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The Wall Street Journal on SAT Preparation

At the beginning of March, on the eve of the first SAT date of the year, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “The Truth about the SAT and the ACT.” Naturally the headline grabbed me, and I read through the piece.

Written by Drs. Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sackett, two psychologists at the University of Minnesota, the article argues that SAT and ACT scores are as important as ever. According to the authors, test scores are accurate predictors of student success, both in college and in their future careers. As such, the authors argue that the high importance placed on test scores by college admissions officers is justified.

To prove their point, the authors seek to debunk a number of myths that have been raised about standardized exams in recent years, one of which was the following:

“Myth: Test Prep and Coaching Produce Large Score Gains.”

Naturally, this one made my eyebrows go up. I read on. To justify their claim, Kuncel and Sackett cite a study, coauthored by Sackett, in which 4,248 high school students were sampled, and the average score increase due to tutoring and coaching was, according to the authors, “14 points on the math test and 4 points on the verbal.” That is, essentially nil.

As these numbers are so foreign to my own experience of helping students achieve far more substantial score increases, I needed to read through the researchers’ paper myself, to learn more about their methodology. The article in the WSJ provided a link to their study (I’m linking it again here), which was published in the academic journal Personnel Psychology. I clicked, downloaded, and read the PDF of the journal article. Here’s what I found.

An admirable study, with limitations

In his paper (coauthored with Brian Connelly of the University of Toronto), Sackett candidly acknowledges the difficulties in measuring the effectiveness of a treatment such as SAT preparation. There are so many confounding variables—students who pursue test prep tend to be highly motivated, they tend to already be high performers in school, they tend to come from families that strongly value education, etc. Sackett rightly acknowledges that any or all of these variables could necessarily be a reason for higher test scores, and not the test prep itself. So, to remove some of this “self-selection bias,” Sackett uses a technique called “propensity scoring,” in which he matches like students to other like students. The ideal pairing would be something like the following:

Mark A and Mark B attend the same high school, live in the same neighborhood, attend the same classes, have similar GPAs, and their parents earn similar incomes and have similar levels of education. Mark A undergoes private SAT tutoring, while Mark B does not. Let’s look at the increases in their test scores before and after Mark A undergoes tutoring, and see if there is any significant difference between the two.

This is an idealized account, but Sackett’s “propensity scoring” attempts to match students who come from very similar backgrounds, like the two Marks, in an attempt to control for other confounding variables. In doing so, Sackett is hoping to show that any difference in score increases must be solely due to the SAT tutoring. While this methodology is certainly more rigorous than just taking any old random sample of students who did some preparation and compare them against those who didn’t, there were issues with the study that led me to find its conclusions less than convincing.

No attempt to define “private tutoring”

Sackett distinguishes between students who underwent “private tutoring” and those who did not. However, he and his coauthors make no attempt to define what kind of tutoring program the students were exposed to, or for how long they were exposed to it. To my mind, this makes any conclusion about the effectiveness of tutoring seriously flawed. To illustrate why, compare the following two students:

  • John receives private tutoring for thirty minutes the night before the SAT.
  • Mary receives private tutoring twice a week for three months leading up to the SAT. Each of her lessons is ninety minutes long, for a total tutoring regimen of three hours per week. After each lesson, Mary is assigned a custom-tailored set of homework problems designed to specifically strengthen her weak areas. Every few weeks, Mary is given a full-length practice exam to complete on Saturday morning, timing herself to simulate real test conditions. This not only gives her practice taking the exam, but it also helps to motivate her as she begins to see the progress she’s making.

It should be obvious which of these two students will see a large score increase, and which will not. And yet, according to my reading of Sackett’s study, both John and Mary would get lumped together as having been “privately tutored.” Of course, John, seeing little or no increase, will bring down the average, leading to the faulty conclusion: “private tutoring realizes negligible gains.”

private tutoring
Practice tests and targeted homework are necessary to reinforce skills that are honed during one-on-one time with a tutor. Image by Alberto G. on Flickr.

