How to Assess Your SAT Strengths and Weaknesses

Posted by on Feb 9, 2015 2:18:00 PM

I’m not perfect. CrystalDon’t tell my mom or my kids that, but it’s true. I have flaws. I make mistakes. I even make mistakes at work (let’s keep my boss out of this conversation, too). One work mistake I have made in the past is in assuming that my students understand how to evaluate themselves. When I first meet with a tutoring student who hasn’t submitted a practice test, I’ll ask “What are your weaknesses on the SAT?” They answer something general, such as “Math,” because their grades haven’t met their expectations or simply because they don’t like it. But it doesn’t answer my question.

So I probe further: “What are your weaknesses in math?”

“Geometry?” they answer/ask, as if they’re hoping that I—a perfect stranger at that point—will agree with them.

Even further: “What do you struggle with in Geometry?” I’m hoping for specifics, such as "triangles" or "proofs" or "volumes of cylinders."

But the answer is always the same. “All of it.” And at one point in time, I took those students at their word. We forged on, covering every aspect of Geometry, even though they might have been rectangle rock stars or volume virtuosos. We wasted valuable time covering concepts they had already mastered.

It was my mistake to assume that my students understood how to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. I think that we tutors sometimes get caught up in applying our own experiences to our students. This SAT stuff either comes naturally to us or is learned easily by us. If it comes naturally, tutors never experience the learning process, so many have a hard time understanding how to learn and thus how to teach. And if we are natural learners, then we innately know how to study and how to evaluate our skill set, so we assume everyone else knows, too. I fall into this second category. The SAT was a massive undertaking for me (relearning functions was downright painful in the beginning). I had to work hard to raise my score, but I was methodical in my learning process. I analyzed every question on practice tests and categorized my missed questions by concept, so that I could create a visual map of my weaknesses. This not only helped me self-evaluate my abilities, but it opened up new knowledge about the test. After diagramming 7 or 8 tests, I could see that cylinders were tested for volume or for hidden triangles and that who and whom had never been a true error on any of the tests.

I realized that many of you do not know how to self-assess, so I decided to recreate the spreadsheet I used when I studied the SAT all those years ago. The PowerScore Skills Assessment is a diagnostic tool that will help you track your wrong answers, grouping them by content and, in some cases, by error type. In the end, you’ll have a visual map of your weaknesses, and if you map your right answers, you can see your strengths, too. This information is not only valuable to your tutor, but also to you. Once you realize that you struggle with questions about Number Properties or Subject Verb Agreement, you can more efficiently tailor your study program. And be careful—you just might learn something about the SAT as you catalog all those questions.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me or comment below. I am anxious to hear your feedback.

Photo: "Paradise Bridge," courtesy of Hartwig HKD

Topics: SAT Prep, SAT Tip of the Week

How Busy Students Can Prep for the SAT

Posted by on Feb 2, 2015 12:04:00 PM

If you’re like most 5_Minuteshigh school students, there isn’t a lot of downtime in your day, let alone time to study for something other than your normal homework. Yet the SAT looms in your future, and you keep hearing about how you need to start studying for it months—maybe even years—in advance. How can you fit SAT prep into an already overloaded school day? The solution is simple: study in 5-minute segments. Even the busiest teenager has 5 minutes to spare—whether riding in the car, waiting for practice to start, or sitting in the dentist’s office—so there are no excuses: start prepping for the SAT now.

The following is a list of our top recommendations for quick, on-the-go, 5 minute study sessions.


1. Read a boring article.

The SAT selects dry, difficult passages for the reading comprehension questions. Get prepared for such utter boredom by reading similar articles, which you can find in our suggested magazine reading list. Print a few to take with you, and whenever you have a few minutes, read! Concentrate on the main idea of the article and how the author feels about that main idea.

2. Learn 5 SAT vocabulary words.

Print out our free Repeat Offender Flashcards, and you can take SAT vocabulary words with you wherever you go. Even better, get the free eBook (located on the same link) for your phone. If you have 5 minutes waiting in line in the school office, pull out the Repeat Offenders and learn 5 words. These short study sessions will add up over the school year, and before long, you’ll have a profound SAT vocabulary. And if you don’t know what "profound" means, then you’ve proven just how badly you need some vocabulary study.

