Now that many schools have gone test optional, it is more important than usual to score well on the SAT. You may save yourself the better part of $100,000 assuming a four year graduation. Below, I also outline the control students have in their own learning and discuss the core set of strategies for the four sections. Let’s begin.

The Bat and Ball Problem

A bat and ball together cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat is one dollar more expensive than the ball. How expensive is the ball?

Ten cents, right? Wait, why not? Our old brain works faster than our new brain does and it also works off of intuition. Even if you arrived at the correct answer, you could not help but to initially feel that the answer was ten cents. Test creators know how to exploit these faults of any human mind when they design standardized test questions. It is very important to implement good habits to overcome these mental deficiencies we all inherit.

Should you take the ACT instead?

When considering the college admission process, the topic of which standardized test to take, the SAT or the ACT, is hotly debated. Students and parents want to employ the best tools to obtain admission to the best colleges. Most educators, guidance counselors and tutors advise students to begin by taking both exams, and then focus on the test with the higher initial percentile score. In my years as a full time tutor, I have tutored both tests extensively. I have found that students usually have an intuitive sense of which test they want to take. Instead of wasting this motivation switching tests, the student should just commit to the test they have in mind at the beginning. By employing this strategy, the student can save considerable time and expense by focusing only on one test. Because my goal is the best outcome for each of my students at the lowest cost, it is my recommendation that my students should focus on one test only. My personal goal is to help the student be relieved of the stress of testing to the highest degree, while getting the results that will help the student gain admission to the school of their choice and achieve massive financial savings. If you think the ACT is a better fit for you, let’s head on over to ACT Tutoring.

"Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned."

Charles Duhigg
Why Test Optional Doesn't Matter

Around the turn of the millennium, the costs of college and the amount of competition in collegiate admissions were both considered to be high. Over twenty years, as the internet’s uses evolved, costs and competition had come to a rolling boil. Even though colleges were admitting more students than they had ever before, they could not keep up with the soaring number of applications. Today, nearly every school employs the use of algorithms when considering which applications a staff member will view at all. The two main factors in this initial robotic culling of applications are GPA and SAT score. Once there are human eyes on an application, admission seems sometimes to be a game of chance even with a well crafted application.

So to view the issue of Covid-19 from that of a working level admissions officer, the size of your department was already probably too small before the pandemic. The whole school has been freaking out either about their financial losses transitioning to virtual classrooms or about the costs of testing all of their students all of the time. There is definitely not budget money for more staff at the admissions office. On top of this, the algorithm that usually selects the applications for you isn’t working well this year because not every student has SAT scores. Imagine the relief you feel when you see a well crafted application with a strong GPA and an excellent SAT score in your workflow. That one’s going right to the scholarship consideration pile.

The effort invested in 'getting it right' should be commensurate with the importance of the decision.

Daniel Kahneman

So it doesn’t matter that schools are going test optional, because you’re actually solving a problem for your admissions officer. Any applicant wants to be viewed as a safe investment and there is no better way to accomplish this than having all the performing characteristics from the “good old days.” As a cautionary note, I think there will be a lot of disappointed seniors next year who thought they would be getting into their choice college on their GPA alone. I don’t want that for you. Let’s get you in that scholarship pile.

Why Your SAT Score Must Be Phenomenal

The time costs of a GPA are fixed for every high school student; Three and some years into one number. The time costs of SAT preparation are wildly variable. Some students invest two years or more and reap the benefits from their long term rehearsal of the test. 

Think about all of the time and “undo-ableness” that went into your GPA. How crazy is it that a robot will look at this unchangeable number as well as the score to one other test to decide your inherent ranking.

What will you do with the time you have to get your SAT score ready? Your ultimate success will be highly related to the size of the hole you will cut in your life to replace with time spent completing sections and reviewing your mistakes. As a student, are you ready to prioritize the SAT in your life? Most students will take a drivers ed course that takes half a year just to enjoy the freedom of self transport. What sacrifice are you prepared to make for financial independence because your favorite college you got into gave you a bunch of scholarship money? It is worth considering seriously.

The Fiscal Effects Of A Scholarship

Presuming you will be employing the use of student loans to help pay for college, it is worth examining the long term effects of receiving financial aid. Let’s take my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as an example. A year’s tuition there pre-covid was $73,816, and the average size student aid package was $21,836 per year. Assuming a four year graduation and a 5.8% interest rate compounded twice a year, there is, approximately, a $97,000 difference in amount owed between someone who received financial aid and someone who did not by the time of graduation. Even state school options net an impressive differential: A year’s tuition at SUNY Binghampton (for a New York resident) was $50,000 pre-covid with an average financial aid package of $15,000. Still over a $66,000 savings. Investing time and material into SAT tutoring can save a very real amount of money not all that long from now. Apply to a large, diverse list of schools to help increase your chances at an outcome like one of these.

“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”

Charles Duhigg
Advice for Student Athletes

Typically, other than the admissions officer that reviews your application, students do not enjoy the benefit of “someone in their corner” during the application process. However, this is not so with student athletes.

The coaches from each college enjoy a range of control: in some cases they have total power and in others they are permitted an “allowance” of acceptances. In each instance, if the student has the favor of the coach, it will only improve the student’s chances.

So how to best curry favor with this advocate of yours? The diversity of human interaction is nearly infinite, so it’s probably not possible to say for sure. It is, however, probably safe to say you’ll want to showcase your “5/5 star” qualities with the coach and withhold your SAT score until it is a 5 star score. Are you an excellent student, or particularly gifted player? Let the coach think in their head that you are a miracle answer to their future team. If you have time to prepare your SAT more until it is a 5 star score, then when you reveal it, full ride offers are not always off the table.

