TestMagic News

Always register early for the SAT (and ACT for that matter)

by Erin Billy -

Summary: Register early for your test (specifically the SAT and ACT). If you wait too long, you may not find any spots available near you.

If you follow our advice, you'll never see this screen again!

Planning for the SAT is difficult, but plan you must

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that planning for college in the US is difficult. Not only do you need to excel in school, you also need to stay “qualitatively” busy after school, raise your test scores, as well as market yourself to the colleges you’ll be applying to.

So it can be pretty difficult at times to plan things out ahead of time, though we do know people who have the next 1.5 years planned out, down to test dates and hotel reservations!

There are many activities that we definitely recommend you start early on, but one of the most important is simply being sure to register for your test early.

Why? Well, there’s a very real chance that if you wait too long, you won’t be able to get a seat at your preferred location or even in your city. This may not seem like a big deal, but it can be in some cases.

For example, some testing sites can be noisy or disorganized. Here in San Francisco, our students seem to have the best luck taking the tests at private schools, though many public schools have gotten good reviews as well. (One in particular, though, has gotten very bad reviews, unfortunately. But I’m not going to name and shame here.)

When to register for the SAT

When to register? The short answer is to register as early as you can. The system allows registrations up to a year in advance.

To give an example of how hard it can be to get a spot (this was for the SAT), in July I searched for a seat for the test in August (so about a month in advance). There were 0 spots available. I extended my search to a radius of 75 miles. Still 0. Nothing available at all. The closest testing centers I was able to locate were in Sacramento and Fresno. On a positive note, there seemed to be many seats available in Bakersfield.

A couple of anecdotes:

  • For the August SAT test this year, towards the end of May, our students reported that they were unable to find any spots available in San Francisco and had to choose a testing site in Oakland or elsewhere.
  • Someone REALLY needed to take the ACT in July, and had to fly out of state to do so.

FAQs

(I will update this periodically.)

Can I reschedule my SAT?

If I register early, and change my mind, can I reschedule? You can change your test date for a fee, which is currently (in 2019) $30. There’s actually no deadline for this (and you can even reschedule a previous test date that you missed), but if the test date you want to reschedule for is soon (less than about a month), you may have to pay a late fee as well (currently also $30). And remember, many of the best sites may be full already. Note that more information may be available when you register, on your admission ticket, or in emails sent to you, so always defer to that information.

Can I get a refund of my SAT registration?

What if I cancel my SAT registration entirely? Can I get a refund? As long as you still have at least five days before your test date, good news! You can request (and receive) a refund. The bad news is that you’ll get only $10 (six weeks after the test date at that). See the College Board for all the fine print about refunds.

Most common SAT essay mistakes: How to refer to the author

by Erin Billy -

When you're writing your SAT essay, you'll naturally need to make reference to the author or speaker throughout the essay. In my students' essays, I've seen many different ways of doing this, but there's really only one convention that we follow in college-level, formal writing in the US.

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Handwritten SAT essay with comments (blurred for obfuscation)
Rule: In general, use the author's or speaker's full name the first time you need to mention her or him. After that, use her or his last name.

(Side note: Ugh. I wish I had a gender-neutral pronoun other than their.)

First, let's look at an example. Imagine you're reading an essay written by Zadie Smith about public libraries. You'll need to refer to her throughout your writing. (Note: The instructions state that Smith is a female; you should be sure to refer to her appropriately when you write.)

I have read essays with several different methods of referring to Smith. The first, and best, is simply to say "Smith." For example, "In her essay, Smith argues that public libraries are important centers of culture." This is the correct way--using Smith's last name (also referred to as the surname or family name).

Examples

Best: "Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is correct--here we use Smith's last name.

Avoid: "Zadie claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is not standard. To my ears, when I hear this (or read it, as it were), I feel like the author is a friend of the writer.

This mistake isn't terribly common, but I do see it, so if you're using this format, you should know it's not considered standard for formal essays.

Avoid: "Zadie Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

I also see this form from time to time--using the writer's full name. We generally don't do this in formal writing mostly because it's just too time-consuming to write out the full name.

What about authors with titles? Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?


View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and over the "I Have a Dream" inscription (in Washington, D.C.)

I have read many effective essays that use titles, such as Dr. Nip, Professor Nguyen, and of course, Dr. King.

In an SAT essay, this is acceptable in my opinion, though MLA and APA formats omit titles for in-text citations.

Final note: Be consistent, do your best

Finally, the cardinal rule, as always, is to be consistent. If you go back and forth between using the author's first name and last name, you'll appear inconsistent. Inconsistency shows an undesirable lack of control that also reduces credibility. ("Why should I believe what you're writing if you're just spouting out random words?")

