Every so often when I tell people what I do (manage Veritas Tutors), I hear someone pooh-pooh SAT prep, “oh, SAT preparation? I read studies that say that it doesn’t work. The test isn’t coachable and you’re just making a lot of money off of people who are scared.”
That’s simply not true. First, it’s easy for me to deny the validity of any such study simply based on my experience. Students who pursue individualized preparation with us routinely see 100-350 point gains, with a few students achieving 400+ gains every year. It’s not just one or two who see improvement, but almost every single one of them. Other boutique tutoring companies report the same, though I can’t say the same about the big giants, as many of their students come to us after taking prep courses with them and seeing no improvement. So, if so many professional educators are having success, I wonder if the ivory-tower scientist designing this study made a misstep in his experimental design (or just chose an inferior tutoring company to test).
However, just saying “it works,” isn’t enough. There are plenty of witch-doctors out there who say their remedy “works” without good reason. So, in order not to become the Harvard Square SAT witch doctor and to play by post-enlightenment rules of the game, let me give you some good, verifiable reasons:
1) Content. Though the SAT was initially conceived of as an IQ or aptitude test, free from the constraints of pesky content, the test makers realized at some point that ink-blots and shapes weren’t going to cut it. A verifiable fact: the test tests content. The SAT is based on concepts such as algebra, functions, vocabulary, dangling modifiers, subject verb-agreement, slope, y-intercept, and on and on… Yes, there is an abstract reasoning component that’s a bit harder to simply learn. However, everything, including the reasoning, is based on the foundational content of the test. Another verifiable fact: if a student learns the content that’s going to appear on the SAT, he or she will do better.
2) Question Type Recognition. (This is where it gets a little trickier, but there’s no doubt that tutoring still helps.) Using particular concepts, the SAT tries to test a student’s “critical reasoning” skills. In other words, they take a particular concept that a student may have seen and present it in a way that requires a conceptual leap of recognition or reasoning to come to the answer. However, the SAT is not an endless stream of never-before-seen brain-teasers. The test has to be heavily standardized from administration to administration and year to year, so the test-makers have to stay within strict bounds of what they can actually present to students. The result: question types. Question types are not nearly as recognizable on the surface, and are rarely recognizable to a first-time test taker or newbie tutor, but something any great tutor is intimately familiar with. Just as the SAT can only test a finite number of pre-defined concepts, they also only have a relatively finite number of pre-defined “tricks” or conceptual speedbumps that they can throw out. After preparing, most students will start to either intuitively or explicitly recognize these question types and be able to deploy the simple, yet effective, strategies that can be employed to deal with them. Another verifiable fact: if a student is taught to recognize question types, he or she will do better.
3) Familiarity. Finally, the least verifiable but most intuitive of the reasons that SAT preparation works: familiarity. The SAT is a grueling test. Any test-taker who has not prepared in the slightest for the test will feel the effects of the length of the test and is very likely to fall into the traps that the SAT sets near the end of the test for stumbling, weary testers. Just as the car ride to a new place always seems shorter on the return journey once you’re familiar with the route, the test immediately becomes easier once a student knows what to expect. By clearly showing students how the SAT is structured as a whole and coaching them through several practice tests, a tutor can give a student familiarity, strategies to deal with mental fatigue, and, most importantly, confidence.
Simply based on my experience and that of my colleagues, and the clear, intuitive reasons mentioned above, it is very hard for me to trust the experimental design of a study that says tutoring doesn’t work. Experimenter, if you read this and disagree, don’t take my word for it. Just stop by the Veritas Center in November or December and talk to our students.
Socrates once said, “Know thyself and thy high school guidance counselor” (note: this is not an exact quote). The point is: though your guidance counselor will see your transcript, brag sheet, and other details, they will not know much more about you than what you choose to share in private conversation. So we suggest getting to know your counselor and vice versa. The best way to make that happen is with honest to goodness conversation about your life.
If you are a ninth grader, you should start visiting your guidance/college counselor now. One meeting each semester should suffice to begin developing a relationship. If you are a tenth grader, you ought to pick up the pace with three to four visits a year. An eleventh grader? No less than four visits per year. If you are a senior and you still can’t recognize your counselor in the hallway, then you’ve got your work cut out for you and should meet no less than three times this fall.
In short, your counselor is there to help you, but you must take the initiative to make it happen. Get started early and sustain the effort. It will pay off.
The short answer
Yes. But they are not the be-all-end-all of college admissions.
The long answer
These numbers are important only because they indicate, at a glance, whether an applicant is ready to do the level of work that goes on at your Harvard. And, it doesn’t take but a few seconds to see that, with so many AP and IB classes, with so many As, and with such high scores on the SAT, you’re ready.
But so are the some 20,000 other applicants to your Harvard, because at this point in the admissions process, roughly 70% of the total pool is that good. Seriously. There really are that many accomplished people out there. With so many applicants with similar scores and grades, numbers are a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for admission.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get accepted without straight As and stellar SAT scores. Quite the opposite. Because schools glance at these numbers as indications, not bottom lines of your aptitude, they’ve built some leeway into the admissions process. Imagine that: there’s room in the rigors of college admissions for human input and individualized evaluation. Isn’t that what you want from a college anyway?
In fact, a list of three hundred (and growing) US colleges no longer require SAT or ACT scores. So if you have always had a palpable fear of those pink scantron sheets, you no longer need to worry. A quick Google search will reveal a long list of SAT-optional schools, some of which may surprise you. We do, however, encourage you to study and take the SAT or ACT anyway. Without all that pressure to achieve a top score, you might even surprise yourself.
The information you put into the admissions process: it’s pretty slim. Of the nineteen pages currently on the Common Application, you will only fill out the first four. The rest of the pages are for school reports, recommendations, and the like. In total, after you write your short answers and your personal statement, you’ll have distilled your complex life into no more than seven pages. So make every word count. This is not the time to be bombastic but rather to look inside yourself and find—as Coleridge said about poetry—“the best words in their best order.”
Admissions officers will read every application they receive—that much is true. How much time they take to read your application, however, is the million-dollar question. Will they glance at it? Look at it? Consider it? The relative value of attention in those verbs reflects your relative proximity to getting accepted.
It is not unusual for an admissions officer to read 1,600 individual applications in a season. Assuming 1,500 words per application, that is equivalent to reading the King James Bible cover-to-cover three times in just over three months…holy admissions headache!
The test preparation process should ideally start in the summer after your sophomore year of high school. From there you can prepare through the fall, take your first test in December or January, and retest in springtime as needed. Starting later than sophomore summer is certainly possible but not recommended for a variety of reasons: a) starting in junior year may not leave you enough time to prepare for a junior spring test; b) without enough time to prepare, you may no have enough time to test and retest (if need be) in your junior year, pushing the rest off until fall of senior year; c) you don’t want to distract yourself from the other important responsibilities you have in and out of the classroom.