Starting SAT/ACT prep? Ask yourself these three key questions

1) Where am I? 

This does not just mean “what is your score on your first-ever practice test?” It means considering why you’re starting where you’re starting, and what that reveals about your strengths and weaknesses — factors that will in turn affect what type of prep is best for you.

If your overall score isn’t where you want it to be, where are the problem spots? Are your math and verbal score/skills comparable, or do you have a big gap between them? If the latter, a class that devotes equal time to both probably isn’t the best option.

Do you have problems with particular types of questions, or are your mistakes all over the map?

Is timing an issue? And if so, it is actually having a negative impact on your score, or do you just feel a little too rushed?

Do you feel comfortable with the content but aren’t totally sure how to apply it to the test, or do you genuinely need work on some of the fundamentals? A good rule of thumb is that if you score better on untimed than on timed sections, you can probably focus on strategy; if you make the same mistakes regardless of time, there’s probably material you need to learn. 

If you are already scoring well and primarily need strategy work, you might be fine with a class, or even self-study (provided you’re sufficiently diligent and motivated). If you really need to work on some of the basics and are looking for significant improvement, tutoring might be a better option.

You also need to consider your grades and the rigor of your classes. Colleges are very clear that your transcript is the most important factor for them, and if that needs work, high scores will not compensate. It is not a good idea to focus on test prep at the expense of your grades. Yes, I know people who have done this, and no, they were not happy with the results; I’ve also worked with a number of students who were marginal candidates score-wise but who nevertheless made it into their top-choice schools.

2) Where do I want to be? 

I understand that this can be a hard question to answer at the outset, especially if you haven’t seriously looked at any colleges yet, but one of the side-effects of the standardized testing process is that it forces you to consider the bigger picture and think about just what it is you’re working toward. Studying without that anchor can make the test-prep process seem as if it’s taking place in a vacuum, as opposed to something genuinely connected to your future.

Even if you don’t yet have a clear idea of where you want to apply, you should at least begin to consider what type of school you might be interested in, and get a sense of the scores you’ll need to be competitive. (As a general rule, “unhooked” applicants — that is, applicants who are not legacies, recruited athletes, development cases, or under-represented minorities — should aim to score at or above the 50th percentile for a given school in order to be seriously competitive.) You should also spend some time on Naviance seeing what scores correlate with acceptances at a range of college

The other factor to take into account is financial aid. If you are going to be applying for merit scholarships, you need to know various schools’ score requirements.

Likewise, some specialized programs such as engineering and medicine (joint BA/MD) have strict cut-off scores. You should also be aware that some schools will not superscore tests submitted for these purposes.

If you are applying to general B.A. programs, you will have to decide for yourself what constitutes a reasonable goal.

This step might seem like an annoyance, but it brings a degree of clarity and focus to a process that can otherwise seem vague and murky. Even if you fall short, having something to aim for makes it easier to define the necessary steps along the way.

If you’re scoring in the 500s/low 20s across the board, for example, it probably isn’t realistic to aim for a perfect score. But beyond that, you need to decide what’s realistic, given the time you have to have to prepare. 50 points? 100 points? 

It’s also important keep in mind is that improvement often happens in stages; you have to be able to walk before you can run. Your goal might be to raise your Math score by 100 points, but if you’re at 600 now, you’ll need to get to a solid 650 before you can aim for 700. 

3) What do I need to do to get there? 

As a tutor, I lost count of the number of times a student and/or parent looked at me wide-eyed and told me earnestly that they or their child really wanted to do well.

Obviously. I never worked with a student who didn’t want do well.

But wanting to do well and actually taking the steps necessary to do well are two completely different things. Unfortunately, is also very easy to overestimate the amount of time you will actually spend studying; good intentions have a way of getting misplaced in a morass of AP calc and basketball practice.

Here are some practical questions to consider:

How much time do you have before the test, and are you planning to take it multiple times? How long are you willing to commit to test-prep for? A month? Six months months? A year? Your expectations needs to be consistent with your timeframe.

How much of a procrastinator are you? (Or, for parents, how much of a procrastinator is your child?)

If you set a goal of studying, say, an hour at a time three days a week, will you actually follow through, or do you need someone else to stay on top of you?

Will you listen to your parents when they remind you study, or will you roll your eyes and say you’ll do it later?

Are you the type of person who can set a goal and persevere over a long period of time, or do you have a history of starting out strong and then losing interest when the payoff isn’t immediate?

If test prep has the potential to blow up into a major familial issue of contention and you can afford to hire a tutor, it’s something to seriously consider. Having a third party present to issue reminders and oversee the process can go a long way toward defusing tension. The psychological savings can easily balance out the financial expense. 

I’m not denying that all this is a lot to think about, some of it not particularly easy or pleasant. But the more honest  you can be about where things stand relative to where you want to end up, and about what specific steps are necessary to get there, the more smoothly the prep process will ultimately go.

There is no “guessing penalty” on the SAT

Among the partial truths disseminated by the College Board, the phrase “guessing penalty” ranks way up there on the list of things that irk me most. In fact, I’d say it’s probably #2, after the whole “obscure vocabulary” thing.

Actually, calling it a partial truth is generous. It’s actually more of a distortion, an obfuscation, a misnomer, or, to use a “relevant” word, a lie.

Let’s deconstruct it a bit, shall we?

It is of course true that the current SAT subtracts an additional ¼ point for each incorrect answer. While this state of affairs is a perennial irritant to test-takers, not to mention a contributing factor to the test’s reputation for “trickiness,” it nevertheless serves a very important purpose – namely, it functions as a corrective to prevent students from earning too many points from lucky guessing and thus from achieving scores that seriously misrepresent what they actually know.