That said, SAT essay readers are hired from pools of teachers, and every single educator I've known has tried to find the good in students' writing; if it appears that you're doing your best (under SAT's timed conditions) to cite the author, I think most teachers would be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

SAT Study Plan

by Erin Billy -

Hi there. Today I’d like to focus on one of the most common questions that I hear from parents who are contacting us for the first time: How to prepare for the SAT. It’s a very general question, and there are countless specific details that could change your approach. For example, some students will focus on an extracurricular more than on their SATs (such as a sport or an internship), while others may try to get the highest SAT score possible to maximize their chances at a few colleges they’ve selected. That said, the following should be a good starting point for starting to develop a good study plan during your SAT prep, and at the very least for some people, will help make sure you don’t get caught by surprise when the time comes to apply to college.

Summary:

  • Tenth grade is a pretty good time to start prepping for the SAT. It’s not too early or too late.
  • Before you start, get your baseline SAT score.
  • Work from official SAT tests.
  • Practice, review, repeat.
  • Keep track of your performance, scores, questions missed and questions that confused you.
  • Expect to spend anywhere from 10 to 1,000 hours prepping. (Or more. Or less.) At the very least, be sure to take at least one practice test before the real thing!

If you need more info, read on.

When to start prepping for the SAT

While it may sound like a pretty straightforward question with a clear answer, the optimal time to begin your SAT prep really depends on several important factors, including, for example, what colleges you plan to apply to and how much you need to improve your score. For example, someone who’s scored 980 on the PSAT and hopes for a 1300 is quite different from someone who has scored a 1400 on the PSAT and wants to raise her score to the 1500s. However, in a word, earlier is usually preferable to later, and you want to be sure to leave plenty of time to prepare comfortably.

First, let me give some background on what I see here at TestMagic. If you averaged out the school grade during which most of our students start prepping for the SAT, you’d see that a good chunk of our students start in the middle of 10th grade. Of course we have plenty of students who start in 11th grade and a small number who start in 12th grade, and we also have a few students who start even earlier, such as in 9th grade. (Of in middle school--we have had a small number of students who want to take our course in middle school for a couple of reasons. The two main reasons for preparing for the SAT at such a young age are one, preparing to take the SAT for CTY, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and two, visiting from abroad for the summer and taking our course while here in San Francisco).

But again, the most common age to start for our students is sometime in 10th grade. This is a nice time to start because it’s plenty early in case something comes up (Oh no! I need to study more trigonometry!) and starting in tenth grade also alleviates some of the pressure of junior year, when students typically feel the most stressed, especially near the end of the school year, when final exams, AP tests, SATs, ACTs, and SAT Subject tests all happen around the same time.

Oh, every now and then we work with people who have only a couple of weeks to prepare, sometimes because they didn’t realize it was such a big deal to get ready for the test or because they’re too busy. It goes without saying that this situation is less than ideal. (But not hopeless!)

SAT study plan

First, I just want to say that there are a zillion variations of the plan that follows. I suggest you try what appeals to you, and add in whatever I’ve not mentioned that works for you. (Remember, every student is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.)

Step 1: Establish your SAT baseline

Your SAT baseline is your starting SAT score or current level. Knowing your starting score is vital for many reasons, but especially if you have a goal score or will be working with an SAT coach.

Quick note: I suppose theoretically you could start your SAT prep without taking a diagnostic SAT—you would just do your prep, and when you take your first practice test, you would get a score. But a lot of people like to know their level so that they have a clearer goal.

To get your baseline SAT score, simply take an official SAT under simulated conditions—download an official SAT, set aside about four hours in a quiet place, and time yourself for the test. Be careful about not getting distracted! Consider doing it with a friend to keep yourselves honest, so to speak, or go to a public library to take it. (TestMagic also administers practice tests onsite if you feel like you might get distracted at home.) In some cases, using your PSAT score will work almost as well to establish your baseline, especially if you’ve taken it recently.

Finally, record your score somewhere, either on paper or in a spreadsheet.

Now to the next step—the actual studying.

The SAT study plan

Kuru Toga mechanical pencil and MacBook
It goes without saying that the bulk of your SAT prep will consist of studying, reviewing, and practicing. Whether you’re self-studying or studying with a course or tutor changes the process and materials a bit, but in general, you’ll need the following:
  • The official SAT tests (fundamental)
  • A good SAT manual (helpful, if it’s well-written)
  • A good dictionary (crucial; my favorite is the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but the American Heritage and Random House collegiate dictionaries are fine for test prep)
  • Explanations of the questions on the official SAT (helpful)
  • Video tutorials, such as those found on Khan Academy (helpful, but not vital)
  • Nice tools—a pretty (physical) notebook or computer document, a nice mechanical pencil, a nice eraser, a graphing calculator, snacks, a water bottle, headphones, etc.

