[Note: This refers to the old SAT. However, the process is still the same for the new SAT: take official practice tests, identify your weaknesses, fix the problems, then take another practice test.]
I was a 40-year-old new mother at home with her baby, battling sleep deprivation, and desperate to find some sort of intellectual stimulation between cooing at the baby and doing more laundry.
I was tutoring neighborhood kids part-time. People kept asking me if I tutored the SAT. I think I thought, “That could be fun.” I figured I would just need to brush up on some old math skills and I’d be good to go. I discovered the SAT and over the course of a year I raised my SAT Math score from a 480 (45thpercentile) to a 700 (93rd percentile). Here’s how I did it.
Fortune befriends the bold. Emily Dickinson
I jaunted down to the local bookstore and picked up a Kaplan SAT book. I gaily opened the cover and began to read. I sailed through the Writing and Critical Reading sections since I was an English major in college and used both those skills in my career.
The Math section, however, looked a little worrisome. But, hey, I was college-educated. I had a Master’s degree. I aced my GRE’s. (I aced the verbal and analytical and scored in the 70 percentile for math up against math majors – which is practically acing the math part for an English major) I could do this. I’d just brush up on some math topics and I’d be all set. Because, really, echoing the famous last words of all intrepid adventurers, “How hard could it be?”
The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge. Daniel Boorstin
And then I took a practice test.
How hard could it be? Really, really bloody hard. It was a massacre. My illusions quickly crumbled like drool-soaked teething biscuits.
There is math and then there is SAT math. I had memorized formulas and could do rote problems which presented the formula in the same way. But I didn’t have any flexibility with my newly acquired knowledge. Just like my baby could drink out of a sippy cup, but not from a glass, I couldn’t apply what I knew in different contexts.
So I panicked. I bought more books. I kept hammering away the problems, thinking that if I only did *more* problems or hit them harder, then they’d break. I was an idiot. I did everything the longest, hardest way possible.
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it. Pablo Picasso
As I worked my way through every SAT book on the market (25 at last count), I slowly began to start working smarter. During nap-time, I’d work on SAT problems, approaching them as logic puzzles rather than a math death-march. I started finding and using the right materials:
- The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition is the only source of authentic SAT questions
- Elizabeth Smart’s Outsmarting the SAT has terrific overall strategy
- Phillip Keller’s The New Math SAT Game Plan: The Strategic Way to Score Higher has fabulous math strategy, teaches just enough of each math topic, and explains functions in a way I finally understood
I started looking at which questions I was missing and figuring out exactly why I missed them. I went back to the basic concepts and started recognizing the different ways the SAT would test them.
The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. Thomas Berger
I categorized all the questions in the Official SAT Study Guide. (Yes, that would be all 1,700 of them)
I relentlessly tracked down explanations for the stuff I still didn’t understand. I sung math explanations to the baby as I rocked her to sleep. I finally realized that the College Board published explanations to all the questions. And I discovered the Khan Academy math videos which helped when I still didn’t understand the College Board’s written explanation.
As I watched my daughter’s dogged persistence as she took her tottering first steps, I kept taking timed practice tests. And I got better. After about six months and answering approximately 2,000 math questions, I was reliably answering the easy and medium questions but the hardest ones still threw me for a loop.
I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think. Socrates
I began teaching for a couple of national tutoring chains. After becoming familiar with all of the companies’ materials and trainers, I decided I could do it better.
It drove me crazy that neither the College Board nor the top tutoring chains helped me (or their students) pinpoint exact weaknesses.
The College Board sums up results under major categories like “Algebra and Functions” or “Geometry and Measurement.” The national chains break it into subcategories, but don’t give you feedback by question difficulty level or take your target score into account. None of the companies clearly distinguishes which topics are most common (that you absolutely must master) and which topics show up so infrequently that you shouldn’t even bother with them.
So I created my own progress reports which helped me identify with exquisite precision exactly what I was missing and what I should focus on.
Instead of the generalized feedback that I should “work on Geometry problems” or that I “only answered 60% of the exponent questions correctly,” I discovered that I needed to work on medium problems finding the slopes of perpendicular lines and that I missed every problem dealing with fractional exponents.
Once I had the right actionable information, my studying become much more efficient and effective (and so did my students’.) Last fall I took the October SAT and finally got a 700 which is the 93rd percentile. I’m hoping to get above the 95th percentile when I take it this December.
The difference between try and triumph is a little umph. Anonymous
My daughter is now almost four years old and, thankfully, finally sleeping through the night. And the crazy obsession that got me though that tough first year, is still with me. I’ve always been a good teacher. And now, amazingly, I find I’m a great math teacher. Especially for students who struggle in math. And, after going down all the wrong paths, I finally learned a better way. Knowing math facts is the *starting* point, not the ending point for doing well on the SAT math section. You also need to know how to apply those facts in a logic-puzzle kind of way. If I were starting over now, here’s how I’d save myself a lot of time, grief, and brain cells:
- Take a test in the The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition
- Hire a tutor for at least a couple of hours to review my results, put me on the right track with strategy, and identify just the right amount of knowledge I needed to learn to achieve my target score
- Keep obsessive records from the beginning so I could focus in more quickly on the stuff I didn’t know.
- Check back in with the tutor to help me when I got stuck
And the secret to improving your SAT score? Besides being tenacious, indefatigable, steadfast, and dauntless?
Press on – nothing can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures.
Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent. –Calvin Coolidge
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