Doing well on the SAT is not about tricks and techniques.
A couple of months ago, somebody contacted me about helping him study for the licensing exam to become a psychologist. I thought it was an odd request, because I coach high school students for the SAT and other college admissions tests. Psychology is one of those fields that everybody knows something about, but I didn’t think I could help this man, because, after all, he studied psychology in graduate school and he was already practicing as a therapist.
Of course I couldn’t help him with the psychology content, he agreed. He just wanted the tips and tricks of taking a standardized test. I asked him what he meant, could he give me an example. He didn’t really have one, that’s why he was coming to me.
“The only thing I can think of is on a True or False test. Now, my test isn’t True/False,” he told me, “but everyone knows that on a True/False test, if you don’t know the answer, you always pick True, because that’s the most likely answer.”
In that instant, not only did he validate my childhood refusal to see a psychologist, but he also, more importantly, made me consider how widespread such misconceptions might be.
So I sought out a friend who’s a long term substitute teacher for elementary school here in Los Angeles where I live. Since those kids have to take a lot of standardized tests, I wanted to know my friend’s thoughts about the importance of tricks and techniques.
My friend said that she would do a lot better on a given standardized test than another person with a comparable or even higher level of knowledge of the subject matter because she knows what those tests are like and she knows the techniques you should use on them to do well.
“OK, what are they?” She paused for a second. I expected that she’d have a list, but she didn’t. Like my psychologist friend, she just believed it to be true and assumed that I knew it was true and that I would know what these tricks are. Finally, she said, as though it were obvious, “If you don’t know the answer to a multiple choice question you should always pick ‘C’. It’s the most common answer.”
Nothing could be more wrong.
Tricks and techniques, at least the way we generally think of them, will not help someone do significantly better on his SAT.
I’m not saying that it’s not helpful to know when to guess and when not to guess. It is. It’s helpful to know how to answer a sentence fill in if you don’t know all the vocabulary. It’s helpful, when you read a passage and have to answer the questions about it, to know what to do when you have two answers left and you can’t decide between them. And it’s helpful, when you’re doing math, to know which of several methods to use to solve a problem, and when to skip it entirely.
I don’t consider them tricks. These are methods, ways that you, as the test taker, want to train your mind to think. It’s about learning and applying what you learn.
It’s very coachable, and it can pay off in a very big way.