Your basic study plan involves a combination of learning the material on the SAT (with books and videos), reviewing, taking practice tests, and reviewing those.

A sample plan of study would be something like this:

  • 4 hours: Take your diagnostic SAT
  • 2-4 hours: Review diagnostic SAT; find areas to improve
  • 2-10 hours: Review SAT concepts in your manual or from the test. For example, study vocabulary, practice combinations and permutations, review punctuation rules, and so on.
  • 2-10 hours: Study SAT concepts again. Repeat two to six times.
  • 4 hours: Take your next practice SAT to see how you’ve improved.

That is the basic cycle of improving your SAT score.

We’ll begin the discussion of materials in a bit. (I will do more in-depth reviews in the future)

Variations of SAT prep

I started teaching in 1991, and one thing I learned right away—teachers need to employ a variety of techniques in the classroom. Here are some variations on studying that I’ve successfully used:

  • Take the test untimed. This is actually an extremely helpful technique, and I highly recommend that at least in the beginning of your SAT prep, you take a couple or several tests with no time limit. Why? Simple—it’s important to know which questions you’re capable of answering regardless of time limit. For example, if you can get through a tricky math problem in ten minutes, then you should work on improving your speed. But if you can’t do it at all because you haven’t studied that material in school yet, then you would need to work on building your foundation for the test.
  • Instead of taking a full-length test in one go, try taking each section one by one. Some people can’t concentrate for four hours straight. Or if they can, they certainly don’t enjoy it. If you find that you can’t sustain your concentration and mental energy for four hours, consider taking the test a section at a time. (But of course, you need, at some point, to get used to taking the SAT under realistic conditions.)
  • And here’s a radical notion: During school, starting in middle school, pay extra attention in class, especially your English, History, and Math classes. Take notes, look up words you don’t know, and review everything. Do that for a couple of years, and you’ll be really well prepared for the SAT. And your grades should improve as well!

What materials to use

There are a lot of great materials available, but unfortunately, there are probably more materials that we sometimes call “score harmers”, i.e., material that was hastily thrown together just to sell books and contains inaccurate information. (The big publishers are most guilty of this, though now in the age of the Internet, they’ve gotten better in this regard.)

Of course, the official SAT tests are vital. You can’t prep without them.

For books, videos, courses, tutors, online courses, etc., check reviews online. From my experience, most teachers genuinely want to help their students, so don't fear reaching out to people to ask questions or gauge the fit with the tutor you might work with. Of course, TestMagic offers live SAT courses in San Francisco.

I know this section on materials is a bit short, but at some point in the future, I’ll review some of the better known options to review them.

  • Take the test untimed. This is actually an extremely helpful technique, and I highly recommend that at least in the beginning of your SAT prep, you take a couple or several tests with no time limit. Why? Simple—it’s important to know which questions you’re capable of answering regardless of time limit. For example, if you can get through a tricky math problem in ten minutes, then you should work on improving your speed. But if you can’t do it at all because you haven’t studied that material in school yet, then you would need to work on building your foundation for the test.
  • Instead of taking a full-length test in one go, try taking each section one by one. Some people can’t concentrate for four hours straight. Or if they can, they certainly don’t enjoy it. If you find that you can’t sustain your concentration and mental energy for four hours, consider taking the test a section at a time. (But of course, you need, at some point, to get used to taking the SAT under realistic conditions.)
  • And here’s a radical notion: During school, starting in middle school, pay extra attention in class, especially your English, History, and Math classes. Take notes, look up words you don’t know, and review everything. Do that for a couple of years, and you’ll be really well prepared for the SAT. And your grades should improve as well!

What materials to use

There are a lot of great materials available, but unfortunately, there are probably more materials that we sometimes call “score harmers”, i.e., material that was hastily thrown together just to sell books and contains inaccurate information. (The big publishers are most guilty of this, though now in the age of the Internet, they’ve gotten better in this regard.)

Of course, the official SAT tests are vital. You can’t prep without them.

For books, videos, courses, tutors, online courses, etc., check reviews online. From my experience, most teachers genuinely want to help their students, so don't fear reaching out to people to ask questions or gauge the fit with the tutor you might work with.

I know this section on materials is a bit short, but at some point in the future, I’ll review some of the better known options to review them.

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