Posts tagged with: about the test

I’ve been receiving reports from a bunch of March SAT takers (here are two examples) that they had strange experimental sections, most notably an 18-question reading/writing section that might be a preview of the new Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section that will appear on the new SAT in 2016. There were some reports of strange sections appearing on the January SAT as well.

Of course, the College Board needs to start testing this material out on students before it goes live—that’s one of the important uses of the experimental section. But for students who have been preparing faithfully for the current test, material that’s so far out of line from the norm can be very disorienting. If you’re taking any SAT between now and March 2016, you need to be mentally prepared for the possibility that your experimental section on test day will look nothing like any practice test you’ve taken. Don’t let it throw you off your game.

Note that I am very much not saying that you should intentionally tank a section if you suspect it’s experimental. There’s always a risk that you could be wrong, and that would suck. I’m just saying that you should not panic if you come across a section that looks structurally different from any section you’ve seen in your myriad practice tests. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t well-prepared. In fact, recognizing that something is amiss is an indicator that you are well-prepared. So take a deep breath, go with the flow, and do your best on every section you face.

If you’re preparing for the SAT right now, then you probably don’t need to worry about this—the test won’t change until March 2016. Even if you’re a sophomore right now, if you’re already thinking about the SAT then your focus should be on the current test, not the new one. 
Well, that was certainly interesting! I believe you can still watch the announcement by College Board President David Coleman if you want here, but you’ll get the information much faster by reading one of the thousands of articles about the new SAT that are already online from tons of major news outlets. You can also get it straight from the horse’s mouth here and here. A lot more information will be released on April 16th.
I’m not going to write a super long response to the announcement right now, but here are a few of the most salient changes and my reactions to them.
  • Back to the 1600 scale. Two sections make up that score are Math, and “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing.”
  • There will still be an essay, but it will be scored separately and it will be optional. Also, it will be 50 minutes long and the question (but not the passage it’s about) will be known to all students in advance. Most people in the biz expected major essay changes, and we got them.
  • No more guessing penalty. Right answers help your score. Wrongs and blanks count the same. This is how the ACT does it, and many in the prep world saw this coming, too.
  • Calculators will be allowed on some math sections, prohibited on others. This is so a student’s number sense can be tested more effectively.
  • The test will be available on paper and digitally. Hopefully, that means students will get to choose how they want to take it.
  • No more sentence completions. Vocabulary will still play a role in the test, but the focus will be much more on words with multiple meanings and uses that will be important for students to use every day in college and beyond. In the presentation, David Coleman used the word “synthesis” as an example.
  • The “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” (you know what, I’m just gonna call that EBRW) will have charts and graphs in addition to pure text for students to grapple with. Seems to me like that’s inspired by the ACT science section.
  • The Math section will narrow its focus to “problem solving and data analysis,” the “heart of algebra,” and “passport to advanced math.”It’s not exactly clear what those mean yet—I can see how each topic currently tested could be recategorized into one of those. If the new test will really be narrower, we’ll have a better idea how much narrower no April 16.
  • The new SAT will focus on the Founding Documents (e.g. the Declaration of Independence) and the Great Global Conversation (e.g. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). I’m a bit conflicted on this. On the one hand, what could be more important than engaging students in the documents upon which our society is based. On the other hand, does it trivialize those documents, or make students likely to hate them, to include them as an integral part of the SAT?
So, yeah. The new SAT will be quite different from the current one. Here’s how I think it’ll still be the same:
  • It will still be about 4 hours long (assuming you do the optional essay).
  • It still won’t be easy.
  • It will still be difficult to raise your critical reading (or EBRW) score if you haven’t been engaging in the practice of careful reading for many years.
  • The math will still find ways to test simple concepts in very tricky ways.
So those are my initial reactions. Did you watch the announcement? What did you think?

If you’re preparing for the SAT right now, then you probably don’t need to worry about this—the test won’t change until March 2016. Even if you’re a sophomore right now, if you’re already thinking about the SAT then your focus should be on the current test, not the new one. 

The live stream tomorrow, March 5th, at 2PM ET will be pretty interesting for people in my line of work. Hopefully, it’ll answer some of the questions we’ve been asking since a change in the SAT was first announced way back in February 2013. I’m sure it will also give rise to a whole new crop of questions, complaints, and general hand-wringing. If you want a front row seat to my portion of all that, I’ll be tweeting about the event at it happens.

