January SAT: Veronica’s Tale

Today's post is brought to you by one of our SAT teachers who recently took the SAT. We periodically send our teachers into the actual test to make sure we have the most current info on the test, the proctoring, and the experience so we can share that with those we're helping to prepare for it. While all of our teachers have taken the SAT in high school and have done many practice tests either at home or proctored in our office, the experience of going to a testing center always reminds us of what students actually go through. - Editor


BACKGROUND: Trust me, you won’t remember anything!
In the past, I’ve been embarrassed a few times by students who ask me about my own SAT scores and how I studied. The truth is that I don’t remember studying at all. I procrastinated opening my ten-dollar Barron’s book until the week before the test, and then I decided to register for a later administration instead of cramming in just a few days. I wouldn’t have taken it that day at all if my mother hadn’t insisted that it would be good practice. But I got lucky: when my scores came back, I discovered that I had surpassed my goal and didn’t need to test again. I suppose I should’ve done it anyway, just to try to improve, but at seventeen, I didn’t think that way. Needless to say, this isn’t a strategy I like to encourage, so I’ve tried to keep that story to myself. But perhaps because I wasn’t all that nervous, I find that I don’t remember the day of the SAT very well, even though it was only seven years ago. All I can recall is the vague feeling that it wasn’t as bad as it was hyped up to be, and also that Stuyvesant (where I took it) was way too big. Despite almost two years of teaching the test, as I was stuffing a graphing calculator and a few blunt pencils into my purse at the ungodly hour of 7am this Saturday, I found myself unsure what to expect.
THE TEST
I registered to take the test at Washington Irving High School, because I grew up near it but had never been inside. Once I got there, I found myself, yet again, surrounded by kids who were way more nervous than I was. I had made a fairly transparent attempt to go incognito under a baseball cap and a sweatshirt, but I don’t think the kids around me would have noticed if I were dressed like the Grim Reaper. They just sat in their seats, facing forward and sweating profusely, until the moment came to bubble our names in. Security was tougher than I remembered, even at Washington Irving, which a student had told me was the most relaxed testing center. We weren’t allowed to chew gum, drink water, or eat snacks in the classroom, even during the breaks, and we had to carry our printed photo-tickets and government-issued IDs with us everywhere, even to the bathroom. A kid next to me had a simple, dollar-store-type calculator on his desk with the cover on top, and he was asked to put it under his chair during a reading section, which I thought was a little unnecessary. The main conclusion I took away from the test was that this testing is harder on the kids than we like to admit. The students around me all looked on the verge of tears and were visibly pale by the end of it. And the addition of an experimental section (a section of the SAT that the college board uses to develop future tests — one which will not be added to your score, but which is also not identified on the test) is just cruel. On my test, it took the form of a math section with material I’d only seen on 1 of the many released test I’ve seen (some kind of polynomial function thing); for other kids, I found out later, it was a series of reading comprehension questions which referred to earlier questions rather than to the passage itself [Editor's note: This is as yet unverified.]. The slog of the four-hour test is bad enough without the additional shock of being tested in unexpected ways on unexpected material, in my view, and anyway, just knowing that one section was experimental makes you sort of paranoid.
On the whole, though, the taking the test was easier than I remembered [Editor's note: let's not forget that the writer has been teaching the SAT for a couple of years], which I found reassuring; the questions seemed clear and direct, for the most part, and the reading passages were engaging. Some observations from the test:
  • No matter how many hours-long written or oral exams you’ve taken in college, there is something uniquely tough about the length of the SAT. I think it has to do with the fact that you’re switching subjects and have such measly breaks.
  • Students didn’t eat enough. I was the only one who ate anything at all during the breaks (thanks for the granola bars, mom!) and, more alarmingly, the only one who brought and drank water. Lots of kids did use the toilets, which you pretty much had to run to because they were so far from the classroom we tested in. Based on my experience, I’d advise peeing before the test and rehydrating during it, not the other way around.
  • I was impressed by the alertness of the students. Nobody even seemed sleepy. I fear for when this tireless generation enters the job market. It is surprisingly easy to mis-bubble. I actually caught myself doing it three times (!) — two of them only because I was checking my work. Check your work, everyone!
  • The room I tested in was freezing at first, but slowly shifted to 78-and-humid in the course of the test. I always advise students to wear layers to the test, so that they can adjust for any unexpected indoor weather, and I’ve never been more glad that I followed my own advice. By the end of the exam I was in a tee shirt, regretting my woolen long underwear.
  • The general impression I had was that the students’ nervousness was a serious handicap to them. They all seemed jumpy and unhappy, and I can’t imagine producing a calm, logical essay if you felt the way they looked. Timed practice tests and going over old exams should make the test less intimidating, and being prepared to take the test more than once also helps reduce the pressure.
In conclusion, my advice for students taking the March or May tests:
- Plug in wherever you can. As always there were tons of questions where plugging in cut your work in half.
- For the essay,
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it helps to use the test booklet as scrap paper.

