The Power Habit Lab
From Test Maven
Imagine walking in on a group of friends in the middle of a conversation.
If your friends are jerks, they might just keep talking while you stand there, trying to figure out what they're discussing, wondering whether you should just leave. But if they're kind and thoughtful, one might greet you and say something like, "Hey, I'm glad you're here! Let me tell you what we've been talking about."
It's a simple courtesy, but there's a lot going on in an invitation like this. By offering to catch you up on the discussion, your friend implies that they think you'll be interested and they want you to be involved; they want to hear your point of view. Maybe they need your advice. Or maybe they just want to see whether you notice something they didn't.
But at the same time, they understand that you won't be able to contribute until you understand the main points of the conversation so far.
That, in a nutshell, is what your education is all about. Throughout history, we've been having this amazing, important conversation about what this world is, how it works, who we are, and what we should do.
And now that you're here, we want to get you up to speed so you can participate and give your unique point of view.
Since you were born several thousand years into the conversation, we have a lot to catch you up on. So much, in fact, that we've developed complex systems for getting newcomers up to speed. You've got to learn in one or two decades what it took the human race millennia to figure out.
So we need these systems (called "schools") to make it possible to bring you into the conversation.
If we could pass it all on with a few casual summaries, we certainly would; we're eager to see how you'll contribute. We can't though, because the details matter.
In this conversation you're coming into, it's tough to follow through on the promise to fill you in on what you've missed. But we're determined.
We've painstakingly sifted everything that's been said and done in the world to narrow it down to the ones that are most relevant.
We've devised and revised and perfected all kinds of techniques for getting skills and information across.
We've even developed tools you can use on your side to learn more effectively and easily.
And this is where we have to acknowledge that none of this works without some definite effort on your part. We're doing all we can to make this conversation open to everyone, but there's a point at which you have to step up and bear some of the weight.
Imagine the same scene as before from the opposite point of view. You've been having an absolutely fascinating conversation with a group of people when a good friend walks into the room. You're excited to get their take on the discussion, and you know they're going to find it really interesting, too.
But you need to convey a lot of background materials to set up the conversation. You try to convey your enthusiasm and assure your friend that they're going to find this just as interesting as you do.
Now there are some ways your friend could react that might make sense from their point of view but in your mind are obviously wrong and short-sighted.
Suppose they immediately start telling you their opinions on the subject, without getting the facts first. You might be pleased at first by their eagerness to be involved, but they don't seem to appreciate how complex this topic is.
Or suppose they listen to you for a minute, then start looking bored and tell you they're not interested. You tell them you haven't even gotten to the good part yet, but they insist that this subject just isn't their cup of tea. How can they be so sure? They don't even know what it is yet!
In the context of school, these two reactions are a little easier to understand. It's a lot of work, and it's hard to see what it's all for. That's in the nature of the game, because part of what school is for is to give you the full context to appreciate what school is for. You don't really start to see it until you're pretty far in, when you have the benefit of the higher vantage point your education will give you.
We get the problem with this idea. We wouldn't trust a salesman who told us that we wouldn't understand the benefits of his product until after we'd paid for it. But nobody's trying to sell you anything here. On the contrary, we're trying to give you our greatest treasure, and we just need your help loading it onto the truck.
Why is your education so urgent for us? Why do we go to such lengths to support it and urge you along? There are at least two reasons, intertwined with each other.
One is that when a person has a hold of something good, their enjoyment of it increases the more they share it. So having received an education ourselves, we're eager to magnify our joy by making you part of it.
The other is that we recognize and respect your place in history. Whether you choose to or not, you will in a short time be deciding the course of human civilization.
You can't opt out of this fact.
If you decide to do as little as you can, maybe getting a job to pay the bills and spending the rest of the time in your apartment playing Fortnite, then by that very inaction you're deciding not to make any of the many contributions to society you're capable of.
This isn't just about getting the grades so you can get the job so you can make the money so you can buy the house. It's about looking at the future and deciding to be ready for it, by accepting the discipline of study, by sweating the small stuff so you can get the big picture, and by cooperating with the system we've designed to help you.
We want you to be involved in this conversation. We need your point of view. In a very short time, you're on. It's your show. It will be up to you, based on all you've learned about what this world is, how it works, and who we are, to start deciding what we should do, and how.
We're hoping you'll see what a big deal that is and decide right now to step up to the responsibility.
We're glad you're here. Let us tell you what we've been talking about.
Psychological studies of "overlearning" have shown that for many purposes, there's not much benefit to drilling skills that you've already mastered. Once you're able to do something 100% of the time, there's no long-term upside to continued practice.
In fact, studying beyond that point of diminishing returns can be harmful, if it's distracting you from more important study tasks, or causing you to miss the forest for the trees.
Is overlearning a problem in SAT prep?
For the most part, no. The most recent studies show that while overlearning is not helpful for long-term retention, it can be useful when short-term retention is the goal (when you're studying for, say, one giant 3.5-hour test).
