The January SAT marks the beginning of the year’s most frenzied test prep season. Seriously, between now and May, it gets real. Because so many will be ramping up their efforts in the coming weeks, I thought it’d be useful to put together a few thoughts on what not to do.

Bad Idea #1: Rapid-fire practice tests

This is one of the biggest mistakes kids make, and it can be a costly one, both in time and in study resources. It’s important to take practice tests in the course of your prep in the same way that it’s important to weigh yourself once in a while if you’re trying to lose weight—You need to see where you stand, but you’re not actually losing weight by weighing yourself. All the important stuff happens between weigh-ins.

If you spend too much time taking tests and not enough time reviewing those tests and learning new techniques and concepts to help you avoid making the same mistakes again, then you’re spinning your wheels. You’re also using up a lot of precious time, and if you really go overboard, you run the risk of running out of official College Board tests to take*.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent post of mine about how to take a practice test:

Do not simply grumble about your score and then take another test. Taking the test helps you build stamina, but reviewing the test is how you actually learn. A good rule of thumb is that you should take at least as long to review the test as it took you to take it in the first place. Go back and look at all your mistakes, and think them through until you’d be able to explain them to a total SAT neophyte.

Bad Idea #2: Heavy reliance on cool calculator tricks

Some of the more expensive calculators out there can solve algebraic equations for x. This is, admittedly, a pretty cool trick, but I’ve found that students with calculators like this tend to think it gives them a bigger advantage than it really does. And sometimes, that turns the calculator into a disadvantage.

If your calculator is on the College Board’s acceptable calculator list, that means the SAT folks don’t think it’s got too much firepower. This should tell you something.

The “solve” command is cool, but really, the SAT doesn’t ask you to simply solve algebraic equations for one variable all that often. Rather, it’ll ask you to solve for one variable in terms of another, or figure out which two algebraic expressions are equivalent to each other using some simple set of rules, like exponent rules, or factoring the difference of two squares.

Students with these high-octane calculators spend an inordinate amount of time trying to wrestle SAT algebra into a form that they can feed into their “solve” functions. If you find yourself doing that, then you might be using your calculator to your detriment.

SAT algebra is not generally time-consuming—do it by hand. Limit your calculator use to graphing the occasional function, and speeding up your arithmetic.

Bad Idea #3: Gimmicky testing strategies

I’ve heard them all. Start at the end of math sections section to give yourself more time on the hard questions.  Don’t read the reading passages. Always make up essay examples. Wait until you’re done with a section to bubble your answers. These are gimmicks, and whether or not you know someone who knows someone who did them and got a 2400, they’re bad ideas and they shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’ll address them in turn.

Starting at the end of a math section is probably the worst of them all. Each question is worth the same amount of points. It follows from this that the hardest questions are the least important. If you start at the end and then have to rush through the easy questions (or don’t finish the easy questions) then you have cost yourself dearly.

It’s true that there are people who can answer reading comp questions without reading the passages and score really well, but here’s the part of the story you never hear: those people are preternaturally good standardized test takers and they’d do just as well or better if they did read the passage. They didn’t go from a 550 reading the passages to a 750 skipping them. They started at close to 800, and then found they could stay at 750 without reading the passages. If you’re trying to improve your reading score, don’t give up on reading the passages. That’s where all the answers are.

The same is true of people who get their jollies by making up essay examples and getting high scores. They’re great writers already! It’s not like they were writing crappy essays until they began making up examples. Fabrication is not the path to success—it’s a parlor trick for show-offs. You should only invent evidence to support your argument if you can come up with nothing else.

And to the last point about batch-bubbling. There is actually a major test prep provider that advocates it. In real life! So this might not just be something your bonehead friend came up with. Your bonehead friend might have actually been advised to do this. Anyway, here’s why it’s a terrible idea: not every proctor will give you regular time warnings, and you don’t want a surprise section end to result in an incomplete bubbling job. Proctors will not give you time at the end to go back and bubble things you didn’t have a chance to bubble during the section’s official time.

Bad Idea #4: Kitchen sink SAT prep

Hopefully you’re familiar with the phrase “everything but the kitchen sink.” I’m planning a longer post about this, but for now let’s just define “kitchen sink prep” as discursive, panicked prep that forgets how circumscribed the content of the SAT really is, and therefore involves a lot of studying of things that will never be (or are incredibly unlikely to be) useful on Test Day. The SAT does not test you on how many formulas you can memorize, or how many special cases you know. There are very few things you should try to remember that aren’t given to you in the beginning of every math section. (Things to memorize include Pythagorean triples, slope-intercept form of a line, the average table.) Don’t study for a test that you’re not actually going to take.

