Pro Tip: Don’t Use What You Know about the Real World on the SAT

I have College Board’s Daily Practice for the SAT app on my phone, which I highly recommend to any student who’s going to be taking the test within the next year or so. Most of the time, it’s a helpful little tool that reminds you what SAT questions look like and lets you approach them one at a time. Today’s, though, was a doozy–and not in a good way.

Remember when College Board said they were making the new SAT more connected to the real world by using data sets that were grounded in actual science? The College Board’s own website says,

In response to evidence about essential prerequisites for college and career readiness and success, the redesigned SAT’s Math Test requires students to apply their mathematics knowledge, skills, and understandings in challenging, authentic contexts. Students taking the Math Test will encounter a range of disciplines and will be asked to address real-world problems drawn from science, social studies, and careers and demonstrate a capacity for sustained reasoning over the multiple steps required to answer many of the questions on the exam. In these ways, the Math Test also rewards and incentivizes valuable work in the classroom.

That’s a great premise, and we’d love to support it–if it were true! But you can’t take that literally. Today’s question is a math/calculator permitted problem and is rated difficult:

In 2012 a cheetah set a new record by running 100 meters in 5.95 seconds. What was the cheetah’s approximate average speed during this record-breaking run, in miles per hour? (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile)

A. 17 miles per hour
B. 34 miles per hour
C. 38 miles per hour
D. 60 miles per hour

Now, if you know anything about cheetahs, you know they can run really fast. Since I have a five-year-old who’s been obsessed with the TV show Wild Kratts! for a few years, I’ve heard a lot about cheetahs (and groundhogs and draco lizards).

But woe to the student who thinks, “I know something about cheetahs, and College Board has already told me that the best way to prepare for the SAT is to take challenging classes in high school–not to cram for the test with a test-prep course.” That student would choose option D, which, as it turns out, is wrong.

For an easy fix–and to maintain their integrity about real-world problems–the College Board could have rewritten the question to read,

In 2012 a cheetah was clocked running 100 meters in 5.95 seconds. What was the cheetah’s approximate average speed during this run, in miles per hour? (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile)

We do not always need to be concerned with the fastest, the best, or the record-breaking–and the College Board should know that. Math and reading questions that are based in real-world examples and concepts will usually be boring. Including a question that insists on a record-breaking number, then states the wrong number as the correct answer, doesn’t help students learn–it confuses them, and it’s dishonest.

The correct answer, according to the College Board, is C. Thanks to the Wild Kratts, even my kindergartener knows that a cheetah can top speeds of 70 miles per hour.

NEW! ACT Booster Courses

We know that every year, many students take both the SAT and the ACT. We also know that the changes College Board made to the SAT this year mean that the test looks more like the ACT than ever before.

If you’ve previously taken our SAT prep course and want to catch up on the things that are different about the ACT, we’re offering two ACT booster courses in 2017 that will help you make the transition. Each course has three workshops (one for math and science, one for reading and language, and one for the essay) that meet on Wednesday evenings and a final proctored practice test given on a Saturday morning…just like the real ACT.

Our first ACT booster course starts January 4th and gets students ready for the February 11th ACT.

The second begins on May 10th and is designed to get students ready for the June 10th ACT.

Great Advice from a College Counselor

Patrick O’Connor writes this, from the Huffington Post:

“Juniors, this is where you come in. It would be great to assume the leaders of these companies are going to work out their differences about the concordance tables, but the truth is, you don’t really care about that. What you care about is what your dream college is going to do with the SAT scores you’ve just sent them—so ask them.”

Read the whole article here.

College admissions: What’s really important?

Laura and I talk a lot about what success means, and what our individual students should be looking for in a college. It may surprise you to know that though Laura’s an Ivy League grad, we rarely try to nudge a student in that direction. Instead, we’re mostly concerned about helping students get accepted to the colleges that will allow them to learn the things that are most important to them and to grow as individuals.

That’s why we’re encouraged to see the Washington Post following Brennan Barnard, a college admissions counselor at a top-notch private college prep school in New Hampshire. Barnard caused a bit of a stir when he suggested last month that the college admissions process looks too much like the Hunger Games. Yesterday, he discussed the Colleges That Change Lives list and what students should really be looking for when they make their educational decisions.

