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

April 4, 2020

ACT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added an Errata section to my review of For the Love of ACT Science.

The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2019-2020 Edition

This is a much-needed update addressing the weaknesses of the 2018 and 2016-17 editions. The ACT essay changed in fall 2015 and again (slightly) in fall 2016, so all of the practice essay questions in the older editions were out-of-date.

The ACT has gradually been getting harder over time, and the 2019-2020 edition addresses that by making its own practice tests pretty tough and then making the scoring curves pretty generous to compensate. The first three tests are identical to the ones in the 2018 edition. The fourth one appears to be ACT Form 74C, which was administered June 2017. The fifth test is ACT Form A10 (December 2017).

This is one of the best and most convenient sources of practice material you'll find. The book is heavy and unwieldy, but you can tear out the practice tests and bubble sheets and take them on a flat surface.

The scoring instructions are hard to find. You'll find answer explanations immediately after each practice test, but the actual answer keys, scoring instructions, and score conversion tables are at the back of the book. It's important to use the correct score conversion table for each practice test you take, as harder tests also have more generous curves. You can miss some questions and still get 36 if you get a difficult section; this tends to happen most often for Math and English.

ACT Prep Black Book, Second Edition (Mike Barrett)

If your score goal is 30-33 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 and 2019-2020) 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.

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.

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 un-timed practice.

Cracking the ACT with 8 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.

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.

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.

1,511 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.

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.

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, Fourth Edition (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.

The new Fourth Edition adds a Parts of Speech Preliminary Exercise (p. 14), includes answer explanations for the practice problems (p. 247), and fixes some typos, including a major problem with the practice tests (incorrectly labeled problems).

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 quizzes on her Web site.

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.

Minor annoyances include
  • the way that practice questions are numbered (passage number, followed by question number)
  • the fact that you have to remember to flip to page 247 to grade the practice problems
  • the lack of any guidance regarding the use of the score conversion chart (p. 304).

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.

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 also offers several reading quizzes.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

#1 on page 86 of the Advanced book has three possible correct answers: A, D, and E.

#4 on page 121 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that the marbles need to be close to evenly distributed between the boxes.

#9 on page 205 of the Advanced book has a confusing answer explanation. The answer key is correct, though.

#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.

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.

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.

#34 of the Chapter 5 Test (page 89): There is not enough information to answer the question. Based on background knowledge, the answer should be G (methane), which is the answer in the book's answer key, but Student 3 (whom we are being asked about) might argue differently.

The Master Key to ACT Science (Hugh Hung Q. Vo)

There is a noticeable lack of advanced prep guides for ACT Science on the market. My own preference is that students work on building their background knowledge so that they can reduce their reliance on reading the (often long and confusing) passages.

I don't know of any prep book that will teach you how to do this, so if you can't sign up for tutoring, the next best thing is probably this Hugh Hung Q. Vo's book.

It's very dense and will require a lot of self-discipline to get through, as the author's purpose is to help you look at science passages and break down experiments as an actual scientist would. There's also less of an emphasis on background knowledge than I would prefer.

The table of contents clearly lists the types of questions that students struggle with. If you've taken and reviewed your own practice tests and know exactly what you need help with, this book can be a useful reference manual.

There's a lot of information packed into this book's pages, and you could easily get cross-eyed trying to figure out what's going on. Unless you're a very serious student, it's probably better to go with Michael Cerro's book.

ACT Essay Sample Responses

Because the ACT essay has changed over the past few years, old editions (pre-2019) of the Official ACT Prep Guide have the wrong essay instructions. If you have one of those older editions, 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.

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.

April 2, 2019

How to Read Your SAT Score Report

The College Board makes score reports available online as soon as multiple-choice scores are available.

To view your scores, log in to your College Board account.