A quick example: I was asked a question recently about a very special case of a very rare form of question: an average speed question. There is a special formula that one could employ for a very particular kind of average speed question in which an object makes two trips of the same distance at different speeds. But it’s complicated and not intuitive, and it won’t help you solve the more general average speed question where the object travels different distances. Please note that I’m not saying this formula is never useful in life, and that it doesn’t have important implications for math outside the bounds of the SAT. I’m just saying its SAT prep value is dubious at best.

Average speed questions appear incredibly rarely on the SAT. (Despite this fact, most SAT prep books I’ve read really emphasize them, stressing their readers out for no good reason.) All you need to remember is this: [average speed] = [total distance traveled]/[total travel time]. Simple to remember, and easy to deploy. To memorize anything else is to misallocate your energies.

Bad Idea #4a: Vocabulary obsession

This is a common enough manifestation of kitchen sink prep that it deserves its own heading. Vocabulary is important, and if you want a high Critical Reading score and you don’t already have a prodigious vocabulary you’ll need to study some. But don’t go overboard. You don’t need to learn thousands of words. Here’s the most important excerpt from a longer post I’ve written on this topic.

I’ve spoken with too many kids lately who seem hell-bent on memorizing all the words in Barron’s 3500 Word Black Hole From Which No Light Escapes, and it breaks my heart. If you do that, you will memorize literally thousands of words you won’t need for the SAT, and you’ll use valuable time doing so that would be better spent practicing your reading comprehension, writing practice essays, drilling circle questions, or trying to count the number of hairs on your head.

Quality is far more important than quantity where SAT vocab is concerned. Rather than go nuts on vocab, learn a reasonable number of words from a well-curated list. The Direct Hits books (Volume 1, Volume 2) are great for that.

Bad Idea #5: Single-mindedness

Finally, don’t forget that the SAT is only one aspect of the college admissions process. A great score won’t guarantee you admission anywhere, and a score 20 points lower than a school’s middle 50% won’t necessarily keep you out. I obviously think SAT prep is important enough to have created this site and written an absurd amount about it, but sometimes I see people take it too far, at the expense of other important things.

If you ask me, this is probably because SAT scores are numbers, and other important things are less easy to quantify. It’s the same reason people chase money when they really crave happiness—money can be counted.

Don’t quit your varsity sport to study for the SAT. Don’t quit the school musical. Stay well-rounded. Being well-rounded matters.

* It’s hard to run out of College Board tests if you do prep the right way. There are 10 in the Blue Book (11 if you get the DVD version), 9 in the Online Course, and 4 more available for free download.

Comments (4)

I super-agree with #1 and #3 but I feel like #4a, “Vocabulary Obsession,” is misleading – or at least the title is – I get that you’re saying “learning a bajillion vocab words may not be the most direct route to a great SAT score and you need to pick the right list,” but….

(By the way, do you ever recommend Princeton Review’s 500 Essential SAT Vocab Words? For me, that comes in a very close 2nd place behind Direct Hits)

Yes, for a short-term prep student (a senior with 3 months or less to prepare) I agree that vocab is not that fruitful.

BUT for everyone else I recommend daily vocab study as an ongoing commitment. And I don’t feel guilty about providing “make-work” since I know that depth and richness of vocabulary has helped me make progress in my own life and career.

Anyway, nice article, thanks 🙂 and if anyone wants to check out my own thoughts on SAT vocab prep, you should check out this article:

My kids don’t learn any vocabulary, per se. The learn roots and affixes, a particular number of them, and they are able to decode 99% of the words on the SAT.

Batch bubbling is an *excellent* and *very* useful strategy for all but the very best test takers … as long as one is using the “two pass approach” and only uses batch bubbling on the first pass.

Batch bubbling increases focus and concentration on two very important things: answering questions correctly AND filling in bubbles correctly. Both of these critical tasks are compromised by going to the answer sheet to fill-in a bubble after finishing each question. The odds of making a dreaded bubble sheet error go up exponentially, to say nothing of tons of precious seconds lost, when one is wedded to the “one bubble at a time, every time” approach. It’s terribly inefficient, detrimental, and actually dangerous for nearly all students to do anything other than batch bubbling on the first pass through a given section of the SAT.

On the second pass, however, after having finished the easiest 50% of the questions (which have been batch-bubbled), one MUST fill in bubbles one at a time. These are “heavy lifting” questions by definition (those skipped on the first pass), and so you probably want to take a break after each one to fill in bubble, anyway. Certainly, you don’t want to run out of time!

But you should be wearing an analog (beeperless “wind-up”) wrist watch, anyway, to track the time, just in case you can’t see the clock or the prompter isn’t doing his/her job. At the very beginning of each section, just reset your watch to 12noon, then press the wind-up button in to start your watch moving again, and … presto … instant personal SAT section timer! Check your watch to see time remaining, each time you go to the bubble sheet to fill-in answers.

