Category: SAT

The college board officially announced its specific plans for the new SAT yesterday (LINK TO NEWS RELEASE). And now teachers, tutors, students and parents everywhere are rushing to try to piece together what it all means. Is this good news? Bad news? Why did they make such drastic changes and how will this affect me? I’ll do my best to explain the major elements of the changes and what they may mean for you.

The essay will be optional. It will be on a prompt known in advance, but will now be based on support material that is provided (and that source material will vary from test to test). Students will no longer need to come up with supports on their own or develop a stance on the spot to an unknown prompt. This is supposed to better reflect college writing, but seems to require far less independent thinking and it *may* really be a way to simply make it easier to use autograders (automated systems for grading essays). if that’s the case, technical elements (grammar, sentence length, essay length) will become more important and things like creativity, persuasiveness and adapatability will become less important.

The sentence completions will be replaced with “word in context” questions. This appears to be a response to concerns that the vocabulary being tested is just not useful beyond the SAT itself. Students will now be asked to select definitions based on words as they are used in the sentence, similar to some of the questions you see on the passage-based questions like “In context, ‘Shadowy’ (line 41) primarily serves to suggest something (gloomy, secret, sinister, concealed or unsubstantiated)” from p. 392 of the Official SAT Study Guide. This will reduce the effectiveness of acquiring large amounts of vocabulary words and of any strategy based on studying prefixes, roots and suffixes.

The reading and writing will be combined into a single 200-800 score, which will be combined with math to return to a 400-1600 total score range. It is not clear yet whether that means half reading and half grammar or some other balance of the two. No matter how it gets split up, it would seem to diminish the value of those two from by saying that together they represent as much as the math does alone.

The penalty for wrong answers is being removed. You now have no reason at all not to guess on everything. On the plus side, this will eliminate all the confusion involved when students hear different theories on when they should guess or omit a question. On the negative side, it removes what is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the test and one that can really help define an under-appreciated standard of college readiness – do you know your limits? It also makes the SAT more like the ACT (which is true of many of the changes). The SAT’s claim that neither test reflects school performance is quite rightly rejected by Jon Erikson of the ACT as inaccurate. The ACT does tend to reflect traditional school performance. The SAT does tend to help show abilities (or weaknesses) that may not have been obvious in school performance. It’s exactly that difference that makes me not want a more ACT-like SAT. The combination allowed a wider range of potentially capable students to find a way to show their best.

The math will cover less territory and part of it will have to be done without a calculator. I have thought for many years that the use of advanced calculators on the SAT (and even more so on the ACT) detracts from the assessment of actual math skills. My preference would have been to limit students to a basic dollar store level calculator, but no calculator would be preferable to continuing to allow access to one that can store and solve virtually anything they run across.

There will be some science and other data related questions. This again makes it more like the ACT, though how similar it will be remains to be seen. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ACT Science section and wouldn’t object to seeing some of that incorporated into the SAT.

It will be possible to take it on a computer. It isn’t clear yet how quickly or broadly this option will be available, or if it is intended to develop as an option or as eventually replacing ‘by hand’ with all students being required to do it on the computer even if they would prefer not to.

My overall impression is that most of the changes are really about lowering their own long-term costs, trying to combat the idea that tutoring makes a difference (which they spent decades firmly denying but now abruptly apparently are admitting does help), trying to combat score gaps that show us ugly truths about the problems with education in the U.S., and attempting to make themselves more like the ACT, which has been gaining popularity. I was all for an overhaul, but would have liked to see one that made the SAT itself even better. Students will first be able to test in the new format with the October 2015 PSAT/NMSQT and will be switched to the new format for the SAT as of 2016. They will not have the option to choose, though students in that time frame can (and in my opinion should) try to take one before the change and one after. For more information on the new test, you can check out the FAQ provided by the College Board. You can also check here or at the Gotham Blog for updates as more information comes in.


The College Board recently announced its 2013-2014 test dates and if you are planning to take the October SAT, you may want to register HERE as soon as possible since October is the most popular test date.

If you are going to be a senior this fall, you really want that October date. Yes, November will still get you scores in time for most early admission deadlines. But you need to consider two things – how much more relaxed you will be if you get it out of the way earlier in your senior year and how bad it will be if you bank everything on November and then some life event prevents you from taking that November test. Use your summer to prepare, take it in October and be done with it!

