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Thread: SAT Tips

  1. #1
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    SAT Tips

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    Wow, it's nice to read about your various experiences. I will try to organize a post this afternoon. My apologies for not doing it sooner, but I just finished school last week. I also got a bit sidetracked by my tendency to engage in endless debates with InterestedDad.

    First off, let me assured you that there are no earth-shattering secrets in what has been -very generously- dubbed as the Xiggi method. I think that it is mostly based on common sense. After all, how hard is it for anyone to figure out that the more one practices, the more one improves. However, there are a few elements that seem to work better than others. Also, I may be able to point to certain elements of a preparation that yield lesser results. For instance, I do not recommend to spend MUCH time reading lists of words.
    I'll try to get something posted this afternoon. I'll address one question immediately: taking tests under timed conditions.

    The answer is yes but only at the end of the preparation, and eventually at the onset if you did not take an official test. In the past I have compared an SAT preparation to the preparation for a marathon. It is not necessary to run 26 miles each day to prepare for a race. It is better to prepare your body for the grueling race in smaller installments and build resistance and speed by repetition. I do not think that there is ANYTHING wrong in trying to emulate the testing conditions by setting aside a few Saturdays at the kitchen table. It is, however, not necessary, especially in the phase where you build knowledge, confidence, and time management. I would recommend 10 installments of 30 minutes over taking an 5 hours ordeal. One of the keys of a successful preparation is to establish a number of intermediary targets. First, you want to make sure you understand the test and its arcane language. Then, you want to test your current knowledge. After that, you want to make sure you understand what TCB considers correct answers. As I will post this afternoon, I even recommend taking a test WITH the answers in front of you. Obviously that test would not establish a valid yardstick score wise, but it will go a long way to build confidence in your own ability and recognize the few traps that ETS uses.

    Oh well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

  2. #2
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    Can brilliant students do poorly on the SAT?
    Yes, they can! The first thing to realize is that acing advanced calculus won't do you much good on the SAT Math. The SAT is a different test that requires a different knowledge: the knowledge of the test itself. One usually gains that knowledge by practicing on released tests. This is the best way to start understand the format and recognize the type of questions. In a typical test, 90% of the questions are testing "old" concepts and very few questions (maybe 3 to 5) are a bit newer and unfamiliar.

    Getting a good score does not require a deep knowledge of math –nor a very large vocabulary. For example, you can solve most -if not all- of the problems without ever using a calculator. So, what does it take? What is needed is the ability to recognize the questions and patterns without much effort, and especially without wasting time. In other words, the key is to know how to solve the problems FAST. For most problems, it is neither necessary nor advisable to work through all the steps to verify your answers. The SAT, unlike high school teachers, does not reward completeness and does not give partial credit. The only thing that matters is the accuracy of your answers.

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    Is there an alternative?
    Yes, there is! As one would expect, I’ll start with the importance of viewing the SAT as a game to be defeated. For all sports, dedicated practices are extremely important. Preparing for the SAT is no different from practicing for tennis or soccer: it's a game of strategy and repetition. As I noted earlier, the material that will be tested on the SAT is not that difficult, but the presentation and language is confusing for anyone who has not done much testing or competitions.

    In my opinion, there are two important phases in preparing successfully for the test. The first phase includes building small blocks of confidence and the second one involves time management. That is why I recommend breaking the tests in smaller and manageable sections.

    The general idea is to devote about thirty minutes to completing a test section and about the same amount of time to review the answers proposed by The College Board. While most students focus on the scores and check their wrong answers, much can be gained from checking the correct answers. It is important to TRULY understand EVERY answer and to try to understand how the SAT questions are developed. To do this, one has to be comfortable with the material tested.

