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Showing posts with label ACT/SAT. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ACT/SAT. Show all posts

July 13, 2019

ACT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added a link to the 2019-2020 Official ACT Prep Guide.

ACT Prep Black Book, Second Edition (Mike Barrett)

If your score goal is 30-34 and you don't have a tutor, this is the book to start with. Barrett's answer explanations are very detailed, about five to ten paragraphs per question, and he uses only official ACT practice tests.

This new second edition addresses the weaknesses of the first edition: it uses the updated 2018 Official ACT Prep guide as its companion, it explains every question on every practice test instead of skipping questions, and it presents solutions in a much more organized way.

You have to get either the Official ACT Prep Guide or the Official ACT Prep Pack, since Barrett's book has answer explanations for that edition but doesn't include the questions themselves.

Pros
A top tutor can explain any officially released ACT question to you in as much detail as you want. Barrett's answer explanations are almost as good. At $28, it's a lot more affordable than hiring a real tutor.

His book really shines in its strategy suggestions for the Reading and Science sections, where the right approach to the test is more important than reviewing content. If you apply Barrett's advice with enough practice tests, you can eventually reach a Reading score of 36 and a Science score of 34.

His treatment of ACT Math focuses on strategic guessing. It's faster to cross off three or four answer choices and choose from what's left than it is to solve problems traditionally. Unless you're very good, you'll need to use strategic guessing for the first forty questions in order to garner enough time for questions 41-60, which tend to be much harder.

The Math content review is limited. If you're shooting for a perfect score on the Math section, you really need to know guessing strategies and the "correct" methods in order to decide which approach is the fastest. Unless your math skills are already very strong, you might have trouble breaking above 32 without additional content review.

Barrett's English grammar strategies are very easy to learn: for example, he uses the term comma sandwich instead of the more common but technical term non-essential clause. This is a strength if you want to learn the material quickly but a drawback if you want a deeper understanding of the ACT's grammar rules.

Cons
Since Barrett chooses to use only official ACT practice questions, he doesn't include any practice questions in the content review chapters. You have to read the entire book and then take an official practice test. For this reason, I suggest treating your first test as untimed practice.


Cracking the ACT with 6 Practice Tests

This is a good all-around study guide with content review, basic test-taking strategies, and six practice tests. It's a good choice if your final target score is 30 or lower.

Pros
For unofficial practice questions, these are pretty good. My students almost always buy this book and do some of the practice tests before deciding to hire me to review the material with them. I haven't seen the kinds of confusing, badly written questions and answer key errors that plague other unofficial study books.

The strategies in this book are basic and easy to apply.

Cons
The Princeton Review is all about giving you what you need and not one iota more. The ACT is a difficult test that requires students to think critically and pay attention to detail, and the basic strategies in this book may not be enough to reliably raise your ACT score above 30.

Its advice for ACT Reading, to skip directly to the questions without reading passages first, makes it hard for some students to grasp each passage's main point.


1,471 ACT Practice Questions

This is the best bank of unofficial practice questions I've seen. It's useful if your can't get access to official ACT practice tests.

Pros
For unofficial practice questions, these are pretty good. I haven't seen the kinds of confusing, badly written questions and answer key errors that plague other unofficial study books.

Cons
It's not a full prep guide. It has answer explanations but doesn't contain content review or organized strategy suggestions.



The Complete Guide to ACT English (Erica Meltzer)

This book is a winner: it has grammar rules, practice questions, and answer explanations. It's a great choice if you're shooting for a 30-36 in ACT English.

Pros
If you understand every grammar rule Erica teaches, ACT English questions become objective, and you can tackle them like math questions. This doesn't mean they're easy, but it does mean that you can figure out why the wrong choices are actually wrong.

Erica also has some grammar exercises on her Web site.

Cons
Erica's strategies are great for all of the question types except those that involve adding and deleting sentences. For those, read the Relevance and Purpose article on the College Panda's blog.

Her book is like a textbook (long and possibly boring). Decide now that you're going to be dedicated enough to read the whole thing, including the answer explanations at the end of the book.


The Complete Guide to ACT Reading (Erica Meltzer)

Another winner from Erica, this book has great strategies for managing time, skimming, taking notes, and answering tricky questions. It's a good choice if you want a 30-36 in ACT Reading.

Pros
Erica includes a lot of practice questions, including two full practice tests with answer explanations. Her book is more convenient than the ACT Prep Black Book, which requires you to buy an out-of-date edition of the Real ACT Prep guide.

Erica's Web site offers several reading quizzes.

Cons
Erica's practice questions are good, but they're not as good as real ACT questions. You should supplement her book with real ACT practice tests or consider getting the ACT Prep Black Book instead, which has excellent answer explanations for official ACT Reading questions.



This unusual book addresses vocabulary skills that can help with multiple sections of the SAT and ACT.

Pros
Instead of drilling vocab words using flash cards, Erica groups words by their function in the English language and provides practice questions for those functions. This is a practical approach that will pay dividends in college later: words like hypothesis, tentative, and analogous often occur in science-related passages, so it makes sense to group them together.

