A mother of two who lives in Irvington, New York, decided to take the SATs for the same reason we all do foolish things: out of love. Her oldest child, Ethan, an underachieving ‘B’ student, was a sophomore in high school. Ethan would soon be applying to college, but what were his chances of getting into a good one?
“A possibility presented itself,” Debbie Steier writes. “Ethan could study for the SAT, earn high scores, and get a scholarship at a decent school.” There was just one hitch: Ethan wasn’t interested in studying for the SAT. He preferred playing Halo. So Stier thought she would model the behavior she was hoping to inspire: “I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself.” Initially, she intended to sample a different test-preparation method each month, but her “project” kept growing, or metastasizing, until she determined to take the SAT each of the seven times it was offered in the course of the calendar year. She’d try taking the exams at seven different schools, to see if desk size or classroom configuration had any impact on her results. “Not too far into it I got a teensy bit crazed,” she writes.
“The power of a shared experience totally changed me as a person, a mother,” said Stier, 48. “I wanted to figure out a way to reclaim my children. The truth is, it wasn’t that hard. You just have to put on a different lens.”
That lens involved taking the SAT seven — yes, seven — times in one year in an ambitious attempt to motivate her son. Her goal for herself is a perfect score.
She also hopes that her story helps to take some of the anxiety out of test preparation. “To take it a step further so that it doesn’t have to be this reviled rite of passage.”
Stier discusses every facet of the SAT experience, from location (fancy school does not mean best testing site) and what snacks to bring (dark chocolate, apple, Listerine strips) to the more weighty decisions on test prep options (Kaplan, Kumon, Khan Academy, private tutors) and improving vocabulary and perfecting the art of bubbling.
Stier’s worries about Ethan are quickly transferred to the exam he’s not worrying about. She signs up for a Kaplan online course, which she ends up hating “every minute of.” She buys a Barnes & Noble’s worth of review books: “Dr. John Chung’s SAT Math,” “A-Plus Notes for Beginning Algebra,” “The New Math SAT Game Plan,” “Kaplan SAT 2400,” “Kaplan SAT Strategies for Super Busy Students,” “Kaplan SAT Strategies, Practice & Review,” “Outsmarting the SAT,” “The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar,” “PWN the SAT: Math Guide,” and the College Board’s “Official SAT Study Guide,” which is known as “The Blue Book.” She Skypes with a tutor named Stacey in Seattle; undertakes a regimen called Cogmed, which is supposed to improve her memory; and meets with a tutor named Erica in New York City. Throughout it all, she frets.
“There was anxiety everywhere,” she writes of the run-up to her first SAT of the year. “My anxiety level was soaring,” she observes of the approach to the second. “I started to panic,” she says, recalling the weeks leading up to the third.
In the end, she finds that buying books, studying on her own, and attempting to mix and match with different resources only confuses her. At that point, she takes the recommendation of a friend and goes to an upscale Manhattan tutoring company for help.
Advantage Testing’s tutors hold Ph.D.s from Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, and its rates can run as high as seven hundred and ninety-five dollars for fifty minutes. (On the other hand, a friend experienced an eight-hundred-and-twenty-point jump, so they get results.) During her yearlong quest, Stier is repeatedly advised to go to Advantage—“Everyone uses them,” a real-estate mogul she knows tells her—but she balks at the price. Finally, with less than three weeks to go, she decides she’s got to try it. “By that point, I would have considered refinancing my home,” she writes. Advantage, however, will not assign her a tutor on such short notice. After considerable noodging, the president of the company agrees to meet with her. He tells her that the whole premise of her project—sampling a different method of test prep each month—is misguided; successful preparation requires a sustained approach. This critique only makes her that much more desperate to sample Advantage’s method. At last, he relents, and Stier spends the last two weeks of her project camped out in Advantage’s office. She comes to feel so at home there that when other students arrive for their sessions she buzzes them in.
So what eventually happens when mom takes the SAT test? What does all this “struggle and conflict” accomplish?
In the end, Stier did not get a perfect 2,400 on the SAT but she did manage to raise her score by 330 points and climb her way into the 97th percentile. The College Board says that studies show test prep usually only raises scores by 5 to 20 points.
Exactly one year after Stier took her first SAT, Ethan sat for his. He scored 30 points below the goal he had set for himself, which was to score above a 2,000. By his second SAT that spring, he beat his goal and had raised his score by 590 points from his PSAT.
More importantly, he got motivated in other areas. According to Stier, Ethan’s grade-point average at the end of his junior year was 3.24. By the time he graduated, his GPA was 3.54 and he had been accepted into eight of the 10 colleges to which he had applied, including two of his top three choices. He exceeded that GPA after his first semester at Loyola University Maryland.
Stier gives Ethan all the credit, saying his success on the tests gave him the confidence that he could set and achieve his goals. “If the kid is not vested in the goal, it won’t work,” she said.
A friend is awed by Ethan’s transformation.
“She took a boy’s boy, your happy-go-lucky, all-American boy and just turned him into a very serious young man,” she said.
“The secret to the SAT is that there isn’t a secret,” Stier said. “It takes a long time and a lot of hard work. No amount of test prep is going to work unless you have a solid foundation.”
It was test prep, though, that strengthened the relationship between Stier and her kids, who formed a bond that a score can’t equate.
“When I’m 90 years old and sitting on my front porch in a rocking chair, watching my great-grandchildren frolic around the yard, I’m not going to care about our scores. I may still be able to reel them off by heart, since that’s the nature of the beast, but I won’t care,” she writes in her book. “I will remember the joy we had pursuing those scores, and the tussles we had, and the sadness we had, too. All that we went through together: I will remember.”
DEBBIE STEIER’S TIPS ON PREPARING FOR THE SAT
• Start prepping freshman year, but not with test prep. Re-study the fundamentals of math, reading and grammar.
• Spend 20 minutes a day reading a news article for comprehension and vocabulary words.
• Take a full, timed College Board practice test during the last half of your sophomore year to get a baseline.
• The summer before junior year, create a calendar mapping out the entire year for study, factoring in vacation, extracurricular activities and school work. Or work with a private, certified college counselor who can help you do this.
• Spend quality time with your child outside of studying, such as watching a TV show or playing a sport together. A shared experience is critical.
• Test centers should include full-sized desks and chairs, visible clocks and a chalk or white board to display end times of each test section. Tests should be taken in classrooms, not gyms or cafeterias.