Do Not Accept Bad Proctoring

The past two years have been hard on us all.  We’re tired, stressed, and burned out.  We’re not performing at our best.  We’re making mistakes we don’t usually make.

This includes those who proctor standardized tests.  And that means the proctor of your SAT or ACT might make a mistake that could compromise your performance.

Don’t accept that.

It’s not unusual for there to be “irregularities” – minor bending and breaking of the rules, or accidental upsets – during standardized tests.  However, there seems to have been an uptick in reports of proctors not fulfilling their basic responsibilities, doing things that could cause hundreds of students to score lower or have their scores cancelled.  Knowing about this in advance can help you advocate for yourself and protect your score.

With a hat-tip to Mindful Solutions for gathering and relaying some of those reports, here are some things to insist on.  At the end is a simple way to head all of this off without having to confront your proctor in the middle of the test.


1. Don’t let the proctor shorten or take away your breaks.

3-4 hours is a long time to spend taking a test.  It’s mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing.  You need breaks to do your best – even if it feels like you’re on a roll and should continue.  This is why every standardized test has specific instructions to proctors about when and how long breaks should be.

Despite those clear instructions, some proctors have taken those breaks away.  Take a moment to imagine taking a 3+ hour test with no breaks — just because someone else has decided you should just plow straight through uninterrupted.  Does that sound like a good idea to you?  If you’re like most people, the answer is a very strong “no”.  You understand that the test is tough enough as it is, and the score will be with you for a while.  If anything, you need more and longer breaks to do your best.  The idea of getting zero breaks in over 3 hours is absurd.

Remember that.

Now, imagine yourself on test day.  You’ve just completed the first part of your test, and it has been long.  Maybe the first 65-minute Reading section of the SAT, or the first 105 minutes of the ACT (English + Math).  Or, if you have extended time, even longer than that.  Imagine how you’ll feel by the end.  The rules say you should take a break.  Good idea, right?

But now imagine your proctor asking everyone in the room whether they want to skip the break and move on to the next section.  That way, everyone can finish and leave earlier.  Would you take that option to skip the break?  If a lot of people in the room voted to skip it, would you stand up for yourself?

We all like to think we would stand up for ourselves, but most of us would have a hard time.  Peer pressure is always more powerful than we think it’ll be.  Remember how ludicrous the idea of skipping breaks seemed just a moment ago?  And yet now, though nothing has changed, we’re not so sure.

As tempting as it might be to power through nonstop and be done – you’re already in the zone anyway, right? – breaks are there for a reason.  The benefit of taking them will be with you a lot longer than the insignificant benefit of getting out a few minutes earlier.

Moreover, if no one speaks up when the proctor gives the option, someone might still file a formal complaint later – and that might result in everyone’s scores being cancelled, including yours.  Again, the benefits of standing up far outweigh the benefits of staying silent.

If it feels like you’re the only one who wants to speak up, that’s a tough situation to be in.  But remember: you’re probably not alone.  There’s probably at least one other person in the room who wants the break.  In fact, it’s even possible that most people want the break but are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to hold anyone back.

If anyone’s showing a lack of respect, it’s the people who agree to skip the breaks.  They’re asking or agreeing to sacrifice everyone’s scores for a few minutes of their time.

This is why it’s so outrageous that a proctor might put breaks up for a vote.  The proctor might think they’re being democratic, fair, and generous.  Or maybe they’re just trying to catch a few more minutes of freedom for themselves.  Either way, what they’re really doing is creating a situation in which many people will make a poor decision that puts everyone’s scores on the line.  If this happens during your test, don’t accept it.


2. Don’t let the proctor end a section early.

Even sillier than the idea of taking a 3+ hour test with no breaks is the idea of shortening the sections.  Who on earth would want less time to complete the same number and type of questions?  If anything, we need more time – not less – to perform at our best.

It’s not just that you have a limited amount of time to do everything.  It’s also the psychological pressure of that limited time.  Someone is going to make you stop at some point, regardless of whether you’re done.  That itself is a source of stress, and that stress itself can reduce your performance.

The time constraint and the stress can even compound each other in a vicious cycle: stress can inhibit your higher thought processes, making you take more time to get things done, which makes it even harder to finish everything in time, which increases your stress level…

But sometimes, the stress can make you take less time.  Sometimes that’s because a little bit of stress makes you more efficient.  More likely, though, stress makes you take shortcuts and fail to recognize your mistakes.  Because stress inhibits higher thinking and reduces self-control, you’re more likely to make mistakes and less likely to pay enough attention to catch and fix them.

The worst part is that we can’t tell whether stress is making us do better or worse.  When it’s making us rush and make mistakes, we just think we’re being efficient.  We don’t recognize all the mistakes we made until later, after it’s too late.