Because Erica's focus is on practical reading, her book is equally helpful for ACT English and Reading passages. The section on passage-based vocabulary for science passages (pages 31-35) will even help you on the ACT's Science section.

Erica's Web site has a complete list of grammar rules and and reading/grammar quizzes.

Cons
If you already score higher than 700 on SAT Verbal and 30 on ACT English/Reading/Science, this book might be too easy. You'd benefit more from taking practice tests and reading 10th-to-12th grade level books to build an advanced vocabulary.


Ultimate Guide to ACT Math (Richard Corn)

This is the closest thing to an ACT Math textbook I've seen. It organizes content review and practice drills by topic. If you don't feel comfortable with high school math, start your prep with this book.

Students who get A's in school math often struggle with the ACT. A school test focuses on one chapter of your book at a time, and a good teacher tells you exactly what's going to be on that test. The ACT, on the other hand, tests knowledge that ranges from 7th grade to precalculus and includes Common Core material that not all students have seen yet.

Pros
Richard Corn's book is enough like a textbook to get you comfortable with the topics that are tested on the ACT, but it's not long enough to be truly intimidating.

Cons
The main strength of Corn's book, its textbook-style organization, is also its weakness. The real ACT won't tell you whether a particular problem is testing the standard-form equation of a circle, the area of a circle, or right triangles within the unit circle. It could potentially test all three topics at the same time!

To truly be ready for the ACT, you have to learn how to think on your feet. Corn's book is great if you need content review as a primer, but you'll want to graduate quickly to more advanced practice materials.


28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: ADVANCED Course (Steve Warner)

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: INTERMEDIATE Course (Steve Warner)

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: BEGINNER Course (Steve Warner)

320 ACT Math Problems arranged by Topic and Difficulty Level (Steve Warner)

These excellent practice books can get your ACT Math score into the 30-36 range. They're banks of practice problems with detailed answer explanations.

Pros
The practice material is very similar to real ACT Math tests.

The problems are arranged by topic and difficulty level, so students who don't need any content review can jump straight to the chapters that contain what they want to work on.

The answer explanations provide more than one way to do each problem, and the fastest method is marked with a star.

Cons
Content review is minimal. Dr. Warner does define terms like range and domain in his answer explanations, but his book doesn't have an index. You'll need to label important pages with Post-It notes.

If you need content review, start with Richard Corn's Ultimate Guide to ACT Math and come back to Warner's book later.

If you feel rushed on ACT Math practice tests - a common problem - you need to make answer choice elimination and guessing your primary strategy on the easiest 80% of the test. If you correctly eliminate four choices, the fifth one has to be right, even if you haven't solved the problem traditionally. Eliminating answer choices is usually fast and less error-prone than traditional solutions, but (unfortunately) isn't taught directly in Richard Corn's and Steve Warner's books.

Errata
#2 on page 242 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that shape at the upper left of the picture is a semicircle. (You should not make assumptions unless they're explicitly stated on the ACT, so the book shouldn't expect you to, either.)

#8 on page 244 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that the two triangles shown are right triangles. (Again, you should not be expected to make assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the problem.)

#11 on page 328 of the Advanced book should state that the pyramid has five isosceles triangular faces (not four) and needs to point out that the pyramid is a right pyramid (in which the height is perpendicular to the base).


For the Love of ACT Science (Michael Cerro)

Cerro's book is an excellent strategy guide that can get your ACT Science score into the 30-34 range. He goes over each question type in detail and provides drills, practice tests, and answer explanations.

Pros
It's hard to write good practice questions for ACT Science. I suspect this is because most teachers don't know how to read scientific literature. You have to read journals regularly to understand concepts like correlation and causation, experiment design, and hypothesis evaluation, and even then, most scientific articles read like alien writing.

Given the difficulties involved, Cerro does a great job putting realistic-looking questions together. If you want a dedicated book for ACT Science that's written by a tutor and not a big test prep company, Cerro's book is the only option.

Mike Barrett's ACT Prep Black Book also has excellent strategies for ACT Science, but it requires you to buy The Official ACT Prep Guide.

Cons
The pro is also a con: Cerro's attempt at the impossible, writing accurate ACT Science questions, results in a book that's very good but has some weaknesses. You might feel that a few of his questions and answer explanations are written in a confusing way. If that bothers you, get Barrett's book instead and stick to official ACT questions.

If you want a 34-36 in ACT Science but struggle with finishing the test on time, Cerro's book probably won't be enough. You'll need to work on using your background knowledge to identify the answer that's probably correct before looking at the passage and then use the passage to verify that answer you chose. I'm not aware of any book that teaches this strategy, but I use it in my own tutoring.


The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2018 Edition

NOTE: A 2019-2020 version of this book is now available. It's almost identical to the 2018 edition but contains a fourth practice test and no CD. The fourth test appears to be ACT Form 74C, which was administered June 2017.  The fifth test is ACT Form A10 (December 2017).

I'll update this review once I have a chance to take a closer look at the new edition.

Unfortunately, the 2018 edition of this book is nearly identical to the 2016-17 edition. It doesn't address the 2016-17 edition's weaknesses.

