SAT | Frequently Asked Questions

How Ivy Bound Prepares its Students

For ACT and SAT, Ivy Bound Test Prep offers private tutoring, semi-private tutoring, and classes. All students receive binders of strategies and practice materials; all receive practice tests licensed from test-makers and all are invited to group “Test-and-Review” sessions at no charge.

Classes for SAT Math and Critical Reading (“CR”) generally run 35 – 45 hours over 11 – 14 weeks. Tutoring for Math and CR generally runs 20 – 30 hours, more if starting PSAT (or SAT) scores are below 500 and less if starting PSAT scores are 700 or above. Students should plan to begin 3 – 5 months prior to their target SAT date, and know there is nothing wrong with starting earlier, so long as the student has had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry.

Classes for ACT generally run 50 – 60 hours over 12 – 18 weeks. Tutoring for ACT generally runs 45 – 55 hours, more if starting PLAN or ACT scores are below 20 and less if a student has one or more sections 34+ scores. Students should plan to begin 3 – 5 months prior to their target ACT date, and know there is nothing wrong with starting earlier, so long as the student has had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry. It’s nice to have had Trigonometry for a few weeks, but we can teach trig skills in two tutoring sessions if these are currently missing.

Ivy Bound can allow ACT students who are proficient at Math and Science to do a “half-time” ACT class online. They attend these parts of a class and do all Practice Tests in full. Conversely, a student who needs only Math and Science prep can do an online class that eschews the Reading, Grammar, and Essay prep.

Ivy Bound’s SAT Writing prep is 10 – 14 hours of class (8 – 12 hours is the likely time commitment if doing private tutoring), and includes Ivy Bound instructors evaluating six essays submitted by the student. While Ivy Bound focuses on ACT and SAT test prep, many students find that a byproduct of the Writing prep is improved essay and grammar skills for their English classes.

Writing remains the most “coachable” of the SAT and ACT sections. Ivy Bound’s students tend to make dramatic gains in a short time. The fast-paced single essay is the element of standardized testing most replicated in colleges at exam time. Unfortunately, the majority of colleges have not embraced it, and to our knowledge none has used the writing section for what it does best: capture a student’s creativity, thoughtfulness, and expression devoid of adult help, which polished application essays don’t do.

Because some students do not need Writing prep, Ivy Bound generally keeps the SAT Math and CR course separate from the Writing. The ACT online courses act similarly, with a Math & Science separate from Writing, Grammar, and Reading. Ivy Bound charges less when students take only two or three ACT sections.

Ivy Bound’s success rate is very high. Last year’s score increases among diligent students again exceeded 170 points (Math + CR, based on a previous SAT or PSAT) and the ACT improvements have come in slightly higher (3.3 points on the 0 – 36 scale). We look forward to more students joining in similar success.

What are the ACT and SAT Tests?

