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June 17, 2020

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.

Bonus

If you're serious about achieving consistent performance in stressful situations, check out the two podcasts episodes below:

How To! with Charles Duhigg
In this special episode of Happiness Lab, we feature an episode of the podcast How To! with Charles Duhigg. Mike’s dream job of playing bass in a Chicago orchestra is within reach — if only he can conquer his nerves and master the audition. Duhigg brings in Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist who’s worked with Wall Street traders and Olympic athletes, to see if he can help Mike perform his best under the spotlight. The secret? Jumping jacks, extra sleep, and watching reruns of The Office.

How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure
After serving as an Army Ranger and Green Beret, and getting his PhD in sports psychology, Don has spent decades coaching Olympic divers, professional athletes, race car drivers, opera singers, classical musicians, and Wall Street traders in how not to choke under pressure. He shares the principles he uses as a stress coach in Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure. Today we talk about those skills, beginning with why people choke in the first place, and what’s going on in your mind when that happens. We then talk about the fundamentals of managing performance anxiety and staying in right brain flow, including making adrenaline work for instead of against you, getting your mind centered, ignoring distractions, and becoming mentally tough. We also discuss how to thwart negative self-talk through a practice Don calls “thought monitoring,” and his 5-step strategy for recovering when you do make a mistake. 


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

April 29, 2020

GRE: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've updated a few of the links to GRE practice materials.

If you're taking the GRE to get into grad school, take heart: the test is very similar to the pre-2016 "old" SAT. My list of recommend prep books, below, even includes manuals for the old SAT.

You survived the old SAT and did well enough in college to apply to grad school. With some practice, you'll do fine on the GRE, too.




The GRE is a computer-adaptive test, and PowerPrep software is the only place you can find computer-based official practice tests.

Pros
GRE questions are tricky and constantly force you to double-check your assumptions. Only official test questions allow you to safely make the assumption, "The problem is with me and not with the way the question is written or with the answer key."

Since there are only two practice tests, I recommend taking the first one before you start studying and the second one once you think you might be ready to take the GRE.

Cons
The pre-July 2017 version of the software has a user interface that's laughably 1990's. I had to look multiple times to find the button that allowed me to review my answers. If you're still a fan of Windows ME and Mac System 7, you might be okay with this.

The post-July 2017 version is Web-based. I made an ETS account just so I could access the Web-based version of Practice Test #1, but as of June 14, 2017, my attempts to log in to my ETS account have failed. (There's no error message; I just get returned to the login page, where I have to type in my user name and password over and over again.)



This is the only place you can get paper-based official practice questions. The old 2015 edition is nearly identical to the 2017 edition I've linked to above, so check the prices on both before making your purchase.

Pros
This resource has hundreds of practice questions, far more than the practice tests in the PowerPrep software do.

Cons
The practice material is great, but you may find the strategies and answer explanations unhelpful.



Manhattan Prep is the gold standard when it comes to GRE prep. This is their very long, very heavy book of practice questions and complete answer explanations.

Pros
If you've taken a practice test and just want hundreds of questions to practice with, this is the book for you. They're not official GRE questions, but they're close.

Cons
This book is so thick that you might have trouble keeping it open when you practice. The actual GRE only gives you scratch paper to write on instead of a printed test booklet, so you have to manage your practice scratch paper, calculator, and Manhattan Prep book at the same time.

Errata (2nd edition)
Ch. 11, #18 (p. 453): The answer is (B). The book has the correct answer explanation but says the answer is (C) instead of (B).


Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides

You can buy all eight of Manhattan Prep's strategy guides as a package, but you only need to choose one of the eight to get the most important benefit: one-year access to Manhattan Prep's six computer-adaptive practice tests.

Pros
It's a lot cheaper to buy a $15 book than to pay $39 for the practice tests on Manhattan Prep's Web site. You can also try one of their practice tests for free if you create an account on their Web site.

Cons
Don't buy all eight of their strategy guides unless you have a lot of time to kill. Spend the majority of your time studying for the areas in which you need the greatest score gains.



This bank of GRE Quantitative practice questions contains accurate material and detailed answer explanations.

Pros
This book has the same format as Dr. Warner's SAT and ACT Math books. You can jump right in and start working without having to wade through preliminary reading.

The problems in this book 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.

Cons
Most of the content review is in the answer explanations, so you can't treat this book like a textbook. You really have to engage with the material to receive the maximum benefit.

Errata
On page 77, problem 79 has a graph drawn in such a way that it's unclear whether you should include (G) as a possible answer. The book's answer, AEFG, is still correct, however.



