SAT Advice

On the Road


I'm in the process of pulling together "hand outs" for my upcoming SAT talks and realized I should post them for those who can't be there.

To find out more about having me speak, click here. If you're interested in scheduling an event, please contact Jamie Brickhouse at the redBrick Agency 646.281.9041


Sample SAT Advice

from The Perfect Score Project


What’s the one thing you should know about the SAT? (see page 14)

It’s essential to endurance train (i.e., take full, timed practice tests). The SAT is every bit as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested.

  • Experienced tutors advise taking ten to fifteen full practice tests.
  • Review all of your mistakes until you can explain them to someone else.
  • Keep track of errors and guesses by category (e.g., four subject-verb agreement mistakes).
  • Mimic the actual test conditions as closely as possible.


Signs of Good vs. Bad Test Prep: (see page 140)

Signs of good test prep:

  • Refers back to the Blue Book. Helps student interpret the Blue Book.
  • Recommends official College Board material for the diagnostic test and full official practice tests.
  • Includes goal-setting strategy.
  • Addresses fundamental skills as well as test strategy.

 Signs of bad test prep:

  • Mock SAT used for diagnostic test. Unofficial tests are sometimes more difficult than the real SAT in order to inflate score gains.
  • Money-back guarantee. Usually misleading.
  • Credentials should include SAT-specific background. Don’t assume a Ph.D. signals “SAT mastery.”


Five Essential Questions to Ask a Potential Tutor: (see pages 153-4)

  1. Do you customize your approach? If so, how?
  2. What is your average score gain per student?
  3. How long do you advise students to prepare for the SAT and how much will it cost?
  4. What test-prep materials do you use? (If it’s not official College Board material, be wary.)
  5. How much homework do you assign between sessions?


What can I do with my kids to improve their vocabulary? (see Chapter 16)

The SAT critical reading section is a vocabulary-based reasoning test. Most of the passages are college-level nonfiction, which is not what most high school students are used to reading. As early as ninth grade, have your child pick one article a day from a periodical such as the New York Times (or another publication with comparable reading level) and identify the main point as well as unfamiliar vocabulary.

Learning new words in context is easier than memorizing vocabulary from flashcards because the associations are richer and background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.

It’s a great exercise—and gives you quality time together!


Does test location matter? (see pages 20 & 240)

Location matters! Don’t assume “fancy school” means “best test location.” Look for the following characteristics and confirm by contacting the test center supervisor (whose information can be found by calling the school in question):

  • Tests should be taken in classrooms, which have fewer distractions than gyms and cafeterias.
  • Full-size desks and chairs, not tablet desks, in all test rooms.
  • Visible clock in all test rooms.
  • Chalk or white board on which the end time for each section will be displayed. 


What are good snacks to bring on test day? (see page 30)

After sampling everything from Red Bull to peanut butter over the course of the project, I recommend these favorites for boosting energy and warding off hunger:

  • Dark chocolate—70% cocoa or higher.
  • Sliced red apple—studies confirm that apples are superb at warding off hunger.
  • Listerine strips—an energizing pick-me-up.
  • Water—I’m certain water makes me think more clearly.



Here are downloadable versions of  "Sample SAT Advice" as well as the "Audience SAT" that I'll be handing out and discussing.

You can find out more on the "Speaking" page.


I did a Q & A with Gretchen Rubin about "habits."  Apparently, I'm "a questionner." You can read the full Q & A here.


Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.


The Hidden Faces of Test Optional


SAT season is upon us, which may have some high school students wondering if they should be looking into the growing list of “test optional” colleges (roughly 850 schools, according to Many prestigious colleges and universities including Bates, Bowdoin, American University, Sarah Lawrence, Smith and Wake Forest now do not require SATs. The movement has even spawned a sub-category, known as “test flexible,” which allows a student to decide from a wide variety of tests, including the AP,  the ACT, or the SAT Subject tests, as alternatives to the SAT.

But that doesn’t mean that high schoolers should forgo the drudgery and anxiety of trying to do well on SATs or any other standardized test unless they have to. For while test optional policies convey the impression that colleges would like to diversify their applicant pools, they are not always as noble as they sound. Moreover, a school can identify itself as “test optional” for admissions purposes, but then require test scores when it comes to awarding scholarships or determining class placement.

