20 Hours of Practice

photo credit: 57_365 by Alba Estevez G via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The College Board is singing the praises of their partner, the Khan Academy. According to a recent article, 20 hours of practice on the Khan Academy website “is associated with an average score gain of 115 points, nearly double the average score gain compared to students who don’t use Khan Academy.”


The article notes that Khan Academy practice is personalized. This is true: students can link their Khan Academy account with their College Board account to get personalized practice questions based on their performance on previous tests. You can also practice specific content areas, “leveling up” as you improve. For example, if you choose to practice linear equations, you will start at Level 2, and if you get five questions in a row correct, you will advance to Level 3, and on up to Level 5.


The problem is that some of the questions are much too difficult—even on Level 3. While it’s true that any student who could master Level 5 will probably get a near-perfect score on the SAT, some students could end up wasting a lot of time agonizing over questions that would never show up on the real test. Another problem is that the SAT has more than five problems per section—and it’s timed! While Khan Academy is a good resource, if you want a more accurate picture of what to expect on test day, it makes more sense to take official SAT tests.


Each SAT is 3 hours (not counting the essay), so you’d need to do 7 of them to get in 20 hours of actual test taking—BUT there’s more to studying than just taking practice tests. In fact, far more important than taking tests is reviewing them—looking at every missed question and figuring out why you missed it. Every official practice test comes with answer explanations, so if you can’t figure it out, you can look it up. The more questions you miss, the more time it will take to review, so the number of test sections needed to fill up 20 hours will vary from student to student. There are eight official tests available for free on the College Board and Khan Academy websites, so regardless of how much time you spend reviewing, you can definitely get in your 20 hours.


While you should take at least one full practice test in one sitting, replicating actual test conditions as closely as possible, you don’t have to take a complete test every time you sit down to study. If you take one section a day for four days a week and review every question you miss, you could get in your 20 hours (or close) in about six weeks.


Again, you can do this all on your own for free. But if you would like a little guidance, we’re here to help! And even if you don’t live in Austin, we do Skype tutoring, so we’ve got you covered. Give us a call at 512-453-7272 to schedule a free consultation.


New SAT Accommodations Policy

no more tests 05.30.09 [150] by timlewisnm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).jpg

no more tests 05.30.09 [150] by timlewisnm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).jpg

Exciting news! The College Board has announced a new streamlined process for students to get accommodations for the SAT.

For years, when my students have asked about accommodations, I’ve told them, “You’d better apply now because it takes forever to get approval—if you do.” But, according to the Washington Post, starting in January 2017, most students who have accommodations in school (e.g. extra time, private testing rooms, readers for students with language processing disorders) will automatically be approved for accommodations on SAT and AP tests.

You can read the College Board’s announcement here.

Even more surprising is the fact that the College Board will now allow English Language Learners access to instructions in their native language as well as bilingual glossaries. For now, however, these accommodations will be available only during state-funded school-day tests that are given once or twice a year at participating campuses.

The Washington Post article notes that the College Board used the announcement to brag about the fact that students have 43% more time per question than on the ACT. True, but the ACT doesn’t have those “evidence-based” reading questions that everyone struggles with. I still think the answer to the question “which test is better?” depends on the student, but extending access to accommodations is a step in the right direction for the SAT. The two tests have been locked in a cat-and-mouse game for a while now, so I expect the ACT to follow suit shortly.

If you have questions about accommodations on standardized tests, talk to your guidance counselor or 504 coordinator. If you are wondering which test you should target (SAT or ACT), take practice tests for both. We offer free practice tests regularly. You can also schedule a free consultation by calling our office at 512-453-7272. We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in SAT

New SAT Practice Tests Available



Since the release of the Official SAT Study Guide for the revised SAT, there have been only four official practice tests available. That changed last week when Khan Academy published Tests #5 and #6 on their website. Update: The new tests are now available on the College Board website as well.

So if you’ve already exhausted the book and want some new material to work on before your fall SAT or PSAT, download these tests today!

College Board Releases Concordance Tables for New SAT

Project 365 #147- 270509 Testing Times Ahead by Pete via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Project 365 #147- 270509 Testing Times Ahead by Pete via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Scores for the first new SAT, which students took in March, have finally come back, and, just in time, the College Board has released concordance tables (i.e. comparison charts) that neatly line up new SAT scores with their pre-March 2016 test equivalents. They’ve also got tables comparing scores from the new SAT to those on the ACT. It’s all very simple and intuitive. Ha ha, just kidding; this is the College Board we’re talking about! They’ve got 16 different concordance tables! But here’s what you need to know . . .

The big picture: new scores are higher than the old scores. Overall, new SAT scores seem to be inflated by about 30-40 points per section. On the old test, an average section score (e.g. Math or Reading) was around 500. On the new test, it’s 530-540.

Similarly, the ACT average of 21 would have been roughly equivalent to a 1,000 on the old SAT but is now in the range of 1060-1090. (This information is on Table 7.) It remains to be seen what effect this change will have on automatic admissions scores. For example, Texas A&M has traditionally guaranteed admission for students with a score of 1300 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. But now a 1300 on the SAT is comparable to a 27 on the ACT. Presumably, they’ll update their requirements, but how soon? When the SAT added the Writing Skills section in 2005 (increasing the maximum score from 1600 to 2400), many colleges were slow to adapt and continued to base their admissions requirements on the 1600 scale (ignoring the Writing Skills section altogether). This is one reason there are so many concordance tables: there are 2400- and 1600-scale conversions (Tables 1 and 2, respectively).

There are, of course, tables comparing individual sections on the old and new tests as well. The Math table (Table 3) is fairly straightforward: a 500 on the old test is equivalent to a 530 on the new. But both the Reading and Writing & Language sections on the new test are scored on a scale of 10-40, so a 500 on the old SAT Critical Reading section translates to a 27 on the new SAT Reading test. That makes Tables 4 and 5 pretty confusing.

Here’s a better way to look at them. Since the new test combines the Reading and Writing & Language scores (on a 10-40) scale for a total of 800 points on the so-called Evidence-Based Reading & Writing Section (let’s just call it the EBRW Section), you can just take one of these two-digit scores and multiply by 20. The results are similar to the math-score conversions. Take new SAT Reading test score of 27:

27 x 20 = 540

According to Table 5, a 27 on the new Reading test translates to a 500 on the old test, so again, the new scores are about 30-40 points higher per section.

Table 6 compares the new EBRW Section (200-800) score to the old Critical Reading + Writing Skills (400-1600) score. If you double the new score, it’ll be about 90 points higher than the old score, so about 45-points higher per section.

Table 7 compares the new SAT to the ACT (see above). Table 8 compares the new SAT W&L score, which does not factor in the Essay score, to the ACT English/Writing score, which does, so this table makes little sense. Feel free to ignore it.

Tables 9 through 16 (old–>new) are just Tables 1 through 8 (new–>old) reversed. Basically, they tried to make things simple by duplicating everything. Typical!

The College Board also has a score-converter app. I’m sure it’s very user friendly . . .

Posted in SAT

Is It Ever Too Soon To Start Test Prep?



Image from: https://flic.kr/p/zVam1A

As the country’s most selective schools become ever more selective, some parents are trying to get a leg up on the competition by starting their kids prepping as early as middle school. But is that a good idea? When it comes to test prep, is there such a thing as “too soon”?

It’s definitely never too early to inspire a love of reading. Many expectant mothers even read to their unborn children! That’s great! As a test prep instructor, the scariest words I ever hear are “I hate reading!” When a student says that, I know it’s going to be an uphill battle–and not just on the Reading section. Those same students are likely to tell me, “I skipped that math problem because there were too many words.” No kidding; I’ve heard it a thousand times. Students who grow up reading tend to love reading, which means they tend to be good at it.

Similarly with math: If you start learning about fractions in Kindergarten, like I did, then you’re less likely to freeze up when the SAT asks you to add 3 1/2 and 4 2/3. Again, I’m not kidding: many high school students have no clue how to add mixed numbers.

The main skills tested on both the SAT and ACT are reading and math, so a good foundation in those areas is crucial. The sooner you start building that foundation, the better.

But buying your child the Official SAT Guide for her 12th birthday may do more harm than good.

