How to Become a Great Student

Chocolate!!!

Okay, chocolate won’t help you become a great student. I just want you to read a little more before you give up and say this article isn’t for you. Because I know what you’re thinking: “I’m no Einstein, so I can never be a great student.”

Wrong!

The truth is, you can become a terrific student if you have average intelligence. You may never invent a hyper-intelligent robot that practices psychology. But you can ace your subjects in high school and college, achieve great success, and be the envy of all your geeky friends. Ready to read on now?

Attitude

Since no one has invented a machine that can upload knowledge directly to your mind (as in The Matrix film), obviously you will have to put in some work in order to improve yourself as a student. You may be thinking “ugggh,” but I assure you that you don’t need to become an ubergeek to do well. You can still play video games, socialize, play sports, and make a recording with Jay-Z (okay – maybe not that last one).

It’s very easy to develop lazy habits. But it’s easier than you think to reverse them. An improved work ethic is contagious.

Let’s suppose you have an assignment due, or you have to study for a test. You keep putting it off, because you just don’t feel “psyched.” Then the deadline gets close, and you realize it’s now or nothing. You feel crappy about that, and you put in a crappy effort that leads to a lousy grade.

Yuck! In fact, the whole process felt yucky, from the procrastinating to the way you trudged through your work once you did get started. That just reinforces the idea that you’re a poor student.

But all that is psychological! It’s about emotions, not ability. You might not be as smart as everyone in your class, but in your heart you know you could do a decent job if only you “felt like it.”

At some point, you need to change the road you’re on. You can begin with small changes. Do you usually wait until the day before an assignment or test is due to begin working? Resolve to complete one third of your work on the day before that.

Will that change bring about a miracle? – of course not. But you’ll get a better grade, and you’ll feel better about how you got it. Do the same thing two or three times, and the next time you might get started two days early. Eventually, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself. There is an old saying: success breeds success. Once your self-confidence grows, so will your work ethic. You will reach a point where you’re doing a fine job and finishing with time to spare. That becomes addicting.

Me in 2006

Self-Confidence

I just talked about how improving your work ethic can improve self confidence. In addition, you can work on your confidence directly. During my 35 years of teaching, I have observed that almost all of my students are a good deal smarter than they think. Focus on your strengths.

Many people who appear to be smart are fast. They process information quickly, but no better than you do. Don’t be intimidated because someone can answer a question quicker than you can. It’s the end of the race that matters.

I once read about a tennis player who was quite short. He helped his confidence by taping a sign that said “Taller Than Napoleon” to his bathroom mirror. You don’t need to make a sign; you know what I’m saying.

Study Habits

Read about effective ways to study here. You can read this at another time if you like. Just don’t forget!

Act The Part

If you want to be a better student, you should do things that good students do. Don’t be afraid to talk about academic subjects with your friends because such things aren’t cool. Whatever you have passion for is cool. Your friend who makes fun of you for carrying a book is secretly jealous of you.

If you can, sit up front in class (where would you want to sit at a concert or sporting event?). You can even ask your teacher if you can move. Make a point of talking with your teachers about class material after class, or during extra help sessions. You can even look up related material on the web and use it to impress your teachers.

Many years ago, I visited a friend who was in law school. We played a little street hockey, and headed back to his dorm. The next thing I knew, I was listening to a bunch of law students discuss hypothetical cases, even though it was Sunday. “These guys will succeed,” I thought.

Methodology

If you have to write a paper, do some research. Also make an outline first. Twenty minutes spent preparing an assignment can save hours of rewriting.

Read!

The more you read, the better you will write, and writing is vital for most college subjects. You don’t have to become a bookworm, but make a point of reading more than just what you’re required to. Read what you like, whether it’s sports, romance, etc.

Be the Best You Can

That may sound sappy, but it’s a great philosophy for whatever you do in your life.

Suppose the President is told by an advisor that his approval ratings have slipped. The advisor recommends that the President serve in a soup kitchen to build his PR. I believe that the President would be the best soup-ladler in the kitchen. Politics aside, a winning attitude makes someone President. He wouldn’t think “I run the country, and I’ve got to do this menial chore. This sucks.” Rather, he would think “Right now, I’m a soup-ladler, and I’m here to do my best.”