A study I’d love to see

I would love to see a study comparing the type of tutoring program I prescribed to Mary—regular and frequent, with minimum ninety-minute durations, with sufficient support and practice for the student—and compare score increases for students who undergo that type of private tutoring to those who have no tutoring at all. I’d gladly endorse Dr. Sackett’s methodology of propensity scoring, to match students of similar backgrounds and control for confounding variables. From my experience, I believe such a study would yield some very different results.

Paul King is a private tutor based in Manhattan. Over the years, he has coached nearly one hundred students for the SAT and the ACT, helping them to build intellectual and personal confidence, and to achieve their full potentials.

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SAT Essay: Do you need to take it?

As we approach the first SAT of 2018 on Saturday, a question that has been popping up with many of my students and clients is: Do I need to take the SAT Essay?

SAT Essay
Do you need to sign up for the SAT Essay? Read on to find out! Photo by Caleb Roenigk.

First, some background. When the College Board redesigned the SAT in 2016, they changed the written essay component from mandatory to optional. Ever since, students and parents (and test prep tutors) have puzzled over how optional “optional” really is. Let’s look at a few questions that might lead a student to sign up for the SAT Essay along with the regular test.

1) Do any of the colleges you’re interested in require the SAT Essay?

Some schools require the SAT Essay, and they won’t consider your scores without it. Make sure to check the standardized testing requirements on each school’s website to find out what’s necessary. If the SAT Essay is listed, make sure to add it to your test registration. However, even if a school doesn’t specifically require the Essay, you may still want to take it, as we’ll soon see.

2) Do any of the colleges you’re interested in “recommend” the SAT Essay?

Some schools say that SAT Essay scores are optional, but they “recommend” submitting them. Personally, I find this a bit cheeky. Applying to college is not like attending a wedding that is “black tie optional.” I’ve been to those, and I know that if I show up in a regular suit, no one’s going to mind. But in that case, I’ve already been invited to attend—I’m not applying to get in! As an applicant, I’d be far more conservative, and I advise students considering schools that “recommend” the SAT Essay to make sure they sign up to take it.

SAT Essay
Applying to college is not the same thing as attending a black tie optional wedding. That is to say, make sure you sign up for the SAT Essay. Photo by Max Pixel.

3) What if I’m not sure yet where I want to apply?

Let’s face it—plenty of high school juniors are still doing college tours, and may not even have a finalized list of colleges they want to apply to. I’ve also worked with plenty of students who had their hearts set on a particular school, only to go on another college tour and fall in love with someplace new—and then find that their new dream school requires the SAT Essay. It’s for these more practical reasons that I really recommend any student who is at all uncertain where she might apply to add the SAT Essay to the test registration. That way, you’ll have a score if you need it.

4) I’m retaking the SAT to try to improve my score. I took the Essay last time, and I’m happy with my score there. Do I need to take it again?

The answer most students want to hear is “no.” Unfortunately, my answer is that you should take the Essay again. Here’s why.

Let’s say you retake the SAT and you improve on both math and reading. In such a case, you may not need to submit your old, lower score—unless that previous test score is the only one that has an SAT Essay grade, and your schools need to see that.

To avoid getting into this situation, I personally recommend students just take the SAT Essay with each test. It’s a conservative approach, but if you always sign up with the Essay, you’ll never get into a situation where you need to submit anything other than your best scores. You also won’t find yourself in the fall of your senior year, and suddenly needing to take the SAT one more time just to get an Essay grade.

Conclusion and a helpful link

In general, for students that are at all uncertain about where they’re applying, or who want to keep themselves open and flexible to new options, I recommend taking the SAT Essay at least once, and ideally every time you test. Of course, this is a conservative recommendation, and if you know exactly where you want to apply and you don’t anticipate your preferences changing, then you may not need to.

For those interested, here is a useful link to PrepScholar where you’ll find a list of colleges that either require or recommend submitting SAT Essay scores. They claim that the list is “complete” but I would make sure you exercise your own due diligence by checking on each school’s website. In any event, I hope you find it helpful.

What’s next?

The first SAT of 2018 is this Saturday. Is your student ready? For more information on SAT test prep, or for a free consultation about your student’s needs, feel free to get in touch with me. You can either leave a comment on this post, or send an email to paul@paulkingprep.com. Best of luck, and thanks for reading!

