Yale Tutors SAT Prep

A Metaphor for SAT Test Prep: Training for a Sport

The SAT is not an intelligence test. It is not at all clear what the test measures actually. The A in SAT at one point stood for aptitude but the College Board has long since dropped that and any other acronym. We treat preparing for the test as one would training for any sport–you have to practice and train hard to get a good score.

There may not be anything meaningful about putting a ball through a hoop just as any particular SAT score doesn’t mean anything, but it’s important to respect the activity whether it’s playing basketball or taking the SAT test as a challenge in order to do well. Just as being the best basketball player in the world or the best golfer in the world doesn’t make one “the most athletic person in the world” nor does the highest SAT score make anyone “the most intelligent person” in the world. Score improvements do, though, reflect working hard to achieve a goal.

An Overview of our SAT Test Prep “Standard Operating Procedures”

Over the past eight years, we have developed our own approach and methods for SAT preparation. Some of our techniques are unique to us, and others are used in a similar way fairly widely. We use the methods that we know we can teach our students quickly and that we know are effective.

Our course of preparation can roughly be broken into two parts. We first have to teach the student our methods and techniques for every type of problem on each of the three sections in the test. Once the student has learned our methods, the next step is mastery of them as well as addressing weak points the student may have.

We don’t initially teach any content other than grammar rules to our students–there’s no use wasting time going through geometry if the student already knows geometry well. That’s also time we could use to go over a topic the student may not know, say combinatorics.

Throughout preparation, we have our students do a complete practice SAT test every week (ideally on Saturday or Sunday mornings) until test day. Familiarity with the test and mastery of our methods together produce higher scores. We also insist that our students take College Board prepared tests (the College Board is the same organization that prepares and administers that actual SAT exam).

There are ten practice tests in their book the Official SAT Study Guide and another seven available via the College Board’s online course. Independent vendors’ books (such as Kaplan’s or the Princeton Review’s) are invariably off particularly for the critical reading section and often will mislead students if used excessively–thus we use them exclusively as supplemental and not primary materials.

Our Approach: the Writing Section and Essay

The writing multiple-choice questions are the most content-oriented of the test. There are a few dozen or so grammar rules which are consistently tested. Students who practice these questions and learn the rules well invariably have higher writing section scores in our experience. We see the most consistent score improvements by students in this section.

While we’ve found we can help students improve their performance in the multiple choice section consistently, that hasn’t been as much the case with the essay. Writing a 25-minute essay is a strange task that can trip up even the best writers. We focus on making each student able to turn out a well-organized and well-written 4 or 5 paragraph essay earning a score of at least “4” from each reader.

We usually won’t use more of our time to aim for higher essay scores as it’s tough to improve an essay score beyond that and the essay doesn’t have a huge numerical impact on a student’s score. For example, it may take three months of work to improve a student’s essay score from 8 to 10 with a score improvement of 20-30 points most likely (a lot of effort for not a lot of point gain). For students who want to focus on the essay, we’ve found that working more generally on improving their writing skills rather than focusing on the SAT essay exercise yields better improvements.

Our Approach: the Math Section

The math section tests relatively easy math content–there’s no advanced algebra or trigonometry. What makes these sections challenging are the nature of the problems and problem-solving skills involved. There are a little over a dozen or so types of problems that are consistently used.

We coach students in techniques for how to approach each of these different types of arithmetic, algebra and geometry problems. In addition to the problem-solving techniques which are crucial, we’ll teach students the any mathematics content they may have forgotten to fill in gaps from their formal education. In covering any topic in mathematics, we’ll explain the topic in relation to the types of problems they’ll see on the SAT as well as the theory behind it.

Our students have to have a template for approaching every type of math problem, but also an understanding of why we set up problems that way and why the mathematical methods work so that they can solve unexpected problems. We also teach students some content we’re almost certain they’ve never been taught (and isn’t taught to our knowledge by any school sadly nor any other test prep firm in the country) but is nevertheless tested on the SAT math section e.g. parts of elementary number theory like the fundamental theorem of arithmetic.

Our Approach: the Critical Reading Section

Over the past twenty years, the critical reading section has changed considerably. The College Board’s trend has been to make the section less vocabulary-driven and more comprehension-driven. To that end over the last twenty years, the highly vocabularly-driven antonym questions were eliminated from the test followed by the fairly vocabularly-driven analogy questions. Today, the test consists of two groups of problems: sentence completion problems (somewhat vocabulary-driven, fairly comprehension-driven) and reading comprehension problems (not very vocabularly-driven, highly comprehension-driven).

When we began, we were fairly unimpressed with the approach of other test prep firms whose reading comprehension techniques are essentially “read better”, memorize lots of words, or gimmicks that are no longer applicable to the current incarnation of the SAT test. We thus developed our own approach which varies considerably from the approach of other test prep firms.

Following the trend of the depreciation of vocabulary-testing, we don’t place much emphasis on vocabulary building with our students beyond having good habits in general and some work on word roots. Trying to learn hundreds of new words for most students is going to realize marginal score improvements if any. We will, though, emphasize to our students that they should be in the habit of making a note of any new words they encounter and then make an effort to assimilate those new words into their working vocabulary.

For the sentence completion problems, we have powerful methods that can help students considerably even when they don’t know all the meaning of all the words in a problem. We have similarly powerful techniques for reading comprehension problems. We emphasize College Board tests because the student needs to become well-versed in “College Board reading comprehension.” There are many ways to read and interpret any passage or essay.

We’ve heard many creative reasons why an answer the College Board counts as wrong is actually right according to a student’s reading. According to the College Board’s reading, though, the answer is wrong–so we work to guide students to understand how “College Board reading comprehension” works, how the college Board interprets passages.

That’s a bit of what makes Yale Tutors SAT Prep different from anyone else…to find out more, contact us today!