“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”

Charles Duhigg
Student Controlled Learning

On the research page of this website, a case is made to give students control of their own learning objectives. What does this look like when you study the SAT? The SAT score is an average of the reading section, the writing section, and two math sections. After the student’s baseline testing, they are able to see how they are scoring relative to their peers in each section. When I work with a student, I encourage the discussion of how the student felt about each section and the potential benefits to working on them in a particular order. Some students prefer first to hone the section they’re already proficient in before coming to terms with their weaknesses later on. Others prefer to eat the frog and jump right to their largest area of opportunity. Other students like to work each section with equal frequency. Still others prefer an introduction to each of the four sections with targeted homework assignments before starting full length practice tests. There are many options we can discuss about what might work especially well for you. Each tutorial is an opportunity to work together as a team to further what might help you most on that day. We can plot your performance over time and even help to plan long term for your target score.

Section Strategies

On the research portion of this site, I discuss why it is so important that the right habits be formed at the beginning of learning. In my years of experience tutoring for the SAT, I have a set of strategies I introduce to each of my students. Some students benefit from additional techniques, but the list below is a good starting point for any proficient SAT test taker. Having a plan and being able to practice it can help students feel “normal” about taking the test more quickly.

I recommend that each student whisper the entire test to themselves. Many students hate this one but hear me out. Have you ever completed an assignment you were then forced to read in front of a class? Did you then stumble across a sentence that didn’t read properly and change it on the spot? Isn’t it weird that you didn’t notice that last night when you were writing it? There is not enough redundancy built into reading and thinking silently. Think about all of the work that needs to happen to say something out loud. Your brain has to decide on what to try to get your mouth to say, your body regulates breathing and the position of your vocal chords, and once the sound comes out, your ears are a final “spellcheck” to what you just said. It really allows you to “hear” what the test has to say. You may look like a crazy person, but you are safeguarding yourself against reading errors on every section of this test.

Use the process of elimination for 100% of the questions on the reading and writing sections (Use in limited cases on the math sections). When reading each answer choice, ask if it’s good enough to keep or if you should get rid of it. Do not — under any circumstances — select an option you like the most before you have read all of the choices. Test makers are really good at coming up with answer choices that seem correct but are not. You first must have the moment of “wait, how could one of these be wrong?” before being able to reliably choose the right answer.

There are many common areas of confusion on the writing section including comma usage, compound sentences, possession, subject verb agreement, and redundancy. Each student deserves a unique analysis of their strengths and weaknesses with respect to these areas. Nearly every student benefits from an introduction about rhetoric questions. Rhetoric questions (roughly) start with “which choice best…?” Rhetoric questions comprise a critical percentage of the writing section’s 44 questions. When beginning any rhetoric question, it is most important to locate the “important conditions” before viewing the answer choices.

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.”

Charles Duhigg

Become proficient with the TI n-Spire. Time and time again, I’ve seen students score well on the math with a calculator section who can abuse and break this test with the use of the Ti n-Spire, which has not yet been prohibited by Collegeboard. As a bare minimum for calculator usage, if ever in a question you find yourself with an equation with one variable and one unknown, you should use the nSolve functionality if you are expecting one answer and you should graph it if you are expecting more than one. This kind of conditioned immediacy is what allows students to trivialize many questions on this section. Further, it helps them preserve their “thinking gas” described on the research portion of this website.

Mathematical translation. The ability to recognize vocabulary words from topics learned throughout high school is prerequisite to a phenomenal math score. Each student needs a collage of brushing up of these forgotten skills, which should be presented in a unique way for each student, in accordance with their preference.

Summarize paragraphs in each reading passage in order to discover the author’s primary purpose. Provide yourself with a summary that is neither too vague nor too specific between three and four times during the reading of any passage. Underline some words that will help you to remember what that portion of the passage was about. At the conclusion of the passage, view your underlined portions in order to try to discover what the author really wanted to say, but didn’t say directly. With this excellent comprehension of what the author intended, the questions are far easier to complete. There are five passages in the reading section. They are always in the order of: Fiction, History, Social Science, then two Natural Science passages. Because any human is going to pay more attention to topics they are intuitively interested in, each student should seek to complete the passages they are most proficient in first, then proceed in decreasing order of interest. My personal strategy is a reverse order: both science passages, then social science, then history, and finally fiction. There is another benefit to emphasizing passage order: it’s actually quite challenging to finish all five passages in the reading section in the 65 minutes given. You want to perform at your highest level for your four strongest passages. Once you begin the final passage, you should check to see how much time is left. Most likely, there will not be time for a proper reading of the passage. In this case, I advise students to jump right to the questions. Finally, do not be afraid to skip a passage in your predetermined order if it is particularly difficult to read. You’re trying to outscore your peers, not understand writing that is over 300 years old. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day.”

Charles Duhigg

Use both hands when reading graphs and charts. When you do advance to the questions that involve graphs on any reading passage, place the finger of your non-dominant hand over the question text you are currently reading until you find a clue of where to look on the graph. Then, using your dominant hand, bring your pencil to the relevant location on the diagram and hold it there while you go back to your finger and read more of the question prompt and so on. This physical requirement may seem very silly, but it helps to avoid “getting lost” during a question with many steps.

“THE FRAMEWORK: • Identify the routine • Experiment with rewards • Isolate the cue • Have a plan”

Charles Duhigg

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Table of Contents

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