Surprisingly, the fall semester has been crazy busy. I have been buzzing around from house to house, using honey and stings to get people to improve their scores on the SAT and prepare for their college admissions marathon.

One problem a lot of people have is test performance anxiety. Though mastering the material provides one way of tamping down test day jitters, you can also beat your fears through other methods. Here’s a quick checklist for the night before and the morning of the test.

  1. Don’t stay up late learning another 50 vocabulary words. They probably aren’t going to stick in your head anyhow, and their likelihood of  appearing on the test is minimal. Read a few words, do a few math problems, read over some grammar problems, and then have a glass of warm milk and chamomile tea and go to bed by 11.
  2. Wake up early. Do some cardiovascular exercise to get your blood pumping–a run around the block, a quick, chilly swim, or even some jumping jacks will do the trick. Wake up your body, and your mind will follow.
  3. Warm up for the test. Over a light breakfast (granola cereal, milk, a salad, and a cup–no more–of coffee) do a few sentence completion, reading comprehension, grammar, and math problems.  Look at an essay topic and think about how you would write it. Be ready to hit the ground running when the proctor tells you to open your test booklets.
  4. Have someone drive you to the testing center if possible, especially if it is in an unfamiliar area. Driving is stressful enough  as it is, and finding new places, especially with potential glitches in GPS, adds to the anxiety.
  5. Bring some light snacks, and actually stand up and stretch during the stretch break.

Good luck!

Repetition Repetition

Last night I met with a student for the first time since the end of the school year. After a nice discussion of our various summer activities, I asked her if she had done any studying for the SAT, and she gave me a sheepish look. 

Not only had she avoided all structured test prep all summer long and avoided reading even one book, but she had also neglected even to look at the vocabulary words that she had been working on. Not one single glance. Not shockingly, she’s lost almost every word that she had worked so hard to gain. 

Learning vocabulary is a long process that requires daily repetition. If you don’t read books and encounter new words all the time, you have to dedicate yourself to less pleasant shortcuts, like vocabulary cards or lists. But study something every day–review ten or twenty words, read an article in The New Republic, or even pay attention to the dialogue in shows like Suits, which has a surprising number of SAT words in every episode. When you learn a new word, write it down somewhere so you’ll see it again. After you see or use a word a few dozen times, it will be in your head. 

“Just SAT words”

This New York Times article gives an informative preview of the changes looming for the SAT and the ACT.  

It has a lot of interesting tidbits, but I want to spend a little time nitpicking. First of all, the current College Board president, David Coleman, says that he wants to cleanse the test of words that are “just SAT words” like “pugnacious,” “depreciatory,” “redolent,” “treacly” and “jettison” while including words that are more relevant, like “distill” and “transform.” 

This seems like code for “make the test easier.” There’s nothing particularly arcane about the words the article cites as “just SAT words”: you see them all the time in college-level texts, especially but not only in the humanities. (Yes, the humanities are declining, but they still constitute a large percentage of undergraduate study, and comprehension of difficult texts is a skill applicable across the academic spectrum.) 

But the fault may lie with the journalist, not the interviewee. Why? Well, later in the piece, we see this little morsel:

Competition between the two tests has not let up: for the first time last year, the ACT surpassed the SAT in market share. With the new redesign, the SAT seems likely to inch even closer in content to the ACT, which focuses more on grammar, usage and mechanics than on vocabulary.


The writer is comparing apples to, at the very least, oranges here. The SAT critical reading section, which tests a student’s vocabulary and reading skills, is not designed to test grammar, mechanics, and usage. However, since 2005 the SAT has had a writing section that tests those aspects of verbal knowledge. 

I wonder if the journalist neglected to mention the writing section of the test out of ignorance, or whether Coleman chose not to mention it because the College Board is considering phasing it out. 

Back to the grindstone

Your dear tutor, Reader, has spent a busy couple of weeks moving to a new place, navigating through a strange, AP-inflected schedule, and he also had to clean out his closet of childhood memories at his mother’s house (bonus points if you can correctly identify and correct the SAT error in that sentence).

Thus the long mostly-absence.

Enough excuses. Back to work. I want to talk about instinct and the Writing multiple choice. A lot of SAT tutors and blogs recommend relying on instinct when dealing with the Finding the Error and Sentence Correction problems; others say that you should lean instead on a comprehensive knowledge of the discrete set of issues that the SAT tests. Each side excoriates the other. The truth, as it usually (but not always) does, lies in the middle: trust your instinct, but verify it with the rules. 

When I begin working on the Writing section with new students, I usually have them read the sentences aloud, and I listen closely for any hitches or stumbles. On most problems, they hesitate for a split second over the part of the sentence with the error. Sometimes, they correctly identify that section of the sentence as erroneous, but often they don’t even realize that they hesitated.

That's a sharp grammar you've got there.

That’s a sharp grammar you’ve got there.

This is a mistake. You have to listen to your internal grammar, which you have sharpened for years like a sword on the whetstone of essays, conversations, and social media. It’s a powerful weapon, so use it!

Now, having identified the error, try to fix it. This is the more difficult part–anyone can tell that someone has a compound fracture, but only a trained professional can set it properly. We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Points and marks

Did you know that ancient texts were often written as a continuous line of letters, without any punctuation or even spaces between the words?

The longest word?

The longest word?

Fortunately, someone saw the madness of the situation and began to invent punctuation. People complain about having to correct commas, semicolons and other jots and tittles on the SAT and ACT, but can you imagine trying to find an error in a sentence that didn’t even have a clearly marked beginning and end?