If you are going to be a junior this fall and are wisely looking to take your first SATs as a junior so you can either get them out of the way, or can focus more effectively on an impressive retake, I recommend registering for the January or March test dates. Why not May you say? Even if an emergency interfered, I would still have June to fall back on. Well, I have known a lot of juniors to end up having urgent reasons why they couldn’t make their May test and then couldn’t make the June either. You’ll have finals coming up, all kinds of sport and team seasons ending, emotional partings with graduating seniors, etc etc. Just knock out your first run at the test in January or March and get it out of the way.

2013-2014 SAT test dates:
October 5, 2013 (September 6 registration deadline)
November 2, 2013 (October 3 registration deadline)
December 7, 2013 (November 8 registration deadline)
January 25, 2014 (December 27 registration deadline)
March 9, 2014 (February 8 registration deadline)
May 3, 2014 (April 5 registration deadline)
June 1, 2014 (May 2 registration deadline)

2013-2014 ACT test dates:

September 21, 2013 (August 23 registration deadline)
October 26, 2013 (September 27 registration deadline)
December 14, 2013 (November 8 registration deadline)
February 9, 2014 (January 11 registration deadline) *
April 12, 2014 (March 7 registration deadline)
June 7, 2014 (May 9 registration deadline)

* The February ACT is not available in New York state.

My original sources for the test date schedules are from the official SAT and ACT websites, and there is a very nice calendar format HERE available from the always helpful The rest of the information and advice is purely my own.

The SAT’s policy:
“Once you have left high school and have not tested for a year, we remove your test scores and your responses to the SAT Questionnaire from our active file. However, your test scores are placed in an archive and can be retrieved for reporting to you and to colleges, universities and scholarship programs that you designate.”

You cannot currently request an archived score online, only by mail or phone. The cost is $30 for the archive retrieval fee + $11 for every score report. If they cannot find your scores, they will refund the score report payments but will keep the retrieval fee. Details are HERE

The ACT’s policy:

“If you tested before September 1, 2010, those scores have been archived. Archived reports cost $21 more per report and take an additional working day to process. This additional fee covers the cost of searching for archived scores and is nonrefundable, even if no scores are located.”

You cannot change or cancel a request once it has been submitted. Priority delivery is only an option within the U.S. Details are HERE

My personal advice if you are planning to use old scores for college applications:

Find out if the college accepts old scores first. Also find out their score use policy and if you are close to any deadlines, whether or not they accept rush/priority scores.

Take a full length practice test for each online. Noone else will know how you did, but you may want to find out how much you have retained (or lost) before applying to a college. If you do better on a practice one than you did on your old one, commit to some self-preparation and retake it! You can retake at any age, and a newer, higher score can only help you. If you do worse, you know what to brush up on before college classes start.

If money is tight, be realistic about this process. Don’t spend money on score reports or applications to send to colleges you KNOW are out of reach, either because you are very unlikely to be admitted, or because the school itself is so expensive that even if you got accepted, you would have to decline for financial reasons. Even with scholarships, grants and loans, some places can still be very costly and to be frank, you need to assume those loans really are loans. Just because there has been some loan forgiveness in recent years doesn’t mean you can count on that happening in the future.


In this post, I explain why blind guessing on the SAT is a bad idea. Now we will talk about why guessing is a bad idea even if you have eliminated one answer. Technically, you should have a slight mathematical advantage by then – and yet, almost every student who applies this finds themselves still losing points. There are a few key reasons why this happens.

1. The calculations are based on ignoring the rounding effect. They treat getting 1 right and 3 wrong as a quarter point gain. In reality, an outcome of 1 right and 3 wrong is NOT a gain of a quarter point because your score will be rounded down. This is another situation where your most likely outcome (at about 42%) is no harm and your next most likely outcome (at about 31%) is getting all 4 wrong and harming your score.

2. If you can only eliminate one, that probably means the question is very hard for you. Which means the possibility that you will eliminate the correct answer just went up (since obviously that’s more likely to occur on a difficult question). Once that has happened, you have 0% chance of getting the question right, 100% guarantee of a lost quarter point, and any additional time spent on that question is wasted.

3. Even if you correctly eliminate one wrong answer, you don’t have a true 1 in 4 chance of guessing the right answer. To understand this part, consider the street game 3 Card Monty (we will modify it slightly to fit our scenario of guessing with 4 answers left). A dealer shows you four cards, one of which is a Joker and 3 of which are pip cards (numbered cards). They offer to bet with you. If you can select the Joker card after they place all 4 face down and shuffle them briefly, you will win a fantastic payoff worth far more than your wager! You rub your hands together greedily, knowing the payoff is worth more than you are betting, and confident that with a 1 in 4 chance you can win enough to make this game worthwhile. The dealer shuffles, you watch the cards and pick, confident you saw where that Joker landed. WHAT?!? You stare in amazement; the card you picked is NOT the Joker. You demand to see the cards turned over, sure that the dealer must have slipped the Joker off the table or into a sleeve. But no, it’s right there on the table, just not where you thought it was. Hmm, well that payoff is still good, good enough to risk another bet and you are going to pay *real* close attention this time. The dealer shuffles… and sure enough, you lose again. You keep guessing wrong, all the while losing confidence, time and money, while that smug bastard laughs at you.

