The Post-PSAT Panic

panic-button“If x$b = 10-x^2… wait, what??  What planet is this from?!”

For many students, the days leading up to the PSAT went like this:  you had family members and teachers tell you how significant the results of the real SAT are, so you asked, “what should I study?”   “Errr… um… well, the thing is, it’s not like that exactly…  But get a good night’s sleep!” they answered and smiled weakly.  So you did and the next morning you sat through hours of what felt like fully-conscious brain surgery.  Then the  panic set in.  “What was that?  Why did I suddenly not know how to do any math?  And those passages were in English, right?”

It pains me to see students become deflated after this test.  Worse, some students actually consider themselves “stupid”.  If you or someone you know felt that way after this week’s PSAT, pay attention to the following:  it’s not you, it’s the test.

I taught Social Studies, which has a curriculum full of non-fiction reading.  I collaborated with English teachers, so I know that students work with the interpretation of writing.  I’ve been a teacher’s aide in Geometry and Algebra II classes, so I know that a teacher will spend days on slopes, then test you on problems similar to those that you faithfully copied from the board.  These lessons are effective in achieving the goals of the different subjects’ curricula.  We teachers are building on the achievements of our elementary and middle school colleagues.  We are all being told to work within the state standards, composed by our state department of education.

It’s just that the College Board is not a part of any of these groups.  It is a non-profit, private business which is not affiliated with any school board anywhere, nor with any education department, local, state or national.  Their writers compose their strange questions and many colleges require you to take the SAT for admission (or the ACT).  If they decide that a math problem should have a secret key hidden in the words of the problem, or if they think that a confusing critical reading passage is the best way to gauge your comprehension skills, the public has NO SAY about that.  You’re stuck with their bizarre style of questions.

My top recommendation for preparing for this test is to spend the 10-20 bucks to buy the College Board official SAT study guide and slowly practice the questions.  It’s not that I wish to ensure their financial viability, but the fact is that no other prep guide can recreate the idiosyncrasies of those test writers.  The Princeton Review, Kaplan, and McGraw-Hill books may have good strategies, but their practice tests are not close enough to the real thing. (In fact, my favorite strategy guides are self-published ones on Amazon.  Check out my previous post about those.)  When you’ve finished the practice test in the College Board book, grade yourself, note the problems that were most confusing, and get a strategy book that will address them.

Make a plan to work through at least half of those practice tests in the official SAT study guide, timing yourself appropriately.   Hopefully, the strategy books have helped you and you no longer feel traumatized.  Ideally, you should be so familiar with the test questions (whose wordings repeat themselves, test after test), that you will walk in with confidence.


The next SAT tests are on Nov. 2nd, Dec. 7th, and Jan 25th.

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Tomorrow is the ACT! Last minute tips…

General advice: don’t leave answer choices blank and bring your own non-beeping watch.  Set the watch at the 0 minute mark at the start of each section so you don’t have to follow the random time the proctor puts on the board.

(Check out my last post for ACT English advice.)  

Do the following during the Math section:
-reduce fractions

-factor polynomials

-look out for the geometry switch: they will describe the area of a shape, then at the last line ask you about the perimeter (or circumference)

For the Reading section:

-Read the passage and take abbreviated notes on the side.

-Don’t spend more than 8 minutes total per passage, unless you think you’re better at one passage than the next.

For the Science section:

-You don’t need to read the experiment carefully.  Read a little, then study the charts and tables, taking notes on trends.

-Look out for the question stem: “we decided to add one more trial- what do you expect will happen?”  Just follow the trend notes you took.

For the Essay:

Write about the context, answer yes or no, and support your essay with detailed reasoning.


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ACT Tips: English

I’ve worked on providing several posts about SAT tips, and it’s about time I added some ACT tips, given the increasing popularity of the test.

Two major points first:  1-Do NOT leave any questions blank.

2-Time is biggest concern (unless of course you have extended time.)

Since time is not on our side, we have to think about how to collect as many points as possible before 45 minutes are up.  There are 75 questions and it is not a matter of just dividing 45 by 75 because there are many fast questions and then there are slow questions.

The fast questions are “non-stem” questions.  These appear to just be a list of answers.  You check the sentence that matches the question number and decide if the grammar, punctuation, and word choice is correct.  You also make sure it is the most concise phrasing out of all the choices.  If not, you have three other options.

Here’s a quick lesson about comma use:

The five places to use a comma are 1) introductory phrase 2) listing 3) joining two independent clauses with a conjunction (for/and/nor/but/or/so, aka FANBOYS) 4) a “by the way” phrase, and 5) a concluding phrase

Here are some examples in that order:

1)  Even though he didn’t study, he passed the test.

2)  I have to bring markers, paper, and gluesticks to Kindergarten.

3)  New York City is my favorite city in the country; the possibilities for fun are endless.

4)  My Dad, who is a dentist, works in Ridgewood.

5)  He was hiding under the covers, sleeping the day away.


The slower questions have an inquiry about writing style.  Is this the best ordering of the paragraph’s sentences?  Do you need this line?  Why did the author put that sentence there.  If you deleted the concluding paragraph, what would you lose?  These are followed by four answer choices.