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SAT Reading: Trap Answers and How to Avoid Them

When it comes to the Reading section of the SAT, the test makers at the College Board are absolute pros at creating “trap answers”—answers that are specifically designed to tempt you into some false logic or lazy thinking about the passage you just read. This is especially pernicious on the SAT Reading section, due to a common but ineffective strategy used by nearly all students taking this test. Let’s examine that faulty strategy a bit, before discussing a better approach.

SAT Reading trap answers
Trap answers are common on the SAT Reading section. But don’t worry—there are ways to avoid the pitfalls. Photo by Fandom Wikia.

SAT Reading: A common but ineffective approach

Let’s first look at how most students approach the SAT Reading section, which is as follows:

1) Read the passage.
2) Read the first question.
3) Read the answer choices.
4) Choose from among the answer choices.
5) Repeat until finished.

I’ve marked step three in bold because this is where problems arise. Think about it: most students are willingly spending their time reading through mostly wrong, misleading answer choices, and then choosing the one they think sounds the best, based on what they can remember from the passage. The problem with this is that considering those great-sounding-but-wrong answer choices often distorts your understanding of what you just read. Let’s examine how this works with a brief case study.

SAT Reading Case Study: Practice Test #1

Let’s look at question #33 from the SAT Reading section on the College Board’s Practice Test #1, available for free at collegeboard.org. If you haven’t been through this test yet, you may want to skip this section. If you have, then keep reading! Here’s the question:

sat reading practice test 1

Recall that the passage this question asks about was written by Virginia Woolf and published in 1938. In this passage, Woolf advocates strongly for educated women to think critically for themselves, and to decide once and for all if they are going to go out and become professionals, working alongside men in society.

SAT reading virginia woolf
You may know that Virginia Woolf wrote the famous essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she argues that financial independence is a necessary means to doing creative work. However, the SAT passage is unrelated to this, and your outside knowledge of Woolf may end up working against you on the test, if you’re not careful. Read on to learn why! Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s assume you’ve just read this passage, you’ve understood the main gist, and now you’re reading through these (mostly wrong) answer choices. In all likelihood, despite your diligent reading and your hard-won understanding, reading these answer choices is going to throw a monkey wrench into your thinking. Why? Because all the answer choices are arguably true in the context of your general knowledge (and therefore they’re tempting), but only one of them is right in the context of the passage.

To illustrate this fact, let’s look at choice D, which is an extremely appealing trap answer. Choice D is appealing because it sounds perfectly reasonable to assume that having educated women in powerful positions would necessarily transform those positions; indeed, this thinking is consistent with much of what we are currently seeing in the news, and it may even be consistent with how we feel personally. The problem is, this particular idea never appeared even once in the passage, and for that reason, choice D is incorrect.

We need to approach the SAT Reading test as if it’s its own self-contained universe—one in which our thoughts, knowledge, and feelings from the outside world cannot enter. Of course, this is exactly what trap answers are designed to do—to tempt us into relying on our outside knowledge and personal feelings so that we draw faulty conclusions about the passage.

So how do we avoid this all-too-common pitfall?

SAT Reading: Don’t play dizzy bat!

The SAT Reading strategy I’ve described so far is analogous to a game many of us have played as a kid: dizzy bat.

For those who aren’t familiar, dizzy bat involves placing your forehead on the end of a baseball bat and then spinning around in circles before attempting to run the bases. After spinning and getting dizzy, baserunners often stumble and fall in hilarious fashion. Dizzy bat makes for a fun birthday party game when you’re six or seven years old, but it’s a terrible test-taking strategy. And yet this is the strategy most students are using on SAT Reading.

SAT reading dizzy bat strategy
Playing dizzy bat before taking the SAT Reading section is not advised. Photo by Luke Air Force Base.

Let me put this in context. If you’re approaching the SAT Reading section by first reading through the College Board’s answers—75% of which are wrong, but are cleverly designed to sound right and trick you—then you’re voluntarily spinning around on the bat and disorienting yourself before picking your answer. Let’s avoid that!

