Diversity and the SAT

by guest author Jennifer Karan, Executive Director of the SAT Program at the College Board

In a move that has been much discussed among its current student body, Ithaca College recently announced that students applying for 2013 admission will have the option of withholding their SAT scores from consideration during the admissions process.  The statement by Ithaca College maintains that, as a result of dropping the SAT as a requirement, it is “anticipated that the applicant pool will become more diverse, as underrepresented students tend to take greater advantage of test optional policies.”

More than ever the population of students taking the SAT reflects the diverse makeup of America’s classrooms.  In fact, SAT takers from the class of 2012 were the most diverse SAT class ever: 45% self-identified as being minority students; 28% reported that English was not exclusively their first language; and, most tellingly, 36% reported that they would be the first generation of college goers in their family.

The SAT was created to democratize access to college for all students.  SAT scores provide a national, standardized and fair benchmark that neutralizes the risk of grade inflation – a particularly important point when more than 40 percent of SAT takers report an “A” GPA.

Furthermore, the SAT is the most rigorously researched college entrance exam and is consistently shown to be a fair and valid predictor of college success for all students, regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status.  Each potential SAT question is reviewed by external subject matter experts, subjected to an independent and external sensitivity review process, and pretested on a diverse sample of students from around the world.  Any question that performs substantially different for any gender or ethnic group is eliminated.

Ithaca College and all schools should be recognized for constantly examining their admissions processes, making adjustments to expand opportunities to new applicants and diversifying their student bodies.  As a true believer in the mission of the College Board – helping to connect all students with college opportunity and success – I hope that colleges and universities choosing a test optional admissions policy continue to take the same thoughtful approach as they review the results.

As a former high school teacher and dean of students, I believe in giving students every opportunity to showcase their strengths.  In this case, Ithaca may well be short-changing both the university and potential applicants by eliminating a valid and reliable measure such as the SAT from the admission process.

Will New Measures Halt Cheating on the SAT and ACT?

In the wake of a recent cheating scandal on Long Island, NY, new security measures were announced for the SAT and ACT exams. The principal change is that students will now be required to upload a photo of themselves when registering for these exams. The photos will appear on the students admission tickets, and also on test site rosters that will be available to proctors. Also, the photos will be attached to any score reports that are sent to high schools and colleges.

It seems to me that these measures, while not foolproof, do add an additional layer of anti-cheating protection. Consider the recent cheating scandal on Long Island. Students paid a college student to take the exams for them. The college student, Sam Eshagoff, had only to furnish cheap false IDs, and was granted entry into the testing center. Since the name on each ID matched that of the student who would receive the scores, Eshagoff was able to get away with his scam for quite some time.

If another student were to attempt a similar scam, he would now have to upload a photo of himself, or at least one that looked similar enough to fool a proctor. Of course, that wouldn’t mean he’d be any easier to detect than Eshagoff was. However, there would now be a long-lasting record of his chicanery. If at any time, a high school guidance counselor, or a college admissions officer were to notice that the photo was not that of the student, the deception would be exposed.

I think that this measure will act as a deterrent to most people who might consider cheating in this fashion. However, some students may take the risk, hoping that no one pays close attention to the photos. I suppose it’s also remotely possible that a look-alike could stand in for a student, or perhaps even an expert in disguise might give it a try.

Masked man

My major criticism of the new measures is that they only deter one method of cheating. Students can still share information in various ways. They could easily develop methods of signaling to each other. In this technological age, it’s also hard to imagine that some students haven’t tried using hand-held devices to communicate with sources outside the testing center.

I have heard other objections to the new measures. There will be no more standby registrations. As Akil Bello of Bell Curves pointed out, poorer students who lack easy access to connected computers will be most affected.

This article points out some other possible negative consequences.

Edit: Also read this article on the Bell Curves Blog.

Finally, the question remains: what should be done to the students who are caught cheating? Currently, the only penalty is having their scores cancelled.

What do you think?

What to do During the Week Before the SAT

Here is some quick, common sense advice on what to do in the days leading up to your SAT, and on Test Day itself:

Obvious, but vital: You want to be stay healthy. Eat balanced meals and get a good night’s sleep.

