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.