SAT Reading: Predict before you pick

Luckily, we can easily avoid this. In baseball, if your goal is to run the bases well, then don’t first take a spin on the bat. To put this in test-taking terms, if your goal is to do well on SAT Reading, then don’t immediately read through the answers after reading a question. Instead, use the following “predict before you pick” strategy:

SAT Reading trap answers
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tied himself to the mast to avoid madly running off, allured by the tempting song of the sirens. Take note, dear SAT taker: the wrong answers are your siren song. Cover those answers with your hand if you must, to avoid looking before you are ready! Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

1) Read the question, and don’t look at the answers. Cover them up with your hand, if they’re too tempting!
2) Predict the answer based on your understanding of the passage.
3) Look at the answers, and pick the one that is closest to your prediction.

Notice that in predicting before we pick, we are turning the test on its head. Now, armed with our own prediction of what the answer should be, we are no longer choosing from among the College Board’s choices; we now have our own idea of what we want to see in a good answer.

SAT Reading: Final thoughts

If you’ve been using the “dizzy bat” approach to SAT Reading, the “predict before you pick” approach may feel unnatural at first. You may even think that such an approach will be too time-consuming—and yet, believe it or not, that’s part of the point of it. Remember that the SAT is a critical reasoning test, and it measures your ability to think and use your brain; however, using your brain necessarily involves slowing down, to allow yourself time to reason. (If you’re skeptical that slowing down on a timed exam could ever be beneficial, then check out this post of mine where I detail why the best test-takers are slower than you.)

Lastly, “predict before you pick” will not work for every single question on SAT Reading, but it will work for most. Like anything else, it takes practice, but if done properly, using it will increase your critical thinking and comprehension skills. I hope you’ll try it, and if you do, I’m wishing you the best of luck!

If you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends and families. Lastly, always remember: you are smarter than the test!

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Which SAT test dates should I register for in 2018?

Happy new year everyone! With the holidays behind us, it’s back to school, and for many high school juniors, that means registering for the SAT. For the first half of this year, the College Board is offering the following SAT test dates:

  • March 10, 2018
  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018

Let’s explore which test dates might be the best fit for you and your student.

SAT test dates
Choosing the right SAT test date can be difficult. Read on to learn which dates are the best for you and your student! Photo by Pixabay.

Choosing the right SAT test dates

First, we can narrow the choices a bit if you or your student is planning to take SAT II Subject Tests. Because you cannot take both the SAT and the SAT II subject tests on the same date (nor would you want to!), you should plan to take your subject tests on June 2. (If you’re curious about the subject tests, I go into more detail about them in this post.)

With June 2 devoted to subject tests, that leaves March 10 and May 5 for the regular SAT. Which date should you choose, or should you sign up for both? My personal opinion is to register for both, but to prioritize the March 10 date.

Test early and test often

Let’s face it: standardized testing involves performing under pressure, which can produce quite a bit of anxiety in students. If you put the test off until later, that pressure will only increase. Why? Because by putting the SAT off, you will have fewer chances to take it again if you don’t reach your goal score the first time.

Another reason to test earlier: you can go into the test with the knowledge that you will, in all likelihood, take this test again later. Often, just knowing that this particular test is not the only opportunity to do well can help students relax and concentrate, rather than feel stressed by the need to hit a home run.

For this reason, I advise my students to sign up for the March 10 test date. Then, I’ll recommend they take it again May 5. Why both dates? Because each test sitting involves a bit of randomness.

SAT test dates 2018
A “standardized” test like the SAT involves more randomness than you might think. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a “standardized test”; how can it be random?

There’s more to taking the test than just the test itself. For one, there’s the randomness of your personal life. Maybe you’re just coming off the flu going into the test, or you didn’t sleep well the night before, or your dog Bobo ran away. The point is, when we sign up for the test in January, we can’t predict exactly how we’ll be feeling the morning of March 10.

Then there’s the randomness of the test itself, or “the luck of the draw.” For example, perhaps the test features a reading passage written by Thomas Paine, and you’ve just studied him in your American History class. Suddenly, a wave of confidence washes over you, and you think to yourself: I’ve got this!

However, perhaps one of the reading passages is 19th-century prose about the distribution of wealth in society, and economics just isn’t your thing. Suddenly, a wave of dread washes over you, and you think to yourself: Gross! (Note: While the SAT will never require background knowledge for the reading passages, studies have shown that some prior familiarity with the subject matter tends to aid reading comprehension.)