Remember that test from school that you finished before time was up, and you thought you crushed it, but your grade came back surprisingly low?  Now you know what happened.

Back to your standardized test.

Occasionally, everyone in the room will finish a section early.  In those cases, proctors will sometimes – against the rules – give everyone the option of ending the section early and moving on to the next thing.  This seems to be very common on the PSAT, on which your scores almost never matter.  But now, it’s creeping into the SAT and ACT, on which your scores matter a lot.

Compared to the idea of eliminating breaks, it might be a little less obvious why moving on from a section early is a bad idea if everyone’s done.  Why make everyone sit there doing nothing for a few more minutes?

Remember this: there are no prizes for finishing earlier.  You’ll end up with the same score whether you’re done 10 minutes early or just finishing your last answer when time is called.

There can, however, be a prize in the form of an extra break that you wouldn’t otherwise have had.  If you finish early and the section ends at the normal time, you can rest – and maybe even take a short nap.  This can reduce your stress and sharpen your mind.

On the flip side, if you get it in your head that you can get out early by working faster, your subconscious mind will try to make you take less time, and fighting it will be extremely difficult.  You’ll rush your work and do worse as a result.

As described in the previous section, putting section end times up for a vote might seem generous, but it really just motivates people to make decisions that are bad for everyone.  If you think this might happen in your testing room, don’t accept it.  Speaking up can be hard, but it’s necessary – especially as a formal complaint from someone else could result in everyone’s scores being cancelled, including yours.


3. Don’t let the proctor tell you to do anything to signal that you’re done.

There’s only one thing that should signal the end of a section, and that’s when time runs out.  Period.

The only reason a proctor might ask you to do anything to signal when you’re done – put your head down, raise your hand, etc. – is to commit one of the misdeeds described above.

I’m adding another paragraph here because the shortness of this section might make it seem less important than the others.  It’s not.  There literally isn’t a reason for a proctor to ask you to signal when you’re done, other than to allow them to mess something up for everyone in the room.

There’s a silver lining here: if a proctor wants to end a section early when everyone says they’re done, and you never give that signal before time is called, that might be a convenient way for you to help keep things running as they should.  Even in that case, though, they’ve still created a potentially stressful situation in which you have to decide whether to go along with the crowd.  They’ve also limited what you can do if you finish early.  What if you finish a section with 5 minutes left, and you want to put your head down to rest for those 5 minutes (as you should), but the proctor has told everyone that putting their heads down was the signal?  In that case, they might call time early, shortening your precious extra break.  So, do you not put your head down, just to avoid that possibility?  You shouldn’t have to make that choice.

Either way, if your proctor asks for your help in bending or breaking the rules, don’t agree.


4. Don’t let the proctor chat with anyone.

Yes, it happens.  I dearly wish I were joking but I’ve heard a lot of reports of this lately.  It’s outrageous, and the people doing it know it’s outrageous, but they do it anyway.

Funny thing about humans: as long as we’re thinking about how wrong our behavior is, we feel like our behavior isn’t so bad and we should get away with it.

We shouldn’t.  They shouldn’t.  Don’t let them.


Even More Reasons Proctor Rule-Breaking is Bad

One of the most critical aspects of taking a standardized test – or just about anything – is mental workload.  How much are you trying to juggle in your mind, pay attention to, and figure out?  How much self-control do you need to do all that?  Those things take effort, and stress limits your ability to do them well.  That’s why I spend a lot of time with my students working on managing mental workload, informed by my education and research.

The SAT and ACT give you more than enough things to juggle, pay attention to, and figure out.  They require more than enough self-control to get through.  The last thing you need is for the proctor to add more to your plate.  Their job is to make everything run the same way for everyone, and to handle the environment and the time for you so you can focus on your job.  They’re supposed to give you less to think about, not more.

Moreover, if the proctor is willing to ask for your help in breaking one rule, it’s hard to imagine they can be trusted in other ways.  The moment they ask you to shorten a section, give up your break, or signal when you’re done, they have shown that you can’t trust them not to chat with a colleague or interrupt you in some other way.


What Can You Do About It?

This is the hard part.  Most of us are wired not to mess with the person who’s supposed to run the show (in this case, the proctor).  We’re also wired to follow peer pressure.  This can make it hard to confront a rule-breaking proctor or the students who go along with them.

Fortunately, there’s at least one way to avoid those confrontations.

One is to call or email someone at the test center in advance about your concerns.  You can also reach out to the makers of the test (look for the “contact us” page on their website).  If you tell them you’ve heard stories about rule violations and don’t want that at your test center, they might help you by reminding everyone involved to follow the rules.

On test day, you can approach your proctor in advance and say something like this:

“Hi.  I wanted to ask you about something.  I’ve heard a lot of people talking about proctors who end sections early, skip breaks, or allow conversation in the room.  That’s against the rules, right?”