If you need official practice tests and don't want to buy this book, you can use the 2016-17 edition or the free Preparing for the ACT booklets. The ACT essay changed in fall 2015 and again (slightly) in fall 2016, so all of the practice essay questions in the older books in this paragraph are out-of-date to some extent.


ACT Essay Sample Responses

Because the instructions for the ACT essay have changed recently, you'll have to go to the ACT's essay page to see the most recent version. That page also has sample essays written by students along with comments on how the essays were graded. There are a total of six sample essays; click on the links in the horizontal, purple Sample Essays bar in order to see all six.

Here's a copy of the updated instructions as of June 2018. Note that instead of having to write about all three perspectives, you can pick only one, giving you the ability to write with more clarity and focus.

The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.

Books to Avoid

Kaplan's series of ACT prep books generally focuses on material that's too easy. The initial diagnostic practice test may give you an inflated score that is unlikely to repeat itself in a real ACT sitting.

Working with Official Practice Tests

If you find unofficial questions to be inaccurate or confusing, you can still prep for the ACT using only official practice tests.
  1. Take a practice test under timed conditions.
  2. Score your test and clearly mark the questions you missed. Use a different symbol to mark the questions that you got right by guessing.
  3. Review the questions you missed or had to guesss on. Spend at least ten minutes on each one. You have to prove to yourself that each question objectively has one right answer and three incorrect ones.
  4. Make a list of the questions you're not able to figure out on your own. Use Mike Barrett's answer explanations, the Internet, or a tutor's help to get to the point where you can clearly identify one correct answer and three incorrect ones for every single question. Your job isn't done until you can do this.
  5. Repeat the process using a new practice test. Keep the cycle going until you're happy with your scores.
This method can work really well if you have a tutor. Do a practice test and hire a tutor to go over some of the answers with you, then spend time at home going over the remaining answers on your own. In your next session, you can go over any questions that are still confusing. When you and your tutor are satisfied that you fully understand the first practice test, repeat the process with a new test.

Going for a Perfect Score

Since the ACT is an established test, you have plenty of resources to draw on if you want to practice for a perfect score.

If you get two 35's and two 36's, the four scores will round to a composite of 36. In addition, difficult test sections give you free points, so you might potentially miss one or even two questions on a section and still get a 36 on it.

Take an official test to get a baseline score and then go through all the books in the list above. After you're done, do as many official practice tests as you can. Since the ACT gives you some leeway to get questions wrong, you should work on improving your speed and accuracy on official tests rather than on unofficial books with questions that are intentionally harder than the real thing.

Most of all, go easy on yourself if you don't make it. Colleges want students who will bring them glory, and the difference between a 34 and a 36 doesn't say much about that potential in the long run.


July 3, 2019

SAT Practice Tests

Update: I've removed the link to the Maine 2017 school-day SAT, which is no longer available.

Table of Contents

College Board SAT practice tests
Ivy Global SAT practice tests, including answer explanations
PSAT practice tests

Which Test Should I Take First?

I suggest taking College Board SAT #1 timed, followed by SAT #2 and #3 un-timed for practice. The first four College Board SAT practice tests were never administered to students in an official test sitting. Because of this, the raw-to-scaled score conversions may not be accurate. In my opinion, SAT Practice Tests 2 and 3 are more difficult than tests 1 and 4, and the scoring curve doesn't adequately account for that.

The two IvyGlobal online SAT practice tests aren't quite as good as College Board tests, but they're close. IvyGlobal's detailed answer explanations that are more helpful than anything the College Board has written. I've looked at a lot of third-party practice tests, and so far, only IvyGlobal's are completely free of poorly written questions and answer key errors.

The PSAT practice tests at the end of the list provide useful diagnostic scores until you hit 700 in either Verbal or Math. If you're worried that you'll run out of practice tests, start with the PSAT.

If you find yourself making small mistakes or running out of time on one or more sections of the test, consider following an objective set of timing rules so that you won't feel rushed.

I strongly suggest printing practice tests out onto real paper. It's almost impossible to take notes, cross off answer choices, or double-check your bubbling unless you're working on paper!


College Board SAT Practice Test 1

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart (This document has the scoring instructions!)
Answer Explanations (These are the College Board's explanations. The SAT Black Book has better ones.)

I've written detailed answer explanations for some of the supporting evidence questions in SAT Practice Test 1.

I've also written a detailed answer explanation for #29 in section 4 (calculator-based math).

College Board SAT Practice Test 2

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart (This document has the scoring instructions!)
Answer Explanations (These are the College Board's explanations. The SAT Black Book has better ones.)


The raw-to-scaled score conversion on this test may be too harsh. Since Practice Test #2 is so difficult, I suggest taking this test UN-TIMED.

I've written detailed answer explanations for the first ten Critical Reading questions of SAT Practice Test 2.

College Board SAT Practice Test 3

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart (This document has the scoring instructions!)
Answer Explanations (These are the College Board's explanations. The SAT Black Book has better ones.)

The raw-to-scaled score conversion on this test may be too harsh. Since Practice Test #3 is so difficult, I suggest taking this test UN-TIMED.

College Board SAT Practice Test 4

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart (This document has the scoring instructions!)
Answer Explanations (These are the College Board's explanations. The SAT Black Book has better ones.)