Rapid-fire practice testing (without adequate critiquing and review – the entire point behind practice testing), starting with the most difficult questions first, single-mindedness, too much vocabulary work, habitually making up stuff on the essay, and overly inclusive “kitchen sink prep” ARE horrible ideas. But answering reading comprehension questions without reading the passage is not. This is actually a *great* strategy for poor to average readers (those scoring under 600), and I use it routinely to raise SAT reading scores by 100 points or so.

You only need to answer about 3/4 of the reading questions to hit a 600+, if you don’t make too many mistakes. Many students, unfortunately, even those who get decent grades, are pretty bad readers, with poor memory and comprehension. This applies to at least half the testing population (the bottom 50-60 percentiles). These students cannot learn to read better in a few months, and the only way to raise their reading scores on the SAT in a short period of time and without a tremendous amount of concerted effort with a trained reading specialist (to say nothing of expense involved in doing so) and tons of extra practice reading (which they generally don’t want or like to do) is to train these students to skip the long reading passages entirely, look up the answers to about 3/4 of the questions, and get nearly all of them right. This is not at all hard to accomplish, with a modicum of effort.

Likewise, learning just a handful of basic Ti-83/84 features can make a significant difference to poor and average math students on the math section of the SAT, especially for questions involving functions, which tend to be the most difficult SAT math questions for poor-average students to answer. Students should learn: table functions, especially learning how/when to use an “ASK/AUTO” table to do plugging-in and “guess and check” quickly and accurately on the calculator; and graph/trace/zoom/intersect/zero functions to do “guestimation” and easily find coordinates of key points on graphs. In my experience, this enables most average students to answer an additional 2-3 questions correctly on the typical SAT, which will improve their math score 20-30 points. Not bad, for 30 minutes of graphing calculator instruction! One does not have to become a graphing calculator nerd in order to accomplish this result, nor should one try to become such an obsessed expert. However, this is not to say that learning a few new graphing calculator skills is not a very good way for most students to raise their SAT math scores (it’s a great way to do so, actually).

Sure, it’s nice to have or somehow quickly develop great math, reading, vocab, and grammar skills and not to have to resort to “gimmicks” at all when taking the SAT. But for the *vast* majority of SAT students, who struggle in school and on the test, this just isn’t a viable option. Ain’t gonna happen. Gimmicks and strategies, together with plenty of test prep with real tests – and careful critiquing and review of “lessons learned” from mistakes made on each and every practice test – is the BY FAR the best way for most students (those at or below 60th percentile, roughly) to successfully prepare to take the SAT.

Working with students in the 60th-90th percentiles, and in the 90-99th percentiles, is an entirely different ballgame. A totally different focus and emphasis in SAT prep is required for each of these three loose percentile groups: 0-60, 60-90, 90-99. Plenty of carefully critiqued practice testing, with lots of focused review, remains critically important across all three groups, of course.

So, in nutshell, sometimes SAT “gimmicks” are wonderful and very useful and extremely important to utilize, sometimes they’re simply ridiculous, and sometimes they’re unnecessary and a misapplication of focus (e.g. in the upper percentiles).

Motivation is positively correlated with SAT percentile, I’ve found, also. The students who struggle the most academically tend to be, unfortunately, the ones least likely to actually be willing to put in the significant amount of time required to properly execute a solid SAT prep plan.

It’s all about the most efficient approach for students in each of these groups, given their widely different levels of natural ability, accumulated knowledge and academic skills, test taking acumen, motivation, and commitment.

As anyone with experience coaching real students knows, the biggest, most effective, most important SAT “gimmick” of all is, after all … get enough sleep!

Dirt-simple, easy-to-teach, do-it-in-one-session stuff like this can and does improve SAT scores hundreds of points all the time! Which isn’t to say that lots more instruction and practice aren’t in order (they are). But the info and “gimmicks” I teach in the first hour with an SAT student – when accepted and actually taken to heart and put to use by the student – generally form the basis for at least half that student’s ultimate score increase.

It’s “stupid stuff” like this that actually makes the biggest difference, in practical terms, to most students. The low-hanging fruit matters, a lot – and everyone, low-scoring students and high-scoring ones alike, needs to grab all they can from the bottom-most branches of the SAT tree.

Too bad that such a monumentally important assessment like the SAT is predicated so fundamentally on correctly handling stupid stuff … but alas, it is so. Just goes to show what a lousy assessment the SAT actually is, in its current form.

Hopefully, once the College Board changes to a “computer adaptive model” (ala the GRE), as it most likely will in the next several years, the relevance and quality of the SAT as an assessment of academic ability and college readiness will improve.

Leave a Reply