Now let’s look at why you didn’t win 1 in 4 times, or anything close to it. The dealer doesn’t need to cheat – it is his extensive experience at shuffling deceptively, distracting you and knowing how people react to his game that gives him a strong advantage. He makes a living doing this – you are just wandering by. You are, no matter how smart and no matter how well trained, a teenager being sent into a battle of wits in very specific areas with people who have advanced degrees and years of experience in the fine art of making you guess wrong. If you can only eliminate one answer, the chances that one of those trap answers will suck you in rises to a point where your real odds are no longer 1 in 4.

Finally, let’s consider the big picture. Even if you ignore the rounding effect, and feel 100% sure you won’t eliminate the right answer and will guess without being even slightly affected by any of the 3 remaining trap answers, it still won’t work out overall. Think about it realistically – will you really say ‘ok, I got rid of one, I’ll guess now and move on.‘? Of course not. You know eliminating more would improve your odds further, so you will sit there staring at the remaining ones hoping to find a reason to get rid of more. Meanwhile the clock is ticking, other questions never get tried because time ran out and the Joker is just sitting there, grinning at you evilly.

Don’t let him get away with it. Be strong enough and smart enough to refuse to play his game until the odds really are in your favour. Walk away from those harder ones and go knock out some easier questions instead!

SAT Vocabulary

work in progress, no linking yet please

“Let me try once more,” Milo said in an effort to explain. “In other words–”
“You mean you have other words?” cried the bird happily. “Well, by all means, use them. You’re certainly not doing very well with the ones you have now.”
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Ok, I have been dreadfully remiss about this entry. The very thing that makes it important (the sea of methods and styles available) also makes it difficult to research fully in a timely fashion. What I can say, without any hesitation at all, is that you should be prepared to adapt to your student, both in pacing and in method. No single approach is right for every student, and trying to force a student into a specific approach can actually harm their scores.

In general, I personally do not recommend a strong emphasis on learning word parts, a fast pace of vocab acquisition, or learning new words in thematic groups that include antonyms. I also favour quality over quantity – a word that a student learns to fully understand and use can help them on the sentence completion, on the passages and on their own essay. That one truly mastered word is worth more than three half-learned words that leave a student lost in thought trying to decide if they do or don’t know what it kinda sorta might mean.

Despite all the SAT vs ACT pages, it remains one of the most FAQ. The short answer is if you like Superman better, go ACT. If you like Batman better, go SAT. Ok, I am (mostly) kidding. There is no short answer; you’ll need to do a little research. The table provides a quick overview. The text below it is for students who know the basic differences, but still feel unsure which will be better for them.

English, Reading, Math and Science Writing, Reading and Math
Essay is optional * Essay is mandatory
No penalty for wrong answers 1/4 point penalty for wrong answers
Higher level math but straighforward More conceptual math
Passage types are in predictable order Passage types are not in a set order
Slightly higher time pressure Slightly lower time pressure
Fewer, longer sections Several shorter sections
Colleges may focus on composite score Colleges may focus on area scores

* – ACT essay is optional, however some specific schools do require it. You should go HERE find out if the colleges you are applying to require it BEFORE you take the ACT.

ACT – If you are especially good at math and science, and specifically weak in reading and writing, you may want to go for the ACT – you can excel at 2 out of 4 instead of 1 in 3. The ACT essay topics are often easier to write about, and more latitude is given to the student in how to respond to the prompt.

SAT – If you are especially good at reading and writing, and specifically weak in math you may want to go for the SAT – you can excel at 2 out of 3 instead of 2 in 4. The SAT essay topics are a little dry, and there are stricter guidelines for responding to the prompt.

The best possible way to be sure, though, is to go ahead and try taking a practice test for each one. Many schools offer practice tests. If your school doesn’t, you can find an online or downloadable test, or buy The Real ACT Prep Guide and The Official SAT Study Guide both of which contain actual previous tests. If your ACT score is higher, or the two are about the same but your lower ACT area scores are in things you feel sure you can improve in, go for the ACT. If your SAT score is higher, or the two are about the same but you aren’t sure how much you can improve in the weaker areas, go for the SAT.