Even highly motivated students can suffer from burnout. Good students tend to be curious. But tests don’t teach you anything; they just give you an opportunity to show off what you’ve already learned. While some students will relish the challenge at first, after a certain number of practice tests, it starts getting old.

Another potential problem with super-early prep is that most 8th graders and high school freshmen haven’t learned all of the math that’s tested on the SAT and ACT. Even if you’re the top student in your freshman algebra class, you probably haven’t learned about radians or imaginary numbers. Students used to getting almost every question right on every test in school may feel frustrated and disheartened when they miss ten questions on their first SAT practice test. They may start to question their abilities, and in the worst-case scenario, they may just give up.

Even if your child has the attitude, tenacity, and math chops for four years of test prep, there is one unavoidable problem: the finite amount of official test material. Right now there are only four official SATs and one official PSAT. Third-party guides exist, but their content doesn’t always match the test. For example, Kaplan’s “Eight Practice Tests for the New SAT 2016” is pretty good, but the math is about twice as hard as it needs to be. And the Princeton Review ACT guide dwells on concepts that the ACT seldom or never tests. Official materials are clearly the best, but even if you only take one practice test every two months, you’ll run out of SATs in less than a year. With the ACT you’ve got a bit more to work with–five tests in the official guide plus several others available online–but since the ACT has gradually evolved over the years, only a couple of those are fully up-to-date.

Re-taking tests is actually a very smart way to prep. But after you’ve done a test twice–maybe three times–you’re going to see diminishing returns. So it makes sense to save a few official practice tests for the month before the test. That’s going to be hard to do if you’re starting in 8th grade!

So what’s the bottom line? At MTAT, we recommend the following grade-appropriate plans:

8th grade (or younger): Read every day, take challenging courses, and don’t fall behind in your math classes!

Summer before 9th grade: Same advice, but if you’re dying to get your feet wet, take one practice test to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Summer before 10th grade: Take a practice test if you haven’t already. Consider doing some moderate prep work to become familiar with the test format and basic strategies. Purchase the official SAT or ACT guide, or enroll in a short-term grade-appropriate program like our PSAT 10 Early Start Program.

Summer before 11th grade: This is the best time to take a full-length prep course and as many practice tests as possible, saving one or two for the month leading up to the official test. Students who did well on their 10th grade PSATs should definitely start preparing over the summer for the junior-year October PSAT. National Merit scholarships are at stake, and summer PSAT preparation will also set students up for success on the SAT.

We’re always happy to answer questions about grade-appropriate prep or anything else! Give us a call at 512-453-7272, or shoot us an email at [email protected] today!

PSAT scores vs. SAT scores

Complementary Creative Commons Casio Calculator by Boaz Arad via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The new SAT debut is around the corner! On March 5th, the official test will be given for the first time. But it’ll seem awfully familiar to juniors who took the new PSAT/NMSQT in October. The SAT and PSAT/NMSQT are the two main tests in the “SAT Suite of Assessments”:

PSAT 8/9

Since the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT are practically the same test, and since PSAT/NMSQT is a rather unwieldy acronym, the rest of this article will just use “PSAT” to refer to both the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT.

The SAT and PSAT tests are very similar in content and structure. The main differences are:

1. The SAT is slightly longer: 3 hours compared to 2 hours and 45 minutes for the PSAT.
2. The SAT has an optional essay, which will bring the total test time to 3 hours and 50 minutes.
3. The SAT is supposed to be slightly more difficult than the PSAT.
4. The SAT is on a 400-1600 scale, whereas the PSAT is on a 320-1520 scale.

That last one is pretty confusing, especially considering statements like this from the College Board website:

The redesigned SAT Suite uses a common score scale, providing consistent feedback across assessments to help educators and students monitor growth across grades and to identify areas in need of improvement.

How can the SAT and PSAT use a common score scale when the highest score on the SAT is a 1600 but on the PSAT it’s only 1520?

The answer, according to a College Board packet is that the tests are “vertically equated.”

If that’s a good enough explanation for you, maybe you should work for the College Board!

Here’s a better explanation. According to that same packet, the score you get on the PSAT is the score you would likely have gotten had you taken the SAT on the same day. For example, if you got a perfect score of 1520 on the PSAT, you would probably have gotten a (less than perfect) score of 1520 had you instead taken the SAT because the SAT is a little bit harder.

The reason the College Board does it this way is a little easier to understand when you consider the first test in the “Suite of Assessments,” the PSAT 8/9. This test will be given to 8th graders. Even the smartest kid in 8th grade probably hasn’t learned much about radians, for example. That kid might get a perfect score on his PSAT 8/9, but if he took the SAT, he’d probably miss that one question about radians and get a lower score. If the PSAT 8/9 was on the same 1600 point scale as the SAT, that kid might get his score report and say, “Only 1440 out of 1600? But I’m the smartest kid in 8th grade!” (As it happens, 1440 is a perfect score on the PSAT 8/9.)

Presumably the verbal questions also get progressively more difficult as we move from PSAT 8/9 to PSAT to SAT. However, the College Board hasn’t released a PSAT 8/9 to the public. Comparing the one PSAT they have released to the four SATs in the Official SAT Study Guide, I can’t tell a whole lot of difference, but presumably the College Board has assigned difficulty levels to questions based on focus groups (test students). Those extra 80 points on the SAT come from the extra questions that were too difficult for the PSAT.

If you really want to, you can read all about the SAT Suite of Assessments vertical score scale here.

The PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index Demystified




With the October PSAT just around the corner, a lot of parents and students are asking, “What score do students need to get National Merit recognition and/or scholarships?”

Well, it’s a little complicated . . .

First of all, it’s impossible to know exactly what the cutoff is until after the scores are released because the top 3.33% of scorers are eligible for recognition, so the threshold score changes from year to year. Also, because the National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes the top students in every state, the threshold score varies from state to state.

In years past, students could get a pretty good idea what a qualifying score would be based on the previous year’s threshold score for their state. But this year there’s a new test scored on a new scale. Actually, there are two scales. (I said it was complicated.)

When they announced the new SAT and PSAT, the College Board claimed they would be simplifying things by putting them on the same 1600 point scale. But later, they dropped the PSAT top score down to 1520. They also added a separate selection index score on a scale of 8-38. To make matters worse, the Reading and Writing & Language scores are averaged for the overall score, but not for the selection index score. Simple, right?!

The big picture is a little easier to grasp if you start with the selection index scores. Each section (Math, Reading, and Writing & Language) is scored on a scale of 8-38. (Going from 0 to 30 makes more sense to me, but I wasn’t consulted.) Here are some hypothetical scores:

M: 28
R: 32
W&L: 30

The selection index is the sum of these scores multiplied by 2:

(28 + 32 + 30) x 2 = 180

The highest possible selection index score would be (38 + 38 + 38) x 2 = 228.

Okay, so much for the selection index score. What about the composite score?

The composite score can be calculated by first averaging the selection index scores of the two verbal sections and then multiplying the result by 20. The math Selection Index score is also multiplied by 20. These two scores are then added. For our hypothetical student, we get:

Verbal: [(32 + 30)/2] x 20 = 620
Math: 30 x 20 = 600
Composite: 1,220

The highest possible composite score is 1,520.

Note that the Math score counts for only one-third of the selection index, but one-half of the composite score. Or, in other words, each of the verbal sections counts for 25% of the composite score, but 33% of the selection index. Bottom line: if you’re competing for National Merit recognition, don’t neglect the Writing and Language section. It counts just as much as the other two, and it’s the easiest section to improve.

That’s all fine and good, you might be saying, but what score does a student need to shoot for to get National Merit recognition? What’s the magic number?

As stated above, no one–not even the College Board–knows at this point, but our (fairly conservative) anticipated threshold for National Merit recognition in Texas is 210.

So how many questions do you have to get right on each section to hit this target?

Reading: 42+
Writing & Language: 40+
Math: 39+

Of course, since all sections count equally, if you ace one of them, you’ll have a little more leeway on the other two. As stated above, students tend to get the biggest return on investment on the Writing & Language section since most of these questions test grammar rules that are fairly easy to master. Becoming a better reader or mathematician will require significantly more practice.

Anyone Can Learn Math!


Students tell me all the time: “I suck at math.”

