How We Learn

Beware of Overconfidence When it comes to the SAT

“Did you study for the SAT?” I’d ask my son, once a day, while juggling a dozen other things.

“Yes, Mom,” he’d say.

“How’d it go?” I’d ask.

“Good,” he’d say.

“Do you have any questions?”

“Nope,” he’d say.  “I got them all right.”

That should have been the tipoff. Time to stop multi-tasking and train all of my attention on Ethan.

For many high school juniors and seniors, “back to school” isn’t just a fresh start and new school supplies—it’s also the start of the dreaded SAT season.  With the fall SATs scheduled for October 11, November 8, and December 6, I know that sorting through the 11 million options for test prep is not the only thing to worry about.

It’s essential to beware of the perils of overconfidence!

From my own, adult test-taking experience (7 times the year before my now college sophomore son went through the process), and studying the academic research on test prep – I know that feelings are usually unreliable indicators of performance.

Research tells us that most students are overly optimistic when it comes to estimating their own performance. A 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education found that students from countries with the highest confidence in math were some of the worst performers, and the opposite held true as well. Similar studies on reading scores linked overconfidence to lower test scores and under-confidence with higher scores.

People overestimate their performance because they have the feeling of knowing something, which turns out to be highly unreliable. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains that having seen or experienced something before can give the illusion that we know more than we do. Repeated exposure to a particular vocabulary word or type of math problem can lead to familiarity, but that should not be mistaken for mastery.

When it comes to SAT, parents often worry that their child isn’t confident enough and mistakenly believe that high levels of confidence alone lead to better test performance.  However, the data suggests otherwise. There are also different types of confidence: confidence that results from a solid grasp of a subject as well as the knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and the type of confidence that arises from an inflated perception of one’s abilities.

To avoid the “inflated perception” type of confidence, experts advise overlearning by a factor of 20% beyond the point of mastery. Chances are, over-preparation will lead to a better score and a more mature self-assessment.

“I think the test went okay,” is a much better predictor of a high score than “I think I did great!”

If you’d like help preparing for the SAT via email, please sign up here and I’ll be in touch soon.


Posted 1 month ago

Should You Skip Questions on the SAT?

The SAT awards one point for each right answer, and deducts ¼ point for each wrong answer. There’s no deduction for questions you skip. Naturally the quarter-point deduction leads to a great deal of speculation about whether guessing is ever a good idea.

Philip Keller (The New Math SAT Game Plan) tells you exactly when to guess, and when not to guess, based on your current baseline score.

Keller also explains why the quarter-point deduction means that most test takers should deliberately work too slowly to finish the test. The reason to slow down is that everyone makes more mistakes when they rush, and on the SAT mistakes are costly. Your score will be higher if you leave the hard problems blank and get 100% of the problems you can do right—you can score well above a 700 (about 740, on average) intentionally skipping one question per section if you get everything else right.

 5-Step New Math Game Plan Strategy:

1) Choose a target score 100 points higher than you achieved on your most recent test.

2) Decide which questions to skip based on your target score. Math questions appear in order of difficulty, and Keller tells you exactly which questions to answer (Answer Zone) and which to skip (Skip Zone) according to their sequence on the test.

3) Only answer questions in your Answer Zone. Any questions not in your Answer Zone are in your Skip Zone, and that’s what you do. Skip them.

4) Only guess if you’re in your “Answer Zone.” No guessing on Skip-Zone problems.

5) Grid-in strategy: answer all of the Grid-ins because there is no penalty for getting them wrong.


If you’d like to sign up to receive occasional extra SAT information via email, you can click here.

For press coverage, please see the press page.

For press inquiries email:

View clips of TV appearances and talks on YouTube.

For information about speaking engagements, please see the speaking page.

To read “Reader Reviews,” see Amazon and Goodreads.

On Twitter: @debbiestier

On Facebook:

Posted 2 months ago

Beginners Guide to Acing the SAT

A beginners guide to acing the SAT … 13 tips in one little (5-minute) video.

  • How to pick the best SAT tutor or class …
  • How to choose a test location …
  • What is the SAT testing? …
  • How to write the SAT essay …
  • How long should you do test prep …
  • How much can an SAT score improve? …
  • The 1 thing you should know about the SAT …
  • What can parents do to help kids prepare for the SAT? …
  • 4 best SAT snacks that won’t leave you depleted …

These tips are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find a gillion more tips in the book.

You can read the prologue, listen to an audio clip, and see what readers are saying.

Good luck!

For press inquiries email:

View clips of TV appearances and talks on YouTube.

For information about speaking engagements, please see the speaking page.


Posted 2 months ago

How to Improve Your Critical Reading SAT Score

Is it possible to improve a critical reading score on the SAT?

I often hear the misconception that a critical reading SAT score cannot be improved, and while it is true that empirical evidence shows average score gains to be minimal (5-10 points), I managed to improve my reading score by 80 points.

So how did I improve my reading score?

I read — a lot! And, I started the project with a rock-solid foundation in reading. Without that base, no amount of test prep could have saved me.

The best way to improve a critical reading score is … to read. Reading improvement requires time devoted to practicing the skill to the point of automaticity. The summer is a great time to make headway and to build a routine.

Tip: There is no shortcut to learning vocabulary.

The Matthew effect in reading (i.e. the rich get richer) is inevitable with vocabulary. According to research, you need to know 90-95% of a text’s words to understand what you are reading.

Tip: More general knowledge can vastly help a critical reading score.

Research shows that background knowledge helps with comprehension. For example, a student who already knows about Descartes and dualism* will process a passage much faster and more accurately than a student who is unfamiliar with the topic – even if their decoding and strategy skills are identical.

*Click to read these Descartes and dualism reading passages from the 2010 PSAT my son took, as well as the College Board’s explanations of the answers.

Here is a related post, if you would like more information about improving on the critical reading section.


Solutions for the Blue Book

Good test prep centers on official College Board material.  You can read this blog post for other signs of Good vs Bad test prep

It’s also critical to understand the solutions to the questions you missed — understand them so well, you can explain them to your teacher’s teacher. The Blue Book (i.e. official College Board material), only contains the answers to the questions — not the solutions.

The good news is that there are almost as many sources for Blue Book “solutions” as there are methods for test prep. Here are the ones I found most helpful:

  1. College Board’s Book Owner’s Area!
  2. Tutor Ted’s SAT Solutions Manual – Math solutions only, and easy to understand; became a trusted source.
  3. The Ultimate SAT Supplement from Klass Tutoring — Solutions for every problem in Blue Book (i.e., all three sections). Klass’s reading and writing solutions are better than the math.
  4. Khan Academy – Video math solutions. Videos feature Sal Khan narrating SAT math solutions as he writes problem in steps on a digital blackboard. Can be frustrating to navigate, though the explanations are great and free.


Posted 3 months ago