  1. The ACT and SAT I are decent tests of skills and knowledge. They are not a great predictor of success after college, but since competitive four year colleges have made them a major factor in their admissions decisions and merit scholarship awards, it makes sense for students seeking admissions at highly regarded colleges to prepare for the ACT and SAT.
    • ACT/SAT test prep should not replace any efficacious part of a high school curriculum or wholesome extra-curricular activities.
  2. The ACT and SAT tests are a good standard to help in college admissions decisions, given disparities in high school quality and students’ choice of courses.
  3. Colleges overweight the ACT and SAT tests because other measures, like GPA, moral character, and school competitiveness, are difficult to compare.
  4. Overweighting the SAT and ACT test gives a great opportunity to high school students who lack strong grades or are at less-highly regarded secondary schools.
  5. Overweighting the ACT and SAT means students with good grades and at good high schools have to protect them with a solid SAT test score.
  6. The ACT and SAT are not measures of fixed knowledge, skills, or “intelligence”. (Ask any of our students who have raised their scores 200+ points after two months’ preparation.)
  7. The ACT and SAT are coachable. Almost everyone improves with training. The question is how much.
  8. To be blunt, but real: almost anyone seeking a competitive college who doesn’t attempt to master the ACT and SAT is unwisely sacrificing long-term fulfillment for short-term frivolity. We say this owing to the number of adults who rue their not having tried harder in high school, and to the trends that elite colleges carry MORE punch in hiring and grad school decisions than ever before.
  9. Though we try to make it otherwise, mastering the ACT and SAT is not particularly fun.
  10. Thus, we don’t want to drag out the learning. A few intensive weeks with us over the summer, or once a week for a full semester is all, if you do it right. Consider it a part-time job. ACT and SAT prep is now one of the responsibilities of the college-bound teenager.
    • We don’t drag out class time either. A semi-militaristic attitude towards promptness and missed classes helps everyone. We offer extra help and encourage parents to prompt students to use the Help Line.
  11. The best time to study for the ACT and SAT test is when the student has the most free time, often summer.
  12. Even for good students, the SAT Math is difficult because it asks familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways.
  13. Even for good students, the SAT Verbal is difficult because it asks vocabulary that is often unfamiliar and demands reading skills many students have never used.
  14. All other things being equal, the best time to study is early – the summer before junior year, junior fall, or junior winter. (This assumes student has had a semester each of Algebra I and Geometry by then.) Holding a great ACT or SAT score before senior year makes college decision making easier.
  15. The SAT test is no longer a socio-economically biased test. It does test things related to American culture, but that is the culture familiar to almost every American high school student. Though the SAT test may be unfair to the recent immigrant, colleges tend to assess immigrant applicants by other standards anyhow.
  16. Highly-ranked colleges are inappropriate for some students. We simply want every child who might find it appropriate to have all options open.
    • Highly ranked colleges merit your consideration BECAUSE JOB RECRUITERS AND GRAD SCHOOLS value that high ranking. Irrespective of the training students receive at the top-ranked colleges, the imprimatur of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, UChicago, Duke, Stanford, and CalTech carries significantly into the market for the first job, for graduate school, and perhaps even for promotions thereafter. Ask recruiters who unabashedly state that they have discrepant thresholds for interviewing candidates based on their school. Ask Nicholas Lehmann, who said in a PBS Frontline interview – “a good school puts you in the way of more opportunity”.
  17. For students willing and able to prepare for the ACT and SAT test who do their college search early, applying Early Decision is sensible so long as there is no need to shop among financial offers. According to The Early Admissions Game published in 2003 by two Kennedy School professors and a Wesleyan University economist, at some schools “Applying E.A. (early action) boosts an applicant’s chances by 18.9 percent – the same amount that a 100-point jump on the SATs would. The effects of applying E.D. (early decision, which is binding) are even more drastic, giving an applicant a 34.8 percent boost, which corresponds to a 190-point SAT advantage”. This was reported in The Harvard Crimson in February 2003. Anecdotal evidence shows that among E.D. schools where the admissions offices are not “need blind” (i.e. they do take need into account), E.D. applicants who will be paying in full have a better chance. When a non-need-blind college takes a high number of non-needy students, it has more money to give to needy applicants in the next round of offers.
  18. The PSAT is worth preparing for only if the student needs a strong score for self-esteem, has a decent shot at National Merit semi-finalist recognition or would be greatly aided by a minority recruitment program. Otherwise, the PSAT is a useless test: colleges do not see your scores, and it is not a great reflector of the ACT or SAT test. (It is significantly shorter, with fewer hard questions, and lacks the essay tested on the new SAT.) We recommend to most students that their prep time target the ACT and SAT tests, and that they not be concerned about the PSAT.
  19. Plan to take the ACT and/or SAT at least twice following study. All colleges take the better score, and most (by our survey 75% of competitive colleges) cherry pick and combine the best Math on one sitting with the best Verbal on perhaps a different sitting. Thus there is no downside to a second test.
  20. The overweighting of the ACT and SAT tests in admissions decisions has caused anxiety and pressure. The best way to alleviate that anxiety is by being a well-prepared student.