I can sympathize. I sucked at math in high school. I hated it. And now I’m a math teacher! I love math! Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me back in high school:

If you suck at math, the main thing you need to understand is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Unless you have an injury in the part of your brain that deals with numbers, you are fully capable of doing math. You are also capable of teaching yourself math.

Your real problem is lack of motivation. You don’t need to feel guilty about that. You just need to recognize that it’s holding you back and decide you want to change. There are a lot of good reasons to want to become competent at math.

First of all, adults who never become competent in math can’t do basic things like figure out a tip or a discount in their heads (it’s pretty easy). They also can’t understand a lot of the information they read. They don’t really know how much more a billion dollars is than a million. They don’t know what it means when the weatherman says there’s a 60% chance of rain. And so on.

Adults who don’t understand math are also more likely to make bad financial decisions because they don’t understand interest rates and can’t accurately estimate their monthly expenses.

An even more fundamental reason you should want to develop your mathematical skills is that, along with language, math is one of the main things that separates humans from animals. The human brain is the most complex, sophisticated object in the known universe. Use it! Any time you actively teach yourself something, you are making yourself smarter, more disciplined, and more independent.

How to Teach Yourself Math

For the most part, mathematical competence is a result of “how-to” knowledge. To learn how to factor a quadratic equation the first time, you have to read about it. But to learn how to do it well, you just have to do it over and over again. It’s the same with music, sports, drawing, and so on.

Mathematical concepts build upon themselves. By the time you’re learning how to factor quadratic equations, simpler operations like adding and multiplying shoud already be second nature. If you have trouble adding or multiplying without a calculator, you probably need to practice some simpler problems. However, there’s nothing wrong with using a calculator, especially for subtraction and division. Just try not to rely on it too much. You shouldn’t need a calculator to take 14% of 100 (or 200, for that matter).

Anytime you’re struggling with an SAT or ACT math problem and you realize you don’t really know how to deal with, say, ratios or percents or functions or whatever, just look it up! There are tons of math websites out there. (Two good ones are Math Forum and AAA Math.) You can also just Google the concept you need help with and look at the top results. Just be sure you do enough practice problems to get each concept down cold.

You can also get an algebra textbook (any one will do), and work through it, skipping anything you already understand. When a concept gives you trouble, work through as many practice problems as necessary to get it down cold. (Of course, this approach requires some discipline, but so does learning any worthwhile skill.)

Remember to always show your work and use proper mathematical notation. For example, if a problem says, “the sum of a, b, and c is equal to 10,” don’t write this:

a, b, c = 10

or this:

abc = 10

The word “sum” means add, so you should write:

a+b+c = 10

No one ever got good at math by using their own personal notation system. Pay attention to details, and you’re much less likely to make mistakes.

Try to set aside thirty minutes to an hour each day to practice math. You will get better at it in no time, and you’ll be glad you did. Not only will your test scores improve, but when you see the results, and see that you were capable of doing it all along, you’ll realize how many more things you can do if you just put your mind to them!

The New SAT Study Guide

sat study guide


The new SAT Study Guide comes out tomorrow. We got an advance copy. Here’s the scoop.

The four tests in the guide are the same four tests available on the College Board website. It’s disappointing that they didn’t release more tests, but it’s nice that everything is basically free (minus the cost of ink and paper). The answer explanations are online too, so if you’re on a budget, there’s really no reason to pay for the book.

If you do pay for it (the cover price is $24.99 but Amazon has it for $17.00), you’ll get 326 pages of instructional material and practice problems, which are almost all taken from the SAT sample questions released back in March, and which are still available, with answer explanations, online.

What you will not find either in the book or online is a one-page answer key for each test. To grade a test, you have to flip through about 45 pages of answer explanations. Not very convenient! So we made up some answer keys to make things easier. You’re welcome!

New SAT Test 1 answer key

New SAT Test 2 answer key

New SAT Test 3 answer key

New SAT Test 4 answer key

Posted in SAT

New SAT Practice Tests Now Available

no more tests 05.30.09 [150] by timlewisnm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

no more tests 05.30.09 [150] by timlewisnm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).jpg

Today the College Board released four new practice SATs—presumably the same four that will appear in the new official guide scheduled for release June 30th.

This is the format:

Section 1: Reading: 65 minutes, 52 questions
Section 2: Writing & Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions
Section 3: Math (No Calculator): 25 minutes, 20 questions
Section 4: Math (Calculator): 55 minutes, 38 questions

Total: 180 min, 154 questions

That’s about 70 seconds per question—a little more (8 seconds) than on the old test. As noted before, they’ve also removed the 1/4 point guessing penalty and the obscure vocabulary questions, so overall this should be a less-stressful test.

I’ll be back soon with more info. Right now I’ve got some work to do!

Posted in SAT

Show Your Work!

show work

Whether you’re taking the SAT, the ACT, or Algebra II, it’s a good idea to always show your work.

Writing things down helps you think! Some students seem to think the proper way to do a math problem is to devise a multi-step plan and then follow it through step by step. If they can’t think of Step 3, they won’t even bother writing down Step 1. People who are good at math don’t do it that way. They write down Step 1 and then start thinking about Step 2. Sometimes I don’t even know what Step 1 is, but I write down something. I’ll even copy down equations given in the problem. It might seem like a waste of time, but it gets the wheels turning.

When you think about it, algebra is pretty simple. There are two basic rules:

  • Combine like terms.
  • If you do something to one side of an equation, you have to do it to the other side.

That’s the gist of it. So if you don’t know where to begin on an algebra problem, start by combining like terms. You’ll probably get somewhere.

Geometry is pretty simple too—at least on the SAT and ACT. The basic rules are:

  • A line has 180°.
  • A triangle has 180°
  • Vertical angles are equal:

equal angles

Most angle problems on the SAT and ACT can be solved with these three rules. So if you’re stuck on a geometry problem, start labeling angles.

Another reason to show your work is that doing so will help you identify your mistakes. Think about it: if you miss a math problem because you forgot to distribute a minus sign, but you didn’t bother to write anything down, you’ll never know what went wrong. The best way to study for any standardized test is to practice frequently and review any problems you miss. You can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t know what they are, so it’s important to have a record of your thought process.

Keep your work neat and organized. Try to make it look like the demonstration problems in an algebra textbook. Anyone else ought to be able to look at your work and know what you were thinking. Showing each step may seem tedious, but it’s the fastest way to become better at math. After a while, you’ll see results. Your skills and confidence will improve. Then you can start doing some of the steps in your head, but in the beginning, it’s important to write down everything!

The Secret to Acing the Reading Section


Parents often ask for “tips and tricks” to help their students ace the Reading portion of the SAT or ACT. I think they’re looking for something like “The answer to every other problem is C.” Instead, I answer with a question: “How much does your child read?”

A typical response: “Oh, Johnny hates reading!”

Now, imagine if I approached a basketball coach and asked him for “tips and tricks” to dominate on the court. Imagine I also told him that I hated actually playing basketball. “I don’t want to practice. That’s boring. I just want to win games!”

See the problem?

Here is the one surefire “trick” to dominating the Reading section of any standardized test: READ EVERY DAY!

That’s it. Thirty minutes or, better yet, an hour of reading every day will make a difference in a matter of weeks, and a world of difference in a matter of months. Students should choose books (or magazine articles or blogs) that interest them. Everyone is interested in something. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles on almost every conceivable subject, so finding stimulating reading material is just a Google search away. (And if you can think of one book you ever read and liked, you can always look it up on Amazon and check out the recommendations.)

Students should choose material that’s challenging (Harry Potter may be fun, but it will not “stretch” your brain) but not too challenging (Shakespeare will probably just hurt your brain).

I highly recommend National Geographic magazine. Subscriptions are inexpensive, and the pictures are amazing. Flip through a National Geographic and read the captions under the pictures. If anything looks cool, read the whole article.

What are you into? Sports fan? Check out Grantland. Like music? Read Pitchfork or Stereogum. Science Fiction fans will love io9. If you’re a geek, check out Gizmodo. If you’re obsessed with video games, put down the controller for an hour and read Kotaku. And if you want a variety of news, culture, style, and more, check out Slate, The Guardian, or The Atlantic.

If you’re reading on an iPad, Kindle, or other tablet device, you can also quickly look up unfamiliar words. Now you’re building a vocabulary, becoming a better reader, and learning about something you care about. Believe me, there are worse ways to spend an hour of your time!