It’s important to ask the question as a genuine question, not as a low-key accusation.

What’ll happen when you ask that question?  Most likely, they’ll give you a knee-jerk response like, “of course not!  We follow all the rules!” In most cases, this will be true; most proctors follow the rules.  But even if the proctor turns out to be the type to bend or break the rules, getting them to offer assurances will improve the odds significantly.  Why? Because you’ll have reminded them of their duties, you’ll have shown that you’re paying attention, and they’ll have heard themselves promise to follow the rules.

In the off chance the proctor gives you any other answer – a weak-tea promise, or something like “yeah we might shorten the breaks if everyone wants to” – politely request to speak with the supervisor of the test center, and don’t budge until you can raise your concerns with them.


Do you have a story about bad proctoring you’d like to share?  Have you successfully confronted a rule-bending proctor and gotten them to follow the rules?  Share your experiences on our Facebook page!

Building Speed on ACT Science (and Similar Questions on the SAT)

The ACT Science section is completely unlike most science tests you’ve taken in school.  Rather than testing your science knowledge per se, it tests your ability to understand information and make inferences based on it.  You might want to think of it as an “information processing” section.

The SAT doesn’t have this kind of section per se, but it does have the same kinds of questions spread throughout its other sections.

If you’re having trouble moving quickly enough on these questions, there are four main problems you might be facing:

  1. Not understanding questions/answer choices quickly enough
  2. Not recognizing important info quickly enough
  3. Having a hard time filtering out irrelevant or distracting info
  4. Second-guessing yourself too much

You might have noticed these problems can easily come up in other areas as well – not just on the ACT or SAT, but on other tests, in other academic settings, and in life beyond.  That means solving these challenges can change the game for you far beyond the test – something Rocket Prep is all about.

All of these can all be addressed through mindful practice with good coaching.  When you practice, focus closely on each question and write or speak it out in your own words.  Your tutor or coach can help you by reading or listening to your paraphrases and offering suggestions.  Then do the same with each answer choice and the information you think you need from the passage.

When done right, this is a slow, painstaking process – very much unlike the fast judgment calls you’ll have to make on the real thing.  But don’t be fooled: through this process, you are slowly and steadily rewiring your brain to understand and interpret the passages and questions efficiently.  Instead of focusing directly on speed, you are training your brain to capture the information you need and ignore the rest.  As you hone those skills, you’ll naturally build speed.

Learning differences or different styles of information processing can also affect this process.  It will be important to figure out what kinds of information you process most easily (words? Diagrams? Graphs?) and approach the rest accordingly.  For kinds of information that are particularly challenging for you, translating them into other forms – e.g. drawing pictures based on the text, taking notes on diagrams and graphs, etc. – can help tremendously.

You can get a further boost on point 3 by using your hands – literally.  Once you see information in the passage you think you need, use your hand(s) to cover parts of the passage around it so that it’s easier to focus on what you need.  When you’re looking at answer choices, physically cover all but one or two at a time.  When you see that an answer choice is clearly incorrect, cross out the whole thing instead of just the letter.

Why does physically covering things help?  Because anything in your field of view can distract you, muddle your thinking, and make you less sure of yourself – even if you’re not aware that that’s happening.  Your brain is always processing everything your eyes see, even if you’re not consciously focusing on it.  Anything you can do to simplify your visual field will help.  Try it and you’ll see: it’s much easier to focus and think when there’s less in front of you.

School Your Way: Surviving Virtual Schooling

The 2020-2021 school year has begun, for better and for worse.  Students are headed back to school via virtual classes, homeschooling, in-person classes, and every combination of those.  It’s a crazy time, and everyone’s looking to do it right – or just survive.

Online school poses a whole host of challenges that most of us – and most of our schools – simply are not well positioned to address.  Most of us are just doing damage control.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can use this challenging time as an opportunity.

In my discussion with Brandi Davis of Your Parenting Partner, the first in her School Your Way podcast series, I outlined the most important of those challenges and offered some ideas about how we can all address them.

Here’s a quick list of topics we discussed:

  • How and why has COVID-era virtual school been failing?

  • How and why has e-learning in general fallen short of our expectations?

  • What lessons can we learn from those failures?

  • How can we make up for what our children are missing, and how can we help students who are struggling?

  • What does successful online education look like, and what are the factors in that success?

  • What roles do cognitive workload, discipline, social interaction, routine, and resilience play?

  • How can we go beyond damage control and turn this challenging time into an opportunity?

  • What should parents do to support their children?

What do you think?  Join the conversation on Facebook!

How much does a good tutor cost?

