Posts tagged with: philosophy

Imagine you’re given the task of picking as many apples from a particular apple tree as possible, in a short amount of time. You know that none of the apples on the tree are any more or less delicious than any of the others, but of course the higher up they are, the harder they are to get.

Are you going to climb right to the top to get the most difficult apples first? Not if you want to get the most total apples. I guess if it’s important to you to brag to your friends that you got the highest apple, you might do that. But if that’s what you want to brag about to your friends, maybe it’s time to look at your life, and look at your choices.

In the SAT math section, the questions go roughly in order from easiest to hardest, but each question is worth the exact same amount of points. There’s no bonus for getting the hardest ones right. So if you’re skipping questions early to get to questions late, or if you’re rushing through the easy ones to get to the hard ones at the end, you’re doing it wrong. You’re spending precious time on questions that are very difficult without having given enough thought to questions that are much easier. If you prioritized your time differently, you’d probably see a higher score.

To go back to the apple tree example, skipping early questions or rushing to get to the hard ones faster is like climbing to the top of the tree before you’ve picked all the easier apples towards the bottom — the ones you can reach from the ground without climbing at all. You’re risking your entire day’s work by doing so. You might get fired from your apple picking job for being insanely inefficient. How will you feed your famished children?

Let’s look at this one more way to really drive the point home. Every test’s scoring table is slightly different, but you can usually break 700 with 48 raw score points. There are 54 raw score points available (that’s if you get every question right), so you can actually skip 6 questions (or get 5 wrong) and still get your 700 if you’re perfect on the rest.

Do you understand what that means? That means you can get a kick-ass score without ever tackling the two hardest questions in each math section! And if you stop rushing to get to them and sweating through them and often still getting them wrong, you’ll probably make fewer mistakes on the easier questions.

This is a subtle point, but it’s a huge factor in whether your math score is going to see an impressive improvement. If you really want your score to go up, start prioritizing the easy points. Once you’re consistently getting all of those (seriously, nothing difficulty 3 or under wrong ever), then you can start to worry about the hard ones.

Some tutors and courses assign students “target numbers” to try to hard-code this concept into their prep. They’ll say, for example, that you should always skip the last two questions in each section (well, #8 and #18 in the Grid-In section) and use the time that saves you to work on easier questions. Don’t be obstinate! It’s good advice! They’re not trying to limit your score, they’re trying to maximize it. Unless you’re already breaking 700 (or whatever your “target score” is), getting the easy questions right more often is the easiest path to a better score.

Conclusion: Don’t worry if you don’t finish the hardest question or two in a section if you’ve made sure you got the easier ones right. That’s a good trade-off and you increased your score by doing so. I’ll say it once more: You’ll increase your score more by getting fewer easy ones wrong than you will by getting more hard ones right. So slow down, work carefully, and bask in the glow of your score report when it arrives and proves me right.

If you’ve decided to go the private tutoring route, you need to do your due diligence in selecting a tutor that’s right for you, lest you waste precious blood and treasure on someone who’s the wrong fit, or someone who’s just a plain old charlatan. SAT tutoring is big business, and lots of people who aren’t exactly experts will be all too happy to take your money if you’ll give it to them.

I trust that you know to ask the basic questions: the ones about availability, cost, frequency and length of sessions, etc. Here are, in no particular order, six less obvious questions you should ask a potential tutor before you sign on the proverbial dotted line.

  1. How many other clients do you have? A student-tutor relationship is very personal when done right, and if you’re going to pay this fellow the exorbitant fees he’s commanding, you want to know he’s going to be available when you need him, and that you’ll have his full attention when you’re with him. If he’s got fifteen other clients, he might be willing to take another one on, but you might want to consider looking elsewhere.
  2. What is your approach? There are countless philosophies about and approaches to preparing for the SAT, and you want to make sure that a potential tutor is a good match for you in that respect. Some tutors, for example, believe that the best way to improve a math score is to practice algebra incessantly; they take a strict, math-only approach. Others (like me) believe that you already have a math teacher every day in school and that you should approach the SAT a little differently. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. Make sure you and your tutor see eye-to-eye on this.
  3. When is the last time you took the SAT, and how did you score? There’s no law against an adult signing up for and taking the SAT, and a good tutor should have done so at least once after high school. You’d be surprised how many people think their experience teaching other things qualifies them to teach the SAT. This test is a different animal, and if you’re going to pay someone a lot of money to tutor you one-on-one, you want to be sure that person knows how to tame it. You’re looking for 2400s here, if you’re going to pay top dollar.
  4. Do you have your own materials? Some tutors write their own materials, and some simply tell you to buy a book and go through it with you. I, personally, write my own materials (many of which you’ll find on these pages) and supplement them with practice tests from the Official SAT Study Guide. If your tutor is just going to go through a book with you without adding much of her own insight, she might not be worth the money you’re paying her.
  5. How will you personalize your program for me? Every student is different, and a good tutor will adjust his techniques to fit your strengths and weaknesses. This could mean bringing practice problems to your session that he’s specifically picked out because of your performance on the last test you took, for example.  If he’s going to give you the same cookie-cutter treatment he gives everyone else, you might want to look for someone who won’t.
  6. Can you supply me with references? Any tutor worth her fees will be able to back up her large price tag with a list of previous clients who were so happy with her that they’ve agreed to be contacted once in a while by a potential new client. Of course, this one is less important if you were referred to her directly by a friend, which might obviate the need for additional references.
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I spend most of my SAT-related energy thinking about the math section. It’s the section about which I’ve had the most arguments with people in my line of work and far outside of it. Emotions tend to run high on both sides, which I understand completely because my own philosophy on the section has changed so much since I was in high school.

