High impact prep

Taking on the SAT at age 12 is like walking in knee deep mud...

High impact prep

The goal of studying for the SAT is to improve your score so you can get into a better college. The general consensus is a list of tricks that will magically add 50 points to the final score. Adding these 50 points is a valuable use of time and effort.

I'm looking for 300 to 400 extra points on the final score by making my child 1 or 2 standard deviations more cognatively capable than he currently is. I'm looking for the kind of cognitive skills that make an A in both Orgo and Chem E during the same semester a foregone conclusion.

How to study

Last year's original plan was to publish monthly breakdowns of SAT questions while I discover the secrets. A few weeks later I realized I was finished. I perused forums and SAT tutor services and the 'experts' and realized I was probably the only one who knew. I spent 6 months thinking I should keep this to myself for a personal edge and 6 months really worried about the economy. After much contemplation, I've come to the concusion that my advice is going to be as popular as recommending you adopt the style of the Amish and just as doable.

Each day we do 5 or 6 math problems and a single reading comprehension passage. Then we go through each question outloud without the solutions to argue the answer and argue the question and what is the best way to solve it and how to check the work so that you know it's correct.

For every question on the test, you have to answer these questions during test prep:

  • How do you know you are right so you can move on? Can you estimate, apply logic, recalculate, check against something else, answer has to be negative, can't be outside of some range because of the diagram, must add to 180? How?
  • Is there a better way to do solve it, like just looking at the question and applying some logic from somewhere else?
  • What technique is the author applying to make this question really hard, like what does 'vague' mean in lines 15-20 but you really have to look at line 18 or is it in the small print at the beginning of the passage that you just skipped over?
  • Most importantly of all, and where 90% of the learning takes place for those who don't spend enough time reading the question, why did you get it wrong? (Those students who are really good at pondering a question experience 50% of the learning with each question and 40% of the learning investigating mistakes.)
  • What did this take so long? What problem, question, equation or whatever took the time? Please refer to bullet #2.
  • Is it just a knowledge gap? Sometimes we need to take a detour to learn a new topic like complex numbers, some vocab, or philosophy and debate.

The answer to the question 'How do I improve my score?' is in those bullets above and varies for every person. For example, one student might do an adequate job of reading the nuances of a question but not spend enough time thinking about how to answer before beginning the work. In both the the question and solution strategy, the test has placed traps that one student is immune to but thwarts another. For example, my student isn't confused by 'which answer is not correct' whereas I always miss the 'not' when I'm grading.

Throw away the list and solutions

The goal, the effort, the motivation is simply to spend a lot of time answering a single question and learning about what it took to answer that question. It's like a puzzle or mystery, not just the answer but why it's hard to begin with and how to make it easier.

As you know, our competitive students that we push into abbreviated advanced courses that require tutoring and outside work don't really have the luxury of taking time to enjoy learning, let alone learn. It's being able to say that your child is in advanced AP whatever at a young age and gets 100's and will get into a great college.

To give this child the SAT question technique list is like handing them Clift notes (pun intended) so they can avoid reading the book. It's one more exercise in memorization and mindless application. To give a child the solutions - ever - is sending the opposite message about our goals. They should be sure that they are correct based on their own competency. The mind shuts down once it sees the answer - whether the child got the answer correct or not. Cognitive skills are created during thinking, not during answer checking.

When my child answers B, and I say 'You got this question wrong', real learning begins. Sometimes the answer is in fact B, and I'm wrong - but real learning begins nonetheless and sometimes this is the highest octane overdrive learning of all. If my child answers B, and I say that the answer is C, he simply looks at the content to determine why it's C and not B, adds a few molecules of useless knowledge to the flushable area of memory, and is finished thinking.

What is this learning?

The first level of learning fits under the heading 'I make mistakes and am not capable.' This is a solid cognitive skill that characterizes really successful people. I read the quest too fast, I missed the nuances of that word, the double meaning, the 3rd sentence in paragraph 4, the fraction, the negative sign, 5 + 6 does not equal 12. I like to think of this as 'I don't trust myself'. Once the child internalizes this lesson he's on his way to flawless performance - if you don't count the 17 prior attempts to get there. 5 questions a day are enough. More than that and you risk having your child practice his way around this skill and not learn it.

The term cognitive skills refers to a bucket of mental resourses that answers the quetions, "How do I do something that I am incapable of doing?". Cognitive skills are most powerful when the "something" is poorly defined or not defined at all, like fixing a washing machine or trying to solve a problem that doesn't make any sense to begin with. Cognitive skills address the long list of reasons why the child cannot in fact succeed, or will likely fail on repeated attempts. The second level of learning is that they magically learn these skills because every day they are exposed to activities that require them. It doesn't hurt that the skill domain of the SAT is exactly the same skill set needed to excel in academic work.

There is a considerable amount of material on the SAT that a 5-7th grader does not in fact know, so we benefit from learning content. I say 'learning' and 'not being told' becuase, in the spirit of the previous paragraph, we take concepts apart and put them back together with the help of a stack of blank copier paper (mostly) instead of an actual book (referenced occassionally).

The most popular approach to math education is to guide the child step-by-step through pre-algebra, whatever comes next, and then onto algebra so that the child does not have to address any of the challenges that characterize our approach to studying for the SAT. In the absense of the proper formulas and techniques, a child has to invent their own schema, algorithms and frameworks to answer questions. The downside of this approach is that one day when I need my child to memorize and apply the quadradic equation, he'll balk. It was last week in fact.

Time management and other techniques

A child will magically learn time management skils, with no formal practice or review, simply by having to 'do your math' every day, when this math is SAT test prep. For example, they all figure out right away when estimate or calculate works like it's an innate 6th sense. They find out when they are burned by tedious calculations when they could have just used common sense and logic to skip the work.

I fully expect this kid to finish the whole SAT, plus the extra mystery section they subject 12 year olds to which I'm writing a conspiracy novel about. I expect his results on the last reading comp to be worse than the first simply based on exhaustion. But most of all I expect adequate time management even though we'll never do more than 5 or 6 math questions a day leading up to the test.

5 questions a day for a year, and then sit for 250 questions in a 4 1/2 hour span. Normal SAT test prep advice on this topic consists of 'watch the clock, pace yourself, save time consuming questions for the end, guess wisely'. My advice consists of 'work with material you don't have the tools to navigate because you didn't learn it in school yet, develop algorithms you can't even explain, and then apply them on the test.'

Moe likely I'll spend the whole car ride over to the SAT testing center lecturing my son about time management.

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