As in any field, tutoring and academic coaching happens in a wide price range.  There’s no shortage of college students who will charge $20 per hour or less.  There are also professional tutors who will charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

What’s a fair price?  What are you getting when you spend more?  How can you tell whether it’s worth the money? What credentials justify higher prices?  How much does a 4.0 GPA or a 1600 on the SAT count for?

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it starts with understanding what words like “tutor” and “coach” mean.

Understanding the levels of tutoring and coaching

There are three basic skillsets to consider.

The first is simply being a subject matter expert, or SME.  This is when a person knows their stuff, aced their classes, achieved a top score on a test, published original research, and so on.  Their knowledge and skills in a certain area are at a higher level than most people’s.

The second skillset is being able to explain the subject matter to a non-expert.  This is a completely different and separate skillset from being an expert in the subject.

The third skillset is being able to teach or coach.  Teaching and coaching go far beyond explanation to devising systems to support ongoing learning.  If you’re really teaching, explanation is only part of what you’re doing.  The real work of teaching is to engage the minds of learners, enticing them to acquire knowledge and develop skills, and facilitating those processes.  Coaching zooms out even further, helping a learner create systems for learning and development more broadly, and helping a struggling student move toward self-sufficiency.  These are complex tasks, and they’re where the real benefits lie.

In other words, there are two quantum leaps in expertise to consider: SME to explainer, and explainer to teacher/coach.  Each leap comes with massive benefits, and usually – though not always – a price increase.

Anyone can call themselves a tutor

We tend to think that if someone is an SME, that fact alone makes them a good person to learn from.  Even colleges and universities tend to operate on that premise; most professors are little more than SMEs.

This is one reason why there are so many tutors out there.  Because it’s so common to assume SMEs are good people to learn from, anyone who has earned good grades, achieved 99% percentile test scores, or successfully majored in a subject can hang out a shingle as a “tutor”, regardless of how well they can explain, teach, or coach.  There are a lot of people who fit this description, hence the relatively low prices at which they often operate (think $30-$50 per hour).

Sadly, for most students, a tutor who is just an SME – and not a good explainer, teacher, or coach – will likely be ineffective or worse.  They may be charging very little money, but they’ll deliver even less.  This is a surprisingly common situation, and not just because expertise and teaching abilities are two different things; it’s also because being an SME means performing at a high level intuitively – and intuitions, by definition, are hard to explain.  This is why, for example, tutors who achieved the highest scores on the ACT or SAT are often poor fits for students starting at the 60th percentile or lower.

In the worst cases, expecting help from someone who can’t effectively explain, teach, or coach can leave a student feeling even more daunted than they were before.  If a student still can’t understand the material after hiring a tutor, they’re likely to think the material must be even further out of our reach than they had initially thought.  This is especially true if the tutor can’t effectively meet the student where they’re at.  If a tutor can’t intuitively see and connect with a student’s struggles, they won’t help the student effectively – and they’ll often blame the student for a lack of motivation, attention, discipline, or potential.

Could you get lucky and find a good explainer or even a decent teacher or coach in the $20-$30 per hour range?  Maybe.  If you do, hold on to that person with both hands.  But don’t bet on finding them.

Explanation can’t explain everything

SMEs who can explain their subjects to non-experts are rare gems.  When they become tutors, they command higher rates.  Exceptional explanatory ability is typically what takes tutors beyond $20-$30 per hour.

The ability to explain things is deeply valuable for obvious reasons.  But it’s also vastly overrated.  It’s often the main thing people come up with when they think about what makes a good tutor or teacher, even though we know it’s only part of the puzzle. We know you can’t listen your way to real expertise.  Real learning comes from trying things and receiving feedback, and that can’t be replicated just by listening to or watching something.  That’s why doctors do residencies, craftspeople do apprenticeships, and employers look for experience.

The real value of effective explanations is:

  1. To give you a head-start at learning something for real, or

  2. To help you make sense of something you’re already learning.

Some students don’t need much more than this.  A student who is highly motivated, conscientious, and self-aware, but who struggles with understanding a certain subject, might get enough of a boost from a decent explanation of certain topics.  In that case, it’s the student who’s really doing the teaching – or, more accurately, self-teaching. The tutor is there to translate complex and esoteric concepts into language the student can handle.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough for most students.  Most need at least some help figuring out how to learn a topic effectively, not to mention executing those methods.  For them, if a tutor doesn’t understand or can’t work with the complex dynamics of teaching and coaching, they will be unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst.

Highly effective and dazzling explanations can often mask this problem: they can give students a short-term feeling of having improved their understanding, which makes it harder to realize that they have a hard time implementing that understanding.  This, in turn, makes them prone to the same “what’s wrong with me?” self-criticism described at the end of the previous section.