Why the SAT Test is Coachable

Ever since the College Entrance Examination Board promulgated the SAT as a meaningful test for evaluating college applicants, its prominent members have publicly announced that marked score improvements are highly unlikely to be achieved by coaching. They point to the fact that few test takers show marked improvements upon taking the SAT a second time. What they omit is the motivation factor. Most of the students taking the SAT test a second time do not choose to undergo coaching in the interim. So it is no wonder that their skills have not embellished. Were the College Board to evaluate the performance of students who take a thorough preparation course, or who diligently study on their own, almost assuredly they would find a direct correlation between study time and score improvements.

We’ve been coaching high school students to improve their SAT scores since 2001. The College Board should know this too, and all but the most ostrich-like among them certainly do. The reason why smart academics who are part of the College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS), the folks who develop and administer the SAT, won’t publicly admit the truth probably owes to a perception that the SAT test loses integrity if it were determined to be coachable.

We don’t share that view. There is nothing wrong with coachability, so long as it is helping students master useful skills and so long as students from all backgrounds are able to take advantage of good coaching.

Here is why the SAT test is coachable, and always will be: the human brain is incredibly fecund. The SAT is about knowledge and skills, and whether age 7 or 70, our capability to absorb knowledge and skills is limitless. Now, even a superficial look at the SAT shows areas that obviously can be improved with coaching and/or practice. It contains:

  • Grammar, Usage, Diction and Idiom
  • Sentence Completions
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra, and
  • Geometry

Each of these six skills is coachable. Applying these skills to the test itself is a matter of recognizing what the test will be asking, in terms of subject matter, format, and level of difficulty. The beauty of the SAT test is that the College Board makes the subject matter, format, and level of difficulty open for all students to see. The College Board publishes 10 previously released tests in a book called “10 Real SATs”, and makes available other tests for individual purchase. Though nothing formally prevents the College Board from drastically changing the test, it would look very bad to be selling prep books at $24 apiece that turned out to be inappropriate. Furthermore, several states, New York among them, have passed “Truth-In-Testing” laws which require every testmaker to let the public know of a significant change in format or content of a statewide or nationwide test.

The SAT test is a standard and standards by definition can only change slowly. In order for any test to be a standard, students and their teachers need to know the criteria used for evaluations. That means at least some publication of the types of questions asked on the test. As soon as information is published, teachers can coach towards mastering those skills. This rests on the assumption that the SAT will have some consistency from year to year. It would be very difficult to markedly change the test each year because questions could not easily be pre-tested. Thus strong test consistency is the basis for every prep program.

The current version of The College Handbook (at over 1800 pages “handbook” is quite a misnomer) states that only 1 in 25 students who take the SAT test a second time improve their scores 100 points or more. That 1 in 25 figure belies a significant differentiation: some students actively prepare to better their scores the second time; most don’t. For students who are dedicated to improving, a 1-in-25 statistic is no barrier.

Indeed, 80% of our students make 100 point improvements, and these kids are realistically shooting for 150 – 200 point increases. Ivy Bound is confident enough in the coachability of the SAT to make a double-or-nothing bet with any parent for the full cost of the student’s tuition: a 100-point improvement for any uncoached student not yet at the 1400 level.

Parents and students who listen to admonitions that “you can’t significantly improve your SAT test score” should at least try an easy antidote – attend a one-time seminar with a good instructor, and discover how much you can learn and apply to a test in a mere four hours. Those 200 point increases take work, over a period closer to 40 hours. But those with high college aspirations will probably find diligent test prep a small sacrifice.

Is the SAT Test Fair? Is it Valuable?

If there is to be a standard that helps college admissions officers assess academic abilities, the SAT is a good one. The SAT is one of the better measures of critical thinking skills most of us appreciate and expect of college bound students.

Vocabulary, Writing Ability, Grammar, Reading Comprehension, Improving Sentences, Logical Reasoning, Spatial Inferences, Data Interpretation, Arithmetic, and Basic Algebra comprise 95% of the SAT. It is difficult to call these skills irrelevant.

