Initial Thoughts on the New SAT

June 30, 2014 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, SAT Watch

Back in late March, I was quoted in the award-winning student newspaper, Redwood Bark, as part of a featured article by Chloe Wintersteen on the recently announced changes to the SAT.  Chloe does a very nice job of summarizing the changes to the test and some of the issues regarding the College Board’s collaboration with Khan Academy. I highly recommend this article to anybody interested in learning more.

Additionally, I have included below my extended comments to Chloe, which obviously didn’t all make the article.


Hi Chloe,

Thanks very much for contacting me. Happy to answer your questions. Please see below:

-Are you in favor of the changes or against them and why?

Some of the changes planned for the SAT are positive developments. Eliminating the guessing penalty, an anachronistic and counterproductive feature, is long overdue. Shortening the multiple-choice sections is also welcome, as the current long-form format emphasizes raw mental endurance over true knowledge and reasoning.

For many of the changes, however, it is simply too early to tell. Other than a broad outline of the content, the College Board really hasn’t been very specific about what actually is going to change. (I’m not sure they actually know all of it themselves at this point, as the President of the College Board has said that the development is still a work in progress.) Eliminating grammar multiple-choice questions, streamlining the math topics, emphasizing evidence in passage reading, dumbing down the vocabulary, and lengthening the essay all sound interesting in theory, but just how well these modifications play out in practice remains to be seen.

-Khan Academy will be offering free test preparation to all students. How will this effect Marin SAT Prep? Will you’re job still be relevant after the changes have been implemented? Why? (ed. Bless your heart, Chloe. 😉 )

I applaud Khan Academy for its efforts in continuing to provide free SAT materials online over the last five or so years as well as now in its official association with the College Board. It’s important that students have as much access to information about these tests as possible. Indeed, we at Marin SAT Prep have a long shown our commitment to that goal by making our training materials available online for anyone to use at It’s also the reason for many years I have published my ‘SAT Tutor’s Blog’ ( which provides a wealth of free training and advice.

With that said, I believe the statements by President of the College Board that its association with Khan Academy will somehow reduce or eliminate the need for test prep services is both hubristic and hyperbolic (two vocabulary words that you probably won’t see on the new SAT).

Currently, Khan Academy provides videos of the answers to questions in the Official SAT Study Guide, a practice we can assume will continue, yet just how much more in terms of an actual, comprehensive training program Khan Academy can provide remains a big, unanswered question. Even assuming its new test prep program provides a half-way decent training curriculum, the reality is that web videos simply cannot take the place of an actual person sitting down one-on-one with you to train you thoroughly over multiple weeks on every aspect of the test. Indeed, with all the SAT web videos already available, both at Khan Academy and many other places, why is the demand for private test prep tutoring greater than ever?

Moreover, as good as any website may be, it will have a hard time helping you with your test anxiety, planning your test prep calendar over multiple tests, tailoring your homework to your individual needs, encouraging you and building your confidence, and doing all the other holistic things that a live person can.

Remember too that because of its official association with the College Board, Khan Academy is significantly hampered in its ability to actually help you. Simply put, the people who write the test are not going to tell you how to beat it. Certainly, Khan Academy, in its new official role, can never advise you on aspects of test prep that do not actively promote the SAT, such as something as simple as whether the ACT may actually be a better test for you.

-How will the changes effect how you prepare students for the test?

Obviously, we are going to have to wait to see more details on the content of the new SAT, but in terms of our overall approach, which has been extremely successful for many years, we do not anticipate too many changes. In terms of curriculum, we may find ourselves spending a little less time on a multitude of math topics and spending more time on the essay as well as training students to spot evidence in the reading passages, but with all of the changes, we will still continue our student-centered approach that tailors our comprehensive training to the student’s specific needs.

-Some believe the changes are simplifying the SAT too much. Do you agree or disagree?

Too early to say for the most part. I do think it is a shame that the new SAT will eliminate arcane and esoteric vocabulary words, which I personally think are important in preserving the fullness and richness of the English language. Generally, the focus of the College Board in designing this new SAT appears to be on identifying students with aptitude towards graduate level professional studies, where business vocabulary, evidence spotting, and ratio-based math skills are quite useful, rather than on identifying students with creative and “out-of-the-box” reasoning skills who would perform well in undergraduate humanities courses, which the current SAT is actually quite good at doing.

-Any other comments?

We at Marin SAT Prep believe the changes to the SAT are a great opportunity for us. We are already planning our new training curriculum and materials, and our goal, as it always has been, is to be able to provide the absolute best test prep program available anywhere for students preparing for the SAT.


College Test Prep 101: How to Plan for the SAT and ACT

October 19, 2013 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, video

Video presentation by Adam Piacente of Marin SAT Prep at the Belvedere-Tiburon Library on April 17, 2013.


