I’d characterize yesterday as an epically bad day in my 46 years of life, and while the turmoil had nothing to do with the SAT, my December scores did not help.

Yes, I do realize (intellectually) that I should feel happy about my Reading and Writing scores; but honestly, that Math score feels crushing, like a bully.  Today, well, I’m trying to see it as my Buddha.

The worst part was telling my son. I swear to you, he looked at me with these big, wide, honest to god eyes of surprise, and said “really?” —  like he truly couldn’t believe his mom didn’t do it.  I think I’d actually convinced him that hard work pays off (that’s what I thought!).

But he’s a sweetie, and he quickly focused on my Reading and Writing scores, telling me how great they are, blah blah blah. In fact I got all sorts of encouraging emails from friends and family:

“I know it’s hard to remember at times like these, but these scores are not a judgment. They’re just numbers ….. You did your best and gave it your best shot.  That’s what’s most important — the process, not the outcome …. Your scores are fantastic – you’re 40 points away from an 800 on CR – do you know how many parents would kill for that score?? The 730 on writing just puts you in your range.”

They made me feel better, in a supported sort of way — but deep inside I couldn’t help feeling like a high school senior who just found out they didn’t get into their first choice college, and everyone writes on their Facebook wall: “You’re too good for them…. It wasn’t meant to be….. There’s a better school for you…”

And that’s all true, but it still feels devastating.  At least it does for me.

At the end of the day yesterday, I received an email that truly did lift my spirits. It came from a high school senior whom I’d never met:

SAT scores came out today! How did you do? I hope you did well. I know you’ll get a good score, and congrats on completing the project! What you did was very inspiring, especially for high school seniors. I just thought that I would let you know that you motivated me to study, and I went from a 1630 (520R 600M 510W) (junior year) to a 2300 (700R 800M 800W) (senior year).

I need to print that out and post it at eye level on my bulletin board.

I haven’t fully processed how it’s possible that I spent dozens and dozens of joyful hours studying SAT math over the course of 10 months, and hardly improved at all from where I started without knowing a thing last January.  My friend Catherine says it’s one more piece of evidence that a solid curriculum is essential, and without that, no amount of SAT prep in the world is going to improve your score.

For all intents and purposes, I didn’t learn a lick of math after 9th grade (until I began this project).  I’m thinking about taking a math class at my local community college — and just starting from scratch.

I’m not done.  I have to pause in order to write a book right now, but I’m not done with the math.  I feel incomplete.

If there’s anyone else out there feeling disappointed by their SAT scores, here’s a quote that I have posted in a few places around my house that seems to help:

If you have the privilege of being with someone at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple:

  • “Did I love well?”  
  • “Did I live fully?”
  • “Did I learn to let go?”                                                      

                                 — Jack Kornfield



llustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

  • Debbie – wow – really compelling post. Thanks for the honesty of sharing your scores, and how they have challenged us to consider the nature of education, testing, and coping with disappointment.

    • Thanks Dan…..it hurts more than I thought it would (actually, I never thought I wouldn’t improve, so I didn’t even consider what it might feel like!) — but I guess, what can you do beyond putting one foot in front of the next and just moving forward. 

  • Rick Newman

    Don’t math abilities peak when you’re like, 19? I’ll bet we all get worse at math as we get older. Plus smart phones and the Internet handle so much for us that they’re probably making us dumber.

    • Well now’s a fine time to bring that to my attention ;)

      I believe you’re right, that A) smart phones & internet are making us dumber, and B) adults taking the SAT tend to do better than they did in high school on the verbal, and WORSE in the math.  So I followed the course.

      That said, I thought I could beat this thing!

      Well, what can I say…I had fun.  No question, I think the math is a blast.

      • Jen

        In line with this, I was talking to a private college advisor  type person and she mentioned that she thinks a lot of kids now have a hard time getting through the length of the SAT without their phones.  They haven’t spent that much time not checking in with their phone, texting, posting status updates…in years. 

        • Oh, that made me laugh.  I think we need an international day per week where it’s screen-free.  Just turn off the networks.  All of them.  

          • Jen

            Ohh, that would be good!  I have tried going so far as to turn entirely off and “hide” the computer out of easy reach, but that usually only gives me a couple extra hours screen-free.

  • You worked hard, but it didn’t work out like you’d hoped. Take comfort in knowing that you’re in good company in that regard. These scores don’t diminish your project at all. 

    • Thank you. One of the myriad of emotions I feel is shame that my score somehow reflects poorly on the many super smart and lovely people who spent countless (and very fun) hours with me, trying to teach me math!

