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Want Your Kid to Ace the SAT? Advice from Someone Who's Taken it 25 Times!

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Updated on May 6, 2014

Ed Carroll knows what it’s like to take the SAT. In fact, he may know better than any other person on the planet—over the past ten years, he’s taken every single test the College Board has put out there. He’s sat down at a little wooden desk, surrounded by teenagers, sharpened pencils in hand, more than 25 times. He’s pored over dozens of tests in his office, looking for trends, analyzing questions, reverse engineering problems, and picking apart just what makes the SAT tick.

“For most people, taking the test so many times would be their greatest nightmare,” he says. For Carroll, it’s a job. As Executive Director of High School Programs for the Princeton Review, he’s head-honcho of research and development for the test prep behemoth.

“In school, I wasn’t always the best student in terms of long-term planning and organization,” he says, “But I had natural tendencies like figuring out shortcuts, estimating, using multiple choice answers to help reason out a solution, and avoiding traps.” It turns out that those are exactly the types of skills that help students ace the SAT.  Carroll’s entire career now rests in teaching students how to beat the test. The SAT has a limited bag of tricks, according to Carroll. The same types of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic questions appear year in and year out. It covers five or six major rules in grammar over and over again, and has a set of vocabulary words that pops up consistently.

“You can prepare for the SAT,” Carroll says, “But it’s not about facts, like it would be for a biology test.” The best way to beat the SAT is to learn to think like the test. Here are his tips on how to boost your score.

  • Know the Enemy. You can improve your SAT scores through practice, just as you can improve playing the piano, juggling, or cooking.  The SAT is very consistent, it has to be. The scope and parameters of what they can cover is limited. “I am a very good test taker, but anybody can do what I do, if they’re willing to take 100 practice tests,” Carroll says. “People think I look at an SAT question and know the answer immediately, but I don’t. I just know where to start. I immediately recognize questions quickly and know how to do them,” whether it’s plugging the answers into the question, or recognizing the way they give bad answers.
  • In the math section, spend the bulk of your time on the first 15 questions. In the math section, the questions are always laid out easiest to hardest. In general, Carroll advises, students should focus on doing the first two-thirds of the section perfectly. “I’d rather have students do the first 15 questions perfectly and skip 5, than do 20 and get 5 wrong.” That’s because they’ll get a better score. Although the last 5 problems are the hardest, all questions are worth the same number of points and students are penalized for wrong answers much more than they are for skipping questions altogether.
  • Hone in on a few simple question types: “For the grammar section, the test could conceivably cover any rule in the written language, but there are only about six rules that the SAT tests over and over again,” he says. By taking a bunch of practice tests, you’ll begin to recognize the way they phrase those questions. For example, the SAT likes to test subject verb agreement.
  • Don’t be afraid of the essay section. Many students dread this section, but if you understand the way it’s scored, you’ll be a lot more relaxed. Carroll’s suggestions might not make an English teacher happy, but they’ll help your SAT score: First and foremost, know that structure is the most important element. “A lot of people worry about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but it’s not that important,” he says. Students are not heavily penalized for misspelling a word or not using a comma correctly. “They know you only have 25 minutes to finish, so they don’t expect big fat vocabulary or perfect spelling. They’re looking for clear answers to the question, support, and organization.” The most important thing is to have an introduction and a conclusion, firmly take a side, and provide examples in the middle with support for your argument.
  • Recognize that the SAT is not the only game in town. The SAT has been around a long time. And it used to be that schools like the University of California and many of the Ivy Leagues favored it, but that’s changing. Now almost every school that requires an admission test will accept either the ACT or the SAT. Each test is different—for example, the ACT is shorter, more straightforward, and allows the test taker to decide whether or not to write and essay. The SAT has simpler math content, but more questions and answers that are considered “tricky”. Unlike the ACT, it also tests vocabulary. Some students do better on the SAT and others score higher on the ACT. Regardless of whether or not you choose to pay the Princeton Review for test prep help, you can take advantage of the free practice tests they offer in April. Students can take a free SAT, ACT, or PRA (a shorter exam that has questions from both tests, so students can compare how they do on each), and then get a detailed score analysis so you’ll know how to focus your time and energy when studying. Click here for more information.
  • Understand the Scoring. At the top level, just one or two questions can have a huge impact on your score. It’s important to understand that the SAT is a comparison test. It doesn’t matter if you do well, just how well you do in comparison to others. “If a teacher gives a test and everyone in the class gets an A, she’s happy. It means students have really mastered the content. But that could never, never happen on the SAT, because it would make it a giant waste of time. Colleges would call the College Board and tell them the test was worthless to them because they wouldn’t be able to use it as a comparison tool to choose the entering class,” Carroll says. That’s why the SAT is designed to be extremely tough to finish. No matter how smart a student is, it’s incredibly difficult to get through all the questions and have time to check your work. But the more tests you do, the quicker you’ll get, and the quicker you get, the more questions you’ll be able to answer. Getting just a few more questions done can greatly affect your score.
  • Fuel up for the marathon. The SAT can take as long as 6 hours from beginning to end. You’ll likely leave home as early as 7:15 in the morning and you might not leave the test site until 1 PM. “Have breakfast,” Carroll says. It matters.  “Many students skip breakfast daily…I know I did.  But it's a terrible idea. You don’t want to be starving on one of the most important days of your life.”
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