3. Take a vocabulary quiz.

If my little test using the word "profound" didn’t convince you to amp up your vocabulary study, take a formal assessment free on our website (if you haven’t figured it out by now, everything in our Free Help Area is, well, free. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve talked the boss into putting more free stuff out there than most SAT websites. You’re welcome). These quizzes take only a few minutes to complete, and they are great for both revealing how much vocabulary work you really need as well as testing what you have learned.


4. Rewrite a math problem.

Know the very best way to learn something? Teach it to someone else. I consider myself a non-math person (put some serious trigonometry in front of me and I’m likely to sneak out the bathroom window when you’re not looking), but I can consistently score above a 750 on the SAT Math section. Why? Because I have rewritten thousands of SAT math questions. The College Board does not release its official questions for use by tutors or test prep companies, so authors like me have to create questions for our books and courses. To make our questions as accurate as possible, we use official questions as examples and modify and update them. Then we have to test them to make sure they work. I might run through 20 combinations of numbers before I find a set that make a question work, but in the process, I’ve practiced that question 20 times. So if you have 5 minutes to spare, challenge yourself: can you take the same question, and make it work with new numbers? Can you change the question slightly to make it your own creation?  

5. Learn 5 math formulas or relationships.

We don’t stop at free vocabulary flash cards. Oh no, not us! We also have free math flashcards! Print them and throw them in an outside pocket of your book bag. When you’re waiting for the team bus before your game, take them out and memorize five relationships that are tested on the SAT. The test does provide some basic geometry formulas, but we want you to memorize them and many others that can help you on test day.

6. Complete a short math problem set.

In 5 minutes, you can complete 4 problems and still have time left over to check and review your answers. We have some sample problem sets on our website to start; once you finish those, work through 4 questions at a time on the College Board’s free practice test or on one of the tests in the Official SAT Study Guide. Remember, though, that the key to a score increase is studying what you did wrong, so be sure to review each question that you missed or guessed correctly.


7. Recreate a grammar question.

Just as you should create your own math questions mentioned in #4 above, you should also rewrite your own grammar questions. If you struggle with a question, rewrite it, making the error the same in both questions. Model your sentence off of the one in the question, but change the topic. This will familiarize you with common SAT sentence structures, as well as alert you to error patterns.  

8. Practice a short Writing problem set.

More free stuff! In 5 minutes, you can practice, score, and review 6 multiple-choice Writing questions. We’ve got a starter problem set on our website. After you complete it, tackle 6 questions at a time on the College Board’s free practice test or on one of the tests in the Official SAT Study Guide.

9. Plan an essay.

In our courses and books, we recommend spending 4 to 5 minutes planning the essay you will write. This involves determining your viewpoint and brainstorming examples that support your position. So take 5 minutes to read an essay question (never fear, you can find some here!), and then jot down your stance—a rough draft of a thesis, basically—and four or five examples that provide evidence of that stance. Don’t write the essay; simply plan for it. This invaluable practice will hone your ability to think quickly under pressure when the real test rolls around.


10. Solve the SAT Question of the Day

Every day, without fail, the College Board releases one random Math, Reading, or Writing question on their website. Who said they were evil, conniving test makers? This simple act of viewing a single question each day will eventually expose you to all of the types of questions on the test and all of the patterns in the questions. You should complete these questions daily. Better yet, print them out and start a library of SAT questions. You can use them later when searching for specific types of questions or when writing your own versions of questions. Do it. No excuses.

11. Decipher a puzzle.

The SAT is a reasoning test, and there is no better way to sharpen your reasoning skills than by completing reasoning puzzles. Shocking, I know, but we offer some free puzzles on our website, and you can also find them in newspapers, magazines, and variety puzzle books. My grandmother was an avid crossword puzzle fan, but she hated the logic games that came in her puzzle books. As a middle school student, I started completing them when I visited her, and I can honestly say that the skills I learned from determining whether Alma, Betty, or Curt either flew, drove, or hitchhiked to either Denver, Edmonton, or Flagstaff have served me well in school, on tests, and in life. They might make your brain hurt for 5 minutes, but repeated practice will make the SAT painless.