There is, however, no automatic correlation between guessing and answering questions correctly or incorrectly. (If there weren’t, “how many answers should you eliminate before you guess?” debates would not exist.) It is entirely possible to make a wild guess that ends up being correct or, conversely, to be absolutely certain about an answer and be absolutely wrong.

Students are not penalized when they guess and answer questions correctly; they are penalized when they guess and answer questions incorrectly – just as they are penalized when they do not guess and answer questions incorrectly.

So why not simply the call the penalty what it is: a wrong-answer penalty designed to prevent people from getting undeserved high scores?

Well… this is where that whole rhetoric thing comes into play. This is one of those beautiful moments in which theory and reality meet. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t have designed a more perfect example myself.

You see, the use of the phrase “guessing penalty” is not just a matter of semantics but rather a clever rhetorical marketing trick.

It is, first of all, a euphemism. It replaces something unpleasant (students lose points as a result doing something wrong) with something far more palatable (students lose points as a result of daring to do something courageous).

At another level, it can be interrupted as an appeal to ethos, or justice. It is of course blatantly injust to punish students for doing something as innocuous as guessing. The goal is to emphasize the inherent unfairness of the old exam and thus to highlight the comparative fairness of the new test.

By extension, the phrase can also be interpreted as a subtle attempt at pathos, or appeal to emotion. Its goal is to evoke pity for the poor, trembling students cowering in fear of losing that extra quarter point. They’re pretty sure they know the answer but just can’t bring themselves to fill in that bubble. Oh, the horror! The new SAT, in contrast, would never be so cruel.

The so-called guessing penalty therefore serves as “evidence” that the old test should be changed, indeed must be changed. The fact that it is based on a distortion is irrelevant – the distortion is consistent with the College Board’s thesis, and thus piddling details such as reality cannot be allowed to interfere.

In reality, by the way, I’ve encountered a couple of students who panicked and skipped too many questions when it counted, but a much, much bigger problem has traditionally involved getting students to actually take the quarter-point penalty into account and stop trying to answer every question. Even when they are walked through the math over and over (and over) again, they sometimes still don’t listen. In certain instances, also, that kind of strategizing is simply too challenging. Even the students who panicked and skipped too many questions were, to be perfectly honest, still a little shaky in some areas. The scores they ended up with did accurately reflect what they knew.

But of course people who have never actually taught tend not to know these things.

So now for an alternate version, one that you probably won’t be hearing from the College Board anytime soon:

The removal of the quarter-point corrective for incorrect answers will ultimately make the SAT easier to game – indeed, it is most likely intended to do so.

Assuming that answer choice letters are evenly distributed, students not aiming for top scores will be able to select pre-determinated sections of the test (for example, fiction passages) on which they can fill in the same letter to every question and virtually guarantee that they will earn a certain number of points.

Until now, this type of strategy has been applicable only to the ACT; making it relevant to the SAT as well will deprive the ACT of a notable advantage and may ultimately play a role in helping the SAT to shed its reputation for trickiness and recapture some of its market share. For students who are unable to strategize effectively this way on their own, the tutoring industry will of course continue to step in and help.

Furthermore, the reduction of five answer choices to four will give students an even higher chance of selecting the correct responses to questions that they have not the slightest idea how to answer.

Taken together, these factors may (if it suits the narrative the College Board wants to promote) also result in a very slight but statistically significant uptick in scores, designed to suggest that more students are “college and career ready” when they are actually not.

Isn’t rhetoric beautiful?

How to answer add/delete/revise questions on the SAT and ACT

The ACT English section tests both reading and writing skills simultaneously, and it is necessary to change your approach based on the type of question you are being asked. While grammar questions require you to recall specific rules, rhetoric questions require you to apply specific concepts about how paragraphs and essays work: what makes an effective transition (what is the logical relationship between two ideas?); how a paragraph is most logically developed; and what constitutes relevant vs. irrelevant information.

Unlike grammar questions, rhetoric questions can be absolutely, perfectly grammatically correct yet still be wrong. You can’t be fooled by how they sound — you actually have to think (yes, think!) about whether they go along with the main idea of the passage or paragraph in question.

In short, they’re reading questions, not writing questions. And because this is the case, you have to treat them like reading questions.

That means going back to the passage, figuring out the gist of the section you’re being asked to deal with, and figuring out what sort of information would be relevant.

One of the biggest mistakes I consistently see people make on rhetoric questions is to start by looking at the answers and assuming they’ll remember the content well enough to sort everything out rather than going back to the passage and working out the answer for themselves beforehand.

When most people read the passages as they’re working through the questions, though, they’re usually only really paying attention to grammar rather than content. They’re not thinking about main ideas and supporting information but rather about whether that comma in #27 was really supposed to be there. So when they’re asked to insert/delete information, they don’t really have the full context for it.

Remember: the readings on the English section are pretty simple. It’s usually not too hard to figure out their main idea and thus whether a particular sentence or part of a sentence should be used to support it. Yes, it may take a whole 30 seconds, but that’s time better spent actually figuring out the answer than staring at two options and trying to decide between them. So to sum up:

1) Read the question and identify exactly what you’re being asked to insert or delete.

2) Go back to the passage and read as much as you need to figure out the main idea of the passage or paragraph. For questions that ask about the passage as a whole, check the title: it’s there to tell you what the passage is about. For questions that ask you about the middle of a paragraph, read the topic sentence. Conversely, if you’re asked to insert the first sentence of a paragraph, jump ahead and read the middle of the paragraph.

3) Ask yourself whether the information in question is relevant to that topic and why/why not.

4) Look at the answers. The right one should pretty much pop out at you.