Saturday, October 5, 2013

Doing your best on the SAT or PSAT

Approach it like the game it is. I don't mean that in any disparaging (i.e., insulting) way. The fact is that "the name of the game" is to maximize the number of questions you answer correctly. Preparing for the SAT or PSAT means, then, doing everything in your power to make it more likely that you will answer more questions correctly. Period.

The humorist, Dave Barry, once wrote that the secret to losing weight is diet and exercise, but that no American is going to exercise, so that leaves diet.

Similarly, the secret to doing your best on the PSAT or SAT is preparation and strategy, but no American is going to prepare, so that leaves strategy.

If that's you, and it's not too late, reconsider!! The best strategy for these tests—or for anything in life—is preparation.

Ideally that means that you do all of the following things: do your best in your algebra, geometry, and English classes (read ahead, have regular study groups with 2 or 3 classmates); always be reading high-level writing (not teen romances) or journalism (national-level newspapers and news or literary magazines); and take practice tests (ideally ones published by the College Board, the actual publisher of these tests) and use them to learn how you make mistakes and what you can do to not make them on the real test.

When I tutor kids in the SAT, the American (or Americanized) kids don't do any studying in the week between tutoring sessions. The children of Asian immigrant parents have completed an entire 3.5 hour SAT test by the time I come back the following week (and sometimes even two of them!!). So while I go through every single problem with the American(ized) student, including the ones that are easy and don't really require my presence, all the while trying to catch them up to the studious students (never going to happen at the rate each is going), with the studious student we are spending our time working only on the questions they didn't understand, focusing all my time with them on improving their abilities in just the areas where they need improving.

The secret, of course, is you don't actually have to be Asian or have Asian immigrant parents to study this way, or to reap the benefits of studying this way. You just have to decide to do it, plan to do it, and do your best to keep sticking to that plan.

This is the book I use with all my students:

It contains 10 complete SAT tests from previous years. If you did all ten, including the essays, under timed testing conditions, that would be about 40 hours of practice. In reality, probably quite a bit longer. Even if you do less than that, the advantage here is that these are actual SAT tests!

There is so much that could be said about doing your best on these tests, too much, and so much of it depends on each student and where they are with the subjects and with test taking in general. But there are a few quick things that can apply to just about anybody, even if you are reading this the night before or a couple days before the test.

For the ESSAY:

In the first two minutes, write down what you are trying to prove, or to convince your reader of (i.e., your belief, your theory, your point, your argument, your thesis) in one clear sentence, then write down two or three examples that will support your point. For example:

THESIS: There is a right way (and a wrong way) to make a root beer float.

I. Ingredient quality
II. Proper preparation
(III. The RBF experience)

See that? One clear sentence. Two (or possibly three) supports for your argument. You should be able to think of a few things to say about each support, but you only have 25 minutes, so save them for the essay itself.

Next, write your essay, but do your best to leave yourself five minutes at the end!

In your introduction, imitate news and magazine articles by starting off saying something that will make someone curious, or interested in reading more: "Humans have been making root beer floats almost since the discovery of fire."

Maybe not true, and you might want to insert "Just kidding." (Not "jk.") or some disclaimer in sentence two, but now that you got their attention, make your point by writing down the thesis from earlier. Now, in this same paragraph, make some mention of your supports.

For your first body paragraph, talk about your first support, and bring in details that will convince the reader that your thesis (opinion) is right. For the second body paragraph, do the same for the second support. If you have time for a third body paragraph, go ahead with that, but for many or most students it would probably be better to just skip it and do the concluding paragraph.

In the concluding paragraph, make sure to mention your thesis and your supports again, then move on to something a little more general, then something even more general: "As we have seen, there is indeed a correct way to make a great root beer float. Soft serve ice cream and a warm bottle of cheap root beer, mixed into a paper cup, may cost $5 at the fair, but for the real RBF experience, nothing but the best quality, hard vanilla ice cream and cold root beer in a chilled glass will do. Even junk food, if prepared properly, can still be good; it does not have to be garbage! Anything worth doing—or eating—is worth doing well."

In your remaining five minutes (or three, or one, or ten), use all your time to look over and carefully read your essay. The more errors (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) that you can find and correct, the better your essay score will probably be. This is probably where you will pick up most points, so do your best to leave a few minutes for this editing work.

In short: Plan (Thesis and supports), Write (Intro: Thesis and supports, Body: supports with details, Conclusion: Thesis, supports, and more general statement to end.), and Edit (look for and fix anything that is wrong).

For the MATH:

Know that a line is also a 180 degree angle, and that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees (and that a circle has 360 degrees). That is why, when someone turns their life around, we say "He did a 180." and why, when someone does "donuts" in a parking lot with their car, we say "She was doing 360s."

It's also helpful to remember C=2πr and A=πr2. C is circumference, which is the distance around a circle (think of taking a "fer"ry around the "circ"le). A is the area inside a circle, so it makes sense that the r (radius) is squared in this one, because that means the answer will be in "square meters" or "square inches," just as an area should be.