12. Relieve SAT pressure.

Struggle with test anxiety? Take 5 minutes before the test to study how to relieve the pressure. We have some ideas in our Free Help Area that may help you distress less, but you should also start practicing calming breathing techniques, performance visualization, and self-confidence building (“I will ace the SAT, I will ace the SAT, I will ace the SAT.” And I am so not kidding). If you know you suffer from test anxiety or excessive pressure, you must deal with it now, not on test day.


Obviously it’s not ideal to study for the SAT for only 5 minutes at a time. Most students need to commit to more serious study time, especially in the months immediately preceding the test. But if you are just starting to think about taking the SAT or are short on time, these suggestions can help you jumpstart your training and keep you fresh on the days that just don’t allow you a full study session.

Photo: 5 Minutes to Midnight, courtesy of Markus Grossalber

Topics: SAT Prep, SAT Tip of the Week

Four SAT Prep Goals for Juniors

Posted by on Jan 19, 2015 10:18:24 AM

You can Soccer_Goalprocrastinate no longer, Juniors. If you haven't already starting to think about SAT prep, it's time. We recommend that all juniors take the test at least once in the spring of their junior year, and that they spend two to four months preparing for said test. As of today, you have 7 weeks until the March test, 14 weeks until the May test, and 19 weeks until the June test. But have no fear--I'm not throwing you into the deep end just yet. I’m going to ease you into the realm of college admissions tests by talking about goal-setting for the SAT.

GOAL 1: Set up a study plan

Wouldn't you know it? PowerScore has a 12-Week Study Plan to whip you into shape for the SAT, which is perfect for the May test and can be adapted to move more quickly for the March test or more slowly for the June test. We think of everything, don’t we? This plan is written for students who are studying with The Official SAT Study Guide, but it can be supplemented with other test prep books, such as the SAT Bible Trilogy (if you have purchased the PowerScore Bibles, feel free to email me and I’ll send you a customized study plan that includes the books). Review the 12-Week Study Plan this week, incorporating deadlines and tasks into your own personal calendar.

GOAL 2: Determine if you need additional help

Only you can determine whether you need professional help to prepare for the SAT. If you haven’t already taken an official SAT, I suggest printing the free practice test on the College Board’s website. Take the test under timed conditions, and then score it using the guide at the end of the test. Compare your score to the average scores of the freshmen class at your prospective college (you can find this information on the college’s website or through the College Board’s College Search). If you’re in the target range, independent study is a good way to prep for the test. But if you fall short of the average acceptance scores, consider courses or private tutoring.

GOAL 3: Learn a minimum of 500 vocabulary words

No matter what the College Board or your guidance counselor says, vocabulary is vital to your Critical Reading score of the SAT. It’s important, however, to study words that frequently occur on the SAT, rather than long lists with words that have never occurred on the test. I suggest memorizing the first 500 Repeat Offenders listed in our Free Help Area. That’s roughly 70 words a week for the March test, 35 words a week for the May test, and 26 words a week for the June test. If you conquer the first 500 words, then consider the words in the last two decks of flash cards. And as always, remove any words that you know and only study the ones you don’t know.

GOAL 4: Memorize relevant math formulas and relationships

While the SAT provides every formula you need to know on the SAT, it’s important to memorize these formulas so that you don’t waste time flipping back and forth in the test booklet to look them up. Plus, memorization of these formulas often demonstrates an understanding of them. Additionally, there are a few formulas and relationships, which are neither required nor provided, that if known, can help you with some shortcuts on the test. So start studying our SAT Math Bible flash cards now to have an edge on test day.

In the coming weeks, we will  look at some more specific test prep tricks, but for now, it’s important to get a plan in place and commit to it. These weeks of study may seem torturous, but they can change the next four years of your life. Seems like a small investment, especially given the huge return.