New PSAT Practice Test

Exciting news! The College Board has just released a new practice PSAT with answer explanations.

Just to be clear this is a PSAT, not an SAT. Juniors will take the PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) in October. But the content and difficulty level should be very similar to the new SAT. The Official Guide for these tests won’t be available until June, but there are plenty of resources for students who want to start studying now (see below).

There are four sections:

1. Reading: 60 minutes, 47 questions
2. Writing and Language: 35 minutes, 44 questions
3. Math (no calculator): 25 minutes, 17 questions
4. Math (calculator): 45 minutes, 31 questions

Here are my thoughts.

Since they’ve scrapped the fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, this is really just a reading comprehension test. A couple of the passages have charts, but the questions about them are very easy—similar to the easiest questions on the ACT science section. Two of the passages are old: excerpts from Jane Austin’s Emma and a political piece by Andrew Carnegie. The rest are new: an article about social networking, a science passage about hibernating bears, and a paired passage about bringing back extinct species. My advice: read National Geographic.

Writing and Language:
If you want more study materials for this section, there’s already a book with 375 practice problems. It’s called the Official ACT Guide! That’s right: the new SAT Writing and Language section is almost exactly like the ACT English section. The only real difference is the inclusion of a single graph on one of the passages. Other than that, it’s the same old stuff: relevance, tone, subject-verb agreement, idioms, pronouns, possessives, comma splices, putting sentences in logical order. The questions are even worded similarly to those on the ACT. My advice: take every English section in the Official ACT Guide.

Math (no calculator):
Like I said about the sample questions released a few weeks ago, the math is significantly more challenging than what we’re used to seeing on the SAT and PSAT. These questions look like they came from a Math 1 Subject test—except on this section, you can’t use a calculator! I found myself reaching for my vintage TI-82 so frequently I had to put it in a drawer. I know a lot of students who use their calculators for even the most basic addition; for them, this section will pose a challenge.

Interestingly, the questions are not in order of difficulty. There are four grid-in questions, and both the grid and the instructions are exactly the same as on the current test. Frequent topics on this section are: setting up equations, systems of equations, functions, and quadratic equations—in other words, all the hardest stuff from the current SAT. My advice: take AP math classes.

Math (calculator):
While it was comforting to have the calculator at my fingertips, it was no help on questions like this:

If the equation 110x + y = 1,210 represents the number of free samples, y, that remain to be given away x days after a coffee shop’s promotion begins, what does it mean that (11, 0) is a solution to this equation?

Your calculator isn’t going to tell you that! Many of the problems include graphs, tables, scatterplots, and histograms. (Again, the Official ACT Guide would be helpful; the science section has similar charts and graphs.) There are also several challenging physics problems (e.g. finding the maximum height of an arrow shot into the sky). My advice: take AP physics.

Compared to the current SAT (and the PSAT that was retired in 2014), the math is more difficult. The reading and writing are, in my opinion, a little easier (mainly due to the lack of obscure vocabulary questions). But don’t panic about the math. Even though it’s harder, students will be scored relative to their peers. (In other words, if it’s harder for you, it’s harder for everyone.) Students who take challenging courses in high school and make good grades should be fairly well prepared. If you’re taking the PSAT in October and want to start studying now, my advice would be to get the Official ACT Guide and the SAT Math 1 and 2 Subject Test Guide (just do the Math 1 tests; Math 2 is very difficult and mainly geared toward students who plan to major in computer science, engineering, or similar fields.)

Note: The answers to the new practice PSAT are all on the last page of the Answer Explanations. (Really annoying!) So just scroll to the end when you’re ready to check your answers. There’s no way to score it yet (scaled scores are based on student performance, and no one has taken it), but you can find your percent correct for each section by dividing the number correct by the total number of questions. Basically, it works just like grades in high school: 90% and above is great; 80-90% is good, and so on.

More Than A Teacher is currently accepting students for one-on-one tutoring for the new PSAT and SAT. If you live outside the Austin area (or just want to avoid traffic), we offer remote tutoring via Skype. Just send us an email to set up an appointment!

The Most Common SAT Vocabulary Words


Note: This article is about the current SAT. For info on the redesigned SAT coming in 2016, click here.

There are many books and websites out there that claim to have all the “hot words” for the SAT. One website boasts 5,000 words! Think you can memorize them all? Good luck with that.

As someone who’s spent almost eight years with these tests, I can tell you that these books and websites are not very accurate. To me it looks like the authors did no research at all, but rather just listed as many “difficult” words as possible regardless of whether those words had ever appeared on an SAT.

In any case, the test makers do not tend to use the same obscure words over and over. They don’t want the test to be predictable. Basically, their word bank is the dictionary, and with over 100,000 words in the English language, they’ve got a lot of options!

But there are some words that appear on almost every SAT simply because they are common words. And yet, most high school students don’t really know them. The following words (or close variations) appear on most of the tests in the Official SAT Guide. (I know because I checked; all it takes is a highlighter and a lot of patience.) Consider making flash cards for every word you don’t know.

1. aesthetic (adj.) – related to beauty or art: Taking an art appreciation class can enhance your understanding of aesthetic principles.

2. equitable (adj.) – equal, fair, judicious: The U.S. Constitution guarantees equitable treatment under the law for all citizens.

3. equivocal (adj.) – capable of several different interpretations, especially with the intent to deceive: The congressman’s equivocal answer didn’t really answer the journalist’s question.

4. sentimental (adj.) – expressing or appealing to emotions: The sentimental song brought tears to Mary’s eyes.

5. phenomenon (n.) – a fact, occurrence, or circumstance, especially an impressive one: A complete solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon.

6. nostalgia (n.) – fondness for the past: At the sight of his old uniform, Billy felt a keen nostalgia for his school days.

7. advocate (v.) – to support or recommend: The FDA advocates regular vaccinations for children.

8. rhetoric (n.) – the art of using written or spoken language: The professional speaker was a master of rhetoric.

9. ambivalence (n.) – uncertainty or inability to choose, especially caused by conflicting desires for two incompatible things: The candidate’s conflicting answers reflected his ambivalence on the issue.

10. temperance (n.) – moderation, especially in consumption of alcohol: Rather than accept a second glass of wine, Suzanne opted for temperance.

11. romantic (adj.) – idealistic, impractical, unrealistic: After a week sweating on the farm, Billy began to reconsider his romantic view of agricultural life.

12. elitist (n.) – a snob; a person who considers himself a member of a special class: Chet was too much of an elitist to consider attending the rodeo.

13. deliberate – 1. (adj.) on purpose: He shouldn’t be punished because his actions were not deliberate. 2. (adj.) slow, unhurried, careful: Marvin grew increasingly frustrated at the deliberate pace of life in the small town. 3. (v.) (pronounced with a long “a”) to consider: You should deliberate awhile before you answer.

14. conventional (adj.) – pertaining or conforming to general agreement, ordinary: Placing your right hand over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance is a conventional demonstration of respect.

15. contempt (n.) – disdain, scorn, hatred, ridicule: The judge handed down the maximum sentence, explaining that he had nothing but contempt for jaywalkers.

16. cynical (adj.) – distrusting the motives of others; assuming that people act from selfish motives: Jerry was cynical about the “free hugs” campaign.

17. anxious (adj.) – worried, distressed, uneasy: Many people are anxious about public speaking.

18. commercial (adj.) – pertaining to business: The preacher complained that commercial interests have tarnished religious holidays.

19. reverence (n.) – a feeling of deep respect or veneration: The architecture student expressed a reverence for Frank Lloyd Wright.

20. integrity (n.) – adherence to moral or ethical principles, honesty: The ethics committee criticized the lawyer for his lack of integrity.

21. subtle (adj.) – not immediately obvious, difficult to grasp: Chef Louis patiently explained that there is a subtle difference between flan and crème brûlée.

22. skeptical (adj.) – doubtful, slow to accept as true: Most scientists are skeptical about the existence of UFOs.

23. lament (v.) – to express sorrow or regret over: The professor lamented the decline of voluntary reading among American high school students.

24. domestic (adj.) – devoted to the home or household: The new father declined the invitation to the poker game, citing domestic responsibilities.