In my experience, that masking effect is often a factor in the very high prices of some tutors.  I’ve seen a lot of tutors who charge well over $100 per hour – sometimes a few times that – who have unparalleled expertise and explanatory ability, but minimal teaching or coaching skills.  Their explanations are so impressive that most people don’t question the price premium even if they haven’t really learned effectively.  Instead, they blame themselves.

To sum up everything thus far: if you want a tutor who is more than just an SME, you should expect to pay more – though paying more doesn’t always guarantee a better result.

The real deal: Teachers and Coaches

If you really want to get better at something, you have to work your way up to the level of expertise you want.  On the way there, the tasks and the pace have to be right.  And what’s right for you is going to change as your skills and circumstances evolve, so you need to be able to adjust.

This is where teachers and coaches come in.

Identifying the right path from novice to expert – and helping a learner to walk that path – requires a teacher or coach to:

  1. Figure out the personality, predispositions, skills, and unique challenges of the learner;

  2. Visualize the expert that the learner could become;

  3. Understand what skills the learner will have to develop, and in what order to address them;

  4. Design experiences that will help the learner develop those skills in the right order;

  5. Anticipate and perceive new challenges as they come up;

  6. Be sensitive to external factors that might affect the process;

  7. Do all of this while maintaining a good working and personal relationship with the learner; and

  8. Be ready and able to adjust any and all of these factors at any time as work proceeds.

This is why good teachers and coaches are so rare.  This is why good teachers and coaches charge more for their services.  Getting good at teaching and coaching requires a lot of time, a lot of talent, and a commitment to continual improvement.  The result is someone who can do much more for many more people.

For these reasons, good teachers and coaches are rare at low and even moderate price points.  If you can find one under $200 per hour, and if you can afford to pay that, jump on it.

If that kind of expense is a stretch, consider this: the job of a teacher or coach is to get you to the point that you no longer need them, and a good one will get you there faster.  With the right one, you might spend more per hour, but you could easily spend fewer hours for better results.

Also consider the value of having learned real skills and gotten your feet under you.  A tutor who has good teaching and coaching skills won’t just help you know things or succeed in one topic area; they will help you develop broadly applicable tools like metacognition, self-awareness, self-efficacy, and techniques to manage stress and mental workload – tools you can use anywhere on any task.  Those skills will keep paying off long after the impact of your GPA or test score has faded into insignificance.

Again, paying more is no guarantee of a better result.  But better results almost always warrant higher prices.

What if I want the highest level of expertise but not the highest prices?

Don’t worry!  You have a few options.

  1. Do a few sessions with a tutor who has good teaching and coaching skills, and then scale back your sessions with them as you continue on your own.  This requires solid discipline on your part, but it’ll pay off in a big way if you can pull it off.  Your tutor can help you get a framework in place, and then they can step back as you take the reins.  You can always set up a schedule to check in with them at longer but regular intervals.

  1. Get together with friends or peers for group sessions.  Multiple people can split the fee, making it much more manageable.  With a good tutor and the right group, it won’t be like any old class; it’ll be like multiple people getting high-quality individual tutoring at the same time.  If that doesn’t seem possible, contact me.

  1. Conduct a lot of interviews – and, if possible, auditions.  Any good tutor should be willing to have an initial open-ended meeting with any prospective student.  Take advantage of this.  Make sure the tutor you select has a good understanding of what you need, good ideas about how to help you, and clear evidence that they can do what they say they can.  Personality counts for a lot, too.  If you can relate to each other effectively, that will have just as big an impact as any other asset the tutor might bring.  Finding the right combination can take a lot of work, but it’ll also help you get the most for your money – or save you from spending too much.

Prioritizing your SAT or ACT Prep for Maximum Benefit on the Test and Beyond

When preparing for the ACT or SAT exam, one of the questions we address most frequently is which section(s) to prioritize to maximize the ACT or SAT Score.  Is it better to work on the lowest section scores or to focus on areas where performance is already strong?

I love this question.  Not only is it important for practical reasons, but it also gives us a chance to exercise other important skills. This question is really a specific instance of a more general dilemma:  Should I focus on my weaknesses or play to my strengths?  When you put it like that, it’s easy to see how important it can be to be able to answer that question – not just in the context of SAT or ACT preparation, but generally.  The ability to prioritize accurately is as close as we humans get to a superpower.

Moreover, the best answer can change month-to-month or even week-to-week.  That’s both a great reason and an excellent opportunity to practice answering that question effectively, again and again.

In other words, answering this question is one of the many ways we can turn ACT and SAT preparation into a training ground for vastly more useful skills.

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll go over the various factors involved in making this decision – not just the first time, but every time.  I’ll start by providing a few tips that are specific to the SAT and ACT.  Then, I’ll zoom out to cover more general scenarios and show how this process can help you beyond the test.

Part 1: Which Section of the ACT or SAT exam challenges you the Most?