Critics argue that “test optional” colleges are simply gaming the system to gain status in the rankings, most notably the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which have created a frenzy of colleges vying to move up in prestige. A test-optional policy means more applicants, which means more applicants to reject, which means more “selective” as far as the rankings go. Test-optional also means that the school’s SAT average are artificially inflated because applicants who do submit scores have higher scores –100-150 points higher, on average – than applicants who don’t.

There’s also the fact that “test optional” means different things to different schools. Students with low SAT scores may be hoping for the chance to be considered as a whole person rather than a test score, but it’s not always that simple. There are policy nuances, such as test optional for students with a certain GPA. Or, test optional state schools, but not if you’re an applicant from out of state or abroad.

On the flip side, there’s a chance for some students with high test scores to work the system to their advantage because the applicant pool at test optional schools is presumably filled with score-free applications. High scores might even mitigate the consequences a low GPA at a test optional college.

There is no doubt that one test should not determine an applicant’s chances, but in 2009, the College Board began offering “Score Choice” where students can decide whether to send SAT scores from a certain test day or, if they had a particularly bad morning, omit the scores for that day (there are exceptions). And yes, there are definitely other limitations to the SAT’s ability to capture a whole person, and certainly inequalities whereby those who can afford expensive test prep and multiple testings can gain an advantage. But for most students, “test-optional” is more complicated than it might first appear.

(Originally posted on


The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT will be on sale February 25, 2014 and is available now for pre-order.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.




What’s The Difference Between Score Choice and Superscoring


Here's the deal with Score Choice and Superscoring:

Score Choice (per the College Board’s explanation) is a feature that’s offered to students to alleviate the stress of “test day.” The thinking is that “choice” will ratchet down the stress because the student is allowed to choose whether to send to colleges that day’s scores.

If a test taker bombs, he or she can wipe the slate clean, more or less (the scores exist in the College Board’s database) and try again. The catch is that some schools (Yale, Cornell, and Georgetown to name a few) have a non-Score Choice policy and require that all test scores be sent with the application. The College Board lists schools that require all scores be sent, but students opting for Score Choice are advised to confirm this on the websites of the schools they are applying to because school sites will have the most up to date information.

Superscoring is what the colleges do with your Score Choice--to position themselves in the college rankings.  You submit scores from test dates of your choosing, and the schools cherry pick your best score from each section, creating a “superscore.” Say you take the SAT three times and submit all three sets of scores. The college will extract your best Math, Writing, and Reading scores from the three tests and combine them into one superscore. Colleges do see all submitted scores, of course, but it’s as much in their interest as yours to use your best scores because superscoring raises the college’s average SAT scores.

Score Choice:

*Score Choice is optional and must be proactively chosen by the student.

*All scores from an entire SAT test are sent. Individual sections from different tests cannot be selected for sending.

*Colleges will receive your SAT essay if you choose to send them your SAT scores.

*Colleges set their own policy regarding scores, but the College Board will not release scores without student consent.

*Score policies are listed on the College Board website but should be confirmed with schools for accuracy. Policies change.

*Most schools allow Score Choice, however some don’t, including: Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, George Washington, and Tufts.

*For more info:


*Admissions officials see all scores submitted and expect to see score variation.

*Most schools Superscore (i.e., use the highest score per section from different SATs to come up with one “Superscore” for a student).

*Colleges benefit by Superscoring (by doing so, they more favorably position themselves in college rankings).



Everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about the SAT: The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT.


Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis 




Are you a “helicopter mom?”

From Bloomberg Television's "Taking Stock" with Bill Cohan and Carol Massar.


Discussing the SAT on Milwaukee Public Radio’s Lake Effect


  • Is the SAT disconnected from what goes on in school?
  • Do I want to try the new SAT?
  • What about that essay?

Kreigh Knerr and I discuss the SAT with host Mitch Teich on Milwaukee Public Radio's Lake Effect.



I did a Q & A with Gretchen Rubin about "habits."  Apparently, I'm "a questionner." You can read the full Q & A here.


Click on the links to download "Sample SAT Advice" and an "Audience SAT."

If you're interested in scheduling an event, please contact Jamie Brickhouse at the redBrick Agency 646.281.9041.


Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.