Right now, you’re a student, and you’re here to do your best.

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Review – eXaminator™ Test Pacing Watch

The eXaminator comes in blue or black, and is available for $34.95 at www.examinator.com. The cheapest shipping option (ground) is a whopping $8.50, bringing the total to $43.45 for one watch. The eXaminator can be used for many different standardized tests, but I will focus on the SAT, since this is an SAT blog.

First impression: the eXaminator doesn’t win any style points. It’s men’s size, generic, and has a plastic band. But that’s what we want – function over form. The display is easy to read – that’s important. You need two hands to set it – I had trouble with the buttons when using one hand.

I tested the features rather thoroughly, but I won’t bore you with the details of that. Those features (in Test Mode) include a vibrating alarm, which not only activates at the end of the set interval, but can also be set to activate midway or even at each quarter of the time period.

The alarm always activates when there are 10 minutes remaining, which can be annoying/confusing. For example, if you choose the “1/2” option for a 25 minute section, the alarm will activate when there are 12.5 minutes remaining, and again 2.5 minutes later.

The watch indicates which question you should have reached (more on this later). There is also a function that tells you how much time you have left to finish the question you’re currently working on, but as will become evident, this is useless.

One issue is that you must reset the timer if sections have different time limits. On the SAT, most of the sections take 25 minutes, and you won’t have to reset. However, the last few sections are shorter.  Often, there is no break between sections, and you don’t want to waste even a few seconds to set a timer. Many proctors give you a few seconds between sections, but I’d feel rushed with a 10 second limit.

Note that the SAT rules specifically forbid a timer (or any foreign object) on your desk. Different proctors enforce this differently (e.g. many will allow snacks), but with a watch you won’t have to worry.

You can use the eXaminator as a regular watch, or as an alarm watch (but it only vibrates – no sound).

I have an issue with the eXaminator, but it’s not with the watch itself, but rather with the advertising. Moving past the hyperbole on the packaging (“Crush! the new SATs”; “Never run out of time!”), the vendors claim that the watch indicates “the question number you should have reached” at any time during the test. Of course, this presupposes that all questions require the same length of time to solve (for all students). This issue is addressed in the FAQ that’s found in the instructions:

 2. What if the test questions are of all different lengths – will I get off pace?

 Standardized tests such as the SAT work hard to have the questions all take approximately the same amount of time. They are careful not to put especially long questions at the end of the test, which could create pacing problems. Though eXaminator can only give an approximate question number you should have reached, students who are consistently at or ahead of this pace have no problem finishing standardized tests on time.

First of all, if the watch can only give you an approximate question number, why bother with its feature that tells you the time left on the current question?

But what’s really shocking is that the company’s statement about all questions taking the same time is rubbish, at least as far as the Math sections are concerned. The questions are arranged in order of difficulty, and of course they take longer to solve as they get harder. Often a good student can solve the earliest questions in a few seconds, but may take several minutes to get through some of the hard ones. The problem is not as pronounced on the other sections, but Critical Reading questions take longer than Sentence Completions, if for no other reason than it takes time to read the passages!

The best solution is for the student to use the watch during practice tests and become familiar with his own pacing. For example, he may eventually conclude that he needs to finish the 13th question at the halfway mark in order to finish the section. But the sections vary (e.g. there are math sections with 16, 18, and 20 questions). Furthermore, not every student aims to finish each section. It’s better to do your best on 17 questions (and quickly guess the rest) than to rush through all 20.

Given the complicated nature of the current SAT, there is no timer on the market that can effectively address these problems. That doesn’t mean timers are useless, but you shouldn’t be deceived by false claims.

 Conclusion

This product is “just okay.” Its performance and features are somewhat clunky, and the question counting feature is all but useless on the Math sections. For a little over $30 shipped, you can buy a vibrating Timex watch that looks better and does a lot more. However, the eXaminator can be set to vibrate midway through each section, and the question feature will be more useful on the verbal sections. It’s your call.

Essay Writers – Keep Your Promises!

In everyday life, we keep our promises after we make them. If I say “I promise to paint your fence by Friday,” you can tell whether I’m a man of my word by Friday night.

But the kind of promises I want to talk about are kept before they’re made.