  • Watch the live stream here.
  • Follow me on Twitter here.

There are three different kinds of SAT math sections, and it’s important to know which kind you’re working on. Lucky for you, it’s super easy to check without even having to flip through the section. Just look to the top of the first page of the section to see how many questions there are.

If the first page tells you there are 20 questions, then they’ll all be multiple choice, and go from easy to hard. By number 16 or 17, you’ll probably be into difficulty 4 or 5 questions.

If the first page tells you there are 18 questions, it’s a grid-in section. Questions 1–8 will be multiple choice and get increasingly difficult—numbers 7 and 8 will probably be difficulty 4 or 5. Questions 9–18 will be grid-in questions; they will start easy and become increasingly difficult again—numbers 16–18 are likely to be difficulty 4 or 5.

Grid-in sections are the important ones to identify—they’re the reason I wrote this post. If you’re doing any strategic skipping, recognizing grid-in sections is of paramount importance. Even if you’re not planning to do any strategic skipping, you should be conscious of how much time you’re spending on hard questions 7 and 8 while easy grid-in questions remain unanswered. Remember, easy questions are more important than hard ones.

The last math section will be section 8, 9, or 10, and will always be 16 multiple choice questions, going from easy to hard once. This section will be 20 minutes instead of 25 (for regular time students). Questions 14–16 will probably be difficulty 4 or 5.

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.

I’ve been asked a few times lately about the PSAT/NMSQT, and I figured it might be helpful to put up a brief FAQ about it. So…here that is. 🙂

How are the PSAT and the SAT different?
For one, the PSAT, at 5 sections, is much shorter than the grueling 10 section SAT. The PSAT contains no essay section (although you still get a writing score, based solely on your performance on multiple choice grammar questions). PSAT scores are a little different, too. While each SAT section’s score range is 200-800, in intervals of 10, each PSAT section’s score range is 20-80, in intervals of 1. Although the SAT is given 7 times per year, the PSAT is only given once, in October. Schools get to decide whether to administer it on Saturday or Wednesday of the appointed week.
PSAT sections break down like this:
  • 2 reading sections. Each contains 24 questions and and is 25 minutes long. One section will contain 8 sentence completions and 16 critical reading questions, and the other will contain 5 sentence completions and 29 critical reading questions.
  • 2 math sections.  One will contain 20 multiple choice questions, and the other will contain 8 multiple choice questions and 10 grid-in questions. Each is 25 minutes long.
  • 1 writing section. It’s 30 minutes long, and contains 20 sentence improvement questions, 14 error identification questions, and 5 paragraph improvement questions. Total: 44 questions (slightly longer than the long SAT writing section).

For more on the structure of the test, click here.

Who takes the PSAT?
Most schools sign all juniors up for it automatically. Many schools allow (or force) sophomores to take it as well. It’s less common for freshmen to take the PSAT, but it’s by no means unheard of.
Why is the PSAT scored differently than the SAT?
Well, because the tests are different and the scores mean different things. It’s OK to make a rough estimate of your SAT score by multiplying your PSAT score by 10—so, say, a 182 PSAT score corresponds to an SAT score of 1820—but remember that it’s a rough estimate of where you were on that particular morning in October. Chances are decent that, by the time you get your scores back in December, you’re already in a different place. I’ve seen SAT scores swing much higher than PSAT scores without any additional prep, and I’ve seen them swing much lower.
What does NMSQT stand for?
The PSAT doubles as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, and that’s what the NMSQT stands for: National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Only juniors are entered into the National Merit Scholarship competition. Freshmen and sophomores who take the PSAT, even if they score perfect 240s, will have to repeat that performance during their junior years if they want to enter the NMS competition.
Will colleges see my PSAT scores?
What if I want them to?
There’s no score reporting mechanism for the PSAT. If you receive any National Merit Scholarship recommendation, obviously you can announce that as an accomplishment and colleges will know roughly the range in which your score fell, but colleges don’t generally care about the PSAT, whether you want them to or not.
Should I prepare for the PSAT?
You should take a practice PSAT and see how you do. If you score 180 or higher, you should consider doing a bit of serious prep to see if you can hit the cutoff for National Merit recognition. This number varies slightly from year to year, but is usually about 200.
Many people who aren’t shooting for National Merit still prepare assiduously for the PSAT, and that’s fine. Any prep for the PSAT is also prep for the SAT, so it’s not wasted time.
How should I prepare for the PSAT?
Pretty much the same way you should prepare for the SAT. You can read the hundreds of pages on this site for detailed advice, but the basic gist of it is this:
  1. Learn some test-specific techniques and strategies
  2. Take a practice test
  3. Review the practice test like crazy until you understand every mistake you’ve made and could explain how to answer the question correctly to your little brother
  4. Identify your weaknesses based on practice test results
  5. Drill those weaknesses until they’re strengths
  6. Take another practice test
  7. Repeat
College Board-made PSATs aren’t so easy to come by, unfortunately. You can get one for free from your guidance office (it’s in a booklet called the Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT, which is available online except for the practice test part). After you take that one, you might have to start taking SATs instead, unless you’ve got older siblings or friends who will erase their old test books and let you use them. Using SATs isn’t the worst thing in the world. If you get yourself into the kind of shape where you’re PWNing the PSAT by October, you can sign up to take the SAT in October, November, or December, and maybe get all your testing out of the way before you’re halfway done with junior year.
Am I missing anything? Let me know in the comments.
If you don’t know li’l brudder you’ve got some viewing to do.