The College Board has provided us with graded student essays for SAT #4.

You'll also find College Board graded student essays for a different essay prompt that doesn't show up on any of the released exams.

College Board SAT Practice Test 5

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart
Answer Explanations

College Board SAT Practice Test 6

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart
Answer Explanations

College Board SAT Practice Test 7

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart
Answer Explanations

College Board SAT Practice Test 8

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Essay
Answers and Scoring Chart
Answer Explanations


IvyGlobal online SAT Practice Test 1

Test, Answer Sheet, and Scoring Chart (Print this out onto real paper!)
Online Scoring

Answer Explanations
Note: This practice test has an answer key error. The answer to Critical Reading question #18 is A, not D.

IvyGlobal's SAT questions are accurate, and their answer explanations are very well-written. Their practice tests are an excellent way to learn by doing, especially if you don't have a tutor.

IvyGlobal online SAT Practice Test 2

Test, Answer Sheet, and Scoring Chart (Print this out onto real paper!)
Online Scoring

Answer Explanations


College Board PSAT/NMSQT Practice Test 1

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Answers and Scoring Chart
Answer Explanations

College Board PSAT/NMSQT Practice Test 2

Test (Print this out onto real paper!)
Answer Sheet
Answers and Scoring Chart
Answer Explanations

IvyGlobal online PSAT Practice Test

Test, Answer Sheet, and Scoring Chart (Print this out onto real paper!)

Additional Practice

IvyGlobal's practice tests are almost as good as College Board tests, and the IvyGlobal answer explanations are detailed and complete. You'll find links to IvyGlobal's materials (11 practice tests in print and 2 online) in my list of recommended SAT books.

Use Khan Academy to practice for SAT Critical Reading. The answer explanations aren't great, and the practice questions haven't been tested as extensively as real SAT questions have, but it's still College Board material. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can prep for SAT Literature Subject Test and AP English Language, which make SAT Reading questions seem like child's play.

ACT English and SAT Grammar/Writing are nearly identical. The SAT gives you more time per question, but it also gives you a slightly higher proportion of passage interpretation and adding/deleting sentence questions. Khan Academy is also good here.

You can find several SAT Math practice resources in my list of recommended SAT booksKhan Academy also provides decent practice, but its answer explanations may leave you a bit frustrated.



June 25, 2019

Five Things to Do the Week Before the ACT

It's the week before the ACT. You don't know what to do, you say?

1. Re-take a practice test.

With only a week before the test, any studying needs to build confidence and reinforce what you've already learned. Don't spend time learning new material: cramming isn't very effective, and it'll just stress you out.

Choose a practice test you've done before, preferably a long time ago, and take it again under timed conditions. If you've been studying, you should see a large score increase over your first attempt. Review your answers and spend a little bit of time brushing up on any concepts you still need to practice.

Review stuff you already know.

2. Drive by your test center.

Knowing your exact driving route will build confidence and avoid stress on the morning of your actual test. If you do your practice drive on a Saturday morning, you'll get a good idea of what kind of traffic you'll run into and where to pick up food in case you can't eat at home.

3. Pack your bag.

The day before your test, pack a clear Ziploc bag with everything you'll need and put the bag in your car.

Your admission ticket is really important, as you won't be allowed to enter the test center without it. I usually print three copies of my ticket and leave one in the car, one in my Ziploc bag, and one in my pocket. If you leave the room during the break and forget to bring your admission ticket and photo ID, the proctors won't let you back in!

You can print your admission ticket online by signing into your ACT account.

Here's a complete list of stuff to pack:

  • Multiple copies of your admission ticket
  • Lots of No. 2 pencils with good erasers (bringing too many is better than having too few)
  • A small handheld pencil sharpener to use during breaks
  • A wristwatch with a disabled speaker
  • An ACT-approved calculator
  • A backup calculator
  • Snacks to last through the morning (fruit and nuts are good; starchy or sugary snacks that will spike your blood sugar are bad)
  • Bottled water (avoid any drink that contains sugar)

Leave these in the car:

  • Books and study materials
  • Highlighters
  • Electronic devices other than your calculator
  • Your cell phone (unless it's completely switched off)

4. Get tired.

The day before the test, don't spend too much time studying or doing homework. A good night's sleep is going to help a lot more than a few hours of studying.

Try to make yourself so tired that you can't stay up all night worrying about the test. An afternoon of aerobic exercise is good:
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Dancing
  • Yard work

5. Set your alarm.

You'll want to fall asleep without having to worry about whether you'll get up again. The day will come when you never wake from slumber, but that hopefully won't be due to the ACT!

Dress in layers on the morning of the test. You'll be able to remove layers as the room gets warmer without having to get anything from your backpack.

Plan to leave early enough that you get to the test center ten minutes before the doors open. You can entertain yourself with your phone while you're waiting as long as you remember to turn it completely off before the test starts.

Do you have other tips for the week before the ACT? Comment below and share them with us!

June 22, 2019

How to Raise Your SAT Score by Reading Biographies

Update: I've added Boomerang, Bad Blood, and Bitcoin Billionaires to the reading list.