At one point the SAT displayed an unfair cultural bias. But the testmakers have changed and no longer are words like “regatta” and “wicket” tested on the SAT. To the extent there is cultural bias on the SAT, it is biased to American culture, a culture that any child raised in this country should be familiar with. The SAT will not test words like “bwana” and “sherpa”, words the Nigerian and Napalese student would know well. Given that few Nigerians and Nepalese seek entrance to American colleges, the SAT is properly confining the tested vocabulary to American culture.

Our only strong objection to the SAT is the fact that there are strict time limits. Neither academic nor professional life demands quick assessment of the skills listed above. Good reasoners should have the time to make sure of their answers, as any diligent academic or professional would make that time.

If there is one thing we’d like to see added to the exam it would be creativity. But creativity is among the most difficult things to objectively assess. To some extent the Geometry problems in the SAT do assess creativity. Using rules that virtually all test takers have been exposed to, students are rewarded for combining the rules, and/or creating spatial arrangements that help solve a problem.

The reason a nationwide exam like the SAT can and should have importance is that the results allow colleges to assess each student on an equal footing. Grades do not do that, owing to the vagaries of school grading systems, and to the varied populations at the schools. Even the most meaningful, standardized grading cannot replace a broad, equatable test like the SAT. The SAT is a far better determinant of merit than poise, primping, and lineage, the subjective categories the SAT largely replaced.

Those who dislike the pressure that can accompany the SAT test should recognize that in any meritocracy there will inevitably be pressure to excel at something. If not the SAT, then soccer, or thesis writing. Were the SAT filled with trivia, then we would not champion it. (One reason why we despise so many of the state-wide “proficiency” exams is that many of them test esoterics.) But when pressure to excel indeed leads to excellence, with minimal casualties, that is a positive.

Why Strong Students Do Not Always Lock In High SAT Scores, And How to Change That

While there remains a strong correlation between high grades and high SAT scores, it is especially exasperating for parents to see their diligent teens failing to complement their high grades with high SAT scores.  Since explanations may lead to solutions, allow us to hypothesize based on our experience with high school test-takers and the SAT in particular.

Correlation does not equal causation

Though the correlation between high grades and SAT scores is strong, it is wrong to say that mastering a school’s English and math curricula will result in 1200+ SAT scores.  Any causation is better attributable to work ethic by the student than to a transfer of skills in traditional curricula, especially in the English section.  Since the SAT tests very coachable skills, a student’s desire to master those skills plays a large role in her/his performance.

The correlation that we believe has the highest elements of causation is parent expectations.  It is no secret that the children of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors garner a huge share of the highest SAT scores.  Though some attribute “smarts” to genetics, we are not in agreement.  The children of well-educated professionals have high standards that they are 1) exposed to and 2) motivated to meet.

How to get exposure and motivation

For students at a strong public school or even a mediocre prep school, exposure to the college admissions process and standards comes almost automatically.  For motivated students in schools that send few kids to competitive colleges, we recommend that their parents stay in touch with parents who chose a college preparatory school for their kids.  If they do not know such parents, consult actively  with a college placement counselor.  Form a posse to seek out the information that many other kids are exposed to beginning in 9th grade. Ivy Bound’s first class of students took place in south central Los Angeles.  The four students who chose to be in the class were daughters and sons of working class Mexican Americans.  Three of them are among Ivy Bound’s top improvers and one attained the school’s record for highest-ever SAT score.  As far as exposure to the SAT itself, that’s easy –$19.95 at Barnes & Noble buys any kid The Official SAT Study Guide.  There is no excuse for not knowing what skills are tested on the SAT.

How does a student get the desire to master the SAT?  We cannot say.  Fear of not keeping up with peers who are bound for competitive colleges is a good motivator for some.  Fear of failing their parents’ expectations is a motivator for others, but a dangerous one.  (The reward for meeting such expectations is probably a more positive motivator). Though far from a scientific survey, we find that the students who have improved the most just want to meet a certain number for the sake of meeting that number.  By this we mean they are not telling us “I just have to get in to ______ college”, or “I have to meet the score my dad expects”, but “I want a 2100″.