I don’t know if this is going to work or if it’s going to blow up fantastically in my face, but I’ve been toying with this idea for a while now (my original thoughts here) and I’ve decided I want to give it a whirl. I’m looking for a smallish group of students who would be interested in participating in an unorthodox and labor-intensive SAT experiment this summer.

Here’s the deal

I want to see if, collaboratively, a bunch of students can create a mock SAT—a whole test, from soup to nuts. I’ve talked to a few other test prep folks who might be interested in helping me advise the project (I won’t name names until they officially sign on) but my vision is that students do all the heavy lifting and research, and the other experts and I provide guidance along the way. If you participate, you’ll comb through tests in the Blue Book looking for patterns to decide things like how many run-ons should be tested in the 14-question final writing section. You’ll argue with each other about what the essay question should be, or how hard the final question on a math section should be. You’ll debate whether you’re really using a word properly in a sentence completion question. By the end of the summer, you’ll hopefully have a deep understanding of the content and structure of the SAT. My hypothesis is that this knowledge will increase your score.

Of course, it’s only a hypothesis. As far as I know this hasn’t been tried before, anywhere, and I obviously make no guarantees that you’ll see a huge score bump, or any bump at all. I really think you will, but if you decide to devote time to this you do so in full knowledge that it’s not a sure thing. Along those lines, I can’t guarantee that a finished product emerges from this. If you sign on, you take some of the responsibility for keeping this project going. If people lose interest halfway through, then it just fizzles and we all walk away.


I’m planning for most of the work to be done on a wiki, which will completely open to the public. Obviously, some work (like layout work) will need to be done offline, but that’s only in the final stages and we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them. Our finished product, and the wiki we used to create it, will remain available publicly, too. The idea is that if this works, other people might want to replicate and refine the process. Nothing is going to be bought or sold through this project. All content will be licensed with Creative Commons.

where do I sign up?

You don’t even have to! If you’d like to participate, you can access the project here. Just start contributing!

Feel free to tell your friends about this if you think they’d be interested, too.


I came across a great LinkedIn group discussion recently about an in-school SAT class (not a big prep company running a course at a school, an actual class during school run by school faculty) and it really got me thinking about ways I would try to engage students in the SAT in a classroom setting given the luxury of time and the resources of a school system. I contributed a half-baked response before heading out for the day, but I’ve continued to ruminate on the idea ever since, so I figured I’d try to flesh it out a bit more here on my own blog. More so than most, this post will be a living document, in that I plan to add to it as more ideas come my way, and if I get any feedback from you all.

If I worked in a school, and was given the opportunity to run a semester-long, 5-days-per-week SAT prep course, I would spend the first few weeks teaching the requisite strategies and making students do practice drills and full tests. And then I would reinforce those first few weeks by making the class try to create an SAT of its own, from the ground up. The idea here is to really get students engaged in thinking about what the test is, and what it is not. I’ve toyed with the idea of question writing as pedagogy in the past, and although I’ve received pushback from students when I’ve proposed it, I remain convinced that under watchful, expert eyes, the construction of mock questions (and even a mock test) could be an incredible teaching tool.

I would model this part of class loosely around something that already exists in many schools: yearbook class. There would be, for example, people on a design team trying to emulate fonts, layout, and other design elements of the test. There would be teams dedicated to each subject, and possibly subteams to work on different question types. Depending on time constraints, I might or might not provide reading passages of my own choosing.