One Person’s Obstacle is Another Person’s Springboard

Other Fish in the Sea

Mail responses to The New Yorker SAT story:

The_Mail__Letters_from_Our_Readers___The_New_Yorker The_Mail__Letters_from_Our_Readers___The_New_Yorker 2


Erica Meltzer's blog post in response to The New Yorker SAT story: What Exactly Does Elizabeth Kolbert Consider "Critical Thinking?


What's interesting to me about Kolbert's article, however, is how it embodies some of the central tropes and contradictions that inevitably run through discussions about the SAT.


More worrisome, however, is Kolbert's implicit attitude that anything that fails to test imagination and creativity must be bad. Imagination and creativity are of course good things, but not in every situation (would you really want a nuclear power plant operator who suddenly decided to get creative?).


What is most interesting, though, is Kolbert's use of the term "critical thinking." Notably, she fails to define the term -- apparently she considers it so self-explanatory as to be unworthy of a definition. This is, of course, hardly a surprise; most of the people who criticize schools, the SAT, etc. for failing to promote "critical thinking" rarely bother to give actual examples of what they mean by the term.

Click here to read the entire post.


Kreigh Knerr and I were interviewed on Milwaukee Public Radio's The Lake Effect.


Reader Reviews


Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.


Do I Feel Smarter After Taking the SAT 7 Times?

Spoken Interludes


You'll have to listen to this 4-minute audio clip from the Q & A after a reading the other night at Spoken Interludes to find out.

Big thanks to DeLauné Michel for inviting me to participate in her critically acclaimed literary salon. I can honestly say now, it's official: I'm an author.


Click here to see why I think Ellen Folan is god's gift to authors.

Check out the "Reader Reviews" on Amazon and Goodreads.

And go to August Wren to see more about the fabulous illustrator who paints all of the illos on my website.



Test Day

Test Day Advice for the SAT

Be Strong

Are you taking the SAT this Saturday? If so, A) good luck, and  B) check out these blog posts for advice to optimize your testing experience.

Avoid Careless Errors -- Read every word in the question and answer choice, don't get stuck on a question, use your calculator (even for the easy ones), and more.  Click here to read more about how to avoid stupid mistakes.

Top 5 Tips for Test Day -- Sit in the front row (fewer distractions), keep your own time, and bring the right snacks.  Click here to read more of the top 5 test day tips.

The Night Before the SAT -- Don't answer the phone, don't go on Facebook, or Twitter. And remember, there are no new questions. Click here to read more about what to do the night before the SAT.

5 SAT Tips You May Not Have Thought Of -- Write your thesis at the top of your essay paper and  circle back to that thesis in every paragraph.  Make sure to turn the last page of every section (especially at the end of the test, when you're tired), and, say something to the proctor if there's noise in the room that's bothering you.  Click here to read more test day tips you may not have thought of.

The Best SAT Snacks -- Don't bring a 3 course meal (like I did at my first SAT). You have three (minuscule) 5-minute breaks and trust me, they go by fast. This post includes the best food for the SAT (i.e. energizing, filling, can be eaten on a run to/from the bathroom, etc.).

Test Taker Rights -- I had a really bad SAT experience ... once (out of 7). Tons of other people wrote to me about their SAT horror stories after I posted my story. Don't let that happen to you!  Know your test taker rights. You are entitled to: a quiet room, 5 minute warnings, and a proctor who pays attention! Click here to learn more about your rights as a test taker.

Keep Your Own Time -- Bring a Swatch (or some other time keeper that doesn't beep and isn't a phone. No phones allowed.) And, keep your own time.  See my "really bad SAT experience" if you need more convincing about this, and click here to read Stacey Howe-Lott's super-essential-I-can't-believe-I-didn't-think-of-that-myself method for keeping time during the SAT.

Good luck if you're taking the SAT this Saturday!

And don't forget: B R E A T H E


You'll find tons of SAT tips in my new book, The Perfect Score Project.  Plus, the story of why I took the SAT 7 times in one year, and, everything I learned about the SAT, test prep, and how to motivate my teenage son.

You can check out the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and read/watch/listen to some recent interviews about the project.


The illos on this site are all hand-painted by my dear friend Jennifer Orkin Lewis, who also happens to be a character in the book.

My friend Catherine is also a character. Catherine's a warrior who's worth reading. You can usually find her blogging on Kitchen Table Math.