    It is for this reason that I recommend to start working with open books and without time limits. Open books include the precise answers to the test. During this phase, student ought to review the books that form their SAT library. On this subject, I have a simple recommendation: buy as many SAT books as you can afford. There are no clear leaders and most books share very similar strategies and tips. For math, Gruber's is the most complete and should provide answers to most problems appearing on the SAT, with the potential absence of problems specific to the post March 2005 test. The other usual suspects are Princeton Review, Barron’s, Kaplan, and McGraw Hill. The strategies and tips for math will be very similar among the books listed. The strategies for the verbal components offer a few variances, which students should evaluate on an individual basis. With the advent of the new SAT, a number of new books have appeared. Those new books such at the RocketReview of Adam Robinson, the Maximum SAT of Peter Edwards, and the solution book by TestMaster(s) have raised the bar, and are in many ways better than the books published by the former “gorillas”. However, the choice of the source books is not that critical, and I did not try to prepare an exhaustive list of books. There are a number of other books that contain advice and strategies. My recommendation stays the same: buy as many as you can and check the strategies to find a few that apply to your individual taste. As you will say later, the best strategies will be self-developed.

    This is the time to introduce a caveat. Under no circumstances should a student use tests that are not published by The College Board. You may have noticed that I did not list the Official Guide among the source books. It is, however, the must-have book since it contains all the tests you'll need to prepare for the SAT. I will comment on the online tools of The College Board in a later paragraph.

    Are you now ready to get your X-acto knife out and rip that Official Guide in small sections? Better stock up on manila folders ... you'll need them.

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    On the issue of tricks and strategies
    After spending time building the blocks of knowledge and confidence, students should start developing techniques to save time. The SAT is mostly a test of mental quickness. People who like to solve puzzles tend do well. One good facet of the SAT is that the “puzzles” thrown at students are rather simple and very often repeated.

    Again, there are no great secrets. Dedicated students should be able to learn the techniques, leave the calculator in its case, and know what NOT to do. Developing time saving techniques will help students find not only the correct answer, but the best answer in the shortest amount of time. It is worth remembering that the four incorrect answers do NOT matter: nobody needs to show the steps and confirm the answer. Well, that is fine and dandy, but does one acquire the techniques? This is where your source books come in play. As we know, the books contain a number of tips and strategies. While most of the advice is helpful, it is important to tailor it to the individual student. In other words, by reading the various “industry” offerings, a student can acquire a set of tools that will start the process. However, the advice is really aimed at helping average students improve their scores. I am not saying this is a pejorative way! Most books –and organized classes- are most helpful for students who will score between 500 and 650. Despite being incomplete, the advice is still valid and will help anyone in the earlier phases. Concepts such as the process of elimination (POE) and plugging key numbers represent key components of any student’s arsenal. However, to really push your talent to the limit, you’ll have to graduate from the generic concepts. This is accomplished by practicing and looking for hidden patterns. Slowly but surely, your brain will recognize the questions and the answers will “flash” right in front of you. Oh, I know that someone said that the SAT was super easy because ALL the answers are always in front of you –except for the Student Produced Responses or grid-in questions. That is, however, not what I meant!

    So, let’s depart from the sterile theory part and look at a few examples of the difference between following the generic advice and moving up to the next step.

    For instance In the very beginning of a book published by Princeton Review, we find this strategy:

    To follow the example, you need to visualize a square ABCD, and inscribed inside the square a half circle CFD. The half circle diameter is also CD. In this case, the value of the side is 8. This is a very common SAT problem and PR asks the student to identify the area represented by the square MINUS the half circle.

    The 5 proposed answers are:

    A. 16 - 8 Pi (Pi for [greek]p[/greek])
    B. 16 - 16 Pi
    C. 64 - 8 Pi
    D. 64 - 16 Pi
    E. 64

    This is what PR proposes: We know that the value of Pi is a little more than 3. Let's replace Pi with 3 in the proposed answers. Choice A and B are negative numbers. From here, you could guess C, D, or E and it is a guess we SHOULD take. However, we can also eliminate E because 8*8 is 64 and represents the whole square. What do we end up with? A one-in-two shot of getting this problem right. Neat, huh!

    Well, not so fast Princeton Review …

    Let's look at the problem. How fast can we solve it?

    1. Area of square? 8*8 = 64 .... 5 seconds
    2. Area of half circle? Any student sitting for the PSAT or SAT should be able to play with the formulas for areas of circles, squares, and triangles. In this case, the 1/2 circle has a diameter of 8, hence the area of the 1/2 circle should be radius^2 * Pi * 1/2. The answer is 16 Pi/2 or 8 Pi. Time to compute this ... 15 seconds
    3. Guess what? The answer to the question is 64 - 8 Pi. Now you are able to mark answer C with complete confidence, and only after about 25 seconds!