Answering this question starts with understanding the challenges you face and the skills you have at your disposal.

For the SAT and ACT exams in particular, a good starting point is to know the kinds of questions you’ll face in each section.  With that in mind, let’s start with a quick recap and overview.

The SAT has four main sections:

  • Reading (52 questions, 65 minutes)

  • Writing & Language (44 questions, 35 minutes)

  • Math – no calculator allowed (20 questions, 25 minutes)

  • Math – calculator allowed (38 questions, 55 minutes)

The ACT also has four main sections:

  • English (75 questions, 45 minutes)

  • Math (60 questions, 60 minutes)

  • Reading (40 questions, 35 minutes)

  • Science (40 questions, 35 minutes)

Each test also offers an optional essay and may include an experimental section, but those don’t matter for this discussion.  I’ll cover why that is, as well as the big difference in time-per-question on the SAT vs. the ACT, in future posts.

What’s important here is the content breakdown.  Both the ACT and the SAT exams test roughly the same content.  There are differences in how the content is tested, but those differences don’t matter much when considering which sections to prioritize. You can see these differences in any ACT or SAT practice test.

The Reading sections of the ACT and SAT exams are very similar.  Each section has several passages of text that are clipped and edited from real books, articles, and speeches.  Each Reading passage has several multiple-choice questions associated with it.  Answering Reading questions correctly requires you to have read the passage – and the questions and answer choices themselves – very closely.

The Math sections of the ACT and SAT exams both cover content up to a level that most students reach in precalculus.  You can expect some foundational math, lots of algebra and geometry, and a few questions on more advanced topics like trigonometry.  Both the ACT and SAT Exam mix straightforward math problems with sophisticated word problems.

The SAT’s Writing & Language section and the ACT’s English section are, for all practical purposes, differently sized and paced versions of the exact same thing.  Like the Reading sections, they are based on passages that are clipped and edited from other writings.  Some of those edits include intentional errors in grammar, word choice, sentence order, and so on.  Multiple-choice questions in the English and Writing & Language sections are about how to fix and improve those errors (or recognizing when no correction is needed).

The ACT has a Science section whereas the SAT does not.  However, the SAT does include the same kinds of questions peppered throughout its Reading and Math sections.  With extremely rare exceptions – only 1 or 2 questions, and only on the ACT – these questions are not about testing your knowledge of science facts.  Rather, they are about drawing logical conclusions from graphs, tables, and descriptions.  Again, both the SAT and the ACT exams include these questions; the main difference is that the ACT has a whole section just for them whereas the SAT includes them in multiple sections.

Given all of that, there are basically four main classes of content you’ll face:

  • Reading comprehension

  • English language mechanics (grammar, semantics, etc.)

  • Math

  • Scientific reasoning

Part 2: Frequently Asked Questions about how to approach these challenges

Here’s a quick breakdown of how to get started on each of those kinds of content.

How should I tackle scientific reasoning questions?

I’m putting this category first because it’s easiest to know what to do with.  If you’re preparing for the ACT and the Science section just freaks you out, then you might want to focus on it a bit.  A little familiarity and a few simple tricks can wring a few easy points out of it.   Otherwise, don’t worry about this question type.  The skills you’ll gain by working on other sections are likely to improve your abilities on these question types anyway, so you’ll probably be able to pick up a few points for free.

How should I improve my reading comprehension?

For most people, Reading usually takes the most work to improve.  Usually doesn’t mean always, but it’s surprisingly safe to assume this will apply to you unless you have evidence to the contrary.

One option is to prioritize this section, but work on high-yield strategies that will pay off elsewhere on the SAT or ACT: using process-of-elimination, comparing answer choices two-at-a-time, marking up the passages and questions intelligently, and so on.

Another option is to simply leave the Reading section for last.  You can practice the aforementioned high-yield strategies on other sections – like the Writing & Language, English, and Science sections – and then use them to get a head-start on your Reading prep.

Whichever option you choose, practice the Reading section without time limits at first.  You need to train your mind to pick up on the kinds of details and concepts that the ACT and SAT are interested in.  Once you’ve done that, you can pivot to working on speed.

Is English or Math easier to improve?

This depends on you.  There’s a lot involved – your skills, your preferences, the work you put in, and so on – and the reality can be surprising.  The best thing to do is usually to try working on both and see how it goes.

For example, if you’re inclined toward Math, you might feel that English skills are difficult territory because they don’t seem as systematic or “objective” as Math is.  That may be true in general, but both the ACT and SAT exams select rules of grammar and style that are as predictable as math.  You might find that your penchant for the systematic makes the SAT’s Writing & Language section or the ACT’s English section very math-like.