25. anecdote (n.) – a short account of an event, especially an amusing one: Tommy shared a hilarious anecdote about the time he fell into an aquarium.

26. rigorous (adj.) – severe, stern, inflexible, demanding: After studying the syllabus, Henry opted for the less rigorous calculus course.

27. pragmatic (adj.) – practical: Sam wanted to take a hot-air balloon across the Atlantic, but his wife suggested the more pragmatic option of an airplane.

28. inherent (adj.) – existing within someone or something more or less permanently, essential: Many people have an inherent dislike of broccoli.

29. exclusive (adj.) – limiting to only a select few, excluding: It’s an exclusive club; they don’t admit just anyone.

30. evoke (v.) – to call up, produce, elicit, or draw forth: According to the advertisement, this laundry detergent evokes the countryside and spring rain.

31. substantiate (v.) – to establish by proof or evidence: The prosecutor was aggressive in his accusations but was unable to substantiate the allegations with physical evidence.

32. intricate (adj.) – complicated or complex: Wilbur was mesmerized by the intricate pattern in the spider’s web.

33. digress (v.) – to deviate (wander away) from the main topic, to “go off on a tangent”: After rambling for ten minutes about his preference for non-dairy creamer, Dr. Franklin realized he had digressed from the lecture topic.

Of course, the best way to build a vocabulary is to read a lot of books, looking up unfamiliar words as you encounter them. So, if you don’t already, read for at least 30 minutes every day!

Posted in SAT

The Key to Test Prep Success

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
–Vince Lombardi

The only way to excel at sports is to practice. The same is true of music. The same is true of standardized tests.

Practice has to be done right to be effective. Running in circles holding a football does not count as football practice. Pounding random keys with your fists is not piano practice. But this is exactly the approach most students take when studying for the SAT and ACT.

If you want to succeed on a standardized test, you have to practice, and you have to practice the right way. Here is the right way:

1. Take practice sections from the Official SAT or Official ACT study Guide.

2. Check your answers. Put an “X” by the questions you missed; do not indicate the correct answer next to the problem.

3. Re-attempt every problem that you missed.

Simple as these rules are, most students don’t follow them and therefore don’t get the scores they are capable of. Let’s look at each rule individually and see why these students fail.

1. Take practice sections from the Official SAT or ACT Guide.

The easiest way to fail is simply not to practice. Imagine if the quarterback of your high school football team told the coach that he no longer wanted to practice, didn’t like practicing, found it boring and too hard. Well, he’d change his mind or get off the team, simple as that.

Shoot for one section a day. If you can’t make that but are genuinely trying, you should get five sections done a week, which is close enough. You should start practicing at least two months before the test. There are 80 practice sections in the Official SAT Guide (not counting essay sections), so you’ve got plenty to work with. The ACT Guide has only 20 sections, but they are a lot longer, so if you’ve got more than a month, shoot for one section every other day or break the sections up. (For example, every English section has five passages, so you could do three one day and two the next.)

Also: you should always time yourself according to the instructions at the beginning of each section. If you don’t time your practice, you might be surprised at how much harder the test is when it counts. If you run out of time, go ahead and finish so you get the practice, but make a note of how many problems were left when you ran out of time.

2. Check your answers. Put an “X” by the questions you missed; do not indicate the correct answer next to the problem.

For whatever reason, most students are reluctant to follow this rule. They tend to erase their wrong answers and circle the correct ones, which is pointless.

The point of marking incorrect answers with an “X” only is so that when you look at a missed question the second time, you don’t know the right answer. Which brings us to . . .

3. Re-attempt every problem that you missed.

By attempting the question a second time, you improve some small amount. The more questions you do over, the more you improve. This is the key to improvement.

If you want to play a piece on the piano, you play it over and over again, trying to make fewer mistakes each time. You think about where you messed up, and try not to do it again. This is also why football coaches watch recordings of the games with their players: to identify mistakes and prevent them from happening in the future.

When you attempt a problem the second time, you will often get it right. If you don’t, then look up the answer explanation. The Official ACT Guide comes with explanations. If you’re using the Official SAT Guide, you’ll have to look them up on the College Board website.

You could also get help from a friend or teacher. If you live in the Austin area, you can attend one of our free tutorials.

Don’t look at missed question as a failure, but rather as a learning opportunity. Both the SAT and the ACT test the same concepts over and over. If you encounter something that gives you trouble, chances are good you’ll see it again. So prepare yourself!

The ACT Part 6: Essay

Note: this post has been updated to reflect recent changes to the ACT essay.

This is the sixth in a six-part series on the ACT.

Read Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math, Part 4 – Reading, Part 5 – Science

And finally, we come to the Essay section. The Essay is optional but required by some colleges. Unless you’re 100% sure that every college you’re applying to doesn’t require it, then you should take it. It’s just an extra 40 minutes at the end of the test. If you don’t do the essay and apply to a college that requires it, you’ll have to retake the entire test.

As I said in Part 1, the Essay score doesn’t count toward your composite score. So why should you even care about it?

Because some colleges care about it. You might have a composite score in the 30s, but if your essay score is dismal, that could raise a red flag for the admissions department: this student can’t write! You don’t want that to happen, so take the essay seriously. Don’t freak out over it; just do your best.

Learning to write well is the most important skill for success in college. You can go to class every day, complete all the assigned reading, and have brilliant things to say about what you’ve learned. But if you can’t communicate your thoughts in writing, your professors won’t know how brilliant you are!

Furthermore, most high-paying jobs require some amount of writing. If your emails to your boss or to clients are filled with mistakes and nonsensical sentences, you can bet they’ll notice.

But learning how to write well isn’t easy. It takes years of practice. I can’t teach you how in a two-hour class, much less a blog post. But I can recommend a wonderful little book called Writing with Style by John Trimble. It’s very short and easy to read. He basically shows you all the mistakes every college freshman makes (everybody makes the same mistakes) and then shows you how not to make them. He’s got a lot to say, but the most important part is: Write to be understood. Keep your sentences short and to the point.

Back to the essay . . . You will be presented with three viewpoints on an issue (environmentalism, healthcare; it could be anything really). Your job is to analyze and evaluate the three perspectives, provide your own perspective, and explain the relationship between your perspective and the three perspectives given.

Two graders will score your essay on four metrics, each on a scale of 1-6:

Ideas & Analysis (1-6)
Development & Support (1-6)
Organization (1-6)
Language Use (1-6)

These four scores are averaged for each grader, so you’ll get two scores on a scale of 1-6, which are then added for your final score, on a scale of 2-12. Simple!

Short essays get low scores, so be sure to use the full 40 minutes, and make your essay as long as possible (without repeating yourself).

The best way to prepare for the essay is to read the sample essays and scoring explanations on the ACT website.

If you’re concerned about the essay, you may want to contact your target schools and find out if they require the essay and what kind of score they’re looking for. In most cases, an 8 (on the 2-12 scale) is probably good enough, but higher is always preferred.

Again, the essay does not affect your composite score, and the composite is the primary benchmark colleges will be considering.

Want to know where you stand? Send us your essay, and we’ll grade it for free! Just send us an email with “practice essay” in the subject line, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

This concludes our series on the ACT. If you live in the Austin area, you can sign up for a free practice test. And, of course, we’ve got ACT classes going all year long. If you’ve still got questions about the ACT (or anything!) we’d love to hear from you!

Posted in ACT

The ACT Part 5: Science

This is the fifth in a six-part series on the ACT.

Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math, Part 4 – Reading

If the Science section looks intimidating, that’s because it’s designed to be. The test makers like to brag that the ACT tests what you learn in school. And yet one of their favorite subjects on the Science section is geology. No one takes geology in high school! You will see words and concepts that are completely foreign to you. But don’t panic! You don’t really need to know what’s going on in all these studies and experiments. Most of the questions test your ability to read charts and graphs, which really isn’t that difficult. The hardest part about the Science section is dealing with information overload. The good news is: you don’t need all that information. In fact, you don’t even have to read 90% of it. And that’s good because you don’t have time.

ACT Science
40 questions
35 minutes
7 passages
5 minutes per passage

Some students who excel at science classes in high school will actually bomb the ACT Science section the first time they take it. Why? Because they try to read and understand all the paragraphs, charts, graphs, and tables before going to the questions, and they inevitably run out of time. Most of that information is irrelevant anyway. Some passages will even contain one or more charts or graphs that the questions don’t even ask about. They’re just for show!