Nova's GRE Math Prep Course

This is the closest thing I've seen to a GRE Quantitative textbook. It's very heavy on practice problems, though, and the problems for each topic are sorted into categories (Easy, Medium, Hard, and Very Hard).

Pros
You can get content review here without feeling like you're skipping the hardest questions on the GRE. In fact, the questions labeled "Very Hard" are more difficult than the questions you're likely to see on the GRE itself.

Cons
This book, like any math textbook, is pretty dense. Expect hard work without any entertainment!


Cracking the GRE Premium

This is a decent all-around study guide. It focuses on strategy, not content review, which is advantageous if you have less than two weeks to study.

Its strategies for Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence are excellent. Unless your vocabulary is already post-graduate level, you're going need those strategies to help you guess on sentence completion questions.

Pros
The book's strategies are well-written and clearly explained.

Cons
The practice tests may not feel 100% like GRE questions to you. Some of them are worded in confusing ways, and the answer explanations are cryptic enough to leave you wondering whether the bewilderment is truly your fault.

The paper practice tests aren't computer-adaptive, so the book itself won't give you a diagnostic GRE score. You have to take an online test or use PowerPrep software for that.


The Official SAT Study Guide (2009 edition)

SAT Prep Black Book (2015 edition, Mike Barrett)

When the old SAT died in 2016, ETS didn't throw all of those SAT words away. It's using them on the GRE!

The old SAT's Critical Reading section is an excellent source of semi-official GRE Verbal questions. The old SAT's question types don't match up precisely with the GRE's, but since both tests were written by ETS, you can still use the former to practice for the latter.

Mike Barrett's SAT Prep Black Book provides excellent strategies and answer explanations for official old SAT Critical Reading questions. I recommend going through pages 39-118 in conjunction with the 2009 edition of the Official SAT Study Guide.


Flocabulary: The Hip-Hop Approach to SAT-Level Vocabulary Building

If you want to ace Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions, you need to build your vocabulary.

I've said before that reading is the best way to build your vocabulary. That's definitely true for most standardized tests, including the post-2016 SAT, which test your knowledge of vocabulary in the context of longer passages.

The GRE, however, tests vocabulary using only one sentence at a time. You can get away with memorizing definitions and even with using flash cards.

That's why I'm recommending Flocabulary, which embeds the definitions for advanced vocabulary words into rap songs. Rhythm and rhyme have always made large amounts of text easier to memorize, and vocabulary definitions are no exception.

You can rip Flocabulary songs from the included CD onto your phone and then play them in your car. The Flocabulary book contains the lyrics to all the songs, definitions for the songs' vocabulary words, and multiple-choice practice questions.

Pros
This is the easiest way I've seen to memorize the definitions of words like myopic and recapitulate.

Cons
The stories in some of the songs don't feel quite finished. Phobia, for example, is a song about a guy who's scared to go outside because of a dilapidated house in his neighborhood. We get to the end of the song and never find out what happens to the house or whether the protagonist eventually rallies the courage to face his fear.

You're only going to get the superficial dictionary definitions of words, which may or may not help you in real life. You're doing this to get a vocabulary fix for the GRE, but you'll learn the words properly later by reading them in normal contexts, right?


The Yo Momma Vocabulary Builder

Instead of using music like Flocabulary does, this book relies on humor and silly imagery to help you learn word definitions.

Pros
Any learning tool that connects with preexisting knowledge in your mind is going to work better than flash cards. If funny works for you, go for it!

Cons
Like Flocabulary, the Yo Momma method divorces meanings of words from the ways those words are used in real contexts. You'll get a distorted, oversimplified understanding of vocabulary, but it might be enough to get you through the GRE.

If you're going to pick up a book, though, why not read something you're actually interested in and look up the vocabulary words in the process?

Essay Topics

ETS publishes lists of all the possible Issue and Argument topics.

Going for a Perfect Score

In theory, you can get a perfect score on the GRE if you study hard enough. A perfect 170 in Quant is only 97 percentile, and a 169/170 in Verbal is 99 percentile.

In practice, it's not just about studying and strategy. You have to have a strong enough vocabulary to successfully guess on all of the Verbal questions, no matter what words the test throws at you. Crutches like Flocabulary can help, but there's no way you can memorize all of the words you need in a couple of months.

Improving your vocabulary is a lifelong process, so the GRE may be less vulnerable to tips and tricks than we'd like.

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).

Pros
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.

Cons
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.

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 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.

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.


1,511 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.

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, 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).

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 quizzes 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.

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.

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 also 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
#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.

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.