We consider one of our most important jobs in this college prep game to be helping our students figure out what they want out of college. Sure, we’ll prepare them for the SAT. But the first thing we tell them is that the SAT isn’t the be-all and end-all. A high school junior who wants to go into social work or filmmaking doesn’t need a 1600 score on the SAT–she needs a good-enough SAT score along with experiences and activities that show her passion for helping people, or a film portfolio that demonstrates her skill in visual storytelling. Likewise, someone interested in engineering should shoot for a good-enough score (especially on the math sections) and spend his extra time working on robotics, coding, or building things. We’ve even suggested to students that the name (and the cost) of their undergraduate institution doesn’t matter nearly as much as its ability to get them positioned for a competitive graduate program.

As for the meaning of success–well, that depends on the person. We’re convinced, though, that a successful college experience is one that teaches a student to think independently, prepares him or her for meaningful work, and feeds a passion that already exists. And for that, there’s no such thing as one size fits all.

Old SAT, new SAT…Samgsung SAT?

Sure, the stakes are high in the U.S., where your SAT score can determine which schools will look at your application and which schools won’t. But in Korea, big companies have their own aptitude tests, and how you do on them could determine whether or not you get a job.

Samsung, for example, has its own SAT: the Samsung Aptitude Test. Along with math problems that look a lot like the problems the College Board comes up with, it also includes questions on logic, rotated three-dimensional shapes, and Asian history. It looks hard (I scored a 60 percent on my first try), but with the right preparation I’m sure it’s just as beatable as the college entrance SAT.

If I wanted to get a cushy corporate job with Samsung, I’d bone up on key events in Asian history, probably by making my own Timeline game. I’d practice looking at 3-D shapes to see which features would have to show up in certain rotations, and play some Perplexus while I was at it. I’d also work on a logic grid similar to the one I used when I took the GRE a decade and a half ago.

Intrigued? Read the full NPR story (and take a mini-Samsung Aptitude Test) here.

SAT coaches can’t take the new test on March 5th

Photo credit albertogp123, flickr creative commons

College Board usually allows SAT coaches to take the SAT any time we like, as long as we pay our $54.50 and have valid ID. But I was notified via email over the weekend that the testing giant has moved my registration, along with many others, to the May 7th test. Here’s the exact wording from the email:

Dear Test-Taker,

Due to a new test security measure, your registration for the March 5, 2016, administration of the SAT® has been transferred to the administration on May 7, 2016. This change was implemented to ensure that everyone taking the test is doing so for its intended purpose: to apply to and attend a college or university undergraduate program, or to apply for scholarships, financial aid, or other programs that require a college admission test.

You can read more about the last-minute change here.

While I’m disappointed (yes, I was really looking forward to taking a standardized test!), I’m also feeling some frustration with the College Board. Like everyone else, we’re basing our knowledge about the new SAT on the four tests that College Board released over the summer. Since this is a brand-new test, it’s likely to evolve and change over time, and we’d like more visibility on those changes. And we’d love to know what prompted the “new test security measure.”

Old Man Winter snows the SAT

Turns out the all-powerful College Board is…well, not so all-powerful after all.

Tomorrow, Saturday, January 23rd, is supposed to be the last time College Board offers the old-form SAT. Except, thanks to the blizzard slated to hit the mid-Atlantic, there’s a whole swath of the U.S. where the test has to be postponed–affecting as many as 1/4 of all the college-bound high school juniors in the country.

Read the whole story from the Washington Post here.


SAT vs. ACT: What’s the difference?

It’s a fair question, especially as more schools say they’ll take scores from either test and the new SAT is on the horizon. Which test is better? Which one should you take?

Historically (that is, back when we were kids in the ’80s and ’90s), the SAT was the test we took to apply to nationally-recognized private schools; the ACT was the test we took to apply to state schools. Generally speaking, a college would decide on one or the other, and if you wanted to apply there, you had to take the right test.

