EDUCATION

Five Lies About the SAT

An admissions coach separates fact from fiction about the dreaded exam, by Connie LeslieNewsweek Web Exclusive

May 1, 2008

Updated: 6:32 p.m. ET May 1, 2008

Just a few weeks after an intensively competitive college-admissions season, the game is on again, with high-school juniors prepping for SAT tests in May. SAT performance may become even more important with the number of high-school graduates hitting a new high this year of 3.32 million, according to the Department of Education. That means stiffer competition for college admissions. The stakes are huge: This year, Harvard accepted 204 of the 721 students with perfect 800 SAT scores in critical reading and math—an admit rate of 28 percent vs. 7.1 percent for the 1,948 students accepted from a pool of 27,462 applicants. "People feel the SAT is the one thing they can make a difference on," says Lisa Jacobson, who employs more than 100 tutors at her New York-based college-admissions coaching firm, Inspirica. Jacobson spoke with Connie Leslie about what she calls "the five biggest SAT lies of all time."

The ACT is an easier test than the SAT.Jacobson: This has come up because there was such an outpouring of criticism the last time they changed the SAT that colleges said, "We'll also take the ACT," which is still considered a little more academic. But we discovered anecdotally that one third of kids do better on the ACT, while one third do the same and one third do worse. And the SAT is a coachable exam. The myth that goes along with this is that tutoring is magical. It actually takes a lot of work. A student can expect very little improvement unless the student is prepared to put in the time and work it takes outside of the tutoring sessions. That means taking practice tests, studying vocabulary words and working on different styles of reading and critical reading.

The PSAT is a good indicator of my child's SAT score.Not true, especially now that with an essay component, the SAT is four hours—almost twice as long as the PSAT, which has no essay. Focus and stamina are issues on the SAT. It's also easier to take the PSAT with no practice. We often use the PSAT, which is taken in October, as a starting point and see where we can improve a child's performance.

The May SAT is easier than the January and March tests.Students say that January and March is when all the geniuses take the SAT. But on any given test date there are up to 500,000 people taking the SAT. Individuals won't throw off the results.

The SAT writing section doesn't count.This myth developed because people heard colleges say they are not counting the writing section as much. I say, be very careful. It's less important, but I wouldn't ignore it completely. Check with the schools you're applying to. The big state schools are going to take a bottom-line composite score in which the writing is just one third [in addition to the math and the critical-reading sections]. It's just safe to have your writing section as strong as it can be.

The math on the SAT is very complex.The basis for the math on the SAT is ninth-grade math: a bit of geometry and some algebra II concepts like functions, quadratic equations and factoring. Most students who take the SAT are already well beyond the math, so the biggest challenge becomes having to review topics like ratios and percents. And there are little tricks to beat the test. Most students are inclined to set up algebraic equations and solve for variables. But because you have answer choices on the SAT, it's much easier often to just plug in those answer choices and test them out in the question. Another is if a question is at the end of a given set of questions, it's hard, or it's there because most of the rest of the country has gotten it wrong due to careless mistakes. So on those questions, you're going to avoid easy-looking answers.