      I have this urge to go stand on top of a NYC rooftop and scream on the top of my lungs: “It’s ME!  IT’S MY FAULT — not theirs! Something is wrong with my brain.  Or maybe I’m “poorly educated” (as one tutor whom I’ve never met pointed out to me in an email).

  • “My friend Catherine” – that would be me!
    Absolutely – Debbie’s experience is a ‘case study’ in the importance of a coherent, sequential curriculum, which is what all high-achieving countries have and we do not. Test prep – and its corollary, teaching to the test – can’t substitute.

    I haven’t ‘processed’ Debbie’s final test scores in my own mind beyond this — but I think it’s also interesting to note that where test prep **did** have a strong effect was in the two subjects Debbie knows well: reading and writing. You never see 100-point gains in Critical Reading — but in Debbie’s case, you do, and that is because Debbie is a very good reader. Not just a very good reader, but a person who, as a marketing professional and editor, reads “professionally.”

    I saw the same thing with my son, C. His talents lie in reading and writing, and his initial writing score was 660. I knew it would be easy to bump that up via test prep, and it was. He ended with a 730.

    Specific test prep almost certainly works best with people who know the basic subject matter (and, at least in the case of math, who have learned the subject matter in a coherent curriculum) & then prep for the specific test.

    • Thanks for that link. Really important points that I need to come back to.

    • Catherine – you raise so many great points. Test prep can build on a strong foundation – it cannot be the foundation

    • Anonymous


      This is basically what I’ve been saying all along: strategy-based test prep is only effective if someone already has the underlying skills that the test tests. If you don’t have that basis, all the tricks in the world won’t make the slightest different. If the SAT were really that easy to beat through tricks (not just what some super-high scorers who happen to have the necessary skills cold *perceive* as tricks), lots of people would get perfect scores. But that just doesn’t happen. That said, I think you might be underestimating the number of people who manage to make huge gains in CR. I’m not disputing the fact that it’s the hardest section for most people to raise, but aside from the fact that I’ve worked with plenty of kids who have raised their CR scores by even larger amounts that what Debbie managed (I don’t like to offer anecdotal evidence as proof of anything), I don’t think it’s nearly as unusual as you might imagine, provided that someone is highly motivated and already has *all* of the comprehension skills in place. 


      • I hear you, loud and clear.  I really do think that’s what the deal is with my math score.

        Question: If someone does not have the solid skills in place, what should they do and how long should the expect to prepare to get up to speed?

        For someone like my son, learning the vocab seems to be the low hanging fruit for CR section, as he makes more than a few vocab-related errors.  We figured out that if he’d not missed one vocab related question on his PSAT, his score would have been 100 points higher (i’m including the CR passage q’s too where they ask those vocab in context questions).He is upstairs right now taking a full, timed SAT (my Jan. 2011 SAT)….and I don’t want to jinx him, but he’s doing very well so far (I’m correcting as he goes along).  I just compared his first five sections to my first five from that test, and he’s doing much better (thank god). And that’s what this really was about for me (even though I forget that sometimes!

  • A very inspiring post on this eve of Christmas Eve.  Whatever happens with the book and what comes with it, I think of your legacy right now as bieng an inspriation for your readers.  I love that Kornfield quote; need to keep it in my back pocket to pull out when I might need it.

    • Thanks Grace….I didn’t realize that was going to be my legacy when I started this project….but I can honestly feel good with that.

      I’m going to fix up the site in the next few  days so that it’s hopefully filled with helpful, easy to find info that will hopefully help others.

  • I did quite a lot better on math this go round, and the test is a **lot** more difficult than it was when I was young. I hate to imagine what I would have scored if I’d had to take the current test when I was a kid. 500 max, I think. And that’s being generous.

  • oops – I was trying to connect that reply to Rick’s comment…

  • Meg McAllister

    I think you’re too hard on yourself, and in many ways I think you did achieve what you set out to do. At the end of the day…perhaps “perfection” is truly subjective, and can’t be measured by a number or score, but by a feeling of personal accomplishment and growth. Hard work does pay off, maybe not in numbers, but in character and integrity and self-esteem. And trust me, if they gave a test for that you’d score 100% across the board without any prep course at all. Have a great holiday season and come back to the book world in 2013, we miss you.

    • Thanks Meg! And seriously, thank you for reminding me that this “project” was always supposed to be more “project” than “perfect,” and that my real goal was to engage my pretty non type A son in the process…..and on that front, I really have scored (in fact, he’s upstairs right now taking a full, timed practice SAT — i.e. 5 hours+ worth).

      I lost sight of that very important fact!

      And re coming back to publishing — I will be!  I’m writing a book, believe it or not, so I’ll be back on the other side of the fence.

      Happy holidays.