Go straight to the questions. Most questions will tell you exactly where to look. If a question says, “According to Table 2 . . .” then the answer is on Table 2.

Important: The easiest way to miss a question on the Science section is to look in the wrong place. Table 2 is not the same thing as Figure 2.

If a question says, “According to Experiment 1 . . .” then find the chart or graph associated with Experiment 1. (It’s usually right below it.) Nine times out of ten you do not need to read the paragraph introducing Experiment 1. Read these paragraphs only if the question directs you to. For example, if a question says, “According to the hypothesis of the scientist in Experiment 3 . . .” then you need to read Experiment 3 so you know what the hypothesis is. These questions are rare. Also, if you ever feel completely lost, you might want to read the introductory paragraph, which is usually pretty short.

A few tips:

When looking at a graph, always read the labels on the axes. You need to know what’s being measured, and in what units.

The last question on any passage is usually the hardest. Remember: on the ACT you have to keep moving. If you’re stuck on a question, it’s best to guess and move on.

The Conflicting Viewpoints passage is the hardest one. You’ll recognize it because it has fewer charts, graphs, or illustrations than the other passages (usually none at all). It will also have passages labeled “Scientist 1” and “Scientist 2” or “Student 1” and “Student 2” or “Hypothesis A” and “Hypothesis B” or something similar. Occasionally there will be more than two viewpoints. Since there are few (or no) charts and graphs, you will have to do some reading on this one. Read the intro paragraph and the first sentence of each viewpoint. Then you can go to the questions. You can find the answers to most of them by scanning for key words. For example, if a question says something like, “Scientist 2 would most likely state that the vertical circulation that is present in most of the oceans today is maintained, at least in part, by the presence of . . .” then you should scan Scientist 2’s paragraph for the words “vertical circulation.” The sentence with that phrase will probably contain the answer to the question. If you struggle with time on the Science section, it might be a good idea to guess on the Conflicting Viewpoints passage.

In our final post of this series, we’ll take a look at the Essay section.

Posted in ACT

The ACT Part 4: Reading

This is the fourth in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English, Part 3 – Math.

The Reading section is the hardest section for most students for the simple reason that most students don’t read much. Most students don’t like reading, and that’s a shame. But I’ll save that sermon for another post. Let me just say this: if you read for 30 minutes or more every day, after a few months you’ll find the Reading section a lot easier. (And all the other ones, since they all—including the math section—require reading.)

Another major challenge is time. There are four passages with ten questions each, and you’ve only got 35 minutes. That’s eight minutes and 45 seconds per passage.

4 passages
35 minutes
40 questions
8 minutes & 45 seconds per passage

Some students simply cannot do it. For them, there’s Plan B, which we’ll return to in a moment. Plan A is to answer every question. Here’s how to do it.

Read the questions first. Unlike on SAT Critical Reading sections, the questions are not in order. In other words, the first question might be about the last paragraph. If you try to read the whole passage first, you’re likely to zone out and start daydreaming (the passages aren’t exactly riveting). But if you read the questions first, then when you get to the passage, you’re actively looking for information, which keeps you focused and engaged. You still need to read the entire passage. You just pause every once in awhile to answer a question.

Ask yourself what each question tells you about the passage. For example, if the question asks, “Which of the following statements most accurately expresses Fran’s feelings when she hands her mother the letter from Linda Rose?” then you know Fran is going to get a letter from Linda Rose. Then, when you read about Fran getting a letter in the first paragraph, you already know who it is (most likely) from.

Underline key words. When a question contains a word or phrase that is either unusual or very specific, underline it so that you’re more likely to remember it when you’re reading the passage. In the above question, for example, you should underline “hands her mother the letter.” When you arrive at this part of the passage, you’ll probably remember that there’s a question about it. You won’t remember which question, but you can probably find it pretty quickly.

Mark the line number questions. Many questions come with line numbers. You should write these question numbers in the margin of the passage. For example, if question 14 asks, “Which of the following statements best summarizes Lincoln’s thoughts about what Jefferson achieved when he wrote the Declaration (lines 21-28)?”, then you should write the number 14 in the margin next to line 28. Then, when you’re reading the passage, and you see that 14, you’ll know it’s time to answer question #14.

By the time you’ve read the passage, you should have answered about half the questions. Now quickly answer the rest of them.

Do not get bogged down on a hard question. Even if you end up getting it right, if it keeps you from getting to another question down the line, it’s not worth it. It’s better to just guess and keep moving. Try to do as little re-reading as possible. If you’re 70% sure the answer is C, then there’s no need to double check; just pick C! Put a star by the question, and go back to it later if you have time (but you probably won’t.)

Plan B

If you’ve attempted at least two Reading sections and genuinely given it your best shot but were unable to finish, then count the number of questions you have left. If it’s fewer than five, you can finish. Push yourself. Go faster.

If it’s more than five, go with Plan B: spend the full 35 minutes on the first three passages and guess on the last ten questions. Just bubble in letters in a straight line (A, F, A, F, A, F . . .) and you should get at least two of them right. If you also get every question right on the first three passages, then you can still get a good score (anywhere from a 26 to a 30 depending on the test).

The passages always come in the same order: Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science. I think Natural Science tends to be the most difficult (technical, dry), and it is conveniently last. However, I have met students who genuinely do not do well with fiction. If that’s you, then guess on the first passage, and spend the full 35 minutes on the other three. The Social Science passage also tends to be difficult and dry. The Humanities one is all over the place. It might be about Shakespeare or Star Trek, so it’s hard to generalize. Some tutors instruct their students to read the intro of each passage first and then decide which one to skip, but I think that’s just one more decision to make and a waste of precious time.

But everyone’s different. These are just guidelines that work for the majority of students. Feel free to experiment with strategies as you practice. But on test day, have a plan and stick to it!

Next time: Science!

Posted in ACT

The ACT Part 3: Math

This is the third in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro, Part 2 – English.

The second section on the ACT is Math. It is the longest section (one hour) and the only one that gets harder as you go on. There are 60 questions, so you have one minute per question, but many of the early questions will take less than one minute while some of the later ones might take a little more.

ACT Math
60 questions
60 minutes
1 minute per question, but later (harder) questions may take longer

The test covers not just algebra and geometry, but higher-level concepts including quite a bit of trigonometry. There are also a few questions on relatively obscure topics like imaginary numbers, matrices, and logarithms.

There are no formulas provided. Here’s what you need to know.

The last ten problems are pretty tough. Students who struggle in their math classes at school might be better off spending the full hour on the first 50 questions and guessing on the last ten. (Remember, when you’re guessing, to bubble your answers in a straight line: A, F, A, F, A, F, etc.)

A few tips:

Most trig problems can be solved with SOH CAH TOA. If a problem gives you a right triangle and tells you that:

sin equation



rewrite the equation like this:

sin equation 2



Some problems contain irrelevant information. Take a look at #34 on p. 458 of the Official ACT Guide. This problem is easy, but many students get confused because of all the distracting information. All you have to do is plug in 50 for d in the formula and put it in your calculator; all the other numbers are irrelevant.

Show your work! This is good advice for doing math generally. Showing work is important for a couple of reasons. First, writing things down helps you think. When I’m doing a math problem for the first time, I usually don’t come up with a multi-step plan and then follow it through. Instead, I just write down what I know (I’ll even re-write equations given in the problem) and go from there. Showing your work will also help you minimize arithmetic errors. You are much more likely to forget to distribute a minus sign, for example, if you do everything in your head.

Also, when you review missed problems (the key to improvement when training for any standardized test), if you don’t have anything written down, you can’t retrace your thought process. You won’t know where your mistakes occurred. So show your work, and make it nice and neat! Try to make your steps look like the steps in a math textbook. Anyone else should be able to look at your work and follow your thought process.

If you make good grades in your math classes, you will probably do just fine. The math section really does test what you learn in school. If you feel under-prepared, get a copy of the Official ACT Guide, and work through a couple of the math sections, looking up the answer explanations to any problems that give you trouble. Most of the problems are pretty basic if you understand the concepts being tested. Unlike on the SAT, the ACT Math has very few trick questions and trap answer choices.

The next post will cover what many students find to be the most challenging part of the ACT: the Reading section.