For both of these reasons, I recommend my students take the test in both March and May, if they can. Each test sitting is a new opportunity to do well. So test early and test often—it could lead to your best possible score.

A useful add-on: The College Board Question and Answer Service (QAS)

What is the Question and Answer Service (QAS)? This is an extra service provided by the College Board that you can add to your test registration. It is not offered for every test date, but it is offered in March and May 2018. For a fee of $18, the College Board will send you a complete copy of the actual exam you take on March 10 and/or May 5, along with an answer key showing which questions you got right and wrong. If you plan on taking the test more than once, this is an excellent study tool, and one I highly recommend!

Ready to register for the SAT?

If you or your student is not yet registered, you can do so on the College Board website. If you haven’t already created an account with them, you’ll need to do so.

Finally, one last piece of advice: the earlier you sign up, the better, because popular test sites can fill up quickly. The last thing you want on the morning of the test is to have to drive over an hour to your test site, which means getting up even earlier. So be sure to avoid that fate by registering soon, if you haven’t already!

Any more questions? Feel free to comment below, or reach out to us at info@paulkingprep.com. Good luck with your test prep!

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How to grow as a student

I recently finished reading a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You, written by Cal Newport, a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown. The book is aimed at those already in the workforce, giving interesting anecdotes to illustrate what it takes to create a fulfilling, satisfying career. The title of the book comes from a line by famed comedian Steve Martin, who, when asked in an interview with Charlie Rose how one can become successful in comedy, replied:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.‘ “

Newport uses this quote to espouse a hard-headed pragmatism that, if not revolutionary, is nonetheless refreshing to hear in today’s culture of quick fixes and easy solutions. The way to get really good at something, Newport argues, is to work really, really hard at it. Well gee whiz—who knew?

Comedian Steve Martin, who said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

 

If this was all there was to Newport’s book, it wouldn’t be worth the read. Luckily, he offers good, concrete advice and examples for how to stretch ourselves and grow. While the book is targeted at working professionals, everything Newport has to say applies equally well for students, or anyone working to hone a skill, whether it’s playing a sport or a musical instrument. (Newport has also written various other books specifically for students, and his blog, Study Hacks, is full of useful information to help students study more effectively and efficiently.)

So how do we grow our ability? According to Newport, we need to use deliberate practice, a term coined by Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson. Ericsson describes deliberate practice as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” According to Newport, “Deliberate practice requires you to stretch past where you are comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance. In the context of career construction, most knowledge workers avoid this style of skill development because, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable.” To this it could be added that it’s not just knowledge workers. Students, too, avoid deliberate practice because of the discomfort it causes—a fact that, to my mind, is a pretty good explanation for why we all procrastinate.

Most striking to me are the phrases I’ve highlighted in bold above, as they seem to hit on something fundamental regarding what happens in a one-on-one tutoring session. Tutoring is a dynamic call-and-response between the tutor and student, with the tutor assigning targeted tasks and problems that are all slightly beyond the student’s current ability level. In assigning such problems, the goal is to stretch the student’s ability by pushing her beyond her previous limits. The best analogy here is to a personal trainer—the trainer selects weights that are heavy but not unbearable, assigns an exercise, and pushes the client to execute that exercise until mistakes or failure inevitably occurs. In the process, muscles are stretched beyond capacity, only to grow back stronger in subsequent days and weeks.

The same occurs with students who, upon inevitably making errors and mistakes, are stretched beyond their previous abilities. An academic coach, just like a personal trainer, also provides the immediate “ruthless feedback” that refocuses the student when she goes off course, and pushes her back in the right direction. Thus, the student knows immediately how she is performing, and is constantly made aware of her progress. I think this analogy to physical training is particularly apt, and it’s one reason I refer to myself as an “academic coach.” During tutoring sessions, I often have the sense that I’m actively conditioning a student’s mind and critical thinking abilities, which is an ever-rewarding task.

Whether you’re a teacher, a student, or just someone trying to work at something on your own, are there ways that you can incorporate some deliberate practice into your routine, to stretch your abilities and more effectively work towards your goals? For me lately, that means devoting some time each day towards my fiction writing, which is something I find difficult and strenuous, but nevertheless something I want to become highly skilled at. What would deliberate practice look like for you and your goals, or the goals of your student? In what ways could a tutor or coach help push you to achieve them?