    What is bad about the PR method? First, if forces the student to attempt FIVE calculations. Despite being mostly trivial, it introduces potential errors. With the building pressure, most students DO make careless mistakes; calculating 16 times 3 easily falls in the category of easy mistakes. Let’s assume that the student does not make a single error and gets it done rather quickly ... at the end, he still has TWO choices or a 50/50 chance. It could mean a plus 1 or a ...MINUS 0.25 in his tally, or a swing of 1.25!

    Why do I consider this particular message to be wrong? It tells the student to forego attempting to solve a problem that most 7th graders can solve FAST and CORRECTLY. It also reinforces the idea that the test is all about gimmicks and tricks. While the POE taught by PR is a GOOD technique, I do not quite understand why they selected this problem to illustrate their method.

    The next one involves a perennial favorite problem on the SAT: the average rate of speed. Here’s the problem:

    A girl rides her bicycle to school at an average speed of 8 mph. She returns to her house using the same route at an average speed of 12 mph. If the round trip took 1 hour, how many miles is the round trip.

    A. 8
    B. 9 3/5
    C. 10
    D. 11 1/5
    E. 12

    PR offers this solution: First the problem is a hard problem (level 5). TCB assumes that the common student will not attempt to solve the problem and pick the trick answer of 10 since it represents the average of 8 and 12. The common student second choice will be to pick a value that is stated in the problem: 8 or 12. PR provides the strategy to eliminate those Joe Blogg answers. Again, the conclusion of PR is to end up with two choices and pick between B and D. In their words, the student will be in great shape!

    What's my issue with this? In my eyes, a 50-50 chance is really not good enough. When you consider how this problem can be solved, the recommendation to guess becomes highly questionable.

    What could a student have done? Use a simple formula for average rates -an opportunity that PR strangely forgets to mention. Is this formula really complicated? I could detail the way I developed it while working through similar problems, but the reality is that millions of people have seen it before. I’m absolutely convinced that many good tutors teach it, but you won’t find it in the typical help book. Here it is:

    [2*Speed1*Speed2] / [speed1 + Speed2] or in this case:
    2* 8 * 12 / 8 + 12.

    Most everyone will notice that the answer is 2*96/20 or simply 96/10. This yields 9.6 or 9 3/5. The total time to do this, probably 20-45 seconds. Not a bad method to know!

    It does get better. How would I solve it?

    1. Check the problem to make sure we have a ONE hour unit. Most often, the SAT writers will use a one hour limit and not a different number of hours.

    2. As soon as I verify that the unit is 1 hour, I will mark B because I know that the answer is ALWAYS a number slightly BELOW the straight average. It takes only a few problems OF THAT TYPE to realize that it ALWAYS works.

    3. My total time including reading the problem: about 10 seconds!
    Here you have it: two methods that are faster and are bound to yield the correct answer and a healthy dose of self-confidence!

    Obviously, two examples do not tell the entire story. It does, however, reinforce that the SAT is not a test that can reduced to simple tricks. Too many students spend more time looking for quick shortcuts than working on the test itself. For some reason, they believe in a SAT Holy Grail, a mystical summary of tricks that will deliver perfect scores.

    As I will repeat often, I do not pretend to know everything about the SAT. I've spent enough time on the SAT to know what works well and what does not work that well. There are merits to a number of strategies, and one has to TRY them in earnest. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the use of strategies represents a shortcut for PREPARATION TIME. Nothing could be further from the truth. The strategies only work for people who invest an adequate amount of time in troubleshooting the techniques and ascertain the relevance to their individual case.

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    Smile

    As a general rule of thumb (for those debating SAT vs ACT), always take the SAT. Always, always, always.

    I worked in Admissions for several years, and honestly, this is the one piece of advice (outside of working hard) that I would give.

    Hope that helps!
    Last edited by Erin; 02-19-2009 at 09:13 PM. Reason: Gratuitous link removed.

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