Topics: College Admissions, SAT Prep

SAT Word of the Day: Belligerent

Posted by on Jan 14, 2015 3:32:00 PM


(adj.) aggressive, hostile, or warlike

(pronounced "buh-LIJ-uh-runt")  

not permitted


Example Sentences:

  • Annie's belligerent attitude often got her sent to detention.
  • Harry was not a belligerent man, but when the thief attacked him he didn't hesitate to punch the thief in the face.

Create your own sentence and post it as a comment below. 

The best sentence will be entered to win a free SAT course.


* We will choose a new winner each month. Good luck!



Topics: SAT Word of the Day

Tips for Setting a Target SAT Score

Posted by on Dec 29, 2014 1:18:15 PM

When we teach SAT courses,Target-1 we hand out a student profile which asks students about their SAT experience and expectations. One of the questions prompts them to list their target score. So many of the responses are the same: 1800. When we ask why they want an 1800, their answer is simple: “Because that’s a good score.”

True, an 1800 is a good score based on national SAT percentiles. Only 19% of test takers get an 1800 or higher. But is it a “good” score for every college-bound student? It’s not likely to get the high achievers into Harvard and it might actually cause more stress than it’s worth for students aiming for the local city college. A good score is relative to your test history and your future application; mainly, it depends on your prior test scores, the schools to which you are applying, and to the scholarships you want.

So let’s set a realistic target score for the SAT. Here’s how:

1. Find the average tests scores of your prospective colleges.
While a target SAT score is more about your ability to reach it, it is still important to look at what prospective colleges want from you. Using the College Board’s BigFuture, you can search for any college and view the average SAT and ACT scores of accepted students. To begin, type in the name of a college into the search bar. Once the college page is returned, click on “Applying” in the menu on the left, which is next to the cover picture. Scroll down to the six tabs in the middle of the new page and select the tab labeled “SAT & ACT Scores.” Here you will see an average range of Critical Reading, Math, and Writing Scores. For example, admitted students at the University of Georgia had a Critical Reading mid-range of 560-660. So the average Critical Reading score is about a 610 [(560 + 660)/2 = 610]. Once you determine the averages of all sections, you can add them together to find a composite. In the case of UGA, it’s about 1860.

Because these scores are averages, you would be wise to score 100 to 200 points higher than the average. But it’s not enough to say “I need a 1960” to go to Georgia. There are other factors—the most important of which is your ability to reach that high—that need to be considered before setting a target score. To start, though, simply list the average scores at your top college choices.

2. Consider score requirements for scholarships.
If there are scholarships you are pursuing—whether from local organizations, specific colleges, or national associations—research them to see if there are SAT score requirements or averages of previous recipients. As with the average score range of prospective colleges, note these scores and consider achieving 100 or 200 points higher.

3. List your most recent test score.
Now for the really important part: listing your most recent test score. It doesn’t matter if it’s from an official test administrations or from a timed practice test. If you haven’t taken an SAT yet, take a practice test under timed conditions (you can find real tests in our Free Help Area).
4. Study the data and determine a target score.
Start with your previous test score and consider what a realistic score increase would be. An 1800 is an admirable SAT goal and it’s attainable if you’re starting at a 1600. But if your initial test score is a 1200, a 600-point score increase is not very realistic. Sure, it can be done, but the average student does not have 40-hours a week to invest in SAT prep for months at a time. And that’s likely what it would take to make such a drastic increase.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what a realistic increase is, look at the number of questions you missed in each section. For example, say you missed 15 questions in Math. If you can improve enough to only miss 12 questions, your Math score would increase about 100 points. Answer three more questions correctly in EACH section and you’re looking at a 300 point improvement! We believe—as does PowerScore—that any student starting with an 1800 or less who puts in quality study time several hours a week for the two months prior to the test can raise their score 300 points (that’s why we offer a 300 point increase guarantee in our Full Length Course!).