If you’ve decided by now, that you’d be lost on this part of the exam, it’s time to get help somehow.  A practice book that I like is by Barrons and it’s called ACT 36.  Want to see a sample?  Try ACT’s website:


Best of luck on the SATs and ACTs this fall!


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Struggling with The SAT Writing Multi-choice Section

The setting: 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English business meeting in Philadelphia

“Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and

that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.”

Grammar teaching as a “deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing” must have been a hard-sell for some at the time, but apparently a relief to others.  Unfortunately, the SAT writing section has shined a spotlight on the gap that was created by dropping this aspect of the curriculum.

Sample writing multiple-choice question:
Though now one of the most famous abstract artists, critics once ridiculed Jackson Pollock for his technique of splattering paint on canvases.

Appearing in Test 3 of the College Board’s SAT Study Guide, this question features a dangling modifier issue.  When starting a sentence by modifying a subject with a phrase plus comma, that subject *must* follow the comma.  Hence, “Jackson Pollock” had to be placed after the comma as seen here: Though now one of the most famous abstract artists, Jackson Pollock was once ridiculed by critics for his technique of splattering paint on canvases.

Proper sentence structure and punctuation rules dominate the multiple-choice section.  Back in 1985, some education leaders would have never imagined the day that the writers of a standardized college-admissions test would demand knowledge of about 20 grammar rules, plus lists of different verb forms.  But there is help out there- even free lessons and exercises online.  If you are looking for support as you prepare for the SATs, check out Erica Meltzer’s blog,

There, she delineates the types of grammar concepts that are tested.  You can take her online quizzes too.

Best of luck with the SAT and ACT this fall.

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Recommendations of guide books for the different SAT sections

The summer months are ideal for SAT prep. Last year around this time, I wrote a review of my favorite general SAT Prep book: McGraw-Hill’s SAT 2013. While that and the College Board’s The Official SAT Study Guide book are still my go-to general prep guides that I provide to new clients, I also recommend specialized secondary resources. I have no business affiliation with the publishers of these books, I just find them to be very helpful.

First, SAT 2013 and The Official SAT Study Guide provide the best support I’ve seen in terms of essay support. I make sure to use the lesson on the “weak thesis” vs. “strong thesis” in the former. The latter provides succinct advice in avoiding the pitfalls of abstract writing and verbosity.

While the authors of SAT 2013 do provide good lessons and practice for the writing multiple choice, I find Erica Meltzer, with Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, to do so more efficiently. Ms. Meltzer has managed to analyze these questions and in her book she draws out every question type, explains the rule behind it, and then offers many challenging practice questions (with answers provided).

When working on the math section, I prefer Mike McClenathan’s PWN the SAT over SAT 2013. Mr. McClenathan, like Ms. Meltzer, scrutinized his target section, developed lessons based on types of questions, and then shared knock-out strategies, all with an easy-going style. This is my students’ favorite of all the books.

If a student is in need of Critical Reading support, I use a combination of SAT 2013 and another of Ms. Meltzer’s guide books, The Critical Reader. The former describes how to approach the passages using active reading-hunting for the purpose and main idea. Ms. Meltzer takes this one step further by pinpointing exactly where the main idea will be located in most of the passages. She also breaks down all the question types and how to approach them.

In addition to supporting students on the reading passages, both publications include helpful lessons about tackling the sentence completions. However, Ms. Meltzer provides practice questions that are both greater in number and clearer. Vocabulary words, (and vital lessons about roots), are included in both books as well.

Best of luck with the SATs this fall.

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Kaplan vs. Peterson: the Catholic HS Test Prep books

scantronI recently spent two hours studying parts of these two prep books: Kaplan’s “Catholic High School Entrance Exams” , 2010, and Peterson’s “Master the Catholic High School Entrance Exam”, 2013,  in order to write up a review that parents debating what to buy or borrow might find helpful.  Let me start this review by stating that both publications do a satisfactory job of providing an overview of the different sections of these tests.  Both have practice questions and full tests that faithfully represent the spectrum of question types.  Where they differ is the amount of pages devoted to practice vs. the amount of pages devoted to strategy.   Kaplan offers more support to the student who is not a confident test-taker; Peterson, especially in the verbal/reading department, breezes through strategy and gets right to pages and pages of practice.  Perhaps the best prep would involve a combination of the two.  I would start with Kaplan.

Starting with the physical appearance of the pages, the Kaplan writers chose a font that’s easy on the eyes.  There is also plenty of spacing on the pages.  Test prep is grueling, and at times stressful work; these choices provide a gentler experience.  Peterson’s book, on the other hand, has densely written text in a smaller, more formal font and will only add to the stress of a student in fear of standardized tests.  Instead of setting up a question with a few tips before it, Peterson summarizes with long bulleted lists at the end of a chapter.  I can’t imagine many students will benefit or even read those after they have tried the questions.