Suppose I begin an paragraph like this:

“In the novel Jim Gets Pwned, when Jim finds out that Alicia is assigned to be his lab partner, he begins to worry. After all, they haven’t spoken to each other since the big incident.”

There’s a big problem here: the reader is going to think “Huh? What in the world is ‘the big incident’?” That’s an example of a promise not kept. As an essay writer, you promise your reader that you will introduce things that you present.

Many of my students who make this kind of error protest “but I’m about to tell you!” But you don’t want to leave your reader hanging. You don’t have to describe everything about the subject in question, but at least give the reader something to start with.

In truth, I’ve presented Jim and Alicia too, and I haven’t told you much about them. Is Jim the title character? Perhaps I could have said “the title character” instead of “Jim.” On the other hand, I have told you that Alicia will be Jim’s lab partner, so at least you know something about her.

You can see that it can be hard to draw the line where you’ve introduced enough. Just don’t leave your reader with that “hey – what?” feeling. If those opening lines were placed in the middle of a paragraph, my poor reader would be looking back to see if he missed something about “the big incident.”

Forestfire

What kinds of things do you need to introduce?

The answer is important nouns. You know that a noun can be a person, place, or thing. Of course, Jim and the big incident are examples of a person and a thing. But you don’t have to introduce trivial nouns.

“Cursing, Alicia grabbed the sponge and began wiping up the spill.”

Obviously, I must have introduced the spill earlier. But I don’t need to tell the reader any details about the sponge, because it’s not important.

You also don’t have to introduce famous people and things. If you say “Mr. Barrett’s face reminded her of Benjamin Franklin’s” you can assume that your readers know who Franklin was.

There’s bad and there’s awful.

Suppose I want to write a paragraph about the first Harry Potter novel, and I begin:

“In the novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore drops Harry off at the Dursley’s. Harry has a miserable childhood, until one day…”

That opening sentence breaks four promises. The poor reader wonders who Dumbledore, Harry and the Dursleys are, and she also wonders where the Dursleys are.

“… an elderly wizard named Dumbledore drops baby Harry off at his Aunt and Uncle’s suburban home in Little Whinging, Surrey.

That’s better. At least the reader knows something about the characters and location.

Does this guideline apply to all types of writing?

No! It applies to some kinds of writing. But in other genres (particularly fiction), an author may leave his readers hanging intentionally, as a literary device. For example, an author may describe a character’s quiet life in a quiet town, and then end the chapter with a sudden shift in mood:

“And then the soldiers came.”

That makes the reader eager to continue. “What soldiers? Are they enemies? What’s going to happen to the hero?”

In my humble opinion, many popular authors overuse this technique.

English: Hanging out

But in your essays and other academic works, don’t leave ’em hanging.

Which is Better – Online or Live Tutoring?

Online tutoring is relatively new, and many people fear new things. I have tutored several students online for Scorebusters, and I am also tutoring online for The E Tutor, a wonderful new company.

The first time I taught online, my student and I each downloaded a whiteboard program, and I called him from my landline phone (which has a headphones jack) for the audio. Now there are dedicated teaching solutions, which include not only whiteboard and audio, but webcam and media upload (documents, pictures, video clips) functionality.

Simply put, there are pros and cons to both methods of teaching.

Presence of a live tutor

For the most part, this is the greatest factor in favor of live teaching. Many students are reassured by the tutor’s presence, and they may tend to work harder and take the teacher more seriously. It’s also easier for the tutor and student to read each other’s facial expressions and hand gestures. I suppose there are some students who become anxious in the presence of a tutor, but they are the exceptions.

Aristotle tutoring Alexander

Convenience

Clearly, this factor favors online teaching. There is no commuting time, and either party can connect from multiple locations (anywhere with internet access). If you live in a remote area, without access to quality tutoring, the choice is a no-brainer.

Concentration
Kids today have grown up with computers. Many students actually concentrate better when viewing a screen. You can use noise-cancelling headphones and microphones to enhance the online experience.

In an online group setting, social distractions are minimized. However, I strongly believe that one-on-one tutoring is the way to go for SAT prep, and I all but refuse to teach even small groups. Groups are better for both teacher and student financially, but given the unusual nature of SAT prep, you get vastly inferior results.

Cost

Online tutoring is usually cheaper than live teaching. Neither party has travel costs.

