Preparing for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT—Should you study on your own?What do you think?

source: Powerscore website

I must admit that I was skeptical of test preparation when I started working for PowerScore Test Preparation. After all, when I took the ACT nearly sixteen years ago, I used a hand-me-down prep book that didn’t teach me much more than the difference between it’s and its, yet I scored well enough to earn acceptance letters from several universities. What could test preparation courses teach me that I couldn’t learn on my own? I felt it might be different if I were preparing to take a graduate test, like the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) or the General Management Admission Test (GMAT). These tests, unlike the SAT, are not curriculum-based; they involve logic and abstract reasoning, skills that are often ignored in high school and college, but which could easily taught in a prep course. I was not convinced that significant score increases could be achieved on an exam that tested a culmination of the math and verbal curriculum a student learns in high school. This changed, however, soon after I decided to become an SAT instructor.

A former middle school teacher, I left teaching to join PowerScore’s administrative team, but I missed working with students. Fortunately, the company had a few openings for evening SAT instructors; unfortunately, instructors had to score in the 99th percentile on a real SAT. I had never even taken the SAT and my previous ACT scores weren’t even close to the top one percent! But teaching was important to me, so I decided to register and study for the test.

I did all of this in secret. I was afraid that my scores would not meet the PowerScore requirement, and didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my coworkers or my supervisor. For the next month, I went home each evening and used old high school and college textbooks to relearn algebra and geometry and the rules of grammar. I programmed math formulas into my calculator and studied hundreds of vocabulary flashcards. I took practice test after practice test after practice test. And in March of 2005, I was the only thirty-something in a high school full of teenagers, taking the very first official administration of the new SAT.

The morning my scores arrived two weeks later, I was sitting in my office, envisioning the moment I could tell my boss what I had accomplished and looking at the schedule of an upcoming SAT course that I could teach. So when the numbers flashed across the computer screen—740 Reading, 610 Math, and 700 Writing—I was devastated. A 2050 was only in the 93rd percentile! Many students would be thrilled with this SAT score, but I needed something good enough for Harvard or Yale if I wanted to teach for PowerScore. I imagine I felt like many teenagers that morning, who had learned their score wasn’t high enough to apply to their school of choice.

At some point in the day, my devastation outweighed my shame and I confessed everything to my supervisor—the secret study sessions, the five hour testing day, even the insufficient score. To my relief, he said that he was proud of me. And then to my astonishment, he told me that I was taking the test again. After I took a PowerScore SAT class.

That’s how I found myself sitting in on the very course I had envisioned teaching. At the start of the class, I believed that small score increases were possible with independent study (and secretly feared I had reached my maximum score potential). But by the time we were halfway through the first lesson, I realized that the SAT was so much more than it appeared to be. It was a reasoning test like the LSAT and GMAT, and many of the questions were designed to stump or trick the average test taker. Throughout the next five weeks, I learned to recognize patterns among the reading questions, search for gimmicks in the math sections, and analyze each word or phrase in the writing questions. Take numerical sequences as an example. Nearly every SAT test has one math question about sequences. Because the test is designed to be taken without a calculator (even though calculators are allowed), any question that asks for a term higher than the 6th term in the sequence most likely has a simple pattern that you must recognize in order to compute the term. No calculator or formula can find this term for you, yet the average teenager believes there is a formula for every math problem, and will immediately try to create one (with a calculator, no less), wasting valuable time. While the SAT relies on typical high school curriculum as a basis for test questions, the majority of the questions require abstract reasoning in order to solve them quickly and correctly. As I attended the PowerScore SAT course, I learned to memorize question patterns and strategies, rather than formulas and rules.

I took the test again in June, just three months after my initial attempt. My score increased by 220 points—800 Reading, 670 Math, and 790 Writing—and I ach