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The Perfect Score Project: A Counselor’s Review

By Meg, IvyWise Premier College Counselor

People of all ages and backgrounds love to complain about the SAT. The New York Times Magazinerecently published an article by Todd Balf about the College Board’s recent announcement that they plan to overhaul the test. The article begins:

The SAT Is Hated By:
A) Stressed-out students
B) Frustrated Educators
C) Hamstrung Admissions Officers
D) Anxious Parents
E) All of the Above

You know the answer.

Indeed, the College Board has promised to roll out a new (improved!) version of the SAT in the spring of 2016. The Writing (essay) section no longer will be a required part of the test (although the most selective colleges probably will require applicants to take the Essay section, as they currently do with the ACT) and the scoring scale will be adjusted accordingly.

The current version of the SAT contains three sections, Critical Reading, Math and Writing. Each section is worth a maximum of 800 points. Currently students are penalized for wrong answers on the SAT, except for on a few math “grid in” questions. In the future, test-takers will not be penalized for incorrect answers and the maximum possible combined score on the required two sections (which will be called “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” and “Math”) will be 1600.

Anybody who takes the SAT scores should be aware that SAT scores correlate very strongly to family income. There are lots of reasons one can point to, in attempting to explain this connection, and Balf’s article is a great read if you’re interested in learning more about this matter.

Despite many people’s contempt for the SAT and the growing number of colleges that are “standardized test score optional,” it doesn’t appear to be going away. According to the Balf, roughly 80% of colleges in the US currently require applicants to submit the SAT or ACT. See FairTest.org for an up-to-date list of colleges that do not require applicants to submit the SAT or ACT. A small number of IvyWise students each year choose not to submit standardized test scores along with their applications.

As a college counselor, teacher and admissions officer, I’ve encountered lots of students whose standardized test scores didn’t match up to their academic record of achievement and ability. In some cases, “soft scores” were undoubtedly the reason those students didn’t get admitted to schools they hoped to attend.

Most of our IvyWise students devote a considerable amount of time and energy to studying for the SAT or ACT. We offer diagnostic tests and urge students to target their test prep strategically so that they are able to use their study time effectively and efficiently.

So I was intrigued when I recently heard about a woman named Debbie Stier, a forty-something-year-old mother of two teens, who took the SAT seven times in one year and then wrote a book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT (Harmony, 2014), about her attempt to “ace” the test. Stier’s book does in fact “uncover” a great deal of useful information and offer many helpful tips for SAT-takers.

In researching and writing her book, Stier sampled as many different types of SAT prep as she could. She devotes a lot of ink to describing for us what worked and what didn’t for her. Interestingly, Stier concludes by recommending an approach to test prep that IvyWise also advocates: give yourself plenty of time (cramming is not a good idea), use College Board study materials, take multiple full-length practice tests and pick apart the questions you miss on your practice tests until you fully understand the material. Many students find that working with an SAT tutor one-on-one helps to motivate and guide them.

One of my favorite suggestions from Stier for students who want to improve their verbal scores is to read at least one serious article from The New York Times (or similar publication such as The Economist) every day, beginning in 9th grade. Not only will you find out what’s going on the world, you’re like to expand your vocabulary in an authentic, gradual, relatively painless way! Underline and look up all the words in your daily article that are new to you. Make flashcards. Then make it a point to use your new words in your own life over the next few days. That will help them stick.

What I found even more interesting and engaging than Stier’s test tips, however, was her engaging account of how today’s college application process–including studying for and taking the SAT–impacts teenagers and their families. Stier asserts, in fact, that seeking to motivate her son to do his best on the SAT proved to be a valuable bonding experience for both of them that ultimately strengthened their relationship and served to empower her son.

Stier and her book have attracted a lot of media attention in recent weeks. Elizabeth Kolber published a piece for The New Yorker about Stier and her project (See: “Big Score: When Mom Takes the SATS“) Stier has appeared on the morning talk shows and is busy making the rounds speaking to groups of parents and teens.

I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with her, and was delighted to see that she is, like most of the parents I meet, not an overbearing “helicopter mom” or an overly competitive “tiger mom,” but rather a mother who defies such labels and simply loves her kids and is doing her best to help them make their way from the family nest into the world.

I highly recommend The Perfect Score Project, both for students who are gearing up to take the SAT and parents of such teenagers. You’ll find it chock full of practical tips and reminders, and you may even derive some comfort from it. By acknowledging and sharing how she (in an extremist way) and her son worked through some of the anxiety that often is associated with preparing to take the test, Stier has produced an unusual and enjoyable book that is half-study guide and half-memoir.

Click here to learn more about Meg and watch her introductory video!