  • I did quite a lot better on math this go round, and the test is a
    **lot** more difficult than it was when I was young. I hate to imagine
    what I would have scored if I’d had to take the current test when I was a
    kid. 500 max, I think. And that’s being generous.

  • Alice

    First of all, thank you so much for doing this project. As a junior in high school, it really motivated me to study for the SAT’s. I’m in the same boat as you on the December test: CR: 770 Math: 570 Writing: 780 with a 11 on the essay.
    I just can’t improve on the Math whatsoever! Anyhow, thank you again for all the inspirations.

    • You’re in a little better boat than me ;)

      This test is HARD, right?  It is so darn hard, I can’t believe it.  (This is the place where the supersmart/not very sensitive people usually jump down my throat and tell me how easy the test is….but I will disagree to my grave on that one.)

      I haven’t written about my final weeks of studying, but I will, soon, and while it didn’t improved my score — I think it WOULD HAVE had I had more time (they recommend a year of study).  

      I studied those last two weeks with Advantage Tutors in NYC.  It was an extraordinary (but way too brief) experience, and one thing they do is have every student make their own, handwritten SAT book that is comprehensive, and goes back to the basics (i.e. “how many digits are there and what are they” sort of comprehensive).

      If you are a junior, I would go see them immediately.  They offer financial aid for those who can’t afford it.

  • Debbie – Congratulations on your amazing year!  I’m sorry that your math scores aren’t where you wanted them to be. But I’m so grateful that you are sharing everything that you learned – as you know, you are helping other students increase their scores – yay! 

    And,as Dan said, helping the rest of us examine learning, tutoring, testing and education.

    Hats off to you!

    • Thank you Stacey.  You helped me so much, you have no idea.  I still use some of your mnemonic devices to remember things!

  • It’s disappointing to read; but I’m proud of what you’ve achieved no matter what :) are you planning on taking the Sat on January, or Act’; or is this is it?

    • Thank you.  I’m not planning on taking any more tests until I finish writing the book that I owe my publisher ;)  But, after that I want to get back to this.  I’ll probably take a real math class this spring, which will hopefully give me some basics to shore me up for next time.  I DEFINITELY want to try that ACT.  I’m very curious now.

      • Good luck with your book, is it going to be about this grueling, and mentally taxing experience?
        Math classes are the best, but the Sat folks just like to confuse everyone.
        Ps. I hope that next year you have better luck!

        • Yes, the book is about this experience….and will hopefully make the experience less mentally taxing for others!  Or at least prevent some wheel spinning and the overwhelming feelings from info overload that I felt when I started.

          • I wish your book had been available when I was testing :) I’m sure that it will be a best seller.
            by the way congrats on your stellar 700+ scores on both writing and critical Reading.
            I had the same experience as you with my Scores; but I don’t want to share ’em because I’m embarrassed  and hope that next month it does work out, once and for all. 
            PS. I’m prepping as I’m writing this.

          • Thank you….and GOOD LUCK!!!!!

            My son is upstairs right now taking a full, timed practice test.  He’s on his last section.  He comes down at the breaks to hand off the two sections he’s done.

            He just said to me “mom, this is an endurance test.”  Yup.

            I want to write a post about my experience with Advantage Tutoring (soon).  They have their students take 10-15 full, timed proctored practice tests (with bubbles and an experimental section) BEFORE they ever take an SAT.


            But I think that’s what it takes.

            good luck good luck and let me know how you do.

          • Thank you :) and i will!
            Is your son taking the exam anytime soon?

          • He’s taking the January test — and he wants to do it one time, and one time only.  So we shall see.  He has a number he has to hit for me to agree to that (and it’s not 2400, in case you’re wondering!) — BUT, I am still going to encourage him to take it again in Oct. of his senior year, even if he does well enough to make his own choice about that.  

          • Okay, thanks again … I was actually wondering if wanted to get a 2400, I wish him good luck on both !! and as long as it’s a high sat score it doesn’t matter

          • Agreed. I’m definitely NOT holding him to the 2400 bar :) He actually came up with his own goal, and I thought it sounded right.

          • Tha sounds awesome !! Did you get on the Sat a question that thad to do with figuring how many cookies were in a box based on the number of calories and servings?

          • In fact I did. And I’m pretty sure I got that right. I saw all of the controversy over that question on College Confidential, and I was like NOOOOOO. Keep that question (they were trying to get it disqualified)

          • That Question was a little strange, I’ve never taken an exercise like that in school. The correct answer was A, but I think I chose c.

          • Impressive 15 Test is a lot!! but I think it’s worth it if student get the scores they wanted.

          • I agree!  BUT, I think that there is a lot of this test that’s about performance and endurance — and that would cover that aspect of it!

          • That’s true.