All that has changed. Now, thanks to a very aggressive marketing campaign on the part of ACT, Inc., most schools will accept scores from either test. So what’s the difference?


The SAT consists of 5 sections:

  1. Reading (65 minutes)
  2. Writing and Language (35 minutes)
  3. Math–No Calculator (25 minutes)
  4. Math–Calculator (55 minutes)
  5. Essay–optional (50 minutes

Cost: $43 ($54.50 with optional essay)


The ACT also consists of 5 sections:

  1. English (45 minutes)
  2. Mathematics–calculator allowed (60 minutes)
  3. Reading (35 minutes)
  4. Science Reasoning (35 minutes)
  5. Writing–optional (40 minutes)

Cost: $38 ($54.50 with optional writing test)

Um…is there a difference?

One of the reasons the SAT is changing in 2016 is to make it look more similar to the ACT. And on paper (especially the kind of paper found in your parents’ checkbook), it does. On the back end, though, there are some important differences.

First, there’s science. The biggest difference between the tests is that science section. If you haven’t taken some good science classes, or if you just don’t get science, you should take the SAT. Sure, there are some questions in the SAT’s math sections about data analysis, and there are questions that look science-y, but you’ll be able to answer them using regular old math.

Second, the ACT depends more on what you’ve already learned in school.  If you understand what you’re learning in school and you can recall things under pressure, the ACT is for you. Though the SAT isn’t actually called the Scholastic Aptitude Test anymore, and the redesigned SAT looks more like the classes you’ve taken in school than ever before, it’s still a more general test than the ACT is. That means there are fewer questions that depend on you recalling specifics from a class you took two years ago.

The SAT is easier to game. This is our favorite point, and it’s one of the chief reasons we focus on SAT prep. The test-taking strategies and shortcuts we teach work with any test, even the biology quiz you have next week, but they work better on the SAT than they do on the ACT. If your initial test score is low, investing in SAT prep will usually give you a greater change in your score than investing in ACT prep.

Which test should you take?

That, of course, depends on your personal strengths and weaknesses. We aren’t convinced that either test is better than the other–in fact, research shows that your high school grades are a better predictor of your success in college than any standardized test. We recommend taking a practice test for each one (available here for the SAT and here for the ACT) and seeing how you do before you decide on a test. Once you decide, commit to it! Make sure the kind of test prep you’re doing is specific to the test you’re going to take, and do a good job of studying for the test before you take it. Either way you go, being prepared will help you get a better score.

Guess what? You might not need to take a college entrance exam at all

There’s a growing trend among colleges and universities to go test-optional with admissions, and we couldn’t be happier about it.

What?! But you get paid to teach test-prep strategies!

Yes, we do. But our real goal is to get students from high school to college in the least painful way possible. Most of the time, that means giving them the tools and strategies they need to score really well on the SAT, but to be honest we’d be perfectly happy to work ourselves out of a job. (We like working together, and we’re pretty sure that our two geeky brains could come up with something else to do.) More schools going test-optional seems like a very good move.

Why? Well, we know something about the SAT–about most standardized tests, in fact. We know that scores on the SAT correlate very highly with students’ household income. And we know that the biggest predictor of a student’s college grades is his or her high school grades.

Admissions officers know that too.

Cory Turner at NPR did an excellent story earlier this week about the movement toward test-optional admissions, triggered by George Washington University’s announcement that it’s joining the trend. One of the reasons that schools point to for the change is that they’re trying to diversify their applicant pool, and the SAT is famously biased against minority and immigrant students. Turner dug up another reason, too: Stephen Burd at the Hechinger Report points to a study that says test-optional policies raise the number of applicants to a school, which means it accepts a smaller percentage of its total applicants, which in turn helps boost the school’s standing on the U. S. News and World Report college rankings.

Whatever the reasons are for colleges getting on board the test-optional train, it’s good news for good students who don’t score well on standardized tests. College admissions officers know that high school GPA is the best predictor of a student’s success in college, and more and more of them are willing to accept students based on their high GPAs. If this describes you to a T, check out the growing list of test-optional schools. You’ll be glad you did.

