Practice Tests and Distributed Practice are Two Most Effective Learning Strategies

Research shows that “practice testing” and “distributed practice” are the two most effective learning strategies. They enhance comprehension of large amounts of material and boost student achievement.

You can apply these strategies to studying for the SAT:

  1. Use official, College Board material (the Blue Book and the College Board’s online course) as the centerpiece of all test preparation. Any/all supplementary material should lead back to the mothership, not replace it. Don’t use any “unofficial” practice tests.
  2. Most students should plan on a full school year of test prep to maximize their potential and reduce their stress.  Preparing for the SAT and studying in school aren’t mutually exclusive activities.
  3. Take full-length, timed practice tests to build endurance/stamina. The SAT is every bit as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested.
  • Experienced tutors advise 10-15 full practice tests.
  • Review all mistakes until you can explain them to someone else.
  • Keep track of errors and guesses by category.
  • Mimic actual test conditions as closely as possible

If you’re interested in having me attend your book group, I’d love to!  Here’s the link: Book the Writer.

To find out more about Book the Writer and its founder, Jean Hanff Korelitz, check out this story in the New York Times.

If you don’t belong to a book group, but would like to, Jean can create a “pop up” group.

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What is the SAT Testing?

People often say that to do well on the SAT is to be good at taking the test.

I disagree.

Good preparation means having a strong foundation in reading, writing and math.

There is “strategy” based test prep and foundational-based test prep. Most people need foundational work and yet most people think of test prep as “strategy.” You can certainly optimize your score by learning strategies, but I don’t think the big gains come from this type of test prep for most students.

The College Board cites research that shows the average score gain after test prep to be 5-20 points. I’d guess these are the students who do the strategy-only test prep.

The other night, I had the pleasure of attending a book club … as the author. It was a lot of fun and a much more engaged and intimate experience than a traditional “book event.”

Book the Writer was started by novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. She represents 60 New York based writers — some of them Pulitzer Prize Winners, National Book Award Winners, New York Times Bestselling authors and well known television and radio personalities — who are available to attend groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  You can read more about Book the Writer in the New York Times.

And, if you’re interested in having me attend your book group, I’d love to!  Here’s the link: Book the Writer



Why A Positive Attitude Helps on the SAT

How can developing a love for the test material turn the SAT preparation into a positive experience for young people?

I always say, “love it and it will love you back.”

“Love” (I’m obviously using the word loosely here) is where the rubber meets the road — whether we’re talking about cooking, studying, or getting in shape. My experience is that I achieve more if I can somehow find the love for what I’m doing.

I used to run a book publicity department, and the publicists would often come into my office and say some variation of, “I hate the book,” an attitude I knew from personal experience had to be fixed. So I’d start with questions and wouldn’t stop until we found something positive for them to latch onto, because I knew there was no way for them to do a good job without. “Can you love the author?” I’d ask. If the answer was “no,” I’d go further: “What about author’s husband/dog/editor?” We’d always find something positive for them to focus on.

I think the same goes for school.  My kids will sometimes say, “I hate this or that assignment, or teacher, or book,” I always come back with the same idea: “Can you stay open to the possibility that we might find something for you to love about it?” which will usually get me a “yes.” Then I go down the list.

For the SAT, I might ask, “do you like the idea of getting into your first-choice college with scholarship money?” (That sounds good, right?!)

Telling students to try to think of the SAT as a game to beat, or a crossword puzzle or Sudoku or video game might make it more fun.

One final note: not being prepared is a miserable experience no matter how you slice it. I don’t think there is any way to cram for the SAT and feel good about it. Students should give themselves a nice long runway if for no other reason than to have a positive experience taking the test. Being prepared feels good.

From Education Week Q & A. You can read the rest of the interview here: Education Week Part I  and Education Week Part II.

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Why Would A Mother Take the SAT … 7 Times?

Updated the About page (finally):

What is The Perfect Score Project?

In a nutshell, the project was initially an attempt to motivate my teenage son, Ethan, to care about the SAT enough to study hard and reach his potential.

Since I had no idea what that would entail, I started my research by subscribing to the College Board’s SAT Question-of-the-Day – which, to my surprise, I found myself enjoying. The questions were like a little puzzle first thing each morning, and a week or so in, I got hooked and, in a moment of unbridled enthusiasm, declared I was going to try to get the perfect SAT score. “Training” for the SAT became a personal challenge, like training to run the Marathon (which I did in 2004).

Just to clarify — I didn’t expect Ethan to pull off a perfect SAT score. Eventually he came up with his own goal, which we both agreed was the right one.

Not too long after I decided I would take the SAT myself, my personal project became a book project, for which I took the SAT every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times in all), the year before my son would be taking the SAT. I also took the test at 5 different testing locations. At that point the project turned into a kind of “consumer reports” on test prep and the test itself.