You'll see a Web page like the one below, which will have your most recent score at the top of the page:

In this case, my March 9 SAT score is at the top, since it's the most recent test I've taken. If you click on the yellow View Details link, you'll see a detailed score report for that test:

Scroll down to the Test Scores section:

The white boxes with the words Reading Questions, Writing and Language Questions, Math with Calculation Questions, and Math without Calculator Questions are actually links.

For example, if you click on the Reading Questions link, you'll see this:

The Reading Questions, Writing and Language Questions, Math without Calculation Questions, and Math with Calculator tabs at the top of the page provide a quick way to switch between sections of your score report.

The numbers (1, 2, 3...) in the Question column are also links. If you took the SAT during one of the months when the QAS (Question-and-Answer Service) is offered (March, May, or October), you can click the links in order to pay $18 for QAS and view the original test questions along with the College Board's answer explanations:

Be aware that data tables are currently not displayed properly on the College Board's Web site, making some questions unreadable:

If you didn't take the SAT in March, May, or October, you won't have the option to view the original test questions. This is something to keep in mind if you plan to take the SAT "just for practice." You won't get much benefit from the test if you can't review your work!

If you'd prefer to get a diagnostic score at home, take the first test in the College Board's Official SAT Study Guide and then review your work using the detailed answer explanations in Mike Barrett's SAT Black Book. You'll find links to both books at my SAT book review page.

February 16, 2019

ACT Practice Tests

Here are six official ACT practice tests.

2018-19 ACT Practice Test

2016-17 ACT Practice Test (This is the test Compass Prep usually uses as a diagnostic tool.)

2014-15 ACT Practice Test

2011-12 ACT Practice Test

2008-09 ACT Practice Test

2005-06 ACT Practice Test

Since the ACT has slowly changed over time, start with the most recent version and work your way down the list.

I strongly suggest printing the 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!

If you need more practice tests, you can buy the Official ACT Prep Guide.

Have fun!

December 8, 2018

On Big Companies and Free Practice Tests

Big test prep companies offer free practice tests because it's a great way for them to make money.

They pay marketers, proctors, graders, administrative staff, bondholders, and shareholders - not to mention real estate costs - so you can get a score for free.

In exchange, you've become what salesmen call a warm lead: someone who's demonstrated interest in their product.

There's nothing wrong with this as long as you understand how the process works. Test prep companies offer practice tests, which are valuable to you, so they can get your attention, which is valuable to them.

They pay for this by charging $125-250 an hour for tutoring, ten sessions at a time, paid up front. Their tutors typically make $25-40 an hour, and the difference ($100/hour or more) is used to pay administrative costs and provide investors with a profit.

The breakeven point between teaching at a public school and working as an independent tutor is around $90/hour. Tutors who accept less than half of that amount typically have SAT scores of around 1400-1500. Those are good scores, but if you're paying $150/hour, your score target is probably already at or higher than 1500.

This is not going to change, as these tutors aren't being exploited. Test prep companies have large expenses every month that aren't going to go away if there's a recession. Most workers, including tutors, accept lower pay in order to have their employers shoulder that burden.

If you have time, it's best to take responsibility for your own education. Practice taking the SAT and ACT yourself, then compare the two scores. You can then choose SAT or ACT prep books and study on your own.

If you need a tutor, you have lots of options, including highly qualified independent tutors like myself. Go in with your eyes open, and you'll make a great choice.

November 17, 2018

UC Schools Have Become More Selective

It's gotten harder to get into University of California schools: not just for your friends who were seniors last year, but for everyone.

I've included data below for the high school graduating classes of 2017 and 2018 with the information for UC Berkeley and UCLA highlighted.

While GPA ranges across the board have increased only slightly, test scores are consistently higher, and the percentage of applicants admitted has consistently moved lower from 2017 to 2018.

UC Data: Class of 2017

UC Data: Class of 2018

Audrey Slaughter was kind enough to share a Compass Prep article with me that breaks down ACT and SAT test score data from the past few years.