Learning objectives
  • Determine, based on available tests, what the most commonly tested concepts are.
  • Explore all the the different ways common concepts are tested.
  • Understand how incorrect answer choices are chosen. For example:
    • Common calculation missteps
    • Predictable misunderstanding of reading passage contents
    • Sentence Improvement questions that fix original problem, but introduce a new one
    • Phrases that “sound weird” but are grammatically correct
  • Learn how to write precise, unambiguous questions (and in so doing, gain an appreciation for how precise and unambiguous the SAT is).
  • Repeatedly reinforce important concepts and techniques as students emulate the style and substance of the SAT in their own questions.
  • If possible, administer both an official SAT Blue Book test and the student-built test to another group of students over a few weekends (some students do Blue Book test first, others do student-built test first).
    • Perform rudimentary statistical analysis to try to see how well the student-built test approximates the real thing.
    • Write report(s) on what worked about the process, and what didn’t.

Of course, to pull this off a teacher would need really deep understanding of the test, to provide guidance and to keep students focused on designing an SAT—simply designing a really hard test that doesn’t feel much like an SAT might be a fun exercise but isn’t going to do anybody much good from a test prep perspective. And students would need to be motivated, curious, and not easily frustrated.

Last word

Difficulties and improbability of this ever being attempted aside, I really feel like in the right circumstances, this process could create some real powerhouse SAT takers. Aside from giving students some perspective on how the sausage is made, it would give the instructor tons of opportunities to go beyond teaching the basic test-taking strategies and really dig into students’ problem areas in a nontraditional way.

It could also, done right, be a lot of fun. Just sayin’.

I get asked about guessing on the SAT all the time. All the time. And I’ve written about guessing on this blog often enough that there’s a special label for those posts, so that you can always find them. But I wanted to give a quick tip to aspiring tutors who come to my site looking for advice (judging by the number of hits I get from Ivy League schools, there are many of you). Regardless of what the laws of probability say, you should not be dogmatic about forcing your students to guess.

Explain to your students the way the scoring system works (+1 for a correct response, -¼ for an incorrect one). Explain how random guessing, statistically, is a break even. Explain how, if a student can eliminate an answer, the odds say she should guess. But leave it at that. Because if you don’t, and she guesses, and it costs her, you’ll be Trent from Swingers. You’ll be maligned for giving good advice, because you insisted on it too strongly instead of letting your student make the final call.

There are some things you, as a tutor, should insist on. Writing out algebra instead of doing head math, for example, costs the student nothing although he may resist. This is a good fight, because when you win you’ll probably make an improvement in his score. You’re changing his habits, and causing him to do something that will at worst, make no difference, and at best, drastically reduce his careless errors.

When you have the guessing fight, you’ll often find that even if you win, you’re not making a huge score difference. That’s because guessing has a lot to do with luck. SAT guessing strategy is just a way to make it slightly more likely that a student will get lucky. Once in a while, your student might actually get unlucky and lose points. And then it won’t matter that you’re right. When you find yourself having to defend your guessing strategy to a student who is looking at a 690 instead of a 700 because of guessing, you’re in a bad fight.

I like to run this experiment with students on practice tests. And then, after we’ve done a few tests that way, I shut up about guessing and let them make their own decisions.

I always double down on 11. But I don’t make my friends do the same when the stakes are high.


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.

I just listened to a Planet Money story that I wanted to share with you. It’s a 4:26 long discussion of risk aversion and how some experts see it distorting the American housing market. I’m not recommending it because I think you need to be thinking about the housing market, though. I’m posting this because the whole time I was listening, I was thinking about the psychology involved in guessing on the SAT. To paraphrase one expert in the story, people are afraid to guess because losing feels more intensely bad than winning feels good.

I actually think the SAT is a better application of the theory in question than the housing market, since home buyers and sellers generally don’t get to buy and sell often enough for the “if you flip the coin 1000 times” argument to really make sense.

On the SAT, you lose 1/4 of a point for an incorrect answer, and gain a whole point for a correct one. Since there are 5 choices per question, if you are deciding whether to guess or leave a question blank more than a few times per test, you’re in a position where, statistically, random guessing is a complete wash (thorough explanation here). From there, if you feel like your guess is even a little bit better than random, the “rational” move is to guess, since the scales tip slightly in you favor once you eliminate even one incorrect choice.