Besides, the most important things you can do to prepare for the SAT have a very high ceiling, and have great benefits beyond the test itself.
Still, there are a few areas where less is more.
Don't Overdo These
On some things, the point of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly, and you won't get anything at all out of pressing forward on them:
You don't need most of trig on the SAT. Learn SOHCAHTOA, the basic co-function identities, and the law of sines.
Same for geometry. Know the most important theorems and how to apply them, but don't worry about being able to prove them. On the SAT, it's enough just to know that say, alternate interior angles across parallel lines are congruent; you don't have to know why.
Vocab used to be really important, but that was de-emphasized in the 2016 overhaul, in favor of "words in context."
It still helps to have a somewhat sophisticated vocabulary, but to that end you'll get a lot more out of just reading some good books than trying to cram a list of five dollar words into your head.
As for test-taking tactics, a lot of the test prep giants want you to believe that they have a trove of "secrets," perfectly engineered keys that you can use to unlock the test without actually having to get better at the core skills.
Most of these "secrets" aren't secret at all. We're talking about things like process of elimination, trying out the answer choices, and reading the questions before you read the passages.
Yes, you can increase your score maybe 50+ points with basic test-taking skills like these skills that you'll learn easily for free with one web search.
But anything much more ingenious won't help, and can actually get in the way.
One workbook from a leading test prep company encourages students to practice looking for "trap" answers on each reading question.
Many students, especially smart ones, tend to overthink these problems already. Teaching you to play mind games with the questions will just make this psychological hurdle even harder to overcome.
You're really going to rule out an answer choice because it looks "too obvious" and must be a "trap?"
Sometimes, the answer choice seems obvious because it's right. Maybe you understood this passage more clearly or than others, or maybe you analyzed the question more accurately, or maybe it's just an easy question!
Get a few strategies and tactics under your belt, then get cracking on the content.
There are a few activities for which you can reach a point of mastery and even benefit in the short term from some continued practice after you've already mastered them:
Aim for perfect or near-perfect performance on these fundamentals. Once you can consistently finish test sections on time, remember your formulas, and avoid mechanical grammar errors, it's not going to hurt you to keep practicing, and might boost your retention in the short term.
Just don't let that practice get in the way of staying on top of your school work and outside reading.
As Much as You Can!
Here are some score-boosting habits that will always be worth doing more of:
Unless you already have a Ph.D. (and even then perhaps), you're always going to have room to grow in these areas. Keep pushing your reading up a notch.
To get you moving, I've started a list of books that I think will challenge and surprise you. I plan to keep adding to the list, so check back if you start to run out of material.
I'll talk more soon about how to approach each of these activities. For now, just get going and read something!
I'm always telling students that "always guess C" is the dumbest piece of advice you can get for the SAT. But a wrong clock is right twice a day, and it look like students following that advice just got lucky.
A few weeks ago on March 10, after months of preparation, sharpened number twos at the ready, thousands of students sat in rooms around the country to read, write, calculate, and bubble in.
For those who'd taken practice tests, everything was as they expected. The instructions, the answer sheets, the time limits and questions types were identical to the practice versions.
But after answering the first ten questions, a creeping uneasiness began to overcome many of the students.
Ten C's in a row? That can't be right, can it?
Jana Fletcher, a junior from Mountain Pine School of Fine Arts in Louisiana, remarked, "My tutor told me not to worry if I got a bunch of answers the same in a row. It can happen, I know. But after ten C's I was pretty shaken.
"I looked back and rethought those questions like three times."
Then things got weirder.
Twenty-one questions in, Jana still hadn't found a single A, B, or D that seemed even remotely reasonable. She stole some glances around the room and noticed a few other students staring at their answer sheets in disbelief.
Students who went in well-prepared and confident were increasingly shaken and disturbed as they continued bubbling C for every single answer.
But they were right.
This morning, the College Board acknowledged that due to an error in their final proofing algorithms, every single answer on the entire test was C.
Many are calling on the College Board to invalidate the scores. Others argue that the scores need to be corrected to adjust for the psychological effect of the error.
A growing group of students are discussing a possible law suit for emotional damage.
Amazingly, even the answers to the "Student-produced response" questions (commonly known as the "grid-ins")—which are not multiple choice and require students to enter a rational number between 0 and 9999—were also all C.
Usually, a considerable number of students claim a perfect or near perfect score on the essay section. This time, only one student, Sachairi Pensak, a junior from Robert A. Plant High in New Jersey, even came close; he submitted the following essay, scoring 4/4 in two categories, and 3 in the other:
"I knew I should have written a more substantial conclusion," Pensak commented, "but I was running out of time."
Thankfully, this article is satire. But if you have a serious need to do well on the SAT, consider downloading a copy of my comprehensive guide, Master the SAT.
Just let me know and I'll send it to you. I'll follow up with more SAT info in the coming weeks.
This form isn't one of those auto-responders. So you won't get an instant download. Sorry. But I will try to email you the book within 24 hours.