You can continue to study for the exam, but don’t feel that you have to “go into overdrive.” Of course, if you haven’t started studying for the SAT, it’s too late to begin now. However, as James Bond and Mike McClenathan say, “never say die.”

If you do plan to study, it’s best to spend your time as efficiently as you can. If you’ve been struggling with a particular type of question, you might focus on reviewing that. On the other hand, don’t expect to gain much by studying vocabulary at this late date.

I advise most of my students not to study on the day before the SAT. Just relax and have a normal day, as long as “normal” isn’t too crazy for you.

Make sure your calculator is charged. You should use a calculator that you’re familiar with. Also bring a watch – preferably with a stopwatch or timer feature. Note that you are not allowed a watch that will make noise, or one that sits on your desk. And don’t forget your #2 pencils, your ticket, photo ID, and some snacks.

Here’s the College Board’s checklist.

English: A glass of Orange juice. Esperanto: O...

On Test Day

Naturally, you want to wake up early enough that you don’t have to rush. If you normally eat a big breakfast, do the same. It’s natural to be nervous before a big test, and you’ll only increase your anxiety if you break from your everyday routine.

You want to get to the test center a little early. If you care to socialize with other students, that’s fine, but I would recommend against talking about the content of the SAT. Wise guy remarks such as “you can’t ace the Math Section if you don’t know how to do derivatives” can induce nervousness.

Most students benefit from “revving up their brains” a little before the test. You might solve a few Sentence Completions or easy Math problems before you’re seated (you can store practice materials in a backpack, which might be left in a corner of the testing room).

You have the right to a good test-taking environment.

If you have a wobbly desk or chair, a flickering light overhead, or a student who won’t stop sneezing two desks away, be the squeaky wheel and ask the proctor to change your seat. Normally, you probably don’t want to be a troublemaker, and you know the proctor may find your request to be a nuisance. Be polite, but firm, and explain why you simply can’t take the SAT under adverse conditions.

Above all, remember what got you here. I’ve had too many students who have aced their last few practice tests, only to see their scores drop on the actual exam. Don’t focus too hard on getting a good score. Instead, focus on using the techniques that you’ve learned properly. Then good scores will follow.

Don’t try to “cruise” the exam. If anything, try to think a little harder than you did on practice SATs.

Relax and concentrate.

Can You Improve Your Speed on the SAT?


For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that there are two factors that affect one’s pacing on the SAT, which we’ll call “brain speed” and “habit speed.”

Brain speed is somewhat analogous to processor speed in a computer. It cannot be easily changed; some people’s brains move from thought to thought faster than others’. I don’t know if there’s any correlation between brain speed and intelligence. Over many years teaching students, I have observed some very smart people with slow brain speed (even a couple of geniuses), and some who aren’t as smart, but who process quickly.

If you’re a brainiac who processes slowly, there’s no reason you can’t be successful in a variety of fields. However, standardized tests such as the SAT can be something of a stumbling block. Arguably, students are given less time to solve questions on the SAT than they will be on college exams. In an earlier article, I proposed that the SAT would be fairer if it were administered over two days.

However, only a small minority of students have a brain speed so slow that it prevents them from answering most of the questions on the SAT. That is, most students who leave more than a handful of blanks do so largely out of “habit speed,” and will be able to speed up.

English: Lamborghini Diablo seen during Concou...

Before I get into specific methods of speeding up, I want to mention one relevant issue that only affects part of the test: reading speed. If you’re a slow reader, you will have trouble with sections that include passages. Of course, it is possible to improve reading speed. You might take a speed reading course (live or online). But if you have a learning disability that affects reading speed (and don’t qualify for special accommodations), or if English in not your primary language, you may still have a problem. Note that there are ways to approach the Reading questions without reading the entire passage. Unfortunately, they are beyond the scope of this article.

The advice I want to offer here is straightforward, but the process of improving your pace can be frustrating. The SAT is already quite challenging, and devoting some of your focus and energy to pacing may throw you off. Your scores may even drop temporarily, but you shouldn’t let that bother you.