I’m not saying you need to guess, but listen to the story, and see if any of it resonates with you. It may or may not inform your future guessing strategy on the SAT.

Since you’ve been paying such close attention, you know by now that the difficulty of math questions increases as a section progresses*. On a 20 question section, you can count on #1 to be super easy, #5 to be bit tougher, #10 to require more than a modicum of thought, and #20 to be a royal pain. Duh, right? You know this. If you’ve ever taken an SAT or PSAT, it’s almost impossible not to have noticed this. But have you thought about what it means for you, the intrepid test taker?

This simple fact has 2 important implications:

  1. Easy questions are more important than the hard ones for your score (covered a previous post).
  2. You should be suspicious of “easy” answers to “hard” questions (covered here).

When you’re faced with a question that’s supposed to be more difficult, you should resist the urge to jump on an answer choice that seems immediately obvious. It’s probably best to illustrate this with an example.

  1. Stephen wins the lottery and decides to donate 30% of his winnings to charity. Then he decides to give 20% of what he has left to his mother. What percent of his winnings does Stephen have left for himself?

(A) 67%
(B) 56%
(C) 54%
(D) 50%
(E) 14%

This question isn’t too tough and you might not need my help to solve it, but before we get I want to ask you something.

What choice should you not even consider? Well, if this question was just asking you to start with 100%, and subtract 30% and 20% and end up at 50%, it wouldn’t be a #15. It would be a #5. So there’s no flippin’ way it’s (D). Since we know we’re later in the test, there must be something else going on here. And sure enough, we see that Stephen gives 20% of what he has left after he’s already donated 30% to charity.

If you’ve ever been told to watch out for “Joe Bloggs” answers, that’s what I’m talking about here. I want to be clear: “Joe Bloggs” is not a technique for answering a question correctly, and anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t spent enough time learning about the SAT. But it is helpful to remember that, once you’re about halfway through a math section, the questions are supposed to require some thought, so you shouldn’t fall for answers that require no thought at all.

Put another way: This is not a way to get questions right. This is a way not to get questions wrong.

To get it right, as we’ll often do with percent questions, we’re going to plug in.

  1. Say Stephen won $100 (some lottery).
  2. He gives $30 to charity.
  3. Now he’s got $70 left, 20% of which he gives to his poor old mother.
  4. 20% of 70 is 14, so he gives his mom $14.
  5. $70 – $14 = $56, so he’s got $56 left for himself. 56% of his original winnings.
  6. The answer is (B).
* On a grid-in section, difficulty increases twice — once from 1-8 (the multiple choice bits) and again from 9-18 (the grid-in bits). Also, in the rare event where you get a few questions that refer to the same graph or set of equations, the first one will be very easy and the last will be very hard (like a mini-section inside a section).

Note: all of this was going to be a comment on this post at The Fat Envelope Blog but after I typed it all up I got server error after server error trying to submit it. Because I was so sufficiently fired up, I decided to post it here instead. My apologies if you didn’t come here for politics. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled math shortly.

The backstory, if you don’t want to click over, is that a columnist I’d not heard of before today, Linda Chavez, wrote a truly scummy piece in which she used the unending debate about the SAT as a bludgeon to further her political agenda. 

I’m not a proponent of abolishing the test (far from it!) but Ms. Chavez’s piece is…awful. Just awful. And biased as the day is long. She approaches the entire debate from a political standpoint, not an educational one. If the elephants on the page weren’t enough to clue you in, she reveals her agenda quite clearly here (my emphasis):

The movement away from requiring the SAT has picked up steam in the last few years, ostensibly driven by the desire to increase racial and ethnic diversity at colleges. If it’s true, this would be troubling enough, since the desire to achieve a predetermined ethnic or racial mix should play no role in determining who gets into college. But, in any event, the real motive behind the SAT-optional movement is more complicated and self-serving.

She then proceeds to follow a very familiar blueprint: claim that your opponent has “very little” evidence, and offer even less of your own.  A note to Ms. Chavez: the amount of time and money ETS has spent recalibrating the test is no more evidence of the SAT’s fairness than are racial discrepancies evidence of its unfairness. Would that it were true that throwing money at a problem would always fix it!

The only evidence she offers of the SAT’s predictive ability is a “carefully done meta-analysis” that I just spent 30 minutes looking for and could not find. That’s a shame. I bet it’s a great read. I’ll keep looking, I guess.

