Category Archives: SAT

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 Best of luck, and thanks for reading!


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 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!


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 Good luck with your test prep!


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.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Sign up for my mailing list!

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


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:



\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.

* * *

Do you need help motivating your teen to excel in school? Contact me today for a free consultation!

Did you enjoy this blog post? You can join our mailing list by clicking here.