- If you have extra time, check your work, check your work, CHECK YOUR WORK! I must have saved myself a hundred points by re-checking, and I’m usually very neat. Something about the long-distance aspect of the test makes you sloppy.
- Also periodically check that you’re bubbling in the right section or column.
- Come wearing layers and bring light snacks and a lot of water.
- Be sure to bring extra batteries for your calculator, a pencil sharpener, and at least two pencils.
- When taking practice tests at home, don’t skip the essay! No matter how great a writer you are, producing a structured, logical essay in 25 minutes is a unique skill that takes practice.
- Relax, get in the zone, and try to enjoy it, no matter how stressed the other students seem. Calm minds make better decisions!
Good luck!

October 2012 SAT: Something to Do on a Saturday

To make sure we can keep you informed about the impact of the security changes and test day experiences we send our teachers in periodically to take the actual SAT. This report was filed by Bell Curves’ own Aimee Slater, resident Jeopardy champ (in our hearts), office redhead, and SAT teacher.


Background – In a few years you won’t remember and no one will care

I took the SAT several years ago (20 still counts as “several,” right?).  I was trying to remember my test day experience and my clearest memory about the test is “My high school made me take it 3 times.”  (Editor’s note: Aimee attended Haverford College on a  generous scholarship and doesn’t remember her SAT scores, but says they were just a bit better than average). I asked some high school friends what they remember, and that was their strongest memory too.  My other memory is of the word “nadir.”  I didn’t know what it meant,  I wrote it on the label of my shirt so that I could look up the definition later (Editor’s note: these days, writing on your clothes might get you kicked out… don’t do it!).

So armed with fuzzy memories and the teaching experience I have obtained through Bell Curves, I sat down to take a modern day SAT on October 6th.  I joined a few dozen area teens very early on a Saturday morning to take the test in Brooklyn.


Registration: Longer and More Annoying than You Think

Before I talk about test day, let me say a word about registration.  Registering for the exam is at least a 25 minute process wherein you pretty much lay bare anything and everything you have been, currently are and will ever be.  I had to upload a picture for my test ticket, which I had to carry with me on test day (even to the loo). The system, it turns out, is really picky about the photos it’ll accept, in fact, I had two perfectly lovely photos rejected before it accepted one I had a colleague take.  The photo is not currently a requirement, but will be required starting with the Jan 2013 test.  I also had to answer questions about my ethnicity, GPA, class ranking, parents’ level of education, indicate my college preferences (size, location single-sex, programs).  It was 3+ pages of questions, many of which are optional, but they are mixed in with the required ones so it’s not immediately obvious which are which.   It’s worth noting that “I don’t wish to respond” is one of the choices for all required questions, but still that’s a lot of work on my part without much in return.  College Board will then sell my information to schools or publish it in studies.  You’re welcome, College Board.  You should send me a piece of that financial pie.


Test Day

I dutifully showed up by 7:45am, number 2 lead pencils in hand and calculator (TI-86 was my calculator of choice) at the ready.  I was assigned a seat in a classroom with the 19 or so other kids who have R-Z last names.

Here’s some stuff I noticed:

  • No one cared that I was old and taking the test.   I didn’t even get a double take.
  • Three, 5-minutes breaks are not nearly enough.  Powering through that last 1 hour and 4 minutes (sections 7-10) is rough .
  • Kids were eating candy and drinking Red Bull early in the AM and at breaks.  This lead to a lot of crashing in the middle or toward the end.
  • A girl fell asleep, twice (probably due to a Red Bull crash).  The proctor was nice enough to wake her up, but I think that was above and beyond what’s listed as duties in the proctor guidelines, and some proctors would have just let her sleep through the test.
  • I am still not a fan of coordinate plane geometry but as usual there were about 5 questions.
  • No section asks 40 questions, and yet each section on the answer sheet has 40 bubbles.  I find this vexing.
  • I miss analogies.  The College Board removed them in 2005, and in doing so, took away the fun portion of the test (if there is such a thing).
  • I did not have to write an essay the first time around, and was excited to do it this time around.  I went in knowing that I was going to use The League of Nations and Game of Thrones.  As we tell our students – the question hardly matters.  Pick a position, have some examples at the ready, and write!

I know some old timers have gone back and taken the test in recent times and had negative experiences.  I’m less negative about having to take a test, than about what it’s actually testing.  Sitting through long exams is something I had to do in college (3 hour finals!) so I don’t think taking a test is too much to ask of students who want to go to college.  The content of the test?  Well, let’s just say that I have some disagreement with what and how things are asked.  But that’s for a different blog post.  For now, this is the system we have, and if our kids want to go to college, we need to work within this system to ensure as many of them as possible are prepared for the test, the admissions process, and college success.

I admit that my stakes are relatively low; I don’t have my admissions decisions or financial aid riding on my 2012 performance, although the College Board will be sending my scores to my high school guidance counselor so that person, whomever it is now, can go over them with me (I didn’t have an option to opt-out).  I’m looking forward to that phone call.   It was a long day, but most students seemed to sail through (aside from Red Bull Crash Girl.  Airheads candy is not the breakfast of champions, chica!), and I think that anyone preparing for the November or December administrations should remember to

  • review the content – get comfortable with how questions are asked and what information they are looking for
  • take practice tests under real-test conditions (timed, with only the breaks given on the real test)

For test day:

  • for Math, strategies like plugging in were still awesome and time-saving and helped me avoid mistakes on at least 7 problems
  • for the Critical Reading, remember to answer the questions (all the questions) in your own words first (Click here to read up on how to Avoid Looking at the Elephant)
  • bring brain-food snacks like trail mix, carrots, peanut butter crackers etc.  Avoid caffeine highs which can lead to crashes, and go for hydration – water, seltzer water etc.
  • UPDATE: check out this list of vocab words from the October 2012 SAT

Good luck!