Posted in ACT

The ACT Part 2: English

This is the second in a six-part series on the ACT. Read: Part 1 – Intro

The first section of every ACT is the English section. You have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions. That’s 36 seconds per question.

The questions are based on five passages. Each passage has 15 questions. You have nine minutes per passage.

75 questions
45 minutes
5 passages
9 minutes per passage
36 seconds per question

Most of the questions ask you to choose the best version of the underlined portion of a sentence. Other questions are more specific, asking things like “should this sentence be kept or deleted?” A few questions will ask about the passage as a whole.

Since most questions focus on only a few words in a sentence, many students do not read the entire sentence. This is a huge mistake. To see why, consider the following example:

. . . the walls has been painted to match . . .

If you read only this much of the sentence, you’ll think there’s a problem with the underlined portion. But the whole sentence says:

The washers and dryers are lime green, and the paneling on the walls has been painted to match, although it was later varnished with some kind of artificial wood grain finish.

The noun “walls” is inside a prepositional phrase; the subject of the underlined verb is “paneling.” The sentence is correct as it is. So read the whole sentence every time!

Here are some other tips:

The “no change” option is right about 25% of the time—in other words, as often as anything else. So don’t be afraid to choose it. Don’t be afraid to choose it twice in a row.

Most problems on this section have the four answer choices and that’s all. But some come with questions. Read the questions carefully. Sometimes all four answer choices will be grammatically correct, but only one will answer the question.

If a question has the word NOT, LEAST, or EXCEPT, be careful! Even though these words appear in all caps, it is very easy to overlook them. Think about it: you’ve just answered 50 questions in a row where your job was to choose the BEST version of the underlined portion. Now, all of a sudden you’re asked to choose the WORST version. It’s hard to suddenly change tactics. Circle the word as soon as you see it so you won’t forget it’s there.

Read every word of every passage. When a passage has three or four lines of text with nothing underlined, students tend to skip over them. But the last question is usually about the passage as whole, so you shouldn’t skip around.

When the four answer choices are all the same except for the punctuation, the choice with the fewest punctuation marks is probably right. For example, if you see answer choices like this . . .

A. Joe ate a sandwich
B. Joe ate: a sandwich
C. Joe ate a sandwich,
D. Joe, ate a sandwich,

. . . then the answer is probably A. Of course, you can’t know for sure without any context, but the odds are very good.

Okay, so much for the “tips and tricks.” What is the ACT English section actually testing?

It’s mostly grammar. Things like subject-verb agreement, comma splices, possessives, and parenthetical phrases. But it’s also rhetorical skills. Many questions require students to identify redundant information. To borrow an example from Philosophy 101, if I tell you that my friend Brian is an unmarried bachelor, I’ve just told you the same thing twice. A bachelor is by definition an unmarried man, so I should have just said he’s a bachelor and left it at that.

Another important concept is relevance. If I’m explaining to you how a car engine works and I mention that Elvis once owned a car—actually several of them, you’d probably wonder why I brought that up. It’s not relevant to the discussion.

So anything irrelevant or redundant is wrong. By the way, when “OMIT the underlined portion” is an answer choice, it’s right more often than not, usually because the underlined portion is irrelevant or redundant.

There’s way too much grammar to cover in this post, but there’s one thing that I want to explain because 95% of my students do not know it. Here’s how to use apostrophes to show possession:

1 dog’s house (a single house owned by a single dog)
2 dogs’ house (a single house owned by multiple dogs)

It’s simple, and it’s on practically every ACT, so memorize it.


it’s = it is
its is possessive. For example: I told my dog to get in its house.
its’ is not a word.

The Official ACT Guide has answer explanations for every problem. If you complete the English section of the first three tests and look up the explanations for every question you miss, you should learn just about every grammar rule you’re likely to encounter on test day.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Math section.

Posted in ACT

The ACT Part 1: Intro

This is the first in a six-part series on the ACT.

Note: The SAT referred to in this article is the current SAT. For information about the new SAT coming in 2016, click here.

Many people think of the ACT as the SAT’s less important little brother, and while that may have been true in some parts of the U.S. years ago, times have changed. In fact, the ACT has been accepted by all U.S. colleges since 2007 and actually surpassed the SAT in popularity in 2012. For some students, it’s a great alternative to the SAT. Students applying to highly selective universities may want to submit scores for both tests.

The ACT was introduced in 1959. (The SAT dates back to 1926.) For many years, universities on the East and West coasts (and Texas) preferred the SAT, while those in the Midwest and South preferred the ACT. Today, all U.S. colleges and universities will accept the ACT, though regional differences in popularity remain, probably due to misconceptions about which test is “better” or “preferred.”

For a quick overview of the differences between the tests, see our post on the SAT vs. ACT. We’ve also got a handy chart.

The two most important things to know if you’re taking the ACT are:

1. There is no penalty for wrong answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, just guess and move on.

2. You do not have a lot of time per question. If you’re spending too long on a question, guess and move on. If you’re about to run out of time on a section, fill in the rest of the bubbles in a straight line (A, F, A, F, A, F, etc.). You should get about 25% of them right (20% on the Math section).

What’s “too long” to spend on a question? That depends on the section. Over the next few days, we’ll be devoting an entire post to each section: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Essay. But first, let’s talk about scoring.

A perfect score on the ACT is a 36. The average score is around 20. This composite (overall) score is an average of the English, Math, Reading, and Science scores. The Essay is scored separately and not factored into the composite score. It is optional but required by some colleges. If you choose to take the ACT without the essay and then apply to a college that requires it, you will have to retake the entire test. So we recommend that students take the essay.

What’s a good score? Well, it depends on what schools you’re applying to and what the rest of your application looks like, but here’s an informative (if somewhat oversimplified) chart to give you a rough idea. To better understand how colleges view your test scores, you should read this.

The short-short version: 20 is average, and 30+ is very good.

It’s unusual for a student to get the same score on every section; most of us have strengths and weaknesses. The best way to identify yours is to take a diagnostic test. (If you live in the Austin area, come take one with us; if not, you can download a free ACT with grading instructions here.)

Many people assume that students should focus on their weaknesses. I’ve heard parents say, “My kid doesn’t need any help on the math; he got a 30.” Okay, but if he could bring it up to a 34, he’d bring his composite score up one point, and on the ACT, that’s significant. So, while it makes sense to work on your weak areas, you shouldn’t neglect your strengths.

In addition to the scores for the four main sections and the essay score, every ACT score report (and practice test) comes with a chart outlining “subscores” for things like Usage/Mechanics on the English section, and Arts/Literature on the Reading section. Colleges don’t use these scores, but they can help students identify areas they need to work on.

Next time, we’ll take a detailed look at the English section. See you then!

Posted in ACT

The New SAT: A Look at the Sample Questions

This is our second post about the upcoming changes to the SAT. To read the first post, click here.

Last week the College Board released sample questions for the new SAT. (If you didn’t get the memo, you might want to start checking our Facebook page.)

Here’s what we’ve learned:

The math is tough! There are trig functions, radians, imaginary numbers, and other high-level math concepts not found on the current SAT. Some of the problems require more steps than we’re used to as well. Consider this geometry problem, for example, which is considerably more complex than any geometry problem in the Official SAT Guide. And take a look at this multi-paragraph word problem. These problems look like what you’d see on an SAT Math Subject test.

As for the Critical Reading, it doesn’t seem drastically more difficult than the current test, but with only 24 questions over five passages, it’s hard to say. We already knew there would be no fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, and the three vocabulary-in-context questions are easy. There are also three questions of the form “which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?” They’re all easy—as long as you got the previous question right.

As expected, some of the reading passages come with graphs and illustrations, but the questions about them are pretty easy. There are no “founding documents,” as the College Board’s earlier press releases had led us to expect, but there is a speech by Barbara Jordan (1974) and an excerpt from an Edith Wharton novel (1911). The other passages are from science and social science contexts and are all from 2010 or later.

The Writing portion looks very much like an ACT English section, with questions going beyond mere grammar, asking things like “should this sentence be kept or deleted?” I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily harder than the current Writing Skills section, just different.