  • How important are these tests?
  • Which test(s) to take
  • When to take the test(s)
  • Preparing for the tests
    • When to start preparing
    • Which books
    • What to look for in a test prep program
  • Registering for the tests
    • When to register
    • How to register
    • How not to register
  • Extra Time & Accommodations
    • Applying
    • Worth It?
  • Getting ready for test day
    • What to Bring
    • Do NOT Bring
    • Night Before
    • Morning Before
    • At Test
    • During Test
    • After Test
  • Understanding your scores
    • When do I get my scores back?
    • What is a good score?
  • Submitting scores to colleges
    • When to submit scores
    • Which scores to submit
  • SAT Subject Tests
    • What are they?
    • When to take?
    • How many?
    • Which ones?

2013-14 SAT Practice Test Score Conversion Tables

October 18, 2013 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, Scores & More

Here are the raw to scaled multiple choice and essay score conversion tables for the 2013-14 Official SAT Practice Test.

In addition to listing the straight conversion tables for the multiple choice sections (the first table), I have also added the raw score point percentages for each scaled score. For instance, to get a scaled score of 600 on the Critical Reading subject for this test, you need 46 raw score points. With 67 total raw score points available on Critical Reading, a raw score of 46 translates into 69% (46/67) of the total points available.

For more on how your raw score is determined for each subject, see here.

Please note:

  • Not all tests use exactly the same scale. Depending on the difficulty of each test, some scaled scores may be slightly higher or lower for the same number of incorrect answers. For more on this, see the discussion in the comments here.

2013-14 SAT score conversion table 2013-14 essay score conversion table

Here is my own score Essay Score Differential table which helps you understand the specific amount each of the various essay scores changes your Writing multiple choice score.

2013-14 essay score differential table


SAT Unlocked II (vocab edition) now on sale

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, SAT Unlocked

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Developed over years of SAT tutoring with hundreds of individual students, SAT Unlocked II is a highly effective test prep system specifically designed to unlock your SAT potential. SAT Unlocked is also chock full of examples, test taking strategies, tips and tricks to give you the extra edge you need to succeed on this all-important test.

For more and to purchase SAT Unlocked II, click here.


Video: The Science of Test Anxiety

February 18, 2013 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, Tutor's Lounge, video

An article in the New York Times Magazine explores recent scientific research into the impact that test anxiety has on brain chemistry. The results suggest that very different tutoring approaches for dealing with test anxiety may be needed depending on the genetic makeup of the student.

The Experiment

The subjects of the experiment were 779 junior high school students from Taiwan who had just taken a very stressful national exam.

Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to – or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.

If you think taking the SAT is stressful, just imagine taking a one time test in junior high school that determines not just where you go to high school but whether you even get to go to high school in the first place. Now that’s stressful!

Researchers in this experiment studied the impact of stress on the test takers’ levels of the brain chemical dopamine. Scientists believe a person’s dopamine level is an important factor in determining how well his or her brain thinks.

“Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little.

Dopamine levels are regulated by enzymes that receive their instructions from the gene COMT.

[COMT] carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts…. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.

There are two types of COMT genes. One COMT variant creates enzymes that remove dopamine quickly from the brain, while the other variant creates enzymes that remove dopamine more slowly.

Under low stress conditions, enzymes that remove dopamine more slowly are considered better for cognitive function.

In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks – computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests – and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better….

However, under stressful circumstances such as a big test, dopamine increases to such a high level that the slow acting enzymes can’t keep up with the flood.

“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.

The result is that while a person with slow acting enzymes may have a cognitive advantage under low stress conditions (up to 10 IQ points according to one study), that advantage is lost and even reversed under high stress situations like a big exam, because the person’s elevated dopamine levels remain too high for the person to think properly.

Conversely, while a student with fast acting enzymes may be at a disadvantage under low stress conditions because dopamine levels are too low, under stressful conditions he or she is more easily able to handle the flood of dopamine and perform more optimally.

The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well….

People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.

The Results

So how did the Taiwanese students stack up?

The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?

It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

As a test prep tutor, I am all too familiar with this “trading places” phenomenon, where students who perform well in the relatively relaxed school environment often have difficulty achieving the same level of performance during more stressful testing events, while students who perform relatively poorly in school are able to achieve higher scores on standardized tests than their grades might otherwise suggest.

Warrior-prone & Worrier-prone

This new research indicates that a student’s brain chemistry may play an important role in explaining the paradox. In terms of cognitive ability, some brains appear to be genetically wired to handle stressful situations better than others.

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

We should be careful about overdoing the rather simplistic Warrior vs. Worrier meme here, especially when talking about individual human beings. It’s okay to use Warrior or Worrier as shorthand for the effects of fast and slow acting enzymes, but to claim humans are ALL  Warriors OR Worriers is simply not supported by the science.

In fact, as the article points out, a person’s brain is genetically twice as likely to contain a MIX of Warrior and Worrier enzymes as it is to contain either enzyme alone.

In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.

Better I think to say that people are Warrior or Worrier-prone, since most people’s brains contain a mix of both Warrior and Worrier enzymes, and for these people it may be more likely that the proportion of one enzyme to another affects how well a person’s brain functions under various levels of stress.


Test Taking Abilities: Genetically Predetermined?

So in the end does it all come down to genetics? Are some people just naturally better test takers than others? Simply because one person has a greater proportion of Warrior to Worrier enzymes, is he or she somehow genetically suited to perform better on stressful standardized tests than someone whose proportion is more Worrier to Warrior?