Keep on working, and until next time, thanks for reading!

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A new SAT for the “right-brained”?

According to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and other bestselling books on business and human behavior, we are living in what he calls the “SAT-ocracy.” As someone who started tutoring for the SAT and other tests as a way to earn income on the side, only to have it grow into a full-time business, I’m well aware of the demand for test preparation. According to a 2014 article on Bloomberg, the number of tutoring centers in the U.S. doubled to more than 11,000 from 1998 to 2012; by 2009, the entire business had grown in value to more than $4 billion annually.

There is a good reason for all the demand. Despite the College Board’s claims that the SAT measures “inalterable aptitude” and that the test cannot be prepared for, studies have shown that even run-of-the-mill test prep can help improve a student’s score by twenty or thirty points, and in my own experience, personalized, one-on-one tutoring has led countless students of mine to increase their scores substantially higher than this. (Feel free to contact me for more details.) Ultimately, it is revealing that the College Board, despite its claims the test cannot be prepared for, still sells proprietary test materials that are marketed for students to “be ready for the SAT with strategies…straight from the exam makers” [bold mine].

Indeed, as long as colleges continue to use the SAT as a key barometer for undergraduate admission (as well as the GRE for graduate programs, or the GMAT for MBA programs, or the MCAT for medical school, etc), test preparation is here to stay. But despite the dominance of the SAT-ocracy, there are some undeniable flaws in the system. While the SAT was originally developed to measure a prospective student’s ability to succeed in university (indeed, “SAT” itself stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”), a 20-year study conducted by William Hiss of Bates University found little to no link between SAT scores and student GPA in college. (The greatest predictor of student success in college, it turned out, was high school GPA.) Other critics of the SAT contend that it only tests “left-brain” abilities, such as logic and analytical reasoning, and neglects creative and practical skills necessary for success in life and business; still others argue, quite fairly, that the test favors students whose families can afford tutoring and extra help, thus contributing to an SAT inequity. With all of these concerns, is it possible that the future may one day hold some interesting alternatives to the SAT?

The answer is most likely a yes. In an effort to develop a test that can better predict student success not only in college but throughout one’s adult life, Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, has developed the Rainbow Project—a kind of “right-brained” alternative to the SAT. On one section of the test, students are faced with five cartoons from the New Yorker with the captions removed—and are asked to supply their own. Scorers then grade the student responses on a 1-to-5 scale, based on appropriateness, originality, and humor. Another test section includes a series of story titles, and students are then prompted to write the story.

Could such a test ever replace the SAT? As someone who believes in the efficacy of the SAT to measure real skills (while readily acknowledging the imperfection of the test as a barometer for success, as mentioned earlier), I certainly don’t think so. But it’s possible that such a test might one day be taken in addition to our current battery of analytical tests. In fact, this seems even likelier when you consider who funded Sternberg’s Rainbow Project. Can you guess? In true SAT fashion (hint, hint), it was one of the following:

A) the U.S. Department of Education

B) Yale University

C) the NFL

D) the College Board

Nice job if you selected D. It appears the makers of the SAT themselves are invested in developing alternative aptitude tests.

What do you think? Is the SAT a good indicator for college admissions, or do we need alternatives? Feel free to comment below.

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Are you in need of a tutor? Contact me today!

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Are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?

Conventional wisdom holds that most of us are extrinsically motivated—offer us some extra credit, a bigger bonus, or a heftier piece of cake, and we’ll work harder and achieve better results. We also tend to believe that the reverse is true: if we punish poor behavior, a bad grade, or low performance, we’ll see less of that behavior in the future. This is known as the “carrots and sticks” model of motivation, and we see it everywhere, from the parenting of children, all the way up to complex diplomatic relations between nations. If you’re a parent, and you’ve ever offered your student a desirable reward for a good grade, while threatening to take away iPhone privileges for a failing one, then you’re more than familiar with carrots and sticks. The question we should all be asking ourselves, however, is: Do carrots and sticks actually work?