On the other hand, if you’re verbally inclined, you might find Math too esoteric or complicated.  Again, that’s arguably true.  However, both the ACT and SAT exams present surprising numbers of problems you can just reason through using processes that may not feel very math-like.

Again, the best way to decide is to try both.

When should I shift my attention to another section?

Ideally, you should work mainly on one section until you are consistently able to get the score you want in that section with the normal time limit.

If you don’t know what score you want – for example, if you’re just trying to get the highest possible score – look out for when your improvement on one section starts slowing down, and make your move at that point.

There may be times when you just get stuck for a few weeks and your performance and score don’t move.  If that happens, shifting to a different content area can help keep you moving.  It can also give you some ideas for when you return to that troublesome section.

Is it more important to raise the composite score or to improve weak section scores?

If you’re taking the SAT, imagine scoring 750 in Math and 500 in Reading and Writing, for a total of 1250. Now, imagine scoring 600 in both sections, for a total of 1200.

If you’re taking the ACT, imagine scoring 34 in Math and 22 in each of the other sections, for a composite score of 25.  Now, imagine scoring 24 in all sections, for a composite score of 24.

In either case, which is the better outcome: the higher composite score or the more even section scores?

Again, it depends.  What matters for the colleges or universities you’re applying to?  Which scenario fits better with the rest of your application?  Which is more in-line with your own personal goals?  Which is most feasible for you?  Advice from your college counselor, teachers, and a test prep tutor can be key here.

When A Problem Seems Insurmountable, What’s The Real Challenge?

“Oh, man. See… When I see a question like this, it just makes my head spin.”

That’s a direct quote from one of my students in a recent session.  My student was looking at the kind of math problem that buries a very simple question under layers of geometry and several lines of text.

Although this kind of problem can seem intimidating, it’s easily solved using simple methods and a little patience.  It’s an excellent opportunity to show how complicated-seeming problems can be broken down and conquered with surprisingly little effort.  That lesson isn’t just useful on a test; it’s also vitally empowering.

The math problem was important for another reason:  it made my student visibly anxious.  If we could tackle it at that moment with a simple and powerful method, that might have significantly improved my student’s state of mind and bolstered our rapport.

In other words, my student was handing me a golden opportunity to teach one of the easiest, most impactful lessons I could possibly teach.  The moment practically begged me to jump in and lead.

I did lead – but I didn’t jump in.

I signaled that I had heard and understood what my student had said.  Then I watched, waited, and said nothing.  I paused.  I held myself back for less than half a minute.  And in that time, my student slowly started chipping away at the problem until the solution was clear.

As a tutor, it’s easy to see situations like this as invitations to take over and deliver your highly effective anxiety-crushing methods.  You don’t want to see your students struggle in vain, especially with something you’re being paid to help them learn.  You want them to see you delivering the solutions they expect.  And although you’d hate to admit it, you want the feeling of vindication that comes from demonstrating an easy solution to someone’s apparently intractable distress.

But I hadn’t been invited to jump in.  It took careful observation of body language and facial expressions to notice, but my student hadn’t given up.  The anxiety was real, but it was manageable.  My student’s comment was an invitation to listen and understand.  It warranted receptivity and validation, not rescue.  It demanded respect for my student’s space and capabilities.

Had I jumped in at that moment, I would have replaced my student’s solution with my own.  If my student felt any positive emotion after that, it would have been nothing more than an evanescent sense of relief.  The price for that relief would have been validation of my student’s initial anxiety and suppression of their talent. I would have denied my student the chance to see and exercise their own strength – something more valuable than literally anything else I could have offered in that moment.

This is a context in which vision is crucial for a tutor.  What was my student’s most important struggle in that moment?  Despite initial appearances, it wasn’t the struggle against the math problem itself.  We know that because my student soon solved it.  The most important struggle was against the illusion that the problem was too difficult to solve without help.  It’s hard to imagine a better way for my student to prevail than literally solving the problem without help.

I’ve never been in a situation in which a moment of attentive silence has truly gone amiss.  I have been in countless moments in which attentive silence has allowed my students to practice seeing skills and capabilities in themselves. I’ll take that over the alternative every time.

Students come to a tutor for guidance.  Sometimes they also need a boost.  But nothing should eclipse the need for space.

Intelligence vs. Work in Test Prep and Beyond

One student rolls out of bed, takes the SAT with no preparation, and scores a 1570.

Another student works on SAT prep many hours a week for almost a year, inching up slowly but surely from a 1050 to a 1280.

Which student got the better result?

On whose long-term success – academic, professional, financial, personal – would you rather bet?

If you’re like most people, your first reaction will be to pick the student who scored a 1570 with no prep, far exceeding even the best score the other student achieved.  1570 is above the 99th percentile.  It’s simply impossible to score that high without good education and a certain amount of raw intelligence – even with test prep.  To get there without any test prep at all suggests an extremely powerful intellect, a trait that makes us think a person will achieve great things in life.