Errata
#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.

Pros
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.

Cons
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.


February 24, 2020

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.

Bonus

If you're serious about achieving consistent performance in stressful situations, check out the two podcasts episodes below:

How To! with Charles Duhigg
In this special episode of Happiness Lab, we feature an episode of the podcast How To! with Charles Duhigg. Mike’s dream job of playing bass in a Chicago orchestra is within reach — if only he can conquer his nerves and master the audition. Duhigg brings in Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist who’s worked with Wall Street traders and Olympic athletes, to see if he can help Mike perform his best under the spotlight. The secret? Jumping jacks, extra sleep, and watching reruns of The Office.

How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure
After serving as an Army Ranger and Green Beret, and getting his PhD in sports psychology, Don has spent decades coaching Olympic divers, professional athletes, race car drivers, opera singers, classical musicians, and Wall Street traders in how not to choke under pressure. He shares the principles he uses as a stress coach in Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure. Today we talk about those skills, beginning with why people choke in the first place, and what’s going on in your mind when that happens. We then talk about the fundamentals of managing performance anxiety and staying in right brain flow, including making adrenaline work for instead of against you, getting your mind centered, ignoring distractions, and becoming mentally tough. We also discuss how to thwart negative self-talk through a practice Don calls “thought monitoring,” and his 5-step strategy for recovering when you do make a mistake. 


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

January 20, 2020

How to Raise Your SAT Score by Reading Biographies

Update: I've added The Man Who Solved the Market and Hedge Fund Market Wizards 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




*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


Seven Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

Update: I've added While America Aged to the reading list.

Whether you're preparing for the ACT or SAT, working toward an A in AP English, or writing your college application essays, a stronger vocabulary will make you a better reader and writer. Here are seven ways to work on your vocabulary:

1. Use the dictionary, but AVOID FLASH CARDS.

A truly nuanced vocabulary isn't something you can create by pure memorization. Good writers like to play with words, so you have to be familiar with how each word is used in a variety of contexts.

Watch the video below and then answer the vocabulary question that follows:



When Mrs. Bennett tells Mary to "find some useful employment," the word employment most nearly means
(a) paid work
(b) trade
(c) profession
(d) task

To answer this question, stick each of the choices into Mrs. Bennett's sentence to see which one works:

"Mary, put that away at once. Find some useful _________."

The first three choices don't work because in the context of the story, Mrs. Bennett is trying to get the house ready for some unexpected guests, and she needs Mary to help tidy up. She's not offering any money, so choice A isn't an option. She's not asking Mary to find a useful career, either, so choices B and C are out. The word task fits: it's consistent with Mrs. Bennett's implied request to clean the house up right away.

Choices A, B, and C are the three definitions that Google's dictionary provides for the word employment. Choice D isn't one of Google's definitions, but it's the correct answer!

ACT and SAT vocab questions look a lot like the one we just did. The most obvious answer is almost always wrong; it's there to trap people who memorize definitions using flash cards. The tests' writers are trying to see if you really understand what you read.

The dictionary can help, since there is some overlap between the meanings of the words employment and task. Just make sure you pay attention to the author's meaning as opposed to your own preconceived notions!

2. Enjoy what you read.

I can't emphasize this enough. Your brain has to draw connections between what you're learning and what you already know, and it's not going to do that very effectively if you're bored.

What you read doesn't matter very much as long as you really enjoy it. Just make sure that, on average, there's at least one vocabulary word you can learn on each page.

I keep a stash of Post-It notes inside the cover of whatever book I'm currently reading. If I run across a word I can't figure out in context, I put a Post-It under the word and use Google to look it up when I have time.

I went to the library last week and flipped through copies of some of the books in the list below. I've put them roughly in order from easiest to hardest. At the hardest level, there are words that even I don't know. You can always find something interesting to learn no matter what your current reading level is.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred Taylor)
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)
The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains (Annie Cheney)
Bitcoin Billionaires: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal, and Redemption (Ben Mezrich)
The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
The Perfect Score Project: One Mother's Journey to Discover the Secrets of the SAT (Debbie Stier)
White Fang (Jack London)
Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut)
How We Decide (Jonah Lehrer)
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner)
Next: The Future Just Happened (Michael Lewis)
While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis by Roger Lowenstein
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling)
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (Michael Lewis)
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (Michael Lewis)
The Quants (Scott Patterson)
The Blind Side (Michael Lewis)
Moneyball (Michael Lewis)
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Michael Lewis)
Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
33 Questions about American History You're Not Supposed to Ask (Thomas Woods)
Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (Jostein Gaardner)
Church Refugees (Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope)
Animals in Translation (Temple Grandin)
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (Roger Lowenstein)
The Great Depression: A Diary (Benjamin Roth)
Wealth, War, and Wisdom (Barton Biggs)
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou)
The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution (Gregory Zuckerman)
Anticancer: A New Way of Life (David Servan-Schreiber)
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott. Fitzgerald)
The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)
The Great Depression: A Diary (Benjamin Roth)
Cheaper by the Dozen (Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth)
The Hobbit (J.R. Tolkien)
The Construction of Modern Science (Richard Westfall)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) This edition of the book includes definitions of the vocabulary words.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)