Despite the fact that the reward/punishment model is so deeply rooted in how we think about influencing behavior, psychological studies have shown that carrots and sticks really only work well when the task at hand is algorithmic—that is, when it involves repeating the same mundane sequence over and over again. If you offer someone a cash bonus to stuff a certain number of envelopes in an hour, that person’s going to work faster, and you’re going to get better results. Stuffing envelopes is a simple, left-brain task that everyone already knows how to do; to do it more quickly doesn’t require activating the complex, creative thinking of the right half of the brain.

However, reward/punishment is actually detrimental when it comes to problems such as the following:

x^2-y^2=48

x+y=4

\text{What is the value of }x-y\text{?}

The above is a classic SAT problem: you can actually solve it without ever finding the values of x or y alone. However, because students are taught algorithms in school to solve for x, they typically try to do just that, and then run into all kinds of problems with questions like this one. Essentially, most students try to approach this problem with the left half of their brains, in envelope-stuffing fashion. But this problem cannot be stuffed like an envelope; it requires “outside-the-box,” right brain thinking. Oftentimes, this is where students hit a wall—a wall that no reward or punishment is going to motivate them to get over. So how do we get these students to persevere, to try the problem, to fail at it, then to try again in a different way, and if necessary, to ask a teacher, a parent, an older sibling, or a tutor for help, and then, after that whole process, to finally go back, to discover the error, and then re-attempt the problem and finally get it right?

The only way students will bother with any of this is if they are intrinsically motivated, or rather, if they see the task as its own reward. At first glance, this might seem laughable. Except for a handful of math geeks, who would ever see a math puzzle as its own reward? As it turns out, however, we are actually psychologically hardwired to enjoy puzzles; for those students who claim to dislike math, my bet would be that it has far more to do with an embarrassing or traumatic experience they had with math at a young age than with any built-in animosity towards numbers. I also know from my own tutoring experience that “I’m just not good at math” is largely a self-limiting belief that can be unlearned. As we now know, intelligence is not a fixed quantity like your height, but much more like a muscle, which can be strengthened through training and exercise.

So how do we intrinsically motivate our students or, for that matter, ourselves? I encourage you to try the following the next time you want to get your son or daughter to sit down and study (or to get yourself to do something you’ve been procrastinating):

On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in [studying, going to the gym, writing your novel, etc.] right now?

Typically, you’ll get a response of 3 or maybe 4—big surprise. Now ask the following:

Why didn’t you say a lower number?

No one expects this follow-up question, and it takes us off guard. In answering the question, we spontaneously begin to list all the reasons we actually do want to do the thing we’ve been procrastinating—“Well, I do actually want to get a good grade, and it would be great to get this out of the way before the weekend…” In listing all the reasons we actually do want to tackle the task at hand, we unknowingly increase our intrinsic motivation, which is what actually gets us to move.

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Are you ready for SAT II Subject Tests?

What are SAT II Subject Tests?

Unlike the regular SAT, which tests general math and verbal ability, the SAT II Subject Tests are your chance to show off your best subject areas. The subjects offered include History (U.S. and World), English Literature, Math I and Math II (Math II covers more advanced topics than Math I, typically up through a high school pre-calculus course), as well as Sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Biology) and various foreign languages. These tests are only one hour in length, and you can take up to three in one test setting. Colleges typically recommended that you take tests across various subject areas (i.e., one History, one Math, one Science). For a complete list of all the SAT II Subject Tests, including their various test dates, click here to view the College Board’s official information.

Do colleges require SAT II Subject Tests scores?

It varies by school. Some colleges require seeing at least two to three SAT II Subject Test scores, while others simply recommend submitting the scores, as strong scores can strengthen your college application. This is especially true if you’re applying, say, as an engineering major, and you submit strong SAT II scores in Math and Science. For this reason, most schools will consider your SAT II scores if you submit them along with your application, even if they aren’t required, as they help to give a more well-rounded picture of you, your interests, and your strengths. Lastly, some schools will even accept SAT II Subject Test scores in place of a regular SAT or ACT score, although this is less common. For a complete list of colleges and their SAT II Subject Test requirements/recommendations, click here.

When should I take the SAT II Subject Tests?

While the tests are offered throughout the year on the same dates as the regular SAT, I always recommend that my students take the tests in early June, after they have completed at least one full year of the subject being tested. For example, if you plan to take the SAT II Chemistry exam, it’s best to take it after you’ve covered the bulk of the course content, as the SAT II is comprehensive. I wouldn’t recommend waiting until the fall after you’ve completed the course to take the test–we all know how much we tend to forget over the summer vacation!

Which subject tests should I take?

Pick the subjects where you feel strongest in school this year. For example, if you’ve had a great year in Biology, taking the SAT II Biology test could be a good choice. Next year, when you take precalculus (just for an example), you might consider taking the SAT II Math II exam. While you can take up to three tests in a single sitting, you certainly don’t have to, and plenty of students space these tests out over the first three years of high school. By the end of junior year though, having 2-3 Subject Test scores under your belt will help strengthen your college application.

One last note: If you’re currently enrolled in an AP course that coincides with an SAT Subject Test, you should definitely consider taking that SAT II. For example, if you’re currently taking AP U.S. History, and you’re planning on taking the AP test in May, then by all means take the SAT II U.S. History test. The reason for this is that the SAT II is generally slightly easier than the AP test, and if you’re already working hard to prepare for the AP test in May, then you’ll be in great shape to take the less rigorous SAT II in June.

How should I prepare for the SAT II Subject Tests?

The College Board offers a prep book that contains one previously administered test for every SAT II Subject Test that they offer. While one test doesn’t offer a ton of practice, it still will give you a good sense of what the test is like and what to expect.

Need help preparing for an SAT II Subject Test? I can definitely help you! Contact me today for a free consultation.

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Why the best test-takers are slower than you

In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize-winning economist outlines our “two selves”—our fast, intuitive brain that leaps to quick judgments (what he calls System 1), and our slow, methodical brain that we need to perform a calculation such as 243 x 849 (what he calls System 2). System 2 is inherently lazier than System 1, and it would prefer not to do work if it doesn’t have to—a fact you may have noticed if you saw 243 x 849, and groaned audibly.

After reading this fascinating book, I’ve come to believe that standardized tests are not just a math test or just a verbal test. They’re also a test of how well a student can “slow down” or ignore her System 1—that part of her brain that leaps to quick, intuitive (and often wrong) judgments—and how well she can engage the slower, more methodical (and more lethargic) System 2, which is necessary to actually solve the problems on the test. In fact, the test-makers know this, and they’re brilliant at creating trap answers that are craftily designed to exploit your System 1 intuition, which is so often incorrect. What do I mean by this? To illustrate, try this example, care of Kahneman:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10.
The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.
How much is the ball?

Spoiler alert: The answer isn’t ten cents. But if you thought ten cents, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company: many MIT and Princeton undergraduates still said ten cents. In all likelihood, “ten cents” flashes across the mind of anyone who is asked this question—even the respondents who get the question right. No one is immune to the false intuitions of our fast-moving, System 1 brain. However, what differentiates the correct respondents is that they remain skeptical of their intuition, and they force themselves to slow down and examine the question with the rigor of their more careful, calculating System 2 brain. The thought process might go something like this:

Okay, so the ball costs $0.10. Wait. If the question were that easy, why would this smartypants even bother asking me? Let’s slow down and really look at this. If the ball is really $0.10, and the bat is a dollar more, that would make the bat $1.10. But of course that can’t be right, since together they would cost $1.20—and that’s too high. So my intuition was wrong. However, it wasn’t entirely useless—because $1.20 is too high, I now know the ball has to cost less than $0.10. In fact, it must cost $0.05, because that would make the bat cost $1.05. Together, they cost $1.10. Solved!

My bet would be that a thought process along these lines occurs inside the brain of anyone who gets the problem right. I bring it up here to hopefully dispel one of the most common and pernicious misconceptions many of us have around standardized tests—namely, that the smartest students are simply gifted with some superhuman intuition that is capable of knowing the right answer instantly, as if they possessed a kind of flawless System 1. Luckily for us mere mortals, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the best test-takers aren’t superhuman at all. In truth, they’re just better at slowing down.

Tests or exams coming up? I can definitely help. Contact me today for a free consultation!

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