Compass finds that median scores haven't changed much, but more students are have been scoring at the high end of the range (1400-1600):
At the most competitive colleges, high test scores can be viewed as “necessary but not sufficient.” It is extremely difficult to gain admission to Stanford with a low SAT score, but getting a great score is far from a guarantee of admission. The net effect of the growth at the top ranges is to make a high score more essential but less sufficient.

After the dust settles each April, we often hear that “this was the worst year ever.” For 2018, that assessment feels fair. ACT and SAT scores at colleges have trended up over time, but it’s not simply higher scores that create anxiety — it’s also the added unpredictability. The combination of increased applicant numbers at competitive colleges and a higher percentage of top scores magnify the uncertainty that students experience.

So How Do I Get In?

In the end, grades, test scores, and a college degree itself are only imperfect measures of what really matters: your dedication, creativity, and life goals. Schools like Stanford know that, and they're looking for much more than just great numbers on your application.

Does your life thus far show that you have the potential to win a Nobel Prize or found your own company? That's what schools are looking for. Those are the things that get an alma mater noticed.

As a nation, we're obsessing more and more about the scoring well on the things that measure success without necessarily getting better at achieving success itself.

Test scores and grades matter because those are the things we've chosen to measure - but don't forget to live a life of dedication and meaning. It's that life that will get you involved in amazing extracurriculars and help you write essays that will get noticed.

Yes, UC schools have become more selective. Become the kind of person they would like to select.

November 8, 2018

The Four Best Places to Find a Tutor

Update: I've added a link to Northgate High School's peer tutoring program.

Are you looking for a tutor? Our capitalistic economy provides a dizzying array of educational options, and part of my job is to help you sort through them, even if you end up working with someone else as a result.

Why would I purposefully direct you to tutor who's a better fit for you? Most of my business comes from word of mouth, and I believe that following the Golden Rule and giving to others will benefit me indirectly. (Check out this animation about win-win scenarios.) What's best for you is often what's best for me.

Full-time tutors start at $45/hour, and tutors with perfect SAT and ACT scores are $180-600/hour. Use the guide below to evaluate your options.

Peer Tutors

Most schools offer free or low-cost peer tutoring. I used to work as one of those tutors when I was in eighth grade. That's the lowest-end option and is suitable for help with homework, since those tutors are likely to be most familiar with the local curriculum.

If you go this route, you'll probably want to do sessions multiple times a week to stay caught up in school.

Using peer tutoring to get A's in math and English is an excellent way to prepare for the SAT and ACT and will reduce the number of sessions you'll need with a test prep specialist.

Similarly, you can get a peer tutor multiple times per week for an AP class and wait until March to hire a test prep specialist to help you prepare for the corresponding SAT Subject Test and AP exam.

You can find your school's peer tutoring page by searching Google for your school's name plus the word tutoring.

Northgate High School's peer tutoring program meets in the Multimedia Center.

I also have students with perfect SAT/ACT Math and Calculus BC scores who currently work as private tutors. They're good options at the high end of the peer tutoring spectrum.

Tutoring Companies

Medium-sized companies (JC Education, Lafayette Academy, Zenith Tutoring) and big companies (Kaplan, Princeton ReviewTried and True TutoringCompass Prep) charge two to five times what they pay out to tutors. They offer tutoring in the range of $45-250 an hour.

You'll be getting a lower-paid tutor, but the service is convenient, as those companies are one-stop shops for help in all subjects, including college admissions counseling.

In general, the larger the company, the more standardized its product will be. I personally go to huge corporations for commoditized services where I want predictability: gasoline (World Oil), book delivery (Amazon), and health food (Odwalla). Standardization is less of a benefit in situations where you have to learn a skill like swing dancing, writing, or math.

Mid-Tier Independent Subject Tutors

You can also hire independent educators through Web sites like Thumbtack and Wyzant, and you'll also find some advertising on NextDoor. You'll probably get more for your money than if you go through a big company.