Once you determine a realistic score increase (say from a 1520 to a 1820), tack on an extra 50 points. These are “reach for the stars” points. We often meet our own expectations, so it’s important to challenge ourselves to attain even more. As SAT instructors, we often purposely set the bar too high for our students. Sometimes they surprise themselves and reach our goals. But if they don’t, we are never disappointed and neither are they, because they still reach higher than they themselves expected.

Now look at the average scores of your prospective colleges and potential scholarships. Is your target score the same as or higher than the scores of admitted and awarded students? If your target score is much lower than a school’s average, you need to be honest with yourself about your chances of attending that college. Of course you can still apply, but you need to consider the school a “reach” and apply at some other “sure things.” You might relieve some stress, too, if you eliminate that college and concentrate on others that are within your target score range.

Setting a target score isn’t difficult, and you can certainly do so without any help. You might, however, want to include your parents in the discussion. In our experience, parents often have unrealistic expectations for their teenagers, and including them in this process will help them understand what you are—and aren’t—capable of. This will relieve any extra pressure they might otherwise add to the already-stressful testing experience.

Photo: On Target, courtest of


Topics: SAT Prep, SAT Tip of the Week

SAT Word of the Day- ORATION

Posted by on Dec 15, 2014 11:00:00 AM


(n.) a formal speech

(pronounced “aw-REY-shuhn”)


oration woman giving speech

Example Sentence:

The political candidate delivered an oration about the benefits of her universal health care plan.

Leave a sentence of your own in the comments!

Topics: SAT Word of the Day

SAT Word of the - OVERT

Posted by on Dec 12, 2014 11:00:00 AM


(adj.) open and observable; not secret or hidden

(pronounced “oh-VURT”)


politician cartoon

Example Sentence:

The candidate’s overt support of stem cell research was unusual; he made it clear that if elected, he would work to increase research efforts.

Leave a sentence of your own in the comments!

Topics: SAT Word of the Day

SAT Word of the Day- ORNATE

Posted by on Dec 12, 2014 11:00:00 AM


(adj.) highly decorated

(pronounced “awr-NEYT”)


cartoon castle

Example Sentence:

The ornate palace had colorful paintings and intricate wood carvings in every room.

Leave a sentence of your own in the comments!

Topics: SAT Word of the Day

Top 7 SAT and ACT Mistakes

Posted by on Dec 11, 2014 11:29:50 AM

There are plenty of lists out there Warningwith the "Do's of SAT and ACT Prep," but what about the "Don'ts?" Here are the top seven mistakes students make preparing for and taking the SAT and ACT.

1. Taking the test cold

I often get the same phone call from concerned parents: “I just want him to take the SAT this fall to see how he does. Then we’ll decide how much study he needs.” Hey, while you’re at it, why don’t you have him submit a rough draft of his essay with his college application? I’m sure the admissions officers would love to see his spelling errors and comma splices.

I don't really get sarcastic, but I want to. The idea of taking an officially-administered SAT as a practice test is ludicrous. Instead I politely explain to these well-meaning parents that if their sons or daughters take the test and return a sub-par performance, the college applications will take a hit. “Well, he’ll just use Score Choice,” they reason. Umm, yeah. Yale University—one of the most prestigious and oldest colleges in the country—will totally change their policy requiring applicants to submit ALL scores just because you ask them to.

While this might be a great plan if all of your prospective colleges accept Score Choice, many colleges still require that you send test scores from every official administration. Plus, most universities will superscore your results, meaning admissions officers take the highest section scores from different tests to compute the best composite score. So say Johnny Junior gets a 520 Math, 660 Reading, and 600 Writing in March, and he turns in a 630 Math, 630 Reading, and 650 Writing in May. His super score is a 630 Math, 660 Reading, and a 650 Writing. If you utilize Score Choice, you limit your own potential. (To find out how colleges use scores, check out this report published by the College Board).

When you take your first official SAT or ACT, be sure that you are 100% prepared and ready to master the test. Discover your initial practice score on a practice test, not on the real thing.

2. Using simulated tests to compute a practice test score

The College Board has released 10 official tests in The Official SAT Study Guide and the ACT has published 5 tests in The Real ACT Prep Guide. Buy these books. Work through the tests. Compute your scores. If you need more tests, you can find free official tests in our Free Help Area.