First, The Good News


Actually, I'm going to call this great news:

I discovered a fabulous review on from Library Journal (3.1.14):


VERDICT While the image of a mother outgunning her own child on a standardized test seems strange, the book is a fascinating read. Many insights and strategies can be learned here, from "bubbling" techniques to guessing strategies. Woven into Stier's experiment is both a mother's story and a sharp appraisal of the industry of college testing. This might just be one of the big books of 2014. 


And, more great stuff from the librarians on Early Word.


the book is unsurprisingly climbing Amazon’s sales rankings



Now, the bad news:

I also discovered on that the Nook edition is missing pages. "What pages?" my daughter asked. I don't know, but I want to find out and fix it ASAP.

If you've received an edition with missing pages, please shoot me an email so I can fix the problem:


All the illustrations on this site are hand-painted with TLC by the fabulous Jennifer Orkin Lewis.

P.S. Jennifer is a character in the book. I ran into her son, Sam, at my second SAT (i.e. the infamous "Reality TV Prompt" SAT).


A Different Kind of SAT

(No, no -- not that SAT.)

This would be my SAT -- i.e. A  very "special" SAT: The Perfect Score Project SAT

I road tested it today at R.J. Julia -- my very first bookstore event, which was a total blast.  I love bookstores -- I even love the smell of bookstores.

I'm pretty sure my SAT was a bigger hit than anything the College Board's ever given. Try it and let me know what you think. (Click the image to download.)

Perfect Score Project SAT


And no, I have not posted the answers (yet), nor have I posted the solutions. I will though.  Soon.  For the SAT fanatics of the world -- just letting you know: there is only one right answer (though each wrong answer has a story and you get a bonus point if you find the Common Core joke).

Here are a few photos from RJ Julia today:

That's me, at the desk, attempting to right the ship I'd just set off course. I told the boy's mom that video games are "good for the SAT." They were sharing a mother/son "I told you so" moment. Eke. Whoops. Sorry. (I'm pretty sure it's true though.)


And there I am, answering those very special SAT questions (posted above).  I'm telling you, this was a good time!

RJ Julia 3

Just to clarify, "which page do I sign?"  (I forgot!)

RJ Julia

And, signing.  First book ever (yipee!).....

RJ Julia2


Thank you for having me RJ Julia!  I love you!!!!

Shoot me an email if you'd like me to visit your town.




BookPage — Book Review

invite2_jpgGo BookPage -- Thank you!!


Stier’s chronicle of her obsession is full of self-deprecating humor and meaty sidebars analyzing everything from test prep books to SAT grammar and math tips. This is an invaluable resource to read and re-read during the college testing journey.

Read the entire review on BookPage.


Lots of amazing stuff happening over the next week: The Today Show, Atlantic, New Yorker, Parade, Journal News, ABC Radio Satellite, etc.

Big hugs and thank you's to Ellen Folan and Carisa Hays.


Check out the early reader reviews on Goodreads  and Amazon.



Fabulous illos are all hand painted by the amazing Jennifer Orkin Lewis.

Q & A

The SAT is to Parenting as ___ is to ___.


When I tell people I took the SAT 7 times the year before my son took the test, they usually ask some variation of, "How did he feel about that?"

"How he felt" (and more) are posted in a Q & A I did with my son, which is posted on Amazon.

Q. Do you think the project had value or do you think your mom was completely insane to take the SATs 7 times?

A. Looking back, I can see that the project was a great idea because I wouldn’t have done nearly as well as I did if you hadn’t taken the test all those times before me. I learned so much more from you than if I’d gone through the Blue Book on my own.

Q. How do you think the project affected our relationship?

A. I think it made our relationship stronger because we spent so much time together. Studying for the SAT is very time consuming!

Q. Do you think that you are a better student because of the project?

A. Definitely. I learned how to set goals and work hard. The test taught me the value of hard work and what it takes to achieve a goal.

He also asked me a few questions, including:

Q. Complete this sentence:  

The SAT is to parenting as ________ is to _________.


Click here to read the rest of the Q & A.  


You can read an excerpt, listen to an audio clip, "search inside" the book, and check out the reviews on Goodreads  and Amazon.

And, you can find downloadable press materials on the Press Kit page.


 Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.