Technical issues

Computers can freeze or crash, internet connection can be lost, and other hardware problems (such as loss of audio) can ensue. However, the technology has been around for awhile, and I’ve found these problems to be infrequent and generally easy to deal with.

Unless homework is scanned and uploaded, the tutor loses access to some information (e.g. how students solve math problems on practice tests).

Recording

Some virtual classrooms allow the sessions to be recorded. This can benefit the serious student.

I’ll also point out that online tutors and students don’t share each other’s germs.

My conclusion is that there’s no automatic choice. Each student has to weigh the pros and cons, given her particular needs. In general, my online teaching experience has been very positive with motivated students. But if a student’s work ethic is shaky, or he has special needs, I favor live tutoring.

Satire – Prepare your Facebook Page for College

Disclaimer: Satire is a form of humor. Don’t really try any of this, unless you’re a pimply dweeb with a God complex.

It’s no secret that colleges comb the internet for dirt on applying students. Here is some advice on how to scrub away the dirt and replace it with fresh, sparkly glitter.

Deutsch: Glitter

What is dirt?

Really, you’re almost ready for college and you don’t know what dirt is? You want to remove all traces of anything embarrassing from the web. The dirtiest examples would be instances of drugs, drunkenness, nudity, or anything criminal. So you’ll begin by removing that picture of you in a thong, holding a beer, an Uzi, and a crack pipe. Immediately replace it with a nice photo of yourself in a rocking chair, reading a thick book and drinking Vitamin Water. Oops – you’re going to have to retake the shot. That “No Homos” t-shirt isn’t going to win you any style points.

Once you have replaced all of your interesting photos with boring, carefully staged ones that would be appropriate for 1950’s television, move on to your Wall (or Timeline, as Facebook is now introducing). Delete any references to your ever having had any fun, and replace them with quotes from famous philosophers.

“All truth is simple… is that not doubtly a lie?” – Friedrich Nietzsche

English: This is am image of Kyle David Kipp

Of course, none of this will look real if no one ever likes or replies to your comments. Just recruit a few friends, and instruct them to post really nerdy rubbish on each other’s sites.

Then you’ll want to edit your Info page. Begin with employment. Pardon, but you only had one crummy job at the soft-serve, and you were fired for writing nasty jokes with the colored sprinkles? No problem – remember the time you helped old Mrs. Wiggleboom with her groceries? You can add “senior charity” to your page.

Sports? What’s that? Leave this blank.

Art and Entertainment? Mozart, War and Peace, huge biographies, or anything by James Joyce. Movies, TV? Don’t watch ’em, except for the occasional documentary. Games? Too bourgeois.

English: A giant chess set at Chirk Castle, Wr...

And finally, you’ve come to Activities and Interests. Begin with the obvious “philosophy,” and sprinkle in “analyzing stock trends,” “world politics,” and “theoretical physics.”

That’s it – you’re now the biggest geek in your school. But you’re a geek with a scholarship!

How to Edit Essays (and other writing)

Even most professional writers rewrite their material at least twice. Many of them will tell you that editing is their least favorite part of the writing process. But meticulous rewriting is crucial. A poor editing job is like a poor paint job on a new piece of furniture.

I believe that the major reasons for poor rewriting are psychological. Therefore, I do not mean to provide a step-by-step guide to the process. Instead, I hope to help you modify your outlook as you edit.

One preliminary note: great writers love the written word. We are all passionate about different things. Some of us love to grill the perfect steak. Some would like to make the perfect chip shot. Others would like to spawn the perfect sentence.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to be as passionate as those who choose writing as a career. But if your attitude is “writing sucks, I’d rather have a tooth pulled,” you’re doomed before you start. You need to take some pride in what you’re producing in order to do it well.

Okay – so you’ve decided that writing is more fun than the dentist’s chair (but less fun than watching SpongeBob – hey, I understand). You make a decent outline, and you write a first draft. Did you do a decent job? Be honest – would someone else praise your work? Are there lots of errors? Does your writing have “punch”?

SpongeBob SquarePants

Here’s where psychology comes into play. Many students are poor editors because they are lazy, impatient, or egotistical (or all 3). Let’s have a look at each:

Laziness is easy to understand. For most young people, XBOX, soccer, or hanging with friends is preferable to writing. If your schedule keeps you very busy, you may feel tired when it’s time to work on your writing. But that’s not the kind of laziness I want to talk about. If you’re any kind of a decent student, you’ve already learned how to set aside some time and get serious about your assignments.