Remember that, whatever your overall pace, you should begin slowly on each question. Review what I said about pacing like a golf swing in this article.

Using New Techniques to Speed Up

Whether you are studying from books, websites, or live teachers, you will learn new techniques to solve SAT questions, such as plugging in and anticipation. These techniques are designed to help you answer more questions correctly; they almost always help you solve faster as well. My students often question this. “They ask, if I take all that time anticipating, won’t I have trouble finishing the sections?” At first, you may slow down as you struggle with new methods. But eventually, that extra bit of time you spend at the beginning of a question will you help you to solve more efficiently – i.e. faster.

When you first learn new methods, it is more important to concentrate on using them properly than on scoring high and/or finishing quickly. Have patience, and your results will improve over time.

English: Sukhoi T-50, b/n 51.

Improving “Habit Speed”

I’ve had many students who believed they were slow thinkers, but actually weren’t. How can you tell? After many years of teaching, I can usually estimate a student’s potential “thinking speed” after a lesson or two; perhaps you know a teacher who can do the same. Also, based on completely unscientific observation, I’ve noticed a strong (and perhaps surprising) correlation between hand speed and brain speed. It’s not foolproof, but if you have quick hands, you may be a potentially fast thinker.

I use the term “habit speed” since I’ve found that many students solve slowly because they have become comfortable doing so. After all, time-pressure is not such a great factor on most tests, so there’s no incentive to practice performing at top speed.

Since speeding up will entail leaving your “comfort zone,” it is only natural that your accuracy will suffer somewhat, until you become comfortable and familiar with your new pace.

I did not invent the technique I am about to describe. In fact, it’s simple enough that I’m sure many people have thought of it on their own. To give due credit, I actually got the idea from a Karate expert named Dan Anderson. His instructor had told him never to perform a martial arts technique faster than he could with perfect form. However, when Anderson became a teacher, he found that such a rigid approach retarded his students’ development. Instead, he encouraged them to perform their techniques a little faster than they could perfectly. They became fast fighters quickly, and won a lot of tournaments.

You can apply this idea to solving SAT questions. Don’t go crazy and try to increase your speed by 50 per cent in one sitting. Aim for an increase of 10 – 15 per cent. If your score stays the same, that’s good. If it drops, you can try it again on another test. Once you are doing well, you can then try increasing your speed again. At some point, you may decide that you’ve gone too far, and need to back off a bit.

This method is not Nobel Prize-winning material, but it should be simple to implement. Just remember these two precepts: a little at a time, and be patient with your scores.

As you can imagine, this technique is a lot more helpful to some students than others. If you find that your speed doesn’t improve by that much, remember that you can still get a very nice score even if you leave out 5 questions on each section. And if you do speed up a lot, be careful not to overdo it. It’s not worth making careless errors by trying to save time for the longer, harder questions that are found at the end of most SAT sections.

Pacing on SAT Questions

I recently wrote an article on how to manage your time on each section of the SAT (Time Management on the SAT). Today’s article is about how to budget your time on individual questions.

Obviously, I can’t tell every student how to pace every single question. What follows are general guidelines.

First, some basic principles:

Give each question its due.

Although SAT questions (except for passage-based ones) are arranged in order of difficulty, the ordering is not exact. Furthermore, each student is different, so your order of difficulty won’t necessarily mirror someone else’s. And harder questions don’t always take longer.

The point is that you may be giving up on some questions too easily. By “giving up,” I don’t necessarily mean that you are abandoning these questions entirely. Perhaps you’re merely “settling” for an answer instead of thinking things all the way through.

I see this happen most often on Sentence Completions and math questions. If a student is able to solve a question in say, 18 seconds, he may not be willing to put in over 30 seconds to solve the next one. That’s a shame if he can get it right in 45 seconds. So don’t go for an answer because you “think it might be right.”

On the other hand, sometimes you need to “cut bait” on a problem that’s taking too long. You can’t afford to spend several minutes solving one measly question, unless it’s at or near the end of a section.