I don’t think so.

The important variable in all this is each student’s individual stress level, which far from being an internal genetic component, is an external influence over which the student can exert a considerable amount of control.

The student who can manage stress in a way that creates an optimal level of dopamine would appear to perform best regardless of his or her individual genetic makeup.

Tutoring the Worrier-prone: Reduce Stress

Remember that those with a genetically higher proportion of worrier enzymes actually report higher IQ test scores overall when placed in a low stress environment, because at low stress these folks’ dopamine levels remain at an optimal level for a longer period time. It’s only when there is a reaction to stressful circumstances, which spikes dopamine levels beyond a certain point, that those with a higher proportion of Worrier enzymes suffer a downgrade in cognitive ability.

If a Worrier-prone student can reduce the amount of stress he or she feels on test day, the size of the spike in dopamine levels should also lessen, along with the associated cognitive issues. The lower the spike, the faster the Worrier-prone student’s dopamine levels may return to an optimal level. Once that happens, his or her natural problem-solving skills and other cognitive advantages should hopefully reappear.

For tutors helping students who appear to exhibit signs of being more Worrier than Warrior, the proper approach would appear to include an emphasis on stress reduction, relaxation, perspective, and confidence building, so that the student is better able to keep the stress and associated dopamine spike to a manageable level on test day.

Tutoring the Warrior-prone: Raise the Stakes

For students who seem more Warrior than Worrier, a different tutoring approach may be appropriate. For these students, more stress can be a good thing, because under more stressful conditions their initially low dopamine levels tend to spike into optimal ranges, rather than past them.

An effective approach for Warrior-prone students may be to emphasize the importance of the test and its potential impact, so that these students feel that they have something to gain by performing well. Another effective tutoring strategy may be to suggest the student visit a few colleges, so the Warrior-prone student can see firsthand the potential payoff that can come from success.

By raising the stakes, the tutor gives the Warrior-prone student something to play for, which in turn can create the right amount of stress necessary for the student to raise his or her dopamine count to a level commensurate with optimal performance on test day.


Again, we need to be very careful about pigeonholing students as either Warrior or Worrier, since most students are going to fall somewhere between the extremes. For any student, attention to his or her individual circumstances is always paramount, and the broad strokes outlined here should be regarded more as suggestions that a tutor should consider, rather than hard and fast guidelines for every situation.

Even so, the Taiwanese experiment does provide a potentially useful explanation of why some students handle the pressure of standardized tests better than others, and test prep tutors armed with this knowledge can hopefully do a better job of helping any student, regardless of his or her genetic makeup, perform more effectively on test day.


SAT Vocabulary Quiz

Think you know your SAT vocabulary words?  Try this quiz, which includes 50 of the most difficult vocabulary words from the Official SAT Study Guide.


Thank you for taking the SAT Vocabulary Quiz!

Final Score: %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%% questions answered correctly (%%PERCENTAGE%%).


How did you do? Please let us know in the comments below.

Your answers are highlighted below.

When you finish, let us know in the comments how you scored.


Want to study more effectively? Mix it up.

September 9, 2010 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, SAT Strategies, Tutor's Lounge

An interesting article from the New York Times on learning and retention explodes some of the myths about the best ways to study.

First, students retain more information when they study the same material in different places:

[M]any study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

I can personally attest to this phenomenon. Ever since I opened my classroom and stopped tutoring in students’ homes, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my effectiveness at raising their scores. Perhaps this improvement is caused in part by students learning the material from me at one location and then reviewing the material (via homework) at another, rather than simply learning and reviewing at the same location.

It also helps to vary the type of material studied in a single sitting.

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

For SAT tutors, varying Critical Reading, Writing and Math subjects during a lesson may help students retain more of the material. For students, practicing different subjects in the same homework session may help your overall test performance.

Finally, the article emphasizes the importance of testing itself as a valuable teaching tool.

“Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.

But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

My approach to homework is to assign sections out of the Official SAT Study Guide and then tell my students to simulate as closely as possible a live test environment – what I call ‘practicing like you play’. That means I want them answer a full section in one sitting while timing themselves as if they were taking the test for real. According to the article, this homework approach should help students retain more information than an approach that simply assigns random practice questions without the formal structure of an actual test.

“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Dr. Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”

You won’t get an argument from me, Dr. Roediger.


SAT Tutors: Post Your Info Here!

January 25, 2008 by  
Filed under All Posts, Featured, Find a Tutor, Tutor's Lounge

Use the comment section to post information about your SAT tutoring services. Feel free to include any contact, location, bio or other information clients might want to know about you.

And if you have a website, don’t forget to post a link!

If you are a student or parent looking for an SAT tutor, please contact the tutor you are interested in directly. Remember, it is never wise to post personal information on a public website, and besides, it is unlikely that tutors who advertise here will actually see your post anyway.

Please Note:
This comment thread is reserved for SAT tutors only. All non-tutor posts will be deleted.
Also, please do not ‘jump the thread’ by posting your information as a reply instead of a new comment.