One last note: the assertion at the end of the piece about the “high irony” of the whole situation reeks of ignorance (if I’m being charitable).

This is a sloppy, loathsome piece all the way through, and shame on any real newspaper that syndicated it (though again, thankfully, I’m not seeing many in my quick Google search).

If you’ve been wondering why things have been a bit quieter around here for the past few weeks, there are 3 reasons:

  1. I’ve been scrambling to finish this book so that I can ship it off to print.
  2. I’ve been trying to keep up with all the great questions I’ve been getting at
  3. I started grad school this month and I’ve been trying to adjust after close to 10 years away from academia.
The third reason is pertinent right now, because for a class on finance (which I think will be quite good) I was assigned some preparatory work over the summer, which included some online quizzes. I want to quote a question from one of them here, and then explain why it’s a bad question. And then hopefully parlay my personal anecdote into insightful test prep advice for you, using my extreme perspicacity. Wouldn’t that be splendid?

If you have a present value and an interest rate, you can calculate a future value.

True / False

I don’t expect y’all to be experts in finance (nor should you expect me to be until a few months from now) but the formula being referred to here is a simple one: FV = PV(1 + i)n, where FV = future value, PV = present value, i = interest rate, and n = number of periods the investment will earn interest.
So if you have PV and i, you should be able to calculate FV for any n. In other words, if you know the  present value of an investment is $1000, and you know the interest rate is 5%, you should be able to tell how much that investment will be worth in 1 year, 2 years, 10 years, 100 years, etc. You should be able to find “a future value.” I picked “True.”
The answer they were looking for is “False” because you can’t solve the equation without also knowing n.
So yeah, I got a question wrong. Alert the media. But also take note of the imprecision in the way the question was written. The question asks whether one could find “a future value” given a present value and an interest rate. I maintain that one can: the value 2 years out is a future value, as is the value 3 years out and the value 8 years out. I can find all of them. So I can find “a future value.” Many, in fact.
If the question writer really wanted an answer of “False,” she should have asked whether one could find “the future value.” You cannot find “the future value” without knowing how many periods into the future the interest will compound.
This drove me absolutely nuts for days, but the bottom line is that not everybody writes tests the same way, and I had to adjust to the way these dumb online tests are written just like you have to adjust to the way your US History or Physics teacher writes tests, and just like you must adjust to the way the SAT is written.
In each question, in all three subjects, every single word matters, both in the questions, and in the answer choices. Every single word has been wrangled over and vetted by multiple test writing professionals, and is in there for a reason. The wording of questions on the SAT is extremely deliberate and precise. You will never, never have to wonder whether a test writer wrote “a” when he meant to write “the.” The sentence means exactly what it means. I take comfort in that, and I wish every other test I’ll ever have to take would follow the same guidelines.
Just like that simple finance question drove me nuts, the absolute precision of the SAT might drive you nuts for a while. But if you want to get to a place where you can dominate this test, you’ll have to adjust. Each and every word matters.

I’ll be honest: I hate that I’m actually devoting space on this site to reminding you to read each question very carefully, but I am because I’ve worked with enough kids to know that errors due to misreading (and misbubbling — ARGH!) are unspeakably common.

Rest assured that, if there’s a way a question could possibly be misinterpreted by a test taker, the SAT writers have anticipated that error and made it an incorrect answer choice. So if you don’t read the question carefully the first time, you’ll feel warm and fuzzy about your incorrect answer. You might catch your mistake if you finish early and have time to review your answers, but there’s also a pretty good chance your warm-and-fuzzy will carry all the way through until you get your score report back and see than you missed #6 and you’re all like WTFFFFFF.

The SAT has been known to:
  • Give all the question information in feet, and ask for an answer in inches. Of course, make the same answer in feet an incorrect choice.
  • Ask testers to solve for x2, which is 49 (a perfect square – those monsters). Make 7 an incorrect answer choice to give the warm-and-fuzzy to everyone who automatically solved for x like they do every other day of the year.
  • Write a question about John and Susie buying iguana treats or some crap. Ask how many Susie bought. Make the number John bought a choice too.

So yeah. This isn’t really a “strategy” so much as it is me imploring you to actually put your eyes on the paper and read the question carefully, because the SAT has a long history of humbling those who don’t.

You may be laughing now. You won’t be when you lose precious points because of careless errors. Read the question carefully. Always.