Again, it’s hard to tell you exactly what to do in a blog article. You need to make intelligent decisions about whether to spend extra time or not. If you don’t have a tutor to help you with this advice, try taking a test and writing down the time at which you finished every question. Then you can go back afterwards and determine if you made good choices.

English: Amanda's golf swing

Pace questions like a golf swing.

A golfer carefully positions herself over the ball, takes a slow, measured backswing, and only then swings the club forward for maximum speed. Never rush reading the questions. Take your time planning, or anticipating, and only then should you consider going for speed. Rushing costs many students a lot of points.

Such pacing is appropriate for most SAT questions: Sentence Completions, math problems, and Improving Sentences.

Again, this is general advice. If you anticipate, but don’t like any of the answers, you should switch to “process-of-elimination mode,” and depending on the question, you may need to slow down for that.

Error IDs (Identifying Sentence Errors) are somewhat different. Most students do well to read them once, and then focus on the four underlined portions individually if they didn’t spot an obvious error on the initial reading. That means they actually need to slow down during the process.

Passage-based questions (in the Reading section, or on Improving Paragraphs in the Writing Section) are very different, since most students will read the passage first before looking at them. Since there are several different ways of reading the passage (various speeds, skimming, reading only key sentences, etc), I can’t give specific advice here. There are several factors that will influence your best choice of reading method (the most important being your reading speed and level of comprehension). And different methods of reading will require different methods of question solving. “Don’t rush too much” is my best general cop-out advice here.

You can see that learning how to best pace your SAT can be nearly as challenging as answering the questions. Practice really helps here; the more tests you take and review, the better equipped you’ll be to time each question effectively.

Developing Your Mental Stamina for the SAT (and other tests)

I must begin with the usual disclaimer: every student is different, and what works for one student may have to be modified for another.

However, most students can get in shape for the SAT by following a simple regimen. The words “get in shape” are particularly appropriate; an athlete exercises her heart and muscles, while you’ll be “working out your brain.” A sports cliché is “no pain, no gain,” and that applies to some extent to students as well.

Continuing the sports analogy, suppose you run the mile for your track team. Would your coach tell you to run a mile every time you practiced? More likely, he’d have you build up to a full mile, and then even have you run somewhat more than a mile in your last few practices before a meet. After all, you wouldn’t want to be staggering at the finish.

The brain

You want to follow a similar pattern when preparing for your SAT. At first, don’t worry about timing the sections exactly. Furthermore, you can take just part of a practice test, or take a whole practice test in two or three sittings. At this stage, you’re more interested in getting a feel for the test and developing good habits than you are in stamina.

If you are planning to take one practice test each week, start taking full-length SATs about two or three months before your official SAT date. Now you should time each section properly, and take the whole test in a single sitting (a couple of five minute breaks are okay, but nothing more).

But remember that the tests in the College Board Blue Book are actually shorter than the real thing, because they skip what would be the Experimental Section.

So, four weeks before your exam, you should take a practice test that is of the same length as the actual SAT. It’s okay if all you have are 9-section tests (as in the Blue Book). Just complete one of those tests (don’t forget the essay!), and add a 25-minute section from another test. Then do the same thing three weeks before your exam.

Then, two weeks before your real SAT, take a practice test of 12 sections (i.e. a 9-section test plus three 25-minute sections from another test). Do this again one week before your exam.

If you take two tests each week, you can follow the same pattern in half the time. Again, your last four tests should be two full-length ones followed by two extra-length exams.

Again, I’ve found that this regimen is effective for most students. If you’re a study-holic, and often use your brain non-stop for many hours (unlike most students who take big breaks when studying for hours), you may not need this exercise at all. And some people do take longer (and must work harder) to get their brains in shape. If that is the case, don’t beat yourself up – it doesn’t mean you’re “weak brained.” Just build up your stamina at whatever pace works for you. I once had a student who would start to get a headache after only 30 – 40 minutes. Eventually, she was able to finish an entire SAT.

