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You know how when people are trying to raise money, they’ll make big fake thermometers and then color them in as they get closer to their goals? I’m sure you’ve seen these things around. They’re ubiquitous.

I was just thinking the other day how it’s not a bad idea to approach the SAT with a goal thermometer in mind. In fact, you might even find it useful to take practice tests with a goal thermometer right by your side.

Here’s the idea

You probably have, in your mind, a score you’d like to hit. If you’ve really been thinking about it, you’ve got a rough breakdown of how you’ll get there. For example, say you want an 1800, but you know that you struggle with Critical Reading and are strongest in Math. Instead of shooting for three 600s, maybe you shoot for 550 CR, 650 M, and 600 W, or something like that.

If you look at a few scoring tables from released tests (the first 3 tests in the Blue Book are a good start, as are the tests you can get at the links you’ll find here) you’ll notice that, give or take 10-20 points (and ignoring the extreme high and low scores) the same raw scores will usually net you the same scaled scores*. A 650 in Math, for example, is a raw score of 42 in Blue Book Test 1, and 43 in Blue Book Tests 2 and 3. So if you have a goal score of 650, you can set up one of these thermometers to go from 0 to 43, and make notches in it as you take practice tests. If you’re able to fill in 43 notches during your math sections, you’ll know you’ve got a great shot at your target score. If you’re able to fill in more, all the better. Now you’ve got some cushion in case you miss enough questions to drag your raw score down.

You don’t even really need to make your own thermometer. The scoring table at the end of your practice test is a ready-made one. Tear (or neatly cut) it out, and use it to keep track of your progress as you go:

You’re on your way!
Only make a mark if you’re sure

The idea here is to give you a good indicator of how you’re doing as you go, and to serve as a constant reminder that since all questions are worth the same amount of points, it’s silly, especially in math where you know roughly where the hard questions are, to toil away on hard questions when you haven’t nailed down all the easy points. To that end, if you decide to try this, remember to only make marks for questions you’re sure you got right. Don’t change your guessing strategyI still think you should guess when you’ve spent time on a questionbut if you’re not feeling confident in an answer, don’t mark it on your thermometer. You want correct guesses to be pleasant surprises when you actually tally up your score, not disappointing losses.

This isn’t for everyone

I’ve worked with kids for whom I think this could really work, and I’ve worked with kids for whom I don’t. I don’t know you, so you have to be the judge of whether the thermometer thing is a good fit for you. I will say that it’s probably not a good idea to try it for the first time a week before your SAT: you’ll probably be distracted the first few times. But if you’ve got some time, and you’re willing to add a novel ritual to your SAT prep regimen, you might find that this clarifies the workings of the test for you in a very helpful way.

One last note

Obviously you will not be allowed to bring a goal thermometer with you on test day, so if you’re going to try this, do so knowing that it’s a temporary intervention to help you get to the next level, not a permanent addition to your test day game plan.

* There’s more variability in Critical Reading and Writing scoring tables than there is in the Math ones, but you can still ballpark scores pretty well.