From my teacher’s perspective, I find Kaplan’s support of the Verbal and Reading sections to be more supportive than that of Peterson.  Kaplan has “3 steps”, three easy-to-read bullets that offer tips about how to approach the questions and what traps to avoid.  For example, when working on synonyms, students are cautioned about trap answer choices that might seem true because they remind them of the word in the question. Other strategies taught in the Verbal section include four sound techniques on what to do if you don’t know the word at all.  Peterson does not offer nearly as much support, but rather gives a quick tip then jumps into practice after practice.  If a student wants to review the answers, their explanations were not always helpful.  Would a student who incorrectly answered the question about the word “zest” benefit the most from this explanation: “Zest means relish or gusto” ?  A more appropriate explanation written for a student struggling with vocab would have been “Zest means with energy or enthusiasm”.

Kaplan, again more than Peterson, has developed detailed strategies in the Reading Comprehension preparation.   Inference, Detail, and Vocab in Context questions are differentiated with practices for each.  Peterson does not approach this differentiation, which is disappointing.  Kaplan instructs the student to take short notes next to the passage; Peterson does not, despite the fact that note-taking helps a reader process the information.   Peterson does recommend slowing down for topic and summarizing sentences, (i.e., first and last).  Their writers also instruct students to note when key words such as “therefore”, “important” are being used, which are tips I would have liked to have seen in Kaplan as well.  Then Peterson completes its RC section with 78 practice questions.  Kaplan offers 10. Hence my suggestion at the beginning of this review that a thorough prep would involve both books if the two practice tests at the end of Kaplan are not enough.

The math sections in these books are both supportive.  Peterson covers all the problems with fairly good explanations and provides lots of practice.  Unlike Kaplan, it includes how to create a fraction from a word problem involving proportions.  Just as it happens in the other sections, Kaplan emphasizes test-taking strategies.  The practices of “plugging-in” and “testing choices” are helpful on many standardized math test sections, including the SATs.  As in the other test sections, Kaplan again reminds the students that there will be trap answers, then goes on to give examples of them.

While both Peterson’s book and Kaplan’s book successfully inform the reader of the content of the COOP, TACHS and HSPT and both provide two full practice tests of each, Peterson provides more practice questions, and Kaplan provides more strategies.

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Last minute tips before Saturday’s SAT

scantronHopefully students who will take Saturday’s test have been working through enough practice questions that the following tips about time-efficiency are meaningful.  The test, at three and half hours, is physically and mentally exhausting.  If there are short-cuts that don’t hamper your strategy, you should take them.  Here are some ways you can quickly (and still accurately) answer a variety of questions.

1)  Math

With the warning that you must avoid being “that kid who skipped a question, then mis-bubbled the rest”, I urge you to skip the “I, II, III”, “EXCEPT” and “NOT” questions.  The reason is that your goal must be to collect as many points as possible in the limited time you have.  Since this type of question takes more time and is worth just the same as that straight-forward circle question that’s coming next, just skip it.  The same goes for “EXCEPT” and “NOT” critical reading questions.  Your mantra, throughout this test, must be: “collect, collect, collect”.

Another math tip pertains to the section that has grid-ins starting at question 9.  Hopefully you know that the other math sections go in order of difficulty.  This one does too, but it starts over at the grid-ins.  This means that 7 and 8 will be med/hard, then 9, 10, 11 will be easy.  So skip 7 and 8, and move on to easy points.  (Also, if time is running out during the grid-ins, just fill in the blanks with a number like “5″.  There’s no wrong-answer penalty on 9-18 there.)

2)  Critical Reading

This section features sentence completions, short passages, short dual passages, long passages and long dual passages.  The sentence completions are in order of difficulty, so I would skip the last one and move on to the passages unless you have superior logic/vocab skills.

There is a speedy way to read the longer passages effectively:  only slow down and take notes for certain parts.  These lines include the first and last sentence of each paragraph.  There are often questions about the content or strategy used in those spots.  Then use your finger and stop to a crawl when you see a word like “thus”, “therefore”, “because”, etc… since the author will be making a claim there.  Paraphrase with abbreviations next to those claims.  Then put your finger back in place and speed through more lines.  Stop and underline when you see quotes or when you notice figurative language like metaphors or similes.  That will prepare you for the questions about those devices that are sure to come.  Finally, if the author’s tone or attitude is expressed through a complimentary adjective or harsh metaphor, write an “A” with a circle plus a phrase like “angry at these scientists” or “doubts the guy who said that quote”.  The questions, after all, are more about what the author is doing or suggesting, not about the scientific jargon being used.

3)  Writing

To save time on the first part of the writing multiple choice, try to fix the sentence in your head before you look at the answer choices.  Then match to that answer.  Another tip is to check the shortest answer option; if it’s grammatically correct, there’s no reason the check the others- that’s the winner!  And finally, if “being” is included in an answer choice, eliminate that choice.  Unless it’s for “human being”, it is the form of “to be” that the SAT writers despise.  So if you see “being that he was the first one there…” just cross it out immediately.  And once again there is an order of difficulty, but it starts over with the different types of questions.  So 11 and 29 are the hardest in this section.  (The last “fixing paragraphs” part does not have such an order, but typically the ones about adding information are considered “hard”.)

Good luck on Saturday!  Make sure your calculator is either charged or has fresh batteries!

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