The easiest way to raise your SAT Reading score is to read. The skills the SAT tests - knowing vocabulary, literal and careful reading, expressing complex ideas in subtle and clever ways - will naturally become part of you.

Reading is the cheapest and most enjoyable way to expand your knowledge. It's less annoying that paying a professor to force you through a curriculum. It's the way you're expected to train yourself if you go for a graduate degree or run your own business. It's arguably the only way to become the best in your field: you have to read to know what's going on and what projects to pursue.

There's no way for the SAT to test all that directly, so it measures the byproducts: skills like vocabulary, faithfulness to an author's intention, and the ability to restate complex ideas. Ironically, most test prep companies teach you to game the SAT by drilling the byproduct skills while missing the the original point: reading as a life-long learning tool.

You get more of what you measure. 

It's okay to teach to the test and study to the test if you want a 1400. Test prep companies guarantee that you can reach a 1400 because they know that most people can achieve it by learning simple techniques and guessing strategies. The biggest companies train newly recruited tutors to 1400+ and release them into the wild.

If, however, you want to be in the coveted 1520-1600 range, it's better to start early and learn the valuable core skills that the SAT tests only indirectly. It's one thing to fudge a 700 on SAT Math by plugging answer choices back into problems; it's quite another to solve math problems just by looking at them. Similarly, skimming strategies and answer choice elimination can get you a good Critical Reading score (35/40) but probably not a perfect one.

The challenge is to find books that are interesting to you as an individual without simply rehashing what you already know.

To that end, I've begun recommending biographies. These ubiquitous library items combine interesting narrative (resembling fiction), background knowledge (history and social science), and deep knowledge of a subject (natural science, sports, music, or whatever else the biography is about).

Biographies, especially autobiographies, are ideal if you like reading fiction. You can choose ones that focus on your hobbies or challenge yourself by studying subjects that are similar to the ones you struggle with the most on practice tests.

Don't torture yourself with boring books. Books become interesting as you gain background knowledge, so don't force yourself too early. If you struggle with science passages, go to the science shelves at the library, flip through the biographies you find there, and take the most interesting ones home with you. As you learn more science through fun books, the harder ones will become more relevant.

A book is at the right reading level for you if there's about one word per page that you have to look up. If you're still not sure, err on the side of fun rather than hard.

In case you want suggestions, I've compiled a list of biographies I've read, sorted by topic, below. Story-like books that aren't strictly biographies are marked with *stars.

TEST PREP (of course)

The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier


NATURAL SCIENCE




SOCIAL SCIENCE

*Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

*Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner


*Next: The Future Just Happened by Michael Lewis


HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth



*Wealth, War, and Wisdom by Barton Biggs


FINANCE




Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold


Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefèvre


*The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

*Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

*The Quants by Scott Patterson

*Hedgehogging by Barton Biggs



PERSONAL GROWTH


May 17, 2019

May SAT scores are now available!

If you took the SAT in May, your can view your scores online today.

Here's the score I got in March:


May 15, 2019

Five Things to Do the Week Before the SAT

It's the week before the SAT. You don't know what to do, you say?

1. Re-take a practice test.

With only a week before the test, any studying needs to build confidence and reinforce what you've already learned. Don't spend time learning new material: cramming isn't very effective, and it'll just stress you out.

Choose a practice test you've done before, preferably a long time ago, and take it again under timed conditions. If you've been studying, you should see a large score increase over your first attempt. Review your answers and spend a little bit of time brushing up on any concepts you still need to practice.
Don't be this kid. Seriously.


2. Drive by your test center.

Knowing your exact driving route will build confidence and avoid stress on the morning of your actual test. If you do your practice drive on a Saturday morning, you'll get a good idea of what kind of traffic you'll run into and where to pick up food in case you can't eat at home.

3. Pack your bag.

The day before your test, pack a clear Ziploc bag with everything you'll need and put the bag in your car.

Your admission ticket is really important, as you won't be allowed to enter the test center without it. I usually print three copies of my ticket and leave one in the car, one in my Ziploc bag, and one in my pocket. If you leave the room during the break and forget to bring your admission ticket and photo ID, the proctors won't let you back in!

You can print your admission ticket online by signing into your SAT account.

Here's a complete list of stuff to pack:

  • Multiple copies of your admission ticket
  • Lots of No. 2 pencils with good erasers (bringing too many is better than having too few)
  • A small handheld pencil sharpener to use during breaks
  • A wristwatch with a disabled speaker
  • An SAT-approved calculator
  • A backup calculator
  • Snacks to last through the morning (fruit and nuts are good; starchy or sugary snacks that will spike your blood sugar are bad)
  • Bottled water (avoid any drink that contains sugar)

Leave these in the car:

  • Books and study materials
  • Highlighters
  • Electronic devices other than your calculator
  • Your cell phone (unless it's completely switched off)

4. Get tired.

The day before the test, don't spend too much time studying or doing homework. A good night's sleep is going to help a lot more than a few hours of studying.

Try to make yourself so tired that you can't stay up all night worrying about the test. An afternoon of aerobic exercise is good:
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Dancing
  • Yard work

5. Set your alarm.

You'll want to fall asleep without having to worry about whether you'll get up again. The day will come when you never wake from slumber, but that hopefully won't be due to the SAT!

