Tutor vs. class vs. self-study

If you’re a junior or the parent of a junior and are just starting to think seriously about SAT/ACT prep, you might be pondering the various options available to you. Here are some thoughts:

Classes I think that there are really only two situations in which it can be worth taking a class: the first is if you’re really anxious about the test and want an introduction to it in a formal setting. Confronting the SAT or the ACT can initially feel overwhelming, and if it helps to have someone else break it down and tell you what to expect, I see nothing wrong with that.

The second is if you’re totally solid on all of the fundamentals going in and just need to learn some basic strategies to help you apply your knowledge to the test. I wouldn’t suggest it as a blanket solution since most classes are geared toward people scoring around 550-600, but it can help in some cases.

I confess that taking a Kaplan class the summer before my senior year helped me jump from a 710 to an 800 on Critical Reading because I learned to slow down and actually analyze the questions rather than just going with my gut feeling. (Admittedly, though, that’s about all it taught me.) I had a French SAT II student a couple of years ago who’d done Princeton Review and scored a 2300, and she certainly thought the class had helped. But again, she was a straight-A student at a very competitive private school and had no problem with any of the actual material.

If you do take a class, though, you need to approach the strategies you learn critically. If something isn’t working for you, don’t stick with it. I’ve had plenty of students who came to me after taking Kaplan/PR classes and having their scores go down, and I the first thing I had to do was get them to stop doing everything that wasn’t working. If at all possible, try not to go with a big chain; find a smaller local company or a tutor willing to put together a group.

Tutoring If you need to do serious work on fundamental English or Math skills OR you really only need help in one area, finding a tutor can be a far better choice than taking a class.

People often discard tutoring as a option because they believe that it’s prohibitively expensive but then don’t hesitate to pay Kaplan $500-$1,000 — an amount that could get you 10-20 hours with an excellent tutor. Never assume that price = quality, however, and many tutoring companies offer financial aid and/or do pro bono work. If you live relatively close to a college or university, try to find a student who scored well and has some tutoring experience; they probably won’t charge you a fortune.

Contrary to what some tutoring companies would lead their clients to believe, tutors do not need to hold advanced degrees or be former Rhodes scholars to tutor the SAT effectively; they must simply understand how the test works and be capable of effectively conveying the necessary material in a way that is easy to grasp. Do make sure, however, that a tutor’s background matches your needs. Even if many tutors can obtain top scores in all sections of a given test, most are somewhat stronger teaching-wise in one area. If Reading is your weakest section and a tutor has a degree in Chemistry, chances are that may not be a good match.

Yes, the SAT is a “reasoning” test (you can interpret that as you wish), but it is also a reading and math test, and if your underlying skills in one of those areas are weak, you need to work with someone who really understands the subject — not just someone who will teach you tricks and strategies. A tutor, however, is usually only helpful insofar as a student is motivated and willing to be an active participant in the tutoring process. Otherwise, hiring one can be a big waste of money.

Self-Study Self-study works best when you’re either already really solid on the fundamentals or willing to put in large amounts of time to solidify them. In order to significantly raise your score on your own, you have to be seriously self-motivated.

While there are plenty of online programs such as Grockit and Prep Me, you do need to be careful. Much of their material, like that of the major test-prep companies, bears little resemblance to what’s on the actual tests, and you risk getting the wrong idea about what you need to study. For a comprehensive review of Grockit, see Mike from PWN the SAT’s analysis. The Official Guides to the SAT/ACT are absolutely indispensable. As much as possible, you need to be working with real material; otherwise you may end up wasting huge amounts of your time.

If you can afford to do so, sign up for the College Board’s online program, and if you really don’t understand why a particular type of question, ask a friend or a parent or a teacher for help. There’s always College Confidential, but you need to be careful with some of the advice. Just because a particular strategy (e.g. jumping right to the questions without reading the passage first) worked for someone doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. You need to be willing to experiment with different techniques and see what makes sense to you. You also need to be willing to go over your work very, very carefully and analyze what you do and don’t know, not just crash through lots of material and expect your score to automatically rise. Familiarity does not equal mastery. Self-study can work, but it’s definitely not the road for everyone.

Why it pays to be happy when you take the SAT or the ACT

Why it pays to be happy when you take the SAT or the ACT

I understand that for most high school juniors and (especially) seniors, the words “SAT” or “ACT” and “happy” have absolutely no business appearing in the same sentence. But please hear me out. I recognize that I’m speaking strictly anecdotally and from limited personal experience, but I seriously think this idea has some merit.

Two quick stories: one of my students who had already taken the SAT twice — and not scored as well as he could have because of serious anxiety — took his third test as a last-ditch effort the day after he was accepted early evaluation (non-binding) to his backup school. He was unbelievably relieved that he had actually managed to get into college somewhere, and when he took the test, he was practically walking on air. With zero studying between that test and the previous one, he went up 130 points.

Another one of my students whose practice-exam scores had been all over the place took the SAT for real the day of a championship soccer game. He was so excited to go play that he didn’t give himself the chance to get nervous about the test — and ended up with his best score ever.

To be sure, my students would not have been able to raise their scores by so many points had they not had the necessary skills to begin with; however, their experiences taught me a major lesson about test psychology. The more stressed out you are about a test going into it, the more likely you’ll start to panic and second-guess yourself, and the less likely you’ll be able to focus and work through things slowly and calmly — which is what prevents you from making the kinds of careless, panicky mistakes that can drag your score down. In retrospect that’s seems obvious, but it’s very easy to get caught up in “omigod I have to improve my score or I’ll never get into xyz college” mentality and lose sight of everything else.

So the day you take the exam, try to plan something fun for afterward. Give yourself something to look forward to so that not everything is about the test. You’ll thank yourself later.

When to start studying for the SAT or the ACT

The short answer:

The summer before junior year. In the meantime, take the hardest classes you can reasonably handle, read lots of challenging material, and work on expanding your vocabulary. Then worry about the test. If you’ve got the skills covered, the actual test won’t be that overwhelming. If you’re weak on the fundamentals, strategy won’t get you very far.

The long answer:

I think that most people recognize that the SAT and the ACT are not tests you can really cram for. Sure, you can memorize a couple of last-minute strategies and rules, but how far they’ll actually get you is debatable. Unless your underlying comprehension of the concepts that these tests actually cover is truly rock-solid and you just need to know about some quirks of the test (e.g. that the College Board considers collective nouns such as “city” or “organization” to be singular), it can be very hard to apply rules you’ve just learned to unfamiliar questions.

On the other hand, it can be just as harmful to start studying for the SAT or the ACT too early. I always hesitate when someone asks me to do serious SAT prep with a student before the second semester of their sophomore year, and I get really concerned whenever I hear about someone who started (strategy-based prep) as soon as they entered high school.

Let me be clear: studying vocabulary and math, and reading SAT-level material are always good, and those are skills that should be built early and consistently. But there’s a big difference between reading a the New York Times op-ed page every night and sitting down with a Princeton Review book; the former will build the sort of vocabulary and cultural knowledge necessary to do well on the test in the long-run; the latter will teach you strategies that will only get you so far if you don’t have the actual knowledge.

I’ve worked with a couple of SAT students who fell into the latter category, and inevitably they were stuck somewhere in the mid-600’s. They had taken dozens of practice exams and knew the test inside and out, but they couldn’t seem to connect the material to anything outside the test itself. They thought that everything was about strategy and memorization, and they lacked (and resisted developing) the flexibility to change their approach based on the particularities of a given question — deadly if you’re trying to crack 700 because this ability is a big part of what the SAT tests.

People who start prepping intensively too early also burn out early; by the time they hit junior year, they’ve had it with test-prep and simply don’t care anymore. Even if they do have the skills to get their score higher, they’re too exhausted to make use of them.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t make the SAT out to be more than it’s worth. It’s a test — a very important test to be sure — but you shouldn’t let it dictate your life. If you hit 2250, it’s probably not worth it to spend the next six months obsessing over how to get to 2400. Sure you can take it again and try for a higher score, but colleges admit people, not test scores, and all other factors being equal, they will pretty much always take the more interesting applicant with marginally lower (but still perfectly acceptable) test scores over the applicant with super-high test scores and absolutely nothing else.

Why Checking Your Work Can Be a Bad Idea

When you take a standardized test, you are your own worst enemy. From what I have observed, many test-takers score lower than they should simply because they second-guess themselves and change right answers to wrong ones. Believing that the answer they chose was too obvious and thus a trap, they talk themselves out of a perfect logical selection and go for something less obvious — and wrong — instead. Almost never do I see students change incorrect answers to correct ones when they go back over a section, only the other way around. So I’m going to propose something a little radical: don’t check your work.

I know this probably flies in the face of what you’ve always been been told: make sure you leave some time at the end of every section to go back and check….right? But for many students, working this way can do more harm than good. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not at all suggesting that you just whip through the questions without thinking twice about them and then stride blithely off, confidently assuming you’ve gotten everything right. This only works if you are willing to work very, very carefully the first time through; to go just a little bit slower than you think is necessary (assuming that time isn’t a problem); and to break down the questions piece by piece and reason your way through them meticulously.

True story: One of my students never scored as well as he should have on ACT English because every time he checked his work, he changed wrong answers to right ones. So finally I just told him to stop checking his work.

When he came home from the ACT, his mother asked him if he’d checked his work on the English section. He said he had. “Don’t lie to me,” his mother responded. “Ok, fine, I didn’t,” he admitted, “but only because Erica told me not to.”

When his mother called and told me that, my first thought was, “Oh s–t, if he blows it, his mother is going to be furious.” I won’t deny that it crossed my mind that perhaps I should have made him check his work after all.

But then got his score back.

And the English was a 35.


Always Circle “NOT” and “Except”

Very often, test-takers miss “NOT” and “EXCEPT” questions (e.g. “Which of the following is NOT mentioned in by the author as a technique used by Da Vinci when he painted the “Mona Lisa”?) simply because they don’t read them carefully enough. Instead of finding the information missing from the passage, they do exactly the opposite and thereby answer the question incorrectly. Even though these all-important words are capitalized, they’re astonishingly easy to overlook.

So always circle them, underline them, star them, or do something to draw attention to them so that you won’t forget what you’re looking for. It’s worth spending an extra second or two to make sure you don’t unnecessarily lose the points.

A couple of years ago, I had an ACT student — let’s call him J. — who literally got every single one of this type of question wrong on the first few practice tests he did. After I told J. perhaps 50 or 60 times that his score would probably shoot up a good 5 points if he just started circling those words, it finally occurred to him to listen to me. Sure enough, he scored above a 30 the first time he tried that strategy. He was incredulous. “Gee,” I said. “Who ever would have guessed that would happen?”