Here’s one reason why “I want a 2100” is a good attitude and can lead to success: it divorces the consequences of the test from the studying and doing of the test.  Consequences are the things we both aspire to and fear.  Unfortunately fear too often takes over.  In the process a student’s mental energies along with emotional energies are distracted.  When the student can remind himself “here’s how I’m supposed to do this test”, instead of “here’s what happens to me if I don’t get into Stanford”, the anxiety is reduced.

One thing that dampens desire is the attitude that “the SAT is a stupid test”.  A test that helps evaluate grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, math, and logical reasoning is not a stupid test.  Anyone in your child’s midst who is purveying that attitude should be quarantined, teachers included.  The current SAT is a decent test of skills and knowledge that are important in higher education, if not everyday life.  It could be a broader, less coachable, and thus fairer test, and we’d like to see it untimed, but on the whole it is a well-crafted test and is no longer racially biased.  If not convinced, see our piece on “Why The SAT Is A Decent Standard”.

Why SAT Verbal Skills may not meet expectations

A reason why even the diligent child of two well-educated professionals might not lock in a good SAT score is that the child’s verbal education never targeted skills tested on the SAT.   Particularly if the child is not an avid reader, s/he is unlikely to absorb the vocabulary tested on the later (tougher) SAT questions.  Drilling vocabulary can only go so far, and it’s not especially fun.  I don’t blame schools for eschewing vocabulary drills, but in its place they MUST instill a reading ethic.

A failure to target skills includes a neglect to instill careful reading.  Though students at fine schools might proudly cover Dickens, Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Wharton in one semester, they are rarely called upon to parse a single paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word.  The SAT tests short, dense passages.  The makers of the test excerpt passages from fiction and scholarly reviews and further edit them so as to pack a lot of information in a mere 60 lines.  Few high school teachers invoke similar passages, followed by questions where the right answer sometimes turns on the forcefulness of a single word.    (I took nine English courses at a very good prep school; only when covering Shakespeare and a few other poems was I asked to analyze a sentence word-for-word.)  Yet SAT Reading Comp success is driven by careful analysis, both at the “big picture” and at the “detail” level.   In 1994 the ETS significantly changed the format of the SAT verbal section and in 2005 ETS re-formatted to place even more weight on reading. A careful reader, armed with good vocabulary, should score a 700 on the verbal.

Why SAT Math Skills May Not Meet Expectations

The math section of the SAT has more questions that directly correlate with a traditional high school curriculum than does the verbal.  Nevertheless, many “A” math students receive only mid-range scores on the SAT math.

One reason is that even in a well-taught math class, the students never see questions that the SAT asks.  Kids spend a whole year in Algebra I, and a whole year in Geometry.  They may never fuse the two, yet at least some SAT questions combine Algebra and Geometry.

Another reason is that high school math makes use of intricate and often lengthy calculations.  The SAT rarely does.  When students are tempted to take out their calculators for what is bound to be a two-minute or more exercise, they should think again.  Step back, for there is usually a creative, simple way to nail that problem in less than 60 seconds.

Rarely does a high school teacher teach “logic”.  The closest is typically geometry, which builds logical thinking through proofs.  SAT never asks for proofs, yet it very much rewards logical thinking.  Indeed, since 1996, ETS has called its test the “SAT I Reasoning Test”.  Buried into the math section are questions relying on “pure logic” and others relying on “vision”.  The “housing lots” questions on the May 2000 SAT, profiled in the cover story in the April 2001 Time magazine, exemplify a combination of logic AND vision questions.

“It’s Just Test – Taking”

Notice that my analysis is void of discussing “test-taking”.  That is because I attribute little to it.  The  “tricks” and time management skills that can avoid test-taking impediments can be taught in 90 minutes.  Students these days are used to standardized tests.    Once kids are familiar with the format of this test and a few test taking and time-management “tricks”, the remainder is skill mastery.

So I conclude by imploring schools to teach mastery of the valuable skills tested on the SAT.  If “teaching to the test” is a taboo phrase, that’s understandable.  Teach good skills that the test rewards.  That will reward the students.

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