How retaking the SAT changed test prep tutor’s view

This was written by Isabela Guimaraes, a top tutor at Applerouth Tutoring Services in Bethesda, Maryland. She retook the SAT last week and here is her report on how it went — and what she learned to pass on to her clients.

By Isabela Guimaraes

During the week before each SAT test date, I meet with each of my students to go over last minute pointers. We review content and strategy, we discuss their expectations, and we visualize the upcoming test date. We discuss all of the things 17 year olds rarely think to plan for: what they’ll have for breakfast, who will drive them to the test, which radio station they’ll listen to as they pull into the school parking lot. And it works. Students walk into the SAT calmer and more ready to succeed if they know what to expect, and their scores are often higher as a result.

After coaching dozens of students through their visualization of various SATs, I began to feel like a fraud. I have always been confident in my ability to solve any SAT problem, but I began to wonder whether I could do it quickly and accurately enough to max out the test.

So I spent a recent Saturday morning reliving one of a long list of unpleasant high school experiences: I took the SAT. And I even managed to follow most of my own advice. As it turns out, all the world’s practice and preparation didn’t mitigate the undeniable stress of the testing situation. Unpleasant and exhausting as it was, this experience taught me more about my students’ reality than any other could have.

1. Get a good night’s sleep

I tell my students to get a good night’s sleep before the test, and it is with the best of intentions that I decide to spend Friday night with TiVo and takeout. And when I wake up on the couch six hours later with a crick in my neck and an imprint of the remote on my arm, I get the sense of foreboding that only comes when I realize I have set myself up for failure.

2. Eat a healthy breakfast

I peruse my pantry for no less than eight minutes before selecting a slice of white toast with Nutella.. Do I make an egg white omelet? No. But it isn’t a Red Bull and half a Kit Kat bar, either.

3. Arrive at the test center early with your registration ticket and photo ID

Confession: I know in advance that I will fall short on this front. I have never been early for anything in my life. As I stand in line with the other late arrivals, a girl in a red sweatshirt speeds out the door while desperately screaming expletives. She walks back inside three minutes later clutching a learner’s permit and looking relieved. Crisis averted.

4. Listen carefully to the proctor’s instructions

When the proctor asks the young man in front of me to remove his hat, he is visibly annoyed and possibly also somewhat panic-stricken. “But it’s my lucky hat!” he says, and the other students chuckle. He finally tosses it into the pile of bags and coats at the front of the room, and we move on.

5. Brainstorm essay topics before the test

The essay question is fairly mundane, and I have a list of topics ready. The prompt is open-ended and predictable — nothing like last March’s reality TV question — and I am ready to go with three foolproof pieces of evidence. But when I reach my third body paragraph with eight minutes to spare, I begin to panic. Why can’t I think of anything to say about Gandhi? The moment passes and I remind myself that facts are irrelevant; all I need to do is support my thesis. So I make up something about Gandhi and move on.

6. Use your calculator, even for basic arithmetic

The first section after the essay is a math section, and I realize as I work my way through the first several problems that I am nervous. It is a completely illogical anxiety, as my motivations for taking the test are equal parts research and ego. I check and recheck even the easiest problems, and it’s a good thing I do. I catch a basic arithmetic error on the second question, and I remind myself that I simply cannot be trusted with mental math at 8 a.m. From this point on, I stick with the calculator. As we near the end of the section, I feel fairly confident about my performance. I look up at the time and realize that I have exactly 18 seconds to solve the final problem. I finish reading the question as the proctor calls time, and I feel a tinge of disappointment at the knowledge that I will not be getting a 2400.

7. Keep your cool

The next section is a writing one, and I spend an inordinate amount of time debating the difference between “its” and “it’s,” a mistake I have never made in my life. I realize after two minutes that the question I am staring at is meant to test my understanding of parallel structure, and that my internal debate is useless.

8. Skip questions you can’t answer

This is the most important piece of advice I give my students. The SAT deducts ¼ of a point for each incorrect answer, so I make strict rules about when to guess and when to skip. But my pride simply will not let me skip a single critical reading question. I break my rules more than once: I choose among three possible answers on a vocabulary question, and I speed through the last three questions of a particularly long and boring reading comprehension passage.

9. Don’t be careless

After this weekend, I will never again offer this advice to anyone. By the time the final math section rolls around, I am exhausted. And it shows. It takes me three attempts to find the sum of 2 and 11 (with a calculator), and another 15 seconds to realize the question absolutely does not require that. I catch at least three careless errors as I work my way through the section, and I start to wonder with some trepidation how many I let slip by.

10. Prepare yourself for mental fatigue

My students sit for mock tests roughly once a month, and when they complain I tell them that nothing else will prepare them for the exhaustion of this test. And I am absolutely right. By the time I reach the final section, I am in borderline zombie mode, and am fighting what seems to be a preference for grammatical impossibilities. I start to drift off and wonder why I bother with “I” vs. “me” when the royal “we” seems so much more fun. And just as I’m beginning my descent into insanity, time is called.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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