But have you ever stopped to think about why we think intelligence leads to success? Obviously it helps, but the reality is complicated.

There’s no shortage of stories by successful people about how they achieved their success.  If you listen to those stories, you’ll quickly notice a few themes.  The list will look something like this:

1.      Resilience
2.      Discipline
3.      Goals
4.      Luck
5.      Seeing lessons and opportunities where others see failure

You don’t have to be a genius to notice that intelligence isn’t on that list. It certainly comes up, but not as often and not as prominently on average.

Here’s another angle: take a quick look at the World Genius Directory.  How many of the top names have you heard of?  How far down the list do you have to go to find people you have heard of?  When you think of people who have accomplished great things in history, how many are high on that list?

But don’t successful people always seem so intelligent?  Aren’t they deeply insightful and good at making good choices?  Of course.  But look deeper. Most of the insights and decisions that seem to have been produced by intelligence are actually more about wisdom: knowledge and expertise gained through experience.  Next time you hear a successful person say something deeply insightful, or when you see them do things that turn out well, ask yourself – or, better yet, ask them – whether that insight or those choices came from raw mental horsepower or old-fashioned experience.  I suspect you already know which answer will be more common.

It’s not that intelligence isn’t important at all.  Of course it is.  In fact, IQ is very well correlated with success.  But as Malcom Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, the correlation only seems to go so far.  As long as you’re smart enough – which is pretty smart, but not genius-level smart – other factors like grit, people skills, and luck become more important. Being smarter than that doesn’t much improve your odds of success.

In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s excellent work on moral psychology shows in great detail that our intellect is not a master of the forces that drive us, but a servant to them. We can use it to seek truth and wisdom, but its main purpose and function is to make sense of and reinforce what we believe for other reasons. We think, we feel, we react, and our intellects step in afterward to justify it all to ourselves and others. Thus, powerful intelligence amplifies who we are, for better and for worse. It doesn’t necessarily make us better people.

So, yes, being intelligent is a major asset. But it needs to be combined with other skills and aimed at a worthy goal. If it isn’t, it’s a tool without a purpose – and it can even become a liability.

All of this is important context when we consider our two students mentioned above.

The one who scored a 1570 without effort is obviously brilliant.  But that kind of easy success comes with a curse: it tends to make you believe that success is simply a matter of showing up and having the right attributes.  That idea is mistaken in the worst way. If you end up absorbing it – consciously or not – what are you to make of your future successes and failures? After all, you’ve been trained to think and act as though success depends not on what you choose to do, but on who you are. When you succeed, it’s hard to really own your success because you chalk it up to attributes you didn’t choose and can’t easily change. When you don’t succeed, you’re likely to think it’s because you can’t succeed.

If you’re the second student, you’ve had exactly the opposite experience.  You started with a result you didn’t like, skills you had to improve, a goal you hadn’t reached.  Then you got to work.  You pushed.  You stuck with it no matter how tedious or repetitive or difficult it got.  You moved toward a goal.  You acquired skills.  You improved yourself.  You really succeeded – not because of some natural gift you didn’t choose and can’t change, but because of the choices you made.  You came to a situation you didn’t like, and you changed it.  You changed it. And now, you know you can do it again. If you absorb that idea, you can own your future successes because you’ll see the choices that led to them. And you can see your failures for what they really are: invitations and opportunities to make more choices that can lead you ever upward.

Which set of notions would you rather come away with?  When you venture out into adulthood, with all of its impenetrable uncertainties and awesome responsibilities and endless possibilities, which mentality would you rather have?

Obviously, the ideal would be to have the big score and the experience of hard goal-directed work – the intellect and the grit.  And again, the point here is not that intelligence or test scores don’t matter.  Clearly they do.

The point here is that your score doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you did to get it and what you did when you got it.

If you look at a standardized test as a measure of your innate talent, it’ll be a dismal experience no matter what your score is.  But if you use it as a context in which to develop meaningful skills, that experience will keep paying off long after the impact of your score has faded.

So, what to do?

If you don’t have the score you want, smile and thank your lucky stars.  You’re reaching beyond yourself to become more than you are.  The experience of learning something through effort is a gift that never stops giving, and tests like the SAT and ACT are very learnable.  This is a golden opportunity to put in some effort and reap some reward.  And that’s an opportunity you might not have had if you were starting with a higher score.

If you already have that higher score, you have a different kind of opportunity – and an additional responsibility.  You can refuse to rest on your laurels and keep pushing for an even higher score, or you can close this chapter and seek another more challenging conquest.  Either way, you can take this chance to be one step closer to being the kind of person who will never, ever stop improving.  Surround yourself with people who can help you decide on a path and wring every drop of advantage from it.