Common statements you’ve probably seen that I disagree with:

  • “The SAT has much more vocabulary.” This seems true on the surface, because the SAT has sentence completion questions. But the ACT requires a strong vocabulary to perform well on the Reading, and even on some of the English and Science.

  • “The ACT Math is harder.” This also seems true on the surface, because it does go up to a higher level of math. However, the ACT math questions are more straightforward – SAT math questions are much more conceptual. On the ACT, you may well hit problems you don’t know what to do with – and you’ll probably know that. On the SAT, you are far more likely to think you have correct answers only to realise later you forgot to consider some element of the problem.

  • “Everyone who is good at science should take the ACT instead of the SAT”. Again, seems true on the surface. I know I keep saying that, but so many misconceptions become popular precisely because they are believable on their face. ACT science is not about remembering and using all the detailed equations, terms and processes you learned in your science classes. It is about applying logical, scientific thinking. You won’t need to remember the atomic weight of Ag, or what Ag stands for. If you did well in forensics, psychology or sociology and have a good sense of what goes into a solid experimental design and how to read data, you can do VERY well on the science section even if you didn’t do great in biology, chemistry or physics.

   So why are Superman and Batman in here? Superman is very strong, honest and direct. He also runs around saving the world. So I associate him with the ACT – it tests to a higher level, in a straightforward way, and covers more area. Batman, however, well… World’s Greatest Detective. He patrols a smaller area, but more than makes up for not being superhuman by using his intellect to think things through and make them work to his advantage. If you want something you can punch through, go ACT. If you want something you can out-think, go SAT.

SAT and ACT Resources and Links


The Official SAT Website     The Official SAT Study Guide

Official SAT Raw Scores to Scaled      Official SAT Scores to Percentiles

SAT College Search   Official Sample SAT Questions

The Official ACT Website     The Real ACT Prep Guide

Official ACT Raw Scores to Scaled     Official ACT Scores to Percentiles

Which Colleges require the ACT Essay?  Official Sample ACT Questions


Gotham Tutoring’s Blog

Excellence For College’s Blog

SelectPrep’s Facebook Page

Sheldon the Word Nerd’s Website

Lennox Tutoring (MCAT)


Why don’t you offer more detailed advice? I provide general information (and try to correct dangerous misinformation) about SATs. ACTs, and college admissions. I am not here to provide free in-depth test prep advice.

I don’t know whether to take the SAT or the ACT or both! I do not recommend trying to prep for both at the exact same time. They are very different tests. To get a better idea which one might be right for you, please check out my Superman vs Batman blog entry.

Why don’t you have more big company books on here? Most aren’t a good match to the actual content, and even ones with decent content often have questionable advice and explanations. If you want to self-prep, I strongly advise that you stick with the real thing.

Ok, but aren’t there less known books that have great information? I am sure there are. I’ve been using a combination of official books and my own materials for many years now and have not had any real reason to seek additional resources. That said, if you think your book is just amazing, you are welcome to send me one and I will review it in detail and help promote it if it’s really, really good.

If I paypal you the money, can you tutor me online? Sorry, I am old-fashioned and strongly prefer to only tutor students I can meet with face to face.

SAT versus ACT (not ready for linking)

I couldn’t change the link to its correct title. you can find the new entry here here. It did say it wasn’t ready for linking 😉

  You’re worried about the essay on your upcoming SATs. Maybe you haven’t done well with class essays. Maybe you write great essays, but only when you have plenty of time to do them right. Maybe you’re worried about being able to come up with great examples, or using enough high level vocabulary words. I hope that I can reassure you that the SAT essay isn’t as big of a deal as you think it is.

   First and foremost, understand this. Your essay is not being judged primarily on what is great about it. It is being judged primarily on what is wrong with it. This is not the time to take risks trying to really wow anyone (save that for your college app essay!). This is the time to crank out a solid, well-structured essay and make sure you doublecheck for things like grammar errors and redundancy (if your essay prompt was about whether or not we need to be competitive to succeed, make sure you didn’t use the word competitive 18 times). And always keep in mind that the essay is only worth about 30% of your writing score – most of your score comes from the multiple choice. You *could* bomb the essay completely and still get an above average score on the writing overall if you did well on the MC questions.

   Commit to a position. You are going to want to waffle, because they ask questions where both sides have obvious merit and darnit, you want them to know you are smart enough to realise that! DON’T. It’s a trap. The assignment is to pick a side and defend it – just do it. You don’t even have to pick the side you agree with personally. If the other POV seems easier to write about quickly, do that.