  • Jen

    Oh!  I hadn’t really expected that at all!  I agree with all the stuff about “coherent, sequential curriculum” for long-term understanding, but I also think that test prep *should* be able to lift that math.  If you ever end up in my city (which is rare for people, they usually come for a reason!), I’d love to watch you do a math section or two (though there likely aren’t any you haven’t done yet?!) and see if we could pinpoint what’s happening. 

    But, on the bright side for all of your readers, we got this blog and now we’ll get a book!  I can’t tell you how often I’ve referred to this blog in my tutoring/talking about the SAT (even if many people our age tend to give me an odd look when I say, “there’s this blog…” and the look doesn’t go away when I tell them you willingly took the SAT that many times!) and I think it’s a great resource, both for HS students and for their parents. 

    • Thank you so much.  That was my intention (to be helpful and a resource), and I have sooooooo much more to write on that front.  

      Someone once asked me if I get writers block, and I said NO!  I have the opposite.  Too much to say, too little time.

    • By the way, what city are you in?  

      • Jen


        • Good to know.  I’ll be visiting you next time I’m there!

          • Jen

            Please do!

  • Anonymous

    That was an incredibly moving post. Especially how you ended it. If you have loved well, what more is there to say?

  • Gorgonzolablue

    wow congratulations!! your sat Scores are great! Wish I had scored that high. I’m taking the Sat’s next month again.  I need your advice … I’m a little lazy, (and the fact that the day when I took the exam the proctor left the door open; and I couldn’t understand because we the test takers were being ogled at.) I want to take the exam for the last time and pass it with a higher sat score, and I can’t really “afford” any new material at the moment, what would you do??
    Ps. I already have the Sat study Guide,  Philip keller’s The New Math Game Plan; and I’m in the process of re- answering the full practice Test on the College board website again.

    • Jen

       You can still find the practice test they put up last year too.  Just google “SAT 2010-2011 practice test” and it’s the first link that pops up (at least right now).

      • Guest

        Thank you :) you’re a life saver!! do you know where I can get the answer keys for when I finish answering the test?

        • Also, try Erik the Red’s site.  He has tons of exercises and facts, plus, in the FAQ there are links to 3 SATs (with answers) http://www.erikthered.com/tutor/

          • Gorgonzolablue

            Thank you !!

  • Erik

    Debbie, your project was a recurring bit of catnip for tutors or anyone wondering what might happen if they had the energy and courage to do something they thought they couldn’t possibly do. Taking the Oct-Nov-Dec tests would wear anybody down; you can’t fret about those last math scores. Thanks so much! Looking forward to your book.

    • Thanks Erik.  It’s sooooooo tempting to keep going and blow this book thing off (kidding)… But alas, I must earn a living!

      In my book proposal, I’d said that I was going to test a different method of test prep each month, like a food critic.  But the problem was that I learned early on that that wasn’t the best way to a perfect (or even a good) score; I felt like I was hopping from Burger King to McDonalds — and I was dying for the organic food I knew was right down the street.

      I was in the midst of my Kaplan month last March when I discovered your site — and somehow, even that early on in my process, I knew instantly that I was onto the real deal (and in fact I printed out your entire site and I did every exercise, which I still have in the big pile of work I’m trying to decide what to do with — a sculpture maybe?).  

      At that point I was still trying to steer the horse where I said we were going.

      Not long after that though I pretty much gave up trying to control the map and let the horse lead me where it wanted to take me (which is the story of my life). 

      I will be back though because believe it or not, I still love the SAT (especially the math).

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  • Congrats to you for inspiring so many people! 
    You sound burnt out but I wanted to say that I think you could definitely ace the math! My daughter’s strength was reading and writing too so I prepared her for the math myself and she aced the exam the first and only time she took it! I had her complete 8 exams, only the math sections, and went over the answers with her before she completed another section. Every problem she got wrong, she took notes on why. She created her own study guide by taking these notes. By the time she was taking the 8th practice test, she finally started flying through the problems. 
    The learning comes from the problems you get wrong. Too many students don’t focus on the problems they get wrong and therefore, don’t see much improvement. 
    The other drawback with SAT prep centers is that students don’t complete enough practice problems. To see real improvement, you need to do about 800 – 1000 math problems focusing on every one you get wrong and learning from them. The real time to study is in the summer when students actually have the time to complete all these problems. I think SAT tutors don’t get the students to complete volume of problems they need to do in order to see great improvement and they don’t spend enough time teaching the concepts the student was lacking to get the problem correct.

    • Thank you Grace.  Definitely taking this to heart….and I will be back for more math….  With your advice in hand. (The 1982 tester in me is printing your comment out now.)

      That was a bad week, and it left me down and out…but, I’m better now ;)