Monday, March 15, 2010
BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW
Dear Mr. Bradshaw -- I am a B and C student and don't plan to apply to any Ivy League schools.
My PSAT was only average, and I am signed up to take the SAT on May 1. Is there any chance I can improve my scores by taking a prep class? My counselor said studying one hour a week is enough. My English teacher offers a class in the summer.
I want to make sure I get into a good university. In your opinion, how should I prepare for the test? -- SAT student
Dear SAT -- Take the summer class. B and C students sometimes benefit most from practicing for the SAT.
State schools received a record number of applications this year due in part to top students opting out of expensive Ivy League schools to stay closer to home, where it is less expansive. That has pushed up requirements and, in many cases, students falling in your category end up attending a lower-level school.
Keep in mind, I am writing from inside the SAT world. I tutor the SAT; I know a lot of deans of admissions and how they evaluate students. The admissions office serves several masters -- and one charge is to look for top students in order to boost the school's rankings.
Employers also are asking to see SAT scores, and some companies have cutoff scores for potential employees. If you are an average student, doing well on the SAT will give them something else on which to judge you other than grades.
So, let's not kid ourselves. You need to know how to take the test if you want to score higher.
The key to conquering the SAT is commitment. Think of it as a chance to get ahead by being more committed than other students.
But keep in mind that studying for the SAT is not like anything you've ever done. Most kids go to war with themselves to sacrifice the time.
The "rules of engagement" -- Tutorials should begin five weeks before the test date. Five weeks out of your life is not too high a price to pay for victory.
Students should study a minimum of two hours per day, seven days a week, for a total of 70 hours. That includes one, two-hour session with a private tutor, if possible, each week. The rest of the time, students must study at home with one of their parents present -- and in the same room -- at all times. They may use any SAT prep book or online course; the College Board offers both.
Bottom line, there are no shortcuts; it must be intense immersion, like learning a foreign language.
If you're having trouble studying, start by looking at the answers to test questions. That way, you won't get angry with the test writers. Anger is the enemy of successful test taking.
You need to figure out why the right answer is right. Yours is not to reason why at this point, but to understand. The way to psyche out a system is by figuring out how the system works.
The minute you see something in one of the possible answers that's wrong, eliminate it. It is very hard to write a multiple-choice test. To make a wrong answer sound plausible and wrong, the test writer must make it sound correct, then throw something wrong in it.
Look for the wrong word, for a concept that is all of a sudden out of place. If an answer looks great, except for one small thing, it's wrong. The one that doesn't have anything wrong in it is right.
You are not looking for the best answer; you are looking for the right answer -- that is, the "not wrong" answer.
Eliminate the ones you know are wrong, then guess among the remainders. It's better than guessing blind.
Never leave anything blank. Keep moving. If it's too hard, come back later -- and know that they like to mess people up by having five (a) answers in a row, for example.
Rules on guessing -- First, go with your instincts. Second, if you have no instincts, go with the letter you've used last. Third, once you've picked a letter to guess, always guess it. Fourth, if you really want to get scientific about guessing, the Web site www.powerscore.com analyzes slight variations in which letters are used.
Keep a study journal -- This is the only way you will be honest with yourself about how much you study. Write in it every day.
How many hours did you study? How many tests did you do? I know from tutoring students that if you don't write it down, you likely won't stick to the plan.
My biggest fear is that you might end up taking a course taught by people who still are trying to figure it out. If you take a course, be bold and ask the instructor how he or she scored on the test. If the tutor balks at telling you, that should tell you something. Look for tutors who have scored in the 95th percentile.
I would like to thank Susan Estrich, a fellow Harvard Law School student, for sharing many of these insights.
Gerald M. Bradshaw of Crown Point consults with students on how to gain admission to selective colleges, universities and law schools.
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