Dress in layers on the morning of the test. You'll be able to remove layers as the room gets warmer without having to get anything from your backpack.

Plan to leave early enough that you get to the test center ten minutes before the doors open. You can entertain yourself with your phone while you're waiting as long as you remember to turn it completely off before the test starts.

Do you have other tips for the week before the SAT? Comment below and share them with us!

May 4, 2019

Reviews of SAT and ACT Test Centers: East Bay

Update: I've added a review of Skyline High School.

I'm in the process of trying out all of the test centers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Las Lomas High School

1460 S Main St, Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
SAT Test Center #05870
Evaluation Date: October 6, 2018

Parking (0.5/1 point): Sufficient
There was parking when I arrived at 7:35 (10 minutes early), but I don't know if the students who showed up later were all able to find spots.

Vending Machines (1/1 point): Drinks AND snacks

Waiting area (2/1 point): Very convenient!
Instead of making everyone wait in one huge line to get into the campus, these proctors posted a list matching each student with her testing room. They didn't check our IDs until we go to the individual classroom doors, so the check-in process was quick and efficient.

Proctors were stationed at several places around the school to help with directions so that we wouldn't have to find the room numbers ourselves. The room I was in even had a box of pencils available for students who forgot to bring their own.

Bathrooms (1/1 point): Easy to find

Wall Clock (1/1 points): Yes
The clock was mounted on the wall at the front of the classroom.

Desk type (1/2 points): Single seat with a 1' x 1' desk area attached

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate

Distractions (2/2 points): Minimal
The floors were carpeted. The proctor had a snack partway through the test but was fairly inconspicuous about it.

Miramonte High School

750 Moraga Way, Orinda, CA 94563
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
SAT Test Center #05550
Evaluation Date: March 10, 2018

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful
There was plenty of parking, but I had to drive through through several miles of two-lane roads to get to Miramonte from Highway 24. Drive by this center before your test date so you can account for things that may go wrong.

Vending Machines (1/1 point): Drinks AND snacks

Waiting area (2/1 point): Very convenient!
Instead of making everyone wait in one huge line to get into the campus, these proctors posted a list matching each student with her testing room. They didn't check our IDs until we go to the individual classroom doors, so the check-in process was quick and efficient. Heads up: the list was posted on a pole near the front of the school using two 8.5"x11" sheets of paper. It was inconspicuous enough that I missed it and had to circle back when I realized I didn't know which classroom to go to.

Bathrooms (0.5/1 point): Hard to find
The Miramonte campus has a lot of bathrooms, but most of them were locked. There were no signs leading to the bathrooms and nothing posted indicating which ones were unlocked.

Wall Clock (1/1 points): Yes
The clock was mounted on the wall at the front of the classroom.

Desk type (1/2 points): Single seat with a 1' x 1' desk area attached

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate

Distractions (1/2 points): Average
There was no carpet on the floor to soak up noise, and once, during the Critical Reading section, I heard teachers talking to each other in the hallway.

Acalanes High School

1200 Pleasant Hill Rd, Lafayette, CA 94549
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
SAT Test Center #05349
Evaluation Date: October 7, 2017

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful
There was plenty of parking, and the school is only a couple of blocks from the freeway.

Vending Machines (0/1 point): None!

Waiting area (2/1 point): Very convenient!
Instead of making everyone wait in one huge line to get into the campus, these proctors posted a list matching each student with her testing room. They didn't check our IDs until we go to the individual classroom doors, so the check-in process was quick and efficient.

Bathrooms (1/1 point): Easy to find

Wall Clock (0/1 points)
There was a wall clock at the front of the classroom, but the proctor wouldn't let me use a wristwatch on my desk as a timing device, even though the College Board's Web site states that watches are allowed. The proctor gave the five-minute warning TEN minutes before the end of one of the test sections, an error he corrected within a few seconds. He also ended the test two minutes before the wall clock matched the finish time on written on the board. It's possible that the wall clock didn't match the proctor's watch, but because he didn't allow students to use watches, it's impossible to know.

Desk type (1/2 points): Single seat with a 1' x 1' desk area attached

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate

Distractions (1/2 points): Average
I took the SAT in a chemistry classroom, which didn't have carpet on the floor to soak up noise. Other classrooms may not be set up in the same way.

Campolindo High School

300 Moraga Rd., Moraga, CA 94556

Overall Rating: 8.5/10
SAT Test Center #05481
Evaluation Date: May 6, 2017

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful
There was plenty of parking, but I had to drive through downtown Moraga and then uphill on a two-lane road for several miles to get to Campolindo from Highway 24. Drive by this center before your test date so you can account for things that may go wrong.

Vending Machines (0/1 point): None!

Waiting area (2/1 point): Very convenient!
Instead of making everyone wait in one huge line to get into the campus, these proctors posted a list matching each student with her testing room. They didn't check our IDs until we go to the individual classroom doors, so the check-in process was quick and efficient. They even allowed us to enter the testing rooms at 7:35, a full ten minutes before they were required to!

Bathrooms (0.5/1 point): Hard to find
I walked all over the campus and didn't see where the men's bathroom was. I also had a hard time finding my way back to the main parking lot after the test was over and had to ask a proctor to help me.