But do not buy books written by test prep gurus with “complete practice tests.” While simulated questions are good for teaching and practicing specific concepts, they are poor for helping you compute an accurate practice score. The authors of these tests are not likely psychometricians, those PhD-wielding statistical-loving educational psychologists who write standardized tests, nor are they psychometric employees of the College Board or of ACT. They can guess at what goes into a full-length test and at its resulting score curve, but they cannot know for sure and they cannot accurately predict your real score.

3. Cramming the day before the test

Intense studying the day before the SAT or ACT is akin to an athlete running 50 miles the day before a marathon. Professional athletes taper their workout in the days before competition, and you should taper yours, too. If this idea causes panic or anxiety, then flip through your Vocabulary or Math Flashcards one last time the day before the test, but do not strain your brain. It needs a 24-hour break in order perform at its peak ability on test day. After all, if Johnny Junior follows our advice about preparing for the SAT or ACT, what he’s learned in the months prior to the test is not going to be forgotten in a single day off.

4. Sleeping through the test

Several years ago I taught an SAT class in which one student explained to me why he was there. “I can’t submit my ACT scores now because I bombed it. I stayed out the night before until 5:00 am and fell asleep during the test. Now I have to take the SAT.” Sigh.

I know none of you plan on staying out until 5:00 am before your test, right? Hasn’t your mother told you that nothing good happens after midnight? And even midnight is too late of a bedtime the night before the SAT or the ACT. The tests are up to 5 hours long, and if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you are guaranteed to fade just over halfway through. I know that many high school social and athletic events occur on Friday nights, but think about the events you might miss out on at the college of your choice if you don’t get the test scores needed to attend there.

5. Letting your stomach growl 

I admit it: I’ve been that person in a testing room whose stomach has growled and distracted everyone in the room. Not only did I lose focus because I was hungry, but also because I was embarrassed by the sounds emanating from my core. Since then, I don’t take the SAT or ACT without eating breakfast and packing a snack to eat on my break. It’s a proven fact that breakfast increases your concentration, mood, and memory, so pick a healthy meal to help you get through the test. Food that is high in protein will keep you full longer, although if you don’t usually eat a breakfast bean burrito, the day of the SAT is not a good time to start. Choose an innocuous protein bar if you are not normally a breakfast eater.

6. Finishing early

Every time I take the SAT or ACT, without fail, several students finish a section and put their heads down. The teacher in me wants to get up and shake them, but the competitor in me inwardly smiles because they instantly become a lower statistic on the percentile rankings. It is SAT and ACT suicide to assume that you are so intelligent you selected all of the right answers on the first pass through a section. I consistently score in the 99th percentile, and I consistently find mistakes when I go back and check my work when there is time remaining. Remember, the questions are designed to take advantage of your assumptions and your inattention to detail, so reviewing your answers will either confirm their selection or help your see the trap into which you fell.

7. Misbubbling your answer sheet

If you skip a question on the SAT, you must also skip that bubble in the answer booklet. It is imperative that you be meticulous in bubbling in your answer sheet if you omit questions. “There are 20 questions but I’ve only bubbled in 19! Where did I go wrong????” You know the signs: mad page turning, frantic erasing, and hasty re-bubbling. Avoid the panic by being painstaking in your transfer of answers.

If you skip a question on the ACT, lightly bubble in answer choice (A) or (F) in your answer booklet before moving on to the next question. There is no penalty for wrong answers on this test, so putting a “placeholder” answer will not affect your score. It will, however, keep you from misbubbling.

Photo: "warning:_____" courtesy of Jason Eppink

Topics: SAT Prep, ACT prep

SAT Word of the Day- PARAGON

Posted by on Dec 11, 2014 11:00:00 AM


(n.) a perfect example

(pronounced “PAR-uh-gon”)


professional woman

Example Sentence:

Parmida is a paragon of professionalism; she arrives to work on time, treats co-workers with respect, and refrains from joining in office gossip.

Leave a sentence of your own in the comments!

Topics: SAT Word of the Day