However, there is a another source of laziness in editing that we don’t think about as much. We hate “do-overs”! Most people who enjoy doing a task will not enjoy having to repeat it. And that’s what re-writing feels like. “This isn’t good enough. Do it again.” To overcome this obstacle, stop looking upon rewriting as a do-over. It’s isn’t one; editing is simply part of the natural process of writing.

Continuing the furniture analogy I began earlier, the first edit is like sanding, and the second is like staining or painting. So when it’s time for either phase, don’t tell yourself “now for the boring part of writing.” Instead, say “now I’m an editor. Let’s do this right.”

Impatience goes hand-in-hand with laziness. When you’ve finished your first draft, you’ve already provided most of the creativity that will go into the end product. naturally, you want to get to that endpoint as soon as possible. But a rushed rewrite will produce an inferior product.

To cure the ills of laziness and impatience, I suggest that you do two things. First, take a nice long break before you begin to rewrite. Two, reread your work with a fresh outlook.

Did you know that novelists often wait six months or longer before they begin to rewrite? Sure, that can be frustrating for fans who are waiting for the next Harry Potter or Twilight book. But after many months, an author loses a lot of intimate knowledge of her own work. Rereading (the first step of rewriting) feels something like reading another author’s work, instead of her own. That makes it easier to recognize what needs to be changed.

Naturally, the time you wait until you rewrite will depend on your circumstances. If you’re writing an essay for school or a practice SAT, you may only be able to wait a couple of days. If you’re actually taking the SAT, you don’t have any real time to wait. Shake your head for 5 or 10 seconds, say “I’m an editor now,” and get going.

Finally, egotism can hinder your editing. Once a writer has created something, it becomes “his baby.” He may be reluctant to change it, and any suggestion that the work contains flaws may be perceived as an insult. My advice – if this applies to you, get over it! The whole point of a first draft is that it should contain errors (unless you’re one of those rare authors who edit as they write, and that’s very difficult to do without sacrificing creativity). Think of your first draft as something imperfect that you want to polish.

One suggestion that many writers have found helpful is to listen to your first draft. You can have someone else read it, or use the read aloud feature on a Kindle. Otherwise, you can use a program on your computer (just Google “freeware text-to-speech” – add “Mac” if you use one). Of course, most software solutions sound rather robotic, but they still help you to get a different point of view.

The great news is that the more you rewrite, the less you’ll have to. At first, you may be surprised how many errors and examples of weak writing your works contain. But by taking the time to fix them, you’ll learn to write first drafts with fewer problems. In other words, you’ll become a better writer.

Is the SAT a Good Test?

Polarize vb. to cause people to adopt extreme opposing positions (from thefreedictionary.com)

A web search reveals many different opinions of the SAT, most either very negative or stoutheartedly supportive.

I’ve been teaching and analyzing the SAT for 28 years, and I strive to form opinions that are as free from personal bias as I can make them. And my opinion is the boring, uncontroversial, middle-of-the-road  one – the SAT is neither an awful test nor a very well-developed one.

Here I will give my best answers to several questions about the quality of the SAT. Given the format of this blog, I will attempt to be informative, but by no means comprehensive.

SAT Subject Tests

Does the SAT do what it is designed to do?

The primary stated goal of the SAT is to predict grades in the freshman year. The second goal is to predict grades throughout undergraduate college. Various studies have been published, most of which indicate that there is a significant correlation between SAT scores and college grades, but that the SAT doesn’t provide much information beyond what high school grades do.

One of the first studies was sponsored by Educational Testing Service, who wrote the SATs. They were unhappy with the results, but the authors released their findings, which were published in several articles and at least one book. One of the researchers reported that he had expected the results to support the usefulness of the SAT, and was surprised when they did not.

More recent studies have yielded similar conclusions, although some scholars have questioned their methodology. For example, check out this article in Pencil Nerd’s blog.

It stands to reason that a grade average of 90 at one high school may not equate to a similar one at another school. On the other hand, one would hope that most admissions officers have detailed data on just what different high schools’ grades mean. Nevertheless, the SAT should serve to “level the playing field” by providing colleges with uniform scores.