Wall Clock (1/1 points): Yes
The clock was mounted on the wall at the front of the classroom.

Desk type (1/2 points): Single seat with a 1' x 1' desk area attached

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate
It was a cold morning for late spring (fifty degrees), and I had to keep both of my sweatshirts on for the entire testing period. Still, the temperature wasn't cold enough to make me shiver, and I wouldn't expect a school to heat classrooms in May.

Distractions (2/2 points): Minimal
The floors were carpeted. The testing room was so quiet that when a student coughed, I actually noticed the difference.

Antioch High School

700 West 18th Street, Antioch, CA 94509

Overall Rating: 11.5/10
ACT Test Center #183310
(This is also an SAT test center.)
Evaluation Date: December 10, 2016

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful

Vending Machines (0.5/1 point): Drinks only (no snacks)

Waiting area (1/1 point): Inside
The proctors put desks in front of the building and efficiently checked IDs and admission tickets at the double doors. Students who arrived on time could get into their classrooms almost immediately and relax while the latecomers straggled in.

Bathrooms (1/1 point): Adequate and clean

Wall Clock (2/1 points): Digital!
The clock was easy to read, so it gets extra credit. It was placed a bit awkwardly at the side of the room instead of the front.

Desk type (3/2 points): Large, counter-style desks with students spaced four feet apart
A counter-style desk gives you plenty of room to spread your papers out. It's worth driving half an hour to get a work space like that!

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate
The strategy of dressing in layers definitely worked at this test center. I wore a jacket for the first few minutes of the test and removed it partway through the test.

Distractions (2/2 points): Minimal
The large desks made it less necessary to shuffle papers around, and most of the remaining stray noises were absorbed by the carpeting.

Pittsburg High School

1750 Harbor St, Pittsburg, CA 94565

Overall Rating: 8.5/10
SAT Test Center #05043
Evaluation Date: March 9, 2019

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful
Park in front (the Harbor Street side) if you can, as you may find the back entrace to be locked if walk in from the School St. parking lot.

Vending Machines (0/1 point): None!

Waiting area (1/1 point): Inside
The proctors put four desks in lobby and efficiently checked IDs and admission tickets without making students wait in a huge line. Students who arrived on time could get into their classrooms almost immediately and relax while the latecomers straggled in.

Bathrooms (1/1 point): Adequate and clean

Wall Clock (0.5/1 points): An analog clock at the BACK of the room
You'll have to crane your neck to see the wall clock if you forget to bring your own timing device.

Desk type (2/2 points): Larger-than-average desks
The desks at this school are far from state-of-the-art, but their sheer size earns full credit.

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate
The temperature was a bit below average, but because students weren't made to wait outside (and actually were made to stay in the hallways instead of going outside during break), things worked out okay for students who dressed in layers.

Distractions (2/2 points): Minimal
Carpeted floors helped absorb noise, but the walls were still noticeably thin when people in the hallway were talking. At least one proctor was always in the hallway during breaks.

Some of the students clearly weren't prepared to take the SAT when I was at this test center, but the proctors handled the situation admirably and patiently explained both the directions and why certain restrictions (such as not allowing water bottles on desks) were necessary. One of the proctors was fairly knowledgeable about testing procedures and may have been a College Board employee.

Clayton Valley Charter High School

1101 Alberta Way, Concord, CA 94521

Overall Rating: 7/10
SAT Test Center: 05131
Evaluation Date: October 1, 2016

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful

Vending Machines (0.5/1 point): Drinks only (no snacks)

Waiting area (0.5/1 point): Inside
The proctors put desks in front of the building and efficiently checked IDs and admission tickets at the double doors. Students who arrived on time could get into the hallways almost immediately. However, we got into our classroom, the desks were arranged in groups of four. We had to move them into straight rows and move them back after we were finished. Since the SAT has assigned seating, we didn't get situated until all the desks had been moved so that the proctor could visualize where to seat us.

Bathrooms (1/1 point): Adequate and clean

Wall Clock (1/1 point): Yes

Desk type (1/2 points): Single seat with a 1' x 1' desk area attached

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate
The strategy of dressing in layers definitely worked at this test center. I wore a jacket for the first few minutes of the test and removed it partway through the test.

Distractions (1/2 points): Average
The floor was made of commercial tile and could have reflected noise, but it didn't create a major problem.


Ygnacio Valley High School

755 Oak Grove Road, Concord, CA 94518

Overall Rating: 3/10
SAT Test Center #05500
Evaluation Date: January 21, 2017

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful

Vending Machines (0/1 point): None

Waiting area (0/1 point): Outside
Despite the SAT admission ticket's claim that all test centers open at 7:45, students were not allowed into this center's hallways until exactly 8:00 A.M. They had to wait outside in the cold.

Bathrooms (0/1 point): Crowded
A line of students snaked into each bathroom during the 10-minute break between SAT sections. A faint sewage-like smell loitered in the hallways.