If you have a week to go until the test, learn to recognize and manipulate the numbers in 45-45-90 triangles and 30-60-90 triangles. Worst case, that information is included at the beginning of the math test, but it helps to have understood it before the test. If it's the night before, then getting more sleep will do more for you than staying up to learn this, since it probably only shows up in two problems tops, anyway.

If you finish working a math problem, don't just mark the answer you got. Check the question again first! True, it may have taken you a lot of work to find out that "x = 12," and it is tempting to just mark "12," but that is a horrible idea if the original question was "What is x + 2 ?"

On the math, take notes on the diagram or in the test booklet the first time you read the problem. The more you can pull the information out of the "story problem" format and into something more visual, the better your chances of solving the problem.

Don't trust your brain. Use the calculator. Or at least double check every thing as you do it. I can't count the number of times I have seen smart students solve a difficult problem by doing everything right except, somewhere in the middle, saying to themselves "2 x 3 is 5."

For the math, and all other sections really, my joke is that the three things to do are "1. Be careful. 2. Be careful. 3. Be careful." A better way to put that might be "1. Be careful. 2. Double check everything. 3. Do everything you can to be certain your answer is the right one." A corollary to that might be: "Don't rush. Use all your time." Ideally, you will want a few minutes available at the end to re-check your answers and maybe to try answering any problem that was taking too long (so you circled the problem number in the test booklet [not the answer sheet] and moved on in search of easier points).

For the READING:

For reading comprehension, yes, you really should read the whole passage and think about what you read as you read it. (If you are a super slow reader, then you can just skip to the questions and jump to lines 12-15 or whatever they tell you to read for each question, but everyone else would do better to read everything before answering the questions!!) If you know that the answer has to be A) or D), don't just pick one; go back to the reading and figure out which one is better, A) or D), then pick the better one.

For the vocabulary questions, cover the answers and do your best to use the clues in the sentence to pick out the kinds of words that should go in the blanks. Once you have thought of some words (or at least tried to), uncover the answers and see which one jumps out at you as being the right one. If one does, that's probably right. If not, then process of elimination to eliminate the ones that are obviously wrong, then your best guess of which of the remaining ones is right. [BIG HINT: If you do not know what a word means, DO NOT eliminate it! "I don't know that word, so that can't be the answer." sounds good, but makes no logical sense, if you think about it.]

For the WRITING:

For the sentence error questions, watch out for things like:

"the camels of the other school was..." (dumb example, I know)

"the other school was..." sounds great, but "school" is part of the prepositional phrase "of the other school," which describes the camels. The subject of "was" is not the school; it is the camels. "the camels (of the other school) was..." should be "the camels were" not "the camels was," so the sentence should have been "the camels of the other school were..." If you understand this and watch out for this trap, it should earn you lots of points.

For these same questions, try to notice when you read them if there is any point in the sentence where you slow down. That is usually your brain's way of telling you that something is wrong there. If you slowed down where the B was, the error is probably B.

BIG HINT NUMBER TWO: If you get to the end of the sentence and you did not see any error, DO NOT PICK "NO ERROR"! There are just two reasons that you might think there is no error. Reason number one: there was an error, but you did not see it. Reason number two: there was no error. So if you think there is "no error," instead of marking "no error," read the sentence carefully one or two more times. If you still think there is no error, then by all means, mark "no error," and chances are you will be right—just don't mark that after only the first time through the sentence!

For the REWRITING questions, just know that the vast majority of the time the correct answer is either the shortest answer or the next-shortest answer, so look at those answers first. Obviously, that won't always be true, and it is best to consider all of them and think everything through, but it still can be very helpful to know this.

For the test generally:

Go in psyched up to do your best and to get as many points as you can.

If you can eliminate even just one answer choice, it is probably worthwhile to put down an answer, even if it is a guess. It is better, of course, to narrow it down as much as possible; if not to one answer (ideal, especially if you have a way of knowing that is right), then at least to two. If you can eliminate only one, still go ahead and guess and mark an answer (because you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket). If you can not eliminate any answers, though, you are better off skipping that question without answering it (because the odds are against you at that point instead of even, or in your favor).

If you finish early, use all the time you have left to double check the problems you circled or marked with question marks. Why not get more points if you can?

Make sure your answer isn't just the one you agree with most. Instead it needs to be the best answer to the question, based on the information in the test (not based on your own personal beliefs).

In math and reading comprehension, make sure that the answer you pick is the answer to the question you were asked.

On the open-ended math questions (no A, B, C, D, E to choose from), there is no penalty for putting down a wrong answer.

Rack up as many points as possible by doing everything you can to answer as many questions correctly as possible. Do the reading, do the work, narrow down your choices, double check everything, be careful, be careful, be careful, and use every minute and every opportunity you have to try to improve your score.

If you find this really helped you a lot, and you have a couple dollars you want to shoot my way, you can at PayPal using the e-mail Appreciated, of course.

Buying the SAT book through the link above will not add anything to your price, but will earn me a modest commission, which I usually just spend with Amazon anyway.

So, get a good night's rest, get to the test center early with your registration information, calculator, and sharpened pencils with erasers, and GOOD LUCK!

And remember, all anyone can do is their best, after you are admitted to college no one really cares about your SAT score ever again, and worst case you can always take the SAT test again and do better next time if you have to.

Do your best!