You can use magazines and blogs, too, as long as there's at least one vocabulary word you can learn on each page.

Newsweek
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal - This is my personal favorite!
The Economist
Scientific journals: If you're interested in these, find a science blog on a topic you like and download the articles it recommends.

3. Use Professor Word.

Professor Word is a tool that automatically pulls up SAT and ACT words as you're reading on the Internet. If you click on a word, the tool will offer several definitions for it.

You'll be able to literally see how good writing relies on interesting, offbeat definitions of otherwise "easy" words.

4. Listen to audiobooks in the car.

Audiobooks aren't quite as effective as the printed page, but they still offer a way to turn otherwise wasted driving time into something useful.

The app Podcast Republic searches for podcasts and plays them on your Android phone. It also works with audiobooks you've saved on your phone's memory card. (Overcast is a great podcast app for the iPhone.)

Here are a few podcasts I've enjoyed. (I didn't go to Stanford intending to become interested in combining science, technology, and business, but it looks like the school had a good influence on me.)

The Science of Success Podcast
This podcast focuses on using science to help you become successful in life. Its evidence-based focus sets it apart from typical business success and pop psychology shows.

Vaya's podcast focuses on recent research about business and psychology.

Advanced Worldview Analysis (Dr. Ronald Nash)
Dr. Ronald Nash provides one particular point of view on how the Bible interacts with the world's philosophies.

History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (Dr. Ronald Nash)
Dr. Nash teaches the history of philosophy from a Christian point of view.

Seth Godin's Startup School
This is a series of excerpts from Godin's seminars on developing a creative business.

The Meb Faber Show
This is an excellent research-based podcast about what works in investing and what doesn't.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History Podcast
If you find the SAT's American History passages to be challenging, this is the podcast to listen to. It covers the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, and abolitionism. The only major topic on the SAT this podcast doesn't cover is early feminism. The author, Thomas Woods, is a senior fellow in history at the libertarian Mises Institute, so he tilts overtly toward individual and state rights rather than toward a large federal government.

The American Military History Podcast
This podcast takes the interesting approach of telling American history through the eyes of people who served in the military. Its focus on engagements keeps the episodes interesting.

It's History Podcast
This started out as a series of episodes covering the history of the Cold War and has since expanded to a variety of topics.

Pride and Prejudice (written by Jane Austen and read by Elizabeth Klett)
This is the most beautiful rendition of Austen's work that I've ever heard.

MIT courses on various topics
These courses are for advanced students who want to "sit in" on college classes.

5. Watch TV with the subtitles turned on.

Some shows are better than others. Generally speaking, shows that describe a unfamiliar world use advanced vocabulary to tell the viewer what's going on. Science fiction, fantasy, documentaries, and movie adaptations of classic books are all in this category. Music videos also work if the songs are very sophisticated.

If possible, watch with the subtitles on! Reading and writing happen with actual words.

Science Fiction


Fantasy


Documentaries


Classics


Sophisticated Music

6. Become friends with the "smart kids."

Peer pressure works. I usually consider mob psychology to be a bad thing, but you can sometimes harness it to push yourself to do something amazing.

If you go to a good college, you'll make friends with intelligent, ambitious people. They'll prod you to learn faster, work harder, and accomplish more than you would have on your own. Your vocabulary will improve as a result. Why not start that process today?

7. Find a tutor with good grammar and an excellent vocabulary.

Every section of the ACT requires you to be a good reader. ACT Math has word problems, and the Science section is one huge word problem. Recent changes to the SAT have made it even more reading-dependent than the ACT.

A good tutor is the ultimate "smart kid." You'll pick up strong reading and writing skills that will carry you through classes, standardized tests, and college application essays. In the process, you might even become an independent thinker and an effective communicator.

The best way to get into top schools is, after all, to be what they're looking for.

December 20, 2019

December SAT scores are now available!

If you took the SAT in December, your can view your scores online on December 20.

Here's the score I got in March: