeton despite his comparatively “low” test scores.

I put the conversation out of my mind until the 2012 edition of the US News and World Report rankings came out. As I was flipping through it, I noticed a story about a boy with a 2170 SAT score who had been admitted to Princeton. That sounded vaguely familiar, so I kept reading. It turned out that he did in fact attend my student’s high school, and from various details in the articles, it became clear that he was the boy she had mentioned to me.

So why did Princeton take him? Although he may not have broken 2200, he was, of all things, a countertenor — quite possibly the only countertenor to apply out of 30,000+ applicants, and an accomplished one at that. Faced with 10,000 seemingly identical soccer-team captains and newspaper editors, the admissions committee must have been thrilled to see something so unusual. (The fact that Princeton is trying to make itself a tad more attractive to “artsy” students certainly didn’t hurt him either.)

That’s obviously an extreme case, which is undoubtedly why USNWR chose to profile him, but it does confirm my observation: if a school is faced with a super high-scoring but otherwise average applicant and slightly lower-scoring applicant that has something really interesting about them, the school will pretty much always choose the second kid.

Remember: Harvard could admit an entire class of near-perfect scorers, but sometimes it rejects those kids in favor of people with score 100-150 points lower. So if your scores are a little (e.g. 50 points) on the low side for your dream school, it doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily out. It just means that you have to put in a bit more effort everywhere else. Admissions officers are generally quite adept at figuring out who’s a good match for their school. While scores are undeniably important, they’re not the whole story either. That’s what “holistic” means.

Always work in pencil

Always work in pencil

I will freely admit that the use of pens during tutoring sessions is one of my biggest pet peeves. In everyday life, I have nothing against them (I actually like them quite a bit), but when it comes to the SAT, I loathe them. I’ve been known to rummage in my purse for up to five minutes in a desperate attempt to circumvent the necessity of working in ink.

Here why: When you use a pen, you can’t erase things (let’s assume we’re not talking about erasable pens), and when you can’t erase things, you tend to get very cautious about crossing them out. And that can be a major problem. In order to work most effectively, you need to be free to eliminate answers conclusively, to draw lines all the way through them and totally remove them from consideration. If you work in pen, you probably won’t do this. (more…)

If you want to see whether you understand the SAT…

Try explaining it to someone else. Friend, sibling, parent…anyone. It doesn’t even matter whether or not that person is actually going to take the test. The only thing that counts is that they’re willing to humor you and sit with a Blue Book for an hour or two.

There’s a reason I always ask my students to explain to me why they’re doing what they’re doing: in about two seconds, it usually becomes exceedingly obvious whether or not they really get it. If someone says that they know but can’t really explain it, chances are they actually don’t. (For a great explanation of that phenomenon, see this article by Daniel Willingham). It’s one thing to shrug and say, “Yeah, that makes sense” when someone explains the answer to you; it’s something very different to work out all of the steps necessary on your own and explain them to someone else.

If you’re already scoring very well (high 600s+), I would argue that this is actually one of the most productive ways to study. Having to explain something to another person forces you to clarify your own thought process. Things you formerly took for granted suddenly seem bizarrely murky, and you start to wonder just how you know to do x instead of y. You have no choice but to break the process into smaller, more precise steps in order to explain why the answer must be B rather than E. The result is that you learn exactly what you do and don’t know. Furthermore, you gain an awareness of your own thought processes — an awareness that leads to a much stronger sense of confidence and control when you actually take the test.

Some thoughts about strategy-based test prep

When proclaiming that the SAT and the ACT are not tests that can be effectively coached, the College Board and the ACT like to trot out the following statistic, courtesy of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling

Existing academic research suggests average gains as a result of commercial test preparation are in the neighborhood of 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT, substantially lower than gains marketed by test preparation companies.

Let’s take a moment and unpack this assertion. First, one of the key words here is “commercial test prep” (e.g. Kaplan and Princeton Review); nowhere is tutoring through “boutique” companies or private tutoring mentioned. As someone who has helped more than one student increase their verbal scores alone by 350+ points on the SAT and 10+ points on the ACT, I have some grounds for disputing the idea that the shortcomings of commercial test-prep should not be extended to test-prep in general.

That’s not, however, what I really want to focus on here. What interests me, rather, is the idea of average gains and the way in which that average was determined. I’ve been thinking about this thanks to Debbie Stier, who put up a very interesting blog link to the following article by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia.

Willingham makes the point that:

When a teacher presents a reading strategy to students, we can assume that there are three types of students in the class: students who have already discovered the strategy (or something similar) on their own, students who are not fluent enough decoders to use the strategy, and students who are good decoders but don’t know the strategy. Only the last group of students will benefit from reading strategy instruction. When a researcher finds an average effect size of d=0.33 for teaching students the strategy, that effect is probably actually composed of many students who showed no benefit and a smaller number of students who showed a large benefit.

I think that something very similar is going on in many strategy-based prep classes. My guess is that only around half of the people who take those tests (those scoring 500+) actually have solid enough literal comprehension skills to even make any sort of strategy-based prep worthwhile.

What this means is that if someone’s comprehension skills are truly up to par (meaning, more or less, that they can pick up a College Board Critical Reading passage at random, understand the gist of it, and summarize the main point and tone), they actually stand to benefit immensely from strategy-based prep. It probably won’t help for the ones scoring 750+ from the start because they’re already using many of the standard strategies, even unconsciously, but for many of the still-small percentage scoring in the 600 to low 700 range, the increase can be very substantial. Many of the ones who persistently score in the 500s, however, won’t succeed in raising their scores at all because they lack the core skills on which to base the strategies they learn.

This points to a disturbing conclusion: the real problem isn’t that people can game the test by learning strategies (aka “tricks”) but rather that many test-takers don’t even even have strong enough comprehension skills to be helped by those strategies in the first place.

Some thoughts on senior year testing

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually looked forward to retaking the SAT or the ACT their senior year of high school. You’re sick of studying, sick of standardized testing, want to actually enjoy your vacation, and never want to hear anyone utter the words “College Board” or “ACT” again. Burnout is real, I’m not going to argue. Junior year can be unbelievably hard, and it’s normal to need some time to recover.??That said, however, you may be doing yourself a major disservice by not retaking your senior year.

First, unless you’ve truly aced it the first time around (say 2300+ SAT or 34+ ACT), colleges do want to see what you’re capable of doing around the time you apply. Many people’s scores go up naturally between the spring of their junior year and the fall of their senior year, even without huge amounts of studying, and you don’t want to sell yourself short.

Second, regardless of how sick you are of studying, you need to be realistic about your chances at the colleges you’re seriously considering applying to. If your scores don’t already fall at or above the 50th percentile for those schools, your chances of getting in are significantly reduced; if you’re looking at very competitive schools and are not a recruited athlete, an under-represented minority, or national Intel winner, you should ideally be closer to the 75th percentile.

Admissions officers won’t cut you any slack if they have eight applicants that look very similar to you, and you have the lowest scores of the group.??That doesn’t mean you should drop everything over the summer and spend your entire life trying to pull up your test scores. If you’ve got great scores but nothing else, you won’t get very far at most top schools either.

What it does mean, though, is that even if the thought of even looking at another prep book is enough to push you close to a nervous breakdown, you should take a few weeks or a month off and then reassess. If you do decide to retake, focus on the sections that are most manageable. If you’ve done everything you can with Reading, focus on Writing; if you just need to work on Math, forget everything else (colleges will only take your top scores, even ones that require you to submit everything). Just don’t assume that there’s nothing else you can do.