A credentialed teacher who can tutor in most school subjects will run you about $70/hour, depending on the area you live in.

$70/hour is theoretically a bit low in California: the average high school teacher makes $75,000 a year. In order to be incentivized to tutor full-time, which is 20 hours a week of tutoring with 20 hours of driving and prep, the teacher needs to make around $75/hour AFTER paying business expenses and the extra taxes involved in being self-employed. That could end up being more like $90/hour gross of expenses, but I use $70/hour as an average because that's what I tend to observe in the market.

Of course, there are great tutors who charge less than $70/hour, just as there are great teachers who make less than $75,000 a year. (Un-unionized private school teachers - I used to be one - come to mind.) Just be aware that in general, you get what you pay for, and if you want something great at a relatively low rate, you have to be willing to evaluate a number of tutors to find the diamond in the rough.

Top-Tier Test Prep Specialists

Finally, there are independent specialists, each of whom focuses on one academic area and does it very well.

For example, I have a master's degree in chemistry from Stanford and perfect scores on most standardized tests, so I tutor mainly SAT/ACT, Math Level 2, calculus, and AP Chemistry. Audrey Slaughter specializes in college admissions counseling and spends a large portion of each year visiting college campuses and keeping up-to-date with changes in her field.

Specialized tutoring runs up to $600/hour and works best to address specific needs rather than as a long-term solution to raise grades. You may want to consider hiring a peer tutor to come multiple times per week and then supplement with a specialist two months before the AP test or four months before the SAT.

Tutors with perfect SAT and ACT scores are relatively rare, as they could be working at Google or founding startups instead of spending their weekends with high school students. They're usually high-value educators with multiple qualifications.
My own tutoring service compares favorably with other top-tier options. If you'd like to have ACT score gains of 5-10 points, SAT score gains of 180-350 points, or perfect scores on Subject Tests and AP tests, please contact me so I can help you create a study plan.

January 29, 2018

ACT July 2018 Test Date Not Available in California

As of this month, the ACT is no longer offering the July 2018 test date in New York or California:
With the new July test date this year, the ACT is now offered on seven national test dates each year. Unfortunately, ACT is unable to offer all test dates to students in New York and now California because their “Truth in Testing” laws would require us to release another test form each year beyond those that we already release, and that is cost-prohibitive for us.... 
California requires that a testing company release 50 percent of the tests it administers. The statute specifically requires that, if that number includes fractions of a test, the number be rounded up; so, administering six tests would require releasing three of them, but administering seven tests would require releasing four. ACT is forgoing its July test date in California so that we may comply with those requirements. 
Students who were planning to take the ACT this summer will have to schedule for the upcoming April, June, or September dates instead.

November 5, 2017

Bay Area SAT Scores: How Does Your School Compare?

Here's a list of the top eleven Bay Area public high schools based on their students' average SAT scores. (I've updated the school list: I had mistakenly included Monte Vista HS in Danville instead of Monta Vista HS in Cupertino.)

  1. Lynbrook HS in San Jose (1430)
  2. Mission San Jose HS in Fremont (1430)
  3. Monta Vista HS in Cupertino (1410)
  4. Henry M. Gunn HS in Palo Alto (1400)
  5. Saratoga HS in Saratoga (1390)
  6. Palo Alto HS in Palo Alto (1370)
  7. Dougherty Valley HS in San Ramon (1350)
  8. Miramonte HS in Orinda (1340)
  9. Los Altos HS in Los Altos (1330)
  10. Lowell HS in San Francisco (1310)
  11. Campolindo HS in Moraga (1300)

You can search for your school directly by visiting and typing your school district's name into the Location box:

Compass Prep maintains a similar list organized by the number of National Merit Semifinalists at each school. The Compass list is much more comprehensive: it includes all public and private high schools with at least one semifinalist, and the data are also broken down by county and income:

We all have a tendency to compare ourselves to our neighbors. If you're just average in Santa Clara or Alameda County, you're better than you think.