Psyching Out the SAT
It's never too late to add a few points to your score, says Bob Schaeffer, a critic of the test. The key is to be fearless and well prepared
On November 5, some 350,000 students will sweat through the SAT--the year's top turnout. Bob Schaeffer, public-education director of the watchdog group FairTest and co-author of Standing Up to the SAT ($6.95; order from FairTest, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139), advises the jittery masses.
This year, the SAT has a new name--Scholastic Assessment Test instead of Aptitude--and some new content. Will coaching or other prep work help with the new test?
Actually, it's easier to coach than the old test. The new SAT is close to 90 percent the same as the old SAT, so nearly everything that worked before should work now. But the new SAT cut the antonym section. Test coaches say that was hardest to coach. It is replaced by more reading-comprehension passages, which are beatable by test-wise kids who know you don't have to read the passages to get the answers right.
For example, by eliminating obviously wrong answers and then guessing, you dramatically increase your odds of guessing right. If the test asks what a certain word means, a word like bark with multiple meanings is often used. The obvious meaning is rarely right. There are always reading passages about women and minorities. If there's a question about, say, a woman scientist, pick a positive adjective to describe her.
Will coaching really help much?
In the College Board's 1955 annual report, the director stated: "If the board's test can be regularly beaten through coaching, then the board is itself discredited." Now the College Board sells coaching products. A couple of years ago, FairTest reported on a wealth of literature demonstrating that good coaching courses raise a student's combined score an average of 100 points. Some people who are coached will go up 200 points; a few will go up zero--they just don't get it.
SAT software looks enticing. Dk you like electronic tutorials?
If you're a computer nerd like me, you might do some initial practice on a computer. But you definitely want to include a pencil and paper test; preparing should be as close as possible to the real thing. There should be a clock, you should not have food, you should get up some Saturday at 7 so you know how you function early in the morning. The book Taking the SAT, which every student gets, has a sample test. The College Board's own prep book, Introducing the New SAT, has a complete test and more than 80 additional sample questions.
If you were a first-timer, what would you do? Prepare in a way that matches your learning style and your parents' pocketbook. At a minimum, do a couple of practice tests. Next, read a test prep book. If you have the time and money, consider a commercial coaching product or course.
Do you have any advice for girls, who typically don't score as well as boys on the SAT?
The gender gap has virtually disappeared on the ACT Assessment--0.2 points on a scale of 1 to 36 for the high school class of 1994, compared with 45 points on the SAT. The ACT, the No. 2 college admissions test, is not necessarily better. But it is different, more linked to the type of problems encountered in the classroom. It does not have esoteric mind games, like analogies and comparisons of mathematical equations. Research shows that girls do better on concrete problems and boys do better on abstract items. More schools are accepting scores from the ACT, which is given nationally. For kids uncomfortable with strategic guessing, the ACT also has advantages. The SAT penalizes wrong answers; the ACT does not.