But the real miracle of our family SAT project, which I didn’t anticipate, wasn’t our score gains (although our score gains were hundreds of points more than the College Board reports average score gains to be after test prep). The real magic was that my teenage son morphed from a happy-go-lucky little tadpole, perfectly happy to slide by in school doing the least amount possible, into a goal-oriented and motivated young man. Ethan really learned for the first time how to work, and he gained confidence by reaching (actually, surpassing) his own score goal. He ended up using in school the lessons he learned from the SAT project, and ultimately finished high school with his highest GPA ever, post-SAT.  He entered college with expectations and confidence I don’t think he would have had had we not done the family SAT project together.

The profound effect on Ethan’s study habits was the best part of the whole project (and our score gains were significant!).

Ethan, like most teenagers, had trouble seeing into the future and envisioning how a standardized test taken at age 15 might serve as an important opportunity (or liability) in his future. He was not one of the stressed-out striver kids I’d been reading about. When it came to school, Ethan was “a crammer.” He got mostly B’s with the occasional A and C thrown in for good measure.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was hard-working and goal-oriented, but my hard work mostly took place out of sight, in my office at work. Everything changed when I studied for the SAT. I was right under Ethan’s nose (or in front of it, literally). When he saw me studying and my scores increasing, it registered, probably more than he let on at the time.

Ultimately, Ethan set his own SAT score goal, which we agreed on, and mapped out a study plan, which he stuck to.  His plan was methodical and long-term, lasting almost an entire year, and it required a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Ethan missed out on many Friday night parties because he’d scheduled full, timed practice SATs for Saturday mornings during the school year.  In the beginning, of course, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Hanging out with mom on Friday night was not his idea of a good time.

We plotted his scores on a graph, and a few months into his plan he saw the line going in the right direction. That motivated him.  He loved to study his numbers on those graphs!

Ultimately, he beat his score goal by 30 points, which was somewhat surprising to me because he’d had a few 11th hour, unexpected snafu’s (a broken “SAT hand,” an emergency root canal after the test, etc.), but the confidence he gained from reaching his goal was marked.  I don’t think he’d ever accomplished a big goal like that, and I’m not sure he really believed he could.

Before the project, Ethan thought that if someone did better than he did in school, it was because they were smarter than he was. “Not true,” I’d tell him (as I’m sure most mothers would say). “They studied harder than you,” I’d tell him. After achieving his goal, Ethan started to believe that he could “do it” (whatever “it” might be) through goal-setting, mapping a methodical plan, and then following through on that plan.

The project taught Ethan he could achieve much more than he thought he could through sustained hard work. He took that work ethic with him through the rest of high school, and his GPA improved as a result. He’s also continued to employ that strategy in college.

REVISED Book JacketI wrote a book about the journey called The Perfect Score Project, which was published by Harmony Books (a Division of the Crown Publishing Group) in February 2014.

You can read the prologue, listen to an audio clip, and check out the reader reviews.

The book is a hybrid: part guide to decoding (and acing) the SAT/part memoir. It’s the story of how I grew as a mother, and how my son and I managed to eke some joy out of the SAT process. It’s also a toolbox filled with tips I learned about the SAT–things I might not have thought of, such as What makes a good testing location…or The truth about brand-name SAT prep…or How to know if you should self-study, take a class, or use a tutor

Ultimately, the book is about how I managed to motivate my teenage son to care about the SAT–and, to rescue him from…sliding by.

For press inquiries, contact: Ellen Folan 212-782-8944 [email protected]

For more press materials, click on the Press Kit page.

For speaking engagements please visit my Speaking Page and contact Jamie Brickhouse at the redBrick Agency 646.281.9041


All of the fabulous illustrations on this site are hand painted by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.  

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Tips For Parents to Help Students Prepare for the SAT


1)    As early as 9th grade, start reading one article per day together 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. Most of the passages are college-level non-fiction, which is not what most high school students are used to reading. Learning new words in context makes the content richer and more accessible, knowledge critical for reading comprehension. Even for the new SAT, there is vocabulary in the passages that is necessary to understand to answer the questions.

2)    Make sure your child has a solid foundation all the way through school so that you don’t enter high school (or, 11th grade), with holes in the foundation. Kumon is a great way to shore up the math, but start early. If you wait until high school, it’s harder to instill those habits. (Though not impossible. See Chapter 14 for one example of a teenage turnaround.)

3)    If you want to know how solid the foundation is, having someone administer a state approved achievement test (e.g. the Iowa achievement test or the Stanford 10), and go from there.

4)    Don’t assume that the SAT has to be a reviled right of passage.  The test is the last big milestone before your child leaves for college.  It is possible to turn it into a positive experience. Trust me, if I did it, anyone can.


This is one (of many) questions from an Education Week Q & A. You can read the rest of them here: Education Week Part I  and Education Week Part II.


Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis.


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