What’s so new and improved about the redesigned SAT?

We’ve spent a good chunk of our summer looking at the redesigned SAT–the one that will be at testing centers near you in March of 2016. It’s actually been a lot of fun, because believe it or not, we like this kind of stuff. It’s one of the reasons we do what we do: we see the SAT as a game, and we think it’s awfully fun to help other people see it that way too.

So if it’s a game, what are the basic rules? You’re probably more or less familiar with the current SAT, whether you realize it or not–your teachers at school have been feeding you information that can help you succeed on it, such as obtuse and esoteric vocabulary lists (see what I did there?). But here’s a refresher: the current SAT has 10 different sections, most of them 25 minutes long. Three of them–the essay and two writing sections–count toward the writing score, three of them are critical reading sections, and three of them are math sections.

If you were doing the math there, you know that there’s still one section to account for. That’s because somewhere in all of that, there’s one additional section for one of those three subjects. It’s a random section–you won’t know which one it is–and it doesn’t count toward your score. In fact, College Board uses it to test new questions and to help scale future tests.

The bottom line is that where the old test had three different sections, each with a possible score of 800, for a possible combined score of 2400:


the new SAT folds the writing and critical reading sections back together into a single score, which is now called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. (We say “back together” because when we were in high school, that’s the way the SAT looked.) The other major subject is Mathematics, so you have a total of 1600 possible points–with a separate score for the optional essay.


Where the old test begins with a fast and furious 25-minute essay, the new test begins with a marathon: a 65-minute reading test with 52 questions. The questions are based on a series of passages, many of them longer than you’ve usually seen on standardized tests, and some of them include charts and graphs (think USA Today and you’ll have the right idea). Are there questions about the graphs? You bet. It’s part of a College Board effort to include more data analysis in the whole test, not just a few math questions.

Fortunately, with the new test you’ll also get longer breaks between sections–long enough to use the bathroom and to wolf down a hard-boiled egg.

Next up is the writing and language test, 35 minutes long, with 44 questions. This section is very similar to the writing sections on the current SAT: you’ll read a passage with underlined sections and then choose the best way the underlined section could be phrased. You’ll also see a few questions about editing: which sentence should come first (and why)? What kind of information would be best to place in the middle of this paragraph? Believe it or not, you’ll see some charts here too.

Section 3 is math, and it’s here that you’ll see one of the big changes in the test: no calculators are permitted in this 25-minute, 20-question section. Remember fourth-grade multiplication–the kind you did on paper, where you had to carry the 2 and add a zero to each new line? You’re going to use it here. The last five questions are also grid-ins, where you’ll have to come up with an answer all by yourself instead of getting to choose A, B, C, or D (that’s another big change, by the way–the redesigned SAT questions have four answers instead of five, and College Board has done away with the “guessing penalty”–the -.25 off your raw score for each question you answer incorrectly).

Section 4 is more math, but you get to use your calculator this time. It’s a long section, too: 55 minutes for 38 questions. What you’re going to notice about the math sections on the new SAT is that College Board is taking a very different approach to math from the one it’s taken on previous SATs. Sometimes the question doesn’t just ask for the correct answer–it asks for it in a certain format, like slope-intercept format, or the form of the equation that gives you the x-intercepts of a parabola. And some of the test questions are a lot more related to real life (there are questions about what you’d do if you were a scientist doing field research, and one about video game scoring). There’s some light trigonometry. There’s also some more sophisticated data analysis than we’re seen before on the SAT–things you might not know unless you’ve taken an introductory statistics class.

Last–and definitely not least, because while it’s optional to write it, the school you want to attend may require it–is the essay. At 50 minutes, it’s twice as long as the required essay on the current SAT, so get those hand muscles warmed up and stretched out before it begins. It’s a particular kind of essay, too, one that you’ve probably been working on in your English literature classes. You’ll read a passage that’s about two pages long, and then your job is to analyze it and tell why it’s effective. How does the author build his or her argument? What kinds of evidence, reasoning, and persuasive elements are present?

So there are your rules, gamers. Play it smart and be prepared–we always advise you to go in with the deck stacked in your favor.