I was a math guy in high school. I looked forward to math class every day. I loved the satisfaction I got from constructing an elegant geometrical proof; I thrived on the sturdy reliability of algebra. I won awards for the best math GPA. I couldn’t wait to get to college and take harder, more complex courses in advanced mathematics.

But of course, like everyone, I still got questions wrong sometimes. I’d subtract incorrectly, or forget to distribute a negative sign, and feel my stomach sink when my teacher handed me back a 95% when I’d been sure a 100% was coming.

Despite mountains of evidence indicating that I was fallible and likely to make a few mistakes under pressure, I brute-forced the math section on the SAT because I knew no other way. It’s been too long for me to remember any of the questions and I’m fairly sure I never knew which ones I got wrong, but I do remember that I was devastated when my scores came back that I had only scored a 730 in math. I had done better than that in reading! FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU


Here’s what I wish someone had told me then, and one of the first things I tell all my students now: The SAT is not a math test. Or at least, it’s not like any math test you’re used to taking in school. SAT math sections are mostly multiple choice, for one. When’s the last time you took a multiple choice math test? Not to mention that they’re full of booby-traps, misleading diagrams, and intentionally difficult phrasing. Some questions that look a lot like straightforward algebra questions are put there not to see if you can do the algebra, but to see if you can spot the shortcut that lets you avoid the algebra.

Taking the SAT like you’d take a regular math test is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Sure, a knife is a deadly weapon and with it you might get lucky, but that doesn’t change the fact that the guy with the gun is going to be happy to see you.

Perhaps a less macabre way to put it is this: taking the SAT using only brute force math is like a Little Leaguer insisting on using a wooden bat, because that’s what the pros use, even though it puts him at a huge disadvantage since all the other kids use metal bats. If that kid then complains that the best kids in Little League are doing it wrong, then he’s basically asking that the playing field adjust to him, because he refuses to adjust to the playing field.

There are many who believe that brute force application of algebra and geometry is the only way to come by a good score on the SAT honestly, and while I respect their opinion, I disagree. I encourage you not to treat SAT math sections like a math test. Instead, treat them like SAT math sections—a different animal. Guesstimate to eliminate bad answers when diagrams are drawn to scale. Plug in real numbers instead of variables to clarify relationships. Try out answer choices to see which one fits.

If you want to drastically improve your score, you’re going to have to drastically change the way you take the test.

I recommend anyone who’s planning to prepare for the SAT purchase The Official SAT Study Guide (you’ll see me refer to it a lot on this site simply as the Blue Book), but that doesn’t mean I think it’s the world’s greatest prep book. In fact, I find the whole first half of it to be pretty weak.

It makes sense that it would be, if you think about it. The College Board wants to sell books, but at the same time prop up their test as the go-to exam for college admissions. They can’t very well sell you a book that’s going to reveal every strategy necessary to ace the test, they’d be putting themselves out of business. So they sell you a book full of very good practice tests, and very mediocre strategies.

They know that the back cover of their book (you’ll see it when you buy it – it insists that there are no tricks to help you get a better score) is baloney. They know that the first half of the book isn’t that helpful. But they need to prop up the myth that their exam is a pure measure of your academic prowess. They can’t very well admit that it’s susceptible to test-specific strategies and tricks, and that kids who prep with someone who knows them have a huge advantage!

So buy the book, and do ALL the tests. They’re written by the same people who write the SAT, and in fact the first three tests in the 2nd edition were real SATs (they’re the October 2006, January 2007, and May 2007 (Saturday version) tests, respectively). But don’t take the back cover, or the first half of the book, too seriously.