   Using higher level vocab words is a good idea, but only use ones you are completely sure you are using correctly. If you feel uncertain, stick with a medium level word you feel more confident about. Ex: You’d like to use the word sanguine. You know it means something like confident, optimistic or comfortable. So you write “I felt sanguine the next day.” But sanguine isn’t generally used without referencing what you feel sanguine about. If you know that, make sure you apply it and write a sentence like “I felt sanguine about taking my SATs.” If you don’t, you are better off saying “I felt optimistic the next day”.

   Don’t get too stressed about coming up with 3 great supports (don’t get me wrong, if you can do it, go for it!). The college board has provided examples of essays in the 10-12 range that didn’t have 5 paragraphs and 3 supports. But there is a balance of quantity and quality – if you are going to use 2, make sure those 2 are the crown jewels of examples.

Is that all there is to it? Not by a long shot. This entry isn’t about all the wonderful things you can do to really master the SAT essay. But I do hope it has been enough to show you that you don’t need to panic 😉

These are good tips for choosing a tutor, but I cannot guarantee you will get a winner using them, or that you won’t pass on someone who would have been great. Looking for tips on choosing a tutoring company? Check out my How doth the little crocodile blog entry.


  • Do they offer a free diagnostic test from a previous actual SAT test? If you happen to have an existing PSAT or SAT score you are comfortable with using as a baseline that’s fine. But if they don’t offer to help you get a real baseline score first, don’t even meet them. Noone can tell you how much your child has improved without a reasonably accurate idea where they are starting from.

  • Are they willing to explain some problems to you directly, or to your child with you present? If the answer is no, don’t even meet them. Saying “I don’t want to hand out hours of free tutoring or special approaches I use” is fair. Saying “I cannot think of *anything* I can demonstrate to you for free isn’t/

  • Are they trying to convince you they can guarantee a massive increase in a few hours of tutoring, or that they can get any student to a perfect score if you purchase enough hours? Don’t even meet them. Test prep doesn’t work well in just a few hours – you’ll either be disappointed, or discover you are being set up for a ‘oh, I guess we need to do more’ routine. Score gains depend on a lot of factors – noone can get every student a perfect score. Both of these scams usually involve putting the blame on your kids for either not ‘getting it fast enough’ or ‘not trying hard enough’. Don’t put your child through a guilt trip just because someone didn’t want to be upfront about what it would cost and what to expect.

  • Is there any suggestion that you can’t back out once you’ve paid a set program fee? Don’t meet even them. NOONE is the right tutor for every child, and the only ethical thing to do in that situation is refund the remainder of your money.

  • Are they claiming that all students should always answer every question, that they know the secret to which test dates are supposedly easier, or that all colleges superscore? Don’t meet even them. None of those is true and any tutor who doesn’t know that isn’t even trying to stay informed. They just want flashy simplifications that will create a feeling of insider knowledge and magic trick.

Ok, you’ve found one promising enough to meet. SHOULD YOU HIRE THEM?

  • After hearing them explain a few things, ask yourself two questions. Do I believe this person understands the material? And, do I believe they can explain it clearly to my child? We have all had teachers who were clueless and we have all had teachers who were very knowledgable, but didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively with their students. You want someone who can deliver on all levels, non-negotiable. If they don’t make you feel that way, don’t hire.

  • Can they explain what materials they intend to use and why? If not, don’t hire (and frankly, I’d be leery of anyone who isn’t using The Official SAT Study Guide or The Real ACT Prep Guide as a major resource for practice material).

  • Can they explain how they will adapt the tutoring to your child as an individual? Bear in mind, the details will change as they get to know your child better. But they should be able to give you something more specific than “Oh, I always gear it toward the student.” If they can’t, don’t hire.

Great! You’ve found someone who comfortably meets all these criteria. The tutoring seems to be going well, and you feel confident it is helping. But you’re wondering what to look out for along the way, signs that things are even better than you had hoped, that you’ve hit the tutor jackpot. SHOULD YOU BE JUMPING FOR JOY?

  • Does your child enjoy their sessions? No, I am not kidding. If they have had 2-3 sessions and you aren’t seeing any signs that your child is enjoying it at least a little bit, you may want to reconsider your choice in tutors.

  • Does your child seem less nervous about the prospect of taking the real test?You should be seeing their confidence increase.

  • Is your child sharing things with you about the sessions that they think are interesting or showing other signs of deep processing? Did they talk about a great tip they learned? Something interesting in a passage they read? Maybe it’s not even something they mention; you just start to notice they are using a higher level of vocabulary naturally or that their other grades are improving.

These, my friend, are excellent signs that your child is getting a great deal out of their test prep tutoring!