Gaming the SAT

By John Hechinger
We asked students to share their experiences with test prep classes. Here's what they said:

"I took the SAT three separate times and received roughly the same score each time. After the first attempt, I took an SAT prep course to help better my score the second time around. My score did not end up changing; it was the exact same score I received the first time. I was quite discouraged but figured that I hadn’t let the tools, methods, and information I had learned sink in. In my third attempt, I scored slightly higher but was not fully satisfied. The prep class did not seem to fulfill my expectations of what I thought it could do for me."

- Branden, Virginia Commonwealth University


"I took a SAT prep course through Princeton Review the summer of my junior year, which I found to be really helpful. It significantly improved my score (a hundred points or so) by teaching me how to take the test, as opposed to teaching me the material on the test. What's funny is that after taking the prep course, I found that I didn't learn anything very enlightening; I just learned HOW to take the test. I would say that this prep course is definitely worth the money, because without it, I would had lower scores because of simple stupid mistakes."

- Chevonne, Bucknell University


"I don’t think the test prep company helped my score improve because it felt as is if it was more about the money than the learning. After taking the practice ACT, students already had an indication of the score they would get. Students also knew if they naturally just took tests well and scored high enough; on the other hand, students who may have scored average or lower could have used more one-on-one attention, and years of preparation and practice. If the school or parents have the money, then yes, to some extent these classes are worth it, but I think that money should never be a determining factor for tests. I think that high schools should hire specialists or train thier teachers so that these programs can be incorporated into the school’s curriculum early on."

- Marvanna, Lawrence University

For over six years Elizabeth King has been working with some of the most exclusive and elite U.S. test prep companies, traveling across North America to help students maximize their SAT and ACT scores. She is the author of OUTSMARTING THE SAT (Ten Speed). Below, she sums up her top ten SAT tips.

1. Don’t Wait To Prepare

This probably goes without saying, but the SAT is not a test you want to delay preparing for. No matter how overwhelming, boring, or tedious prepping may feel, if you do it right you will be nothing short of thrilled the day you get your scores back in the mail. Do yourself a favor and be diligent!

2. Be clear on what is valued in the essay—and what isn’t

Ever thought about why the essay has been included on the SAT? If not, you should. Knowing the purpose of the essay—specifically, why you are being asked to write it in the first place and on what criteria you are being graded—can dramatically change your score. Sure, a perfect SAT essay uses solid, appropriate examples, but the point here is not to find out how much you know about the literary or historical references you choose to support your response. Instead, the SAT essay is all about the structure. The SAT essay is a 25 minute opportunity for you to demonstrate that you can organize your thoughts into an argument, prove you’ve got great grammar skills and know how to spice up sentence structure, and show you have the rhetorical tools to hammer out a solid essay. Make sure you know the grading rubric before you take the test; you can find it in The Official SAT Study Guide.

3. Make it cool to use SAT vocabulary in conversation

My students always look at me like I have three heads when I suggest this, but the truth is that vocab is much more easily learned if you use it. Get your friends together and make a pact to use new words in conversation. It may feel completely ridiculous at first, but it’s worth it. While you're at it, you may want to hang flash cards of words that are particularly difficult for you around your desk (or all over the house if your parents are cool with it). The bottom line is that you want to find ways to get away from the flash card rut. Get creative!

4. Put down the calculator

Reality check: your calculator is not your extra brain and it is not any smarter than you are. Moreover, doing really well on the SAT Math section is not about having all the right formulas in your calculator. Try doing all of your practice work without a calculator and see how much you know. So much of the SAT is about understanding relationships between numbers and proving that the math you’re doing means something to you, not that you’re a master of using formulas—that’s why so much of the material may feel strange to you when you start. Keep at it… and keep the calculator out of sight except to double check your arithmetic.

Oh, and one more thing: those geometry formulas that they give you at the beginning of every section? You need to memorize them. If you don't recognize a special triangle while you're doing a problem, it will never occur to you to go look at the front of the section for its measurements, anyway.

5. Reading comprehension is not a test of how well you read: it’s a test of your ability to arrive at the same answer as the test maker

I repeat: this is all about getting the answer that is most correct, not the one that suits your interpretation of the passage. It’s not an overstatement to say that I’m obsessed with word-by-word process of elimination. Why? Because someone’s crazy parents would sue if it were remotely possible to prove that an answer the test maker says is incorrect could plausibly be correct and that that one answer stood between their kid and Princeton (or whatever). How does this drama help us? Well, the College Board doesn’t want to meet anyone’s folks in court, so we can trust that in every incorrect answer choice there is at least one word that is arguably, provably, wrong. Make a habit of finding the provably incorrect words in four of the answer choices and then confidently choose the answer that is most correct.

6. Subject yourself to a serious grammar review

The grammar section (Writing multiple choice) has been added to the test because what “sounds right” to you may not be. These days most students don’t get a full grammar course in high school, so when it comes to formal writing, you’re winging it. We’re a group of reality-television-watching, abbreviate-everything-text-messaging nuts and, well, we’re not exactly using the Queen’s English anymore. This means you owe it to yourself to get out there and find out what subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, parallelism, and direct object pronouns are. The truth is, though, that you will find writing clear, expressive essays to be far easier once you’ve got a solid grammar background. Sorry. There’s no way around it.

7. Get extra sleep two nights before the test

Simple: if you’re taking the SAT on Saturday morning and you pull an all-nighter on Thursday, you will suffer during the test. That’s just the way your body reacts to sleep deprivation, so go to bed at a regular time the whole week before test day, if possible.

8. Track your guessing skills when you practice

It’s important to understand the way the SAT is scored. A lot of popular test prep programs really push the idea of guessing, and it’s true that guessing can help you, unless you are a chronically bad guesser. (Quick reminder: there is no penalty for leaving a question blank, but an incorrect answer costs you 1/4 of a point.) Without getting into the statistical theory behind this, you need to understand that what you’re doing when you’re guessing on the SAT is not official “random guessing,” meaning you’re not simply guessing A or B without considering the answers attached to those choices. Instead, you’re letting your perceptions of the words or numbers sway your decisions, which actually influences your ability to guess. Some people guess really well, and if you’re one of those people, awesome. Obviously, I don’t have to guess very often, but when I do I guess wrong about 80 percent of the time, which means I don’t guess when I take the test. Track your ability to guess correctly while you practice and create a guessing strategy based on your personal results.

9. Only use real SAT tests to prepare

As someone who has written test questions for my own materials as well a Certain Giant Test Prep Company, I’m telling you outright that my questions are really good, but not as authentic as what you’ll find in The Official SAT Study Guide. The trick is to use awesome prep material to get all your facts/concepts straight and then practice on real tests. There’s no two ways about it.

10. Use what you’ve learned on the team to rock the test

Taking the SAT is a lot like a 4-hour tennis match: grueling, stressful, and requiring your complete focus until the very last point is earned. Plus, it includes the special element that I like to call the “I Might Never Get into College Freak Out,” which feels a lot like the panic you experience when you’re on the court fighting for the State Championship. It will be a good idea to think about the sorts of drills your coach makes you do on the basketball court (like shooting a free throw 50 times in a row or running endurance drills that make you feel like you’re going keel over) and considering how you might take the purpose of those drills and apply them to your test prep. Here are some ideas: if you struggle with geometry, find every SAT geometry problem you can and solve them three times each, perfectly. Or, set a vocabulary drill time for yourself every evening at which point you review vocab for a half an hour, uninterrupted, no excuses. Coach Larry Shyatt’s famous words “Perfect practice makes perfect” should be the motto of your SAT prep!