Wall Clock (1/1 point): Yes

Desk type (1/2 points): Single seat with a 1' x 1' desk area attached

Temperature (0/1 point): Very cold
After waiting outside until 8:00 A.M., students had to take the test in rooms without heat. The furnace did work for a couple of minutes, but it was very loud, and someone turned it off.

Distractions (0/2 points): Severe
Proctors' voices were able to pass through the walls from one classroom to another. The floors, paved with commercial tile, reflected and amplified small sounds. Honking geese strutted outside the windows. One of them actually walked into Mordor an open hallway and had to be chased away during the test.


Skyline High School

12250 Skyline Blvd, Oakland, CA 94619

Overall Rating: 5/10
SAT Test Center #05535
Evaluation Date: May 4, 2019

Parking (1/1 point): Plentiful

Vending Machines (0/1 point): None

Waiting area (1/1 point): Convenient but long wait
Instead of making everyone wait in one huge line to get into the campus, these proctors posted a list matching each student with her testing room. They didn't check our IDs until we go to the individual classroom doors.

However, instead of letting us into the classrooms at the scheduled time (7:45), we had to wait in the hallways an extra fifteen minutes until 8:00 A.M.

Bathrooms (0/1 point): Hard to find

Wall Clock (1/1 point): Yes

Desk type (2/2 points): Single seat with a large 2' x 1.5' desk area attached

Temperature (1/1 point): Adequate

Distractions (-1/2 points): Very severe
The proctor didn't collect our cell phones, which left open the risk that a someone's phone would buzz and create a distraction for everyone. She kept talking and giving instructions after time had begun and used her own phone's alarm as a reminder for when ten minutes were left. She even called the time incorrectly: "five minutes left" instead of ten. There was also a loud chime outside that rang every couple of minutes; it was designed to create a sound whenever particulate pollutants (dust or soot) were detected in the air.

The floors were not carpeted, which made the extraneous sounds harder to ignore.

College Park High School

201 Viking Drive, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523

I tried to sign up for this center a few days before the registration deadline for the December 2016 ACT, but it was already fully booked. If you want to test here, you may need to sign up earlier than normal.

April 30, 2019

How Fast Will My Score Go Up?

Using my students' past score increases, I made the tables below. They roughly predict how much your score is likely to increase after five or ten tutoring sessions.

If you compare the ACT and SAT scores from the tables, you'll find that improvements tend to happen more quickly on the ACT. All else being equal, the ACT is an easier test to prep for.



Subject Tests include Math Level 2, SAT Chemistry, SAT Physics, SAT Biology, and SAT Literature.

Remember that these are average score increases. Your scores may go up slower or faster based on your background knowledge, how hard you're able to study, and how well-rested you are on the day of your official ACT or SAT.

Nerd Alert

Since the difficulty of earning each successive ACT point ramps up rapidly as scores approach 36, I came up with a technique to compare score increases from student to student even though they start at different initial scores.

I went through my students' records and eliminated any that didn't have final test scores from a real SAT or ACT sitting. I used the highest practice SAT or ACT score each student received before working with me as that student's initial score, with the final score being the one from the official test sitting.

That sample potentially biases the results: students who stopped tutoring before taking the test may have chosen not to e-mail their scores to me. This survivorship bias could make my results look better because students with low scores might choose not to tell me about them.

However, I'm also setting a very high bar by taking each student's highest score before working with me but only using an official test result as the final score. I could easily have used average scores for both the initial and final scores instead.

I also decided not to remove the scores of students who didn't complete all of my assigned homework. This has the effect of moving the bar even higher because those students received smaller score increases.

There's no way to know to what extent these biases affect the results. Without more information, I made the assumption that they cancel out.

Now for the fun bits: ACT scores can get to 36 but no higher, so it makes sense to use a function with a horizontal asymptote. I reflected an exponential decay function across the x-axis and moved the asymptote up to 36.5. (Since a 35.5 rounds to 36, and since the ACT's curve allows students to get some questions wrong and still get 36 on some sections, a 36 isn't truly a "perfect" score with respect to getting all of the questions right. That's why I'm using 36.5.)

I modeled ACT scores using the transformed exponential decay function (with number of sessions as the independent variable) and then took the log10 of both sides. You can derive the decay function yourself using the information in this post. If you get it right, I'll give you a free session.

Because the relationship is now linear, the data give us the regression below, which has a reasonably nice fit (R2 = 0.47) given the small sample and a couple of outliers.


I then plugged the slope of the best-fit line back into the original exponential decay function to generate the ACT score increase table at the beginning of this post.

(If you're a chemistry nerd as well as a math nerd, you may have used a similar technique to plot the data for a first-order reaction, which is also modeled by exponential decay. Finance nerds will recognize that a logarithmic axis is used to chart stock prices, which are modeled using exponential growth.)

I then modified the function so that it would asymptote to 1600 and generated the table of SAT score increases.

Here's a similar regression for my Subject Test students. Note the steeper slope and the larger value of R2, which suggest that Subject Tests are easier to prep for.


Because I work personally with every student and teach a variety of subjects, including ACT, SAT, Subject Tests, and AP tests, the samples used for this analysis aren't large. Remember that these are just averages across small pools of students, so your own results may be quite different.

If you'd like to find out more, please contact me using the form at the bottom of my tutoring information page.