Remember, the most important thing about this program is the extra-length tests. Many students take only 9- or 10-section practice tests, and find their scores  drop at the end of their actual SAT. That’s because the pressure of the real exam leads them to use up more energy than they do on practice tests.

I know that taking a 4.5 hour test is not much fun. But come the day of your real SAT, you’ll be glad you did.

Time Management on the SAT

Naturally, students work at different speeds, and have different goals for the SAT. My aim in writing this article is to provide general guidelines for a range of students.

If you haven’t already done so, you should take a practice SAT, being sure to time each section correctly. You need to get an idea of your speed on each type of section, and whether your speed decreases as you get tired.

I will address these issues in upcoming articles (one on mental stamina, and another on improving your test-taking speed).

For now, let’s assume that you are now aware of your expected pace on any given section. Naturally, if you are able to finish every section with time to spare, you don’t need to read this article.

You don’t need to finish the section.

Many students mistakenly think that not completing a section somehow reflects poorly on them. Unless you absolutely need a near-perfect score, you can omit some answers. It’s obviously better to give your best effort on some of the questions than to rush through all of them.

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...

Find an optimal strategy for your speed and goals.

If you’ve determined that your best strategy is to omit some questions, you must then determine two things: 1) how many questions should you omit, and 2) which ones to omit. I’ll deal with the second matter shortly.

Since I don’t know just how fast you work, I can’t tell you an exact number of questions to leave out. You’ll have to determine that on your own. Suppose you work at a comfortable pace on a practice test, and you find that you’ve finished about 60 per cent of the questions on one type of section. Should you continue to work at the same pace? Perhaps it will be impossible to reach your target score by answering on 60% of the questions, even if you ace them all.

But if you speed up, you may find yourself missing a lot of questions. Does your score drop? My best advice is to be willing to modify your speed and expectations, but to do so gradually. If your first attempt results in a score of 410, you might try speeding up – but don’t overdo it. Even if you’re dreaming of a 600, don’t expect to reach your goal immediately. Speed up a little on your next practice test. If your score goes up, you can push harder on the next test. If your score stays the same, or goes down, stay at your new pace for another test or two and see if you progress.

Of course, you won’t necessarily have total control over your pacing. If you feel you’ve overdone it by going too fast (and your score takes a big drop), just back off a little afterward.

It may take several practice tests before you find your optimal pace.

Choose the right questions to skip.

As you know, most of the questions on the SAT are arranged in order of difficulty. Specifically, sections are arranged in blocks of each question type, and each block is arranged in order from easy to hard, except for passages (on the Reading and Writing sections). It makes sense to skip hard questions, since those are the ones you’re most likely to miss anyway (and they tend to take the longest).

If you’re very sure of yourself, you can make exceptions. If you’re a geometry whiz, or you see a question you can easily plug in on, you might try a hard one. My recommendation is to do this very sparingly. More often than not, my students find that a high-numbered question that looks easy turns out to be trickier than it seemed.

Math Section

There are only two question types: multiple choice and grid-ins. On the section that has both, skip some hard ones of each type.

Reading Section

Skip some hard sentence completions. Since they take less time than do passage questions, don’t overdo this. Passages will always come last, so you can just go as far as the clock lets you.

Writing Section

First of all, the order of difficulty is not as pronounced on this section. On the long Writing section, do not skip the passage, since it has the easiest questions. Skip some Error IDs numbered in the 20’s.


Review my article titled Should You Guess on the SAT. My advice is that you should nearly always guess.

Nevertheless, I have heard many experienced SAT teachers say something like “I tell my students not to answer the three hardest sentence completions under any circumstances!” The reason they say that is that they don’t want their students wasting time on questions that they’re likely to miss.

Solving can waste time. Guessing takes almost no time. Be absolutely sure you know the difference. You should guess the hard ones, but do it quickly! Very quickly!

Avoid trap answers on hard questions. Guess hard words on hard sentence completions. Avoid extreme answers on Reading passages. Guess short answers on Improving Sentences. The idea is to select an answer in 3 seconds or less, and move on.

Remember to look for my upcoming articles on developing your mental stamina and improving your test-taking speed.

Good luck!