The essay asks you to analyze how an author builds a persuasive argument. This task is more difficult than answering a general question like “can knowledge be a burden?” or “is money a more powerful motivator than conscience?” The responses are graded on three different criteria: reading, analysis, and writing. So, to get a good score in each area, you have to understand what the author is saying, recognize the author’s use of persuasive rhetorical devices, and demonstrate this knowledge in coherent, eloquent prose. Piece of cake, right?

If you’re ready to start preparing for the 2016 SAT (or the 2015 PSAT), these sample questions are a great place to start. The College Board is planning to release more material in March, and when they do, we’ll let you know.

Posted in SAT


Note: the SAT referred to in this article is the current version. For information on the 2016 relaunch, click here.

One of the most common questions we get at MTAT is what is the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

The short answer is that the SAT is trickier and involves more abstract thinking, while the ACT is more practical and down to earth. On the other hand, you have less time per question on the ACT. Neither test is necessarily easier than the other, though some students may perform better on one test than the other.

Several key differences:

  • On the SAT, you lose a quarter point for every missed question. The ACT has no penalty for missed questions.
  • The ACT has a science section; there’s nothing like it on the SAT.
  • SAT math is basic—algebra and geometry—but the questions are tricky. ACT math includes higher level concepts from trig and precalculus, but the questions are more straightforward.
  • Every SAT Critical Reading section has five to eight fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions, the last two or three of which are very difficult. The ACT Reading section may have one or two vocabulary-in-context questions, and they are usually very easy.

How do you know which test is right for you? Simple: take one of each and see which you you do better on. You can download a free copy of each test with grading instructions here and here.

If you live in the area, you can also sign up for a free practice test at one of our Austin locations. Taking a practice test in a realistic setting is ideal, but if you have to take it at home, just be sure to work in a quiet, distraction-free environment. (Turn off the phone!) And if you qualify for accommodations (like extra time), be sure to use them when you practice!

PLEASE NOTE: Many students will bomb the ACT Science section the first time they take it. With practice, it gets much easier.

Don’t just compare the scores; ask yourself which test would be easier to master with practice. Hardly anyone is going to get a good score without doing quite a bit of studying, so ask yourself which test you would rather spend time with. If you did better on the SAT but thought the ACT was more fun (or less intolerable), then you’ll probably be better off with the ACT in the long run.

I STRONGLY ADVISE AGAINST studying for both tests simultaneously. The strategies are different. For example, there’s no guessing penalty on the ACT, so you should fill in every single bubble. But that strategy could be disastrous on the SAT. So if you’re going to take both tests, you should get one out of the way before you start studying for the other one.

Just about any college will accept either test, but you should always check. This information should be in any college website’s FAQ, but if not, just email or call the admissions office.

Once you’ve decided on a test, get the official guide. The SAT Guide comes with 10 practice tests. The ACT Guide has only five practice tests, but it also has answer explanations. (Explanations for the problems in the SAT Guide can be found on the College Board website). Of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in the Austin area, you can sign up for one of our classes, and we’ll throw in the guide for free.

Whichever test you choose, practice is key. So take as many practice tests as possible. If you use up all the tests in your guide and need more, we’ve got you covered. Just contact us.

The New SAT: What to Expect

In the spring of 2016, the College Board will launch the redesigned SAT. What will change? The short answer is that the new SAT will look more like the ACT—no guessing penalty, less vocabulary, more charts and graphs. There’s more to it than that, but with the reboot still in progress, the College Board isn’t saying much. The details are hazy, but according to the College Board website, there will be eight key changes. Of course, these summaries are like a lot of SAT problems—convoluted and confusing. Here they are in plain English.

1. Vocabulary: The new SAT will scrap questions about obscure vocabulary words like obsequious and magnanimity and instead ask students to identify the meanings of more ordinary words in context. For example, the word “acute” can mean “sharp,” “intense,” or “clever,” depending on the context. In fact, the current SAT already has these “vocabulary in context” questions on the passage-based portion of the Critical Reading section.

2. Evidence-Based Sections: The new SAT will combine the Reading and Writing portions into a single “evidence based” test. Here’s what that means:

Reading: Some questions will require students to select a sentence from the passage that best supports their answer to the previous question. For example, question #7 might ask, “How does Daisy feel about Tom?” And #8 might ask, “Which of the following sentences from the passage best supports your answer to question #7?” Some passages will also be paired with infographics.

Writing: Much like on the ACT English test, students will analyze multi-paragraph passages rather than focusing stand-alone sentences (like on the current SAT). This section will also require students to edit passages so that they accurately convey information from infographics.


3. Essay Analyzing a Source: This new essay will also be evidence-based. Students will read a source document and write an essay explaining how the author constructs his or her argument. This sounds much more difficult than the current essay format. The idea is to make the SAT essay more like college essays.

The essay will be optional (like on the ACT), but some colleges will require it. In other words, it’s only optional if the colleges you are applying to don’t require it. Read your prospective colleges’ admissions requirements carefully. If you’re applying to Yale, and Yale requires the essay, then for you the essay is required.


4. Math that Matters: The new math section will focus on three areas: Problem Solving and Data Analysis (using ratios, percents, and proportions to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts), The Heart of Algebra (linear equations and systems, abstract thinking), and Passport to Advanced Math (manipulation of complex equations—the College Board is pretty vague on this one).

In addition to these areas, some problems will test geometry and trigonometry skills “relevant to colleges and careers.” (Note: the current SAT does not have any trig function—sine, cosine, tangent—questions.)

real world
5. Problems Grounded in Real World Contexts: The primary focus of the redesign is to make the SAT less abstract and more practical—in other words, more like the ACT. The Reading/Writing section may have fiction passages, but it seems the focus will be on non-fiction passages from the humanities, hard sciences, social sciences, and “career contexts.” On the Math section, students will be presented with several charts and graphs relating to some real-world scenario (e.g. television-viewing statistics or fluctuations in the price of soybeans) and asked several questions requiring them to integrate information from these various sources.
6. Analysis in Science and History/Social Studies: The new SAT will require students to “apply their reading, writing, language, and math skills to answer questions in science, history, and social studies contexts.” Basically, it sounds like the Reading/Writing and Math sections will be more integrated than on the current SAT (more reading on the Math section, and more charts and graphs on the Reading/Writing section). Students will also be asked to revise texts to make them consistent with infographics related to “recent discoveries, political developments, global events, and health and environmental issues.” These kinds of infographics are common in National Geographic Magazine.
7. Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation: Every new SAT will contain excerpts from U.S. founding documents (e.g. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers) and documents from “the great global conversation,” that is, politically-themed documents by authors like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. The College Board website specifically mentions Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, and Mohandas Gandhi. The founding documents as well as texts by all these authors are available for free online. If you want to start studying for the new SAT now, start reading these texts—along with notes.
no penalty

8. No Penalty for Wrong Answers: On the current SAT, you lose one-quarter point for every wrong answer. Taking away the guessing penalty makes the test easier because students won’t ever have to decide when to guess. If a wrong answer gets you the same result as leaving the question blank, then guessing is a no-brainer. You might as well guess and move on to the next question; there’s nothing to lose. Decision making is mentally and emotionally taxing. Taking a little stress off students should actually make it easier to get a more accurate assessment of their performance on the test material.

The College Board will release a full-length practice test in March of 2015. Until then, students should make sure their basic math and reading skills are up to par. Since the new SAT will be more like the current ACT, and since practically every university will accept either test, now is a great time to study for the ACT. If your ACT score is good enough, you probably won’t even need to take the new SAT, but if you do, the skills you develop studying for the ACT should transfer.

Posted in SAT

Welcome to The Score!

Welcome to The Score, your one-stop source for information about the SAT, ACT, college admissions, and more!

At More Than A Teacher, we understand how overwhelming the college application process can be.
For over 20 years, we’ve been guiding parents and students through the maze of SATs, ACTs, PSATs, Subject Tests, and college applications. And with the new SAT debuting in 2016, things are more confusing than ever.

Relax. We’ve got this.

Our team of test prep and college admissions experts will be posting regularly on topics like:

The New SAT
Test-taking Strategies
National Merit Scholarships
College Applications

We’ll also include posts on SAT topics like:

Common Vocabulary Words
Writing Skills Grammar Rules
Funky Functions

And ACT topics like:

English Section Guessing Strategies
Trig Basics
Reading Section Time Management
Demystifying the Science Section

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