May 2012 SAT Vocabulary: Beleaguered Batman Batters Bungler Bane

On Friday July 20, two exciting things happened in the Bell Curves office; first, we received our copy of the May 2012 SAT and were able to peruse it for lot of fun vocabulary words and second, we went as an office to see the the Dark Knight save Gotham City. What was especially exciting was that in both the May SAT and Dark Knight Rises, bane played a prominent role! In DNK, Bane is the archenemy of our beleaguered hero and on the May SAT bane was one of the beguiling answers maliciously offered to hoodwink unwary test-takers! As we’ve often told our students, most superhero and villain names are English words that reflect their powers or character. As you enjoy your summer movies remember that there are lots of new words to learn which will help your SAT preparation.

To help you get started here are 100 words from the May 2012 SAT that you should learn.  Words which have appeared once on the SAT are very likely to appear again.

January 2011 SAT: You Be the (Essay) Judge

One of the best ways to prepare for the SAT essay is to read and write SAT essays. After every SAT, many of our students give us permission to use their actual essays to help others learn from what they did. We’ve posted and discussed this essay to hopefully help you prepare.

A few quick points about the SAT essay for those of you a bit newer to the test:

  • The essay is the very first section of the test.
  • The essay is handwritten in 25 minutes with a pencil on 2 sides of 8.5″x 11″ paper.
  • The essay is worth up to 180 points of the total SAT Writing score.
  • Your full essay will be available on collegeboard.com about 4 weeks after your test date.
  • Each SAT essay consists of a Prompt, which gives some background discussion and context, and an Assignment, which gives the specific assignment they have to complete.

 

Without further ado, here is a January 2011 SAT essay transcribed for your reading pleasure:

SAT and ACT New Security Procedures

Since the SAT cheating ring debacle in 2011, the makers of the SAT and ACT college entrance exams have been wracking their brains about how to tighten security. They are so serious and committed to dealing with this issue that they have even hired a former Director of the FBI to help them develop these new security measures. We’ve been watching events unfold and here is the summary of the changes coming to the September 2012 ACT and October 2012 SAT.

January 2012 SAT Vocabulary: The humbuggery of rapacious sophistry

As part of our continuing vocabulary series we present to you the most interesting and challenging words from the January 2012 SAT. The Jan SAT featured some of the old standby SAT words that have appeared on many SATs in the past (including fastidious, pessimism, and tenacious) but it also featured some that haven’t been seen as often such as rapacious, humbuggery, and quackery. As always the SAT attempts to test your grasp of a college-level vocabulary.

How to buy 10 points on the SAT from the College Board

I sent the College Board a check for $55 and that got me an additional 10 points on my SAT.

 

For most of us that might sound like a good deal, but it really is not. If you’re a follower of this blog or me on twitter (twitter.com/akilbello) you probably know that  I took the SAT in October of 2011. Being a self-proclaimed “test prep dude” I of course ordered the QAS service so I could review the questions after the test.

October 2011 SAT: You Be the (Essay) Judge

If you thought grading SAT essays was easy, in part 3 of our report on the October 1, 2011 SAT, (part 1 is here and part 2 here) we’re asking you to grade an actual essay submitted on the October 1, 2011 SAT. This essay was written by me and was mostly done to test a theory and have some fun..

I wrote this essay to test what happens if you got a few (ok every fact) facts wrong during the essay. So in case you were wondering I’ll post the score the essay actually got after we get some votes in! So leave a comment below!


October 2011 SAT: Reading Comprehension, a.k.a., Those Crazy Stories

Is this an SAT Passage author?

In part 2 of our report on the October 1, 2011 SAT, (part 1 is here) we’ve decided to answer the question, “From where do they get those crazy stories?”

If you’re like us, you’ve wondered where they dredged up the reading passages they use on the SAT. Were they some crazy 100-year-old professors of Shakespearean literature creating these passages? Or perhaps they hired some psychologist — one who specializes in torturing teenagers — to design these new unique ways to get under your skin. In truth, the passages are works of literature that have been written and published, typically, in the last century. Some have come from the hallowed halls of academia and some have come from popular culture (one test featured Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club).

October 2011 SAT Vocabulary: Cocksure Fallacious Killjoys

So the first SAT of the 2011 – 2012 academic year has come and gone and as usual it was full of words ranging from the commonplace (longevity) to the esoteric (recondite). We sent in our teachers to check it out and here are some of the words we remember. We’ve taken words from the reading passages as well as the Sentence Completions. Keep in mind that the SAT doesn’t simply tests random words, it tests words that are used in “well-written college level texts.”

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