In conclusion, the SAT probably does some of what it’s supposed to do, but not necessarily as well as it might.

Is the SAT a fair test?

Numerous studies have demonstrated that women, minorities, and residents of some states perform below average on some or all of the sections of the SAT. Groups such as the National Organization for Women and FairTest have claimed that the SAT is biased against these groups.

The obvious question is: are they blaming the messenger? In today’s hyper-politically-correct climate, many people are eager to point the finger at anyone nearby whenever any minority is at a disadvantage. But if men outscore women on the math SAT, does that mean the test is bad, or that men tend to outperform women on math, period? Perhaps women shy away from math because of gender biases. Perhaps something in our genetics predisposes men to like/do better at math more (shudder – did I just suggest that people might be different?). What about minorities, such as blacks or Hispanics? Don’t they tend to have lower incomes than whites, and thus live in poorer districts with poorer schools. Should we blame a test for that?

Some years ago, when the SAT had analogy questions, FairTest pointed out an analogy for which the correct answer was oarsman:regatta. If you don’t know, a regatta is a series of boat races, and wealthy people who live in coastal areas tend to take part in them. Certainly, such people (or children in their families) would have an advantage on this question.

FairTest cited the regatta question as evidence of SAT bias. But I’m very familiar with the test, and I have seen very few questions that are biased in this fashion. How many SATs, with well over 100 questions each, did FairTest have to pore through before they gleefully discovered this question (and a couple of  others of its ilk). ETS and The College Board have been dealing with accusations of bias for years; you can bet that they now take painful steps to avoid “rich kid” questions.

That last sentence is my conclusion. The SAT writers bend over backwards to make the SAT politically correct, so that, if anything, it would tend to benefit minorities (the Reading section abounds with passages about feminists and abolitionists). It’s time to point the finger somewhere else.

Are the questions well written?

Yes! An impressive amount of time is devoted to developing, reviewing, and revising the questions. Then new questions are seeded into experimental sections on the SAT, so that thousands of students “review” them. Very few flawed questions make it to the actual SAT.

By contrast, I have seen a lot of practice tests in commercial prep books, and I can instantly recognize many flaws in all of them.

English: Welcome sign at the entrance to the h...

Are the question types good ones?

Again, my review is mixed here. The general types are okay, but the test developers deliberately make the questions tricky in various ways (e.g. trap answers, tricky wording, etc.).

The fact is that a single exam of only a few hours length is not the optimal tool for measuring the college-readiness of all students. There is a huge range of abilities in the population of students who take the SAT, from those who hope to achieve a minimum score in order to be eligible for sports scholarships to those who need top scores for top schools. That means the test writers need to include questions that are aimed at all of these students – i.e. very easy to very difficult questions. The result is that there are very few questions directly aimed at any particular student.

Useful hard questions are particularly difficult to create. It is not enough that few students answer them correctly; to be meaningful it is vital that only the best students nail them. The test writers employ several strategies to help achieve that result, but they are flawed, since it is possible to analyze them and coach students accordingly.

Has the SAT improved, and what can be done to improve it?

The SAT has improved. Some flawed question types have been dumped. There are also fewer tricky questions and answers than there used to be. The addition of the Writing section was also an improvement.

The SAT could be improved by adding more questions such as those found on the ACT. The ACT is more of a test of learned knowledge; the SAT tests reasoning more. Why not test more of both?

Clearly, eliminating tricks and traps would be a positive step. Hard questions should require higher level thinking, rather than the ability to navigate a sea of tricks and traps.

The SAT tests the good ole’ “3 Rs” (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic). It couldn’t hurt to add some science and social studies to the mix.

I feel that the best way to improve the SAT would be to administer two separate tests on different days. The first test would assess the student’s general level of ability in each section. The second test would be tailored toward that ability. For example, if a student scored 4 out of 5 on the Math section of the preliminary test, she would then take a “Level 4” Math test afterwards, with only questions of difficulty 3-5.

Naturally, there would be some resistance to this proposal, since it would take up more time overall, and the first test would need to be graded before the second was administered. However, I think it makes good sense, and would even help reduce pressure on many students.

Finally, The College Board has been working hard to prevent cheating on the SAT.