Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed
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Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed

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by Ned Johnson, Emily Warner Eskelsen

This insightful and practical guide for parents shows how we often undermine rather than encourage our teens' success on one of the most stressful standardized tests—the SAT—and what strategies will remedy the problem. In recent years this test has taken on fearsome proportions, matched only by the growing competition for slots at major universities.


This insightful and practical guide for parents shows how we often undermine rather than encourage our teens' success on one of the most stressful standardized tests—the SAT—and what strategies will remedy the problem. In recent years this test has taken on fearsome proportions, matched only by the growing competition for slots at major universities. Success is now as much a matter of navigating the maze of changing testing structures, crippling self-conceptions, and family dynamics as it is about memorizing vocabulary words. Tutors Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen tackle the trials of the SAT head-on, revealing that the way our culture values this test is just as important as the answers teens fill in. Johnson and Eskelsen cover a wide range of topics including:

* Anxiety and ways to avoid "choking" on the test
* Best ways to prepare before the test – from exercise to nutrition to sleep
* Family communication
* What the SAT is actually testing
* How test-taking strategies will help teens in all walks of life
* Learning differences in teens and strategies for success

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A good college education is more important than ever in today's global economy. Desirable or not, standardized tests are an essential element to college admissions. Johnson and Warner have written an insightful and common-sense guide on how to prepare for these tests; we know how good they are--two of our children are PrepMatters alumni.” —Judy Woodruff, Special Correspondent, PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

“Johnson and Eskelsen write in an encouraging and positive tone that will inspire parents to not only fully believe in their children's success, but to gain a better understanding of what their teen is going through...Sound advice...” —Kirkus

“Test prep guru Ned Johnson brilliantly distills his wisdom, experience, and insightful analysis into an indispensable and engagingly readable guide for navigating the rocky shoals of the SAT. Required reading for all parents of college-bound students.” —Victoria McMullen, M.Ed., Reading Specialist, Rockville, Maryland

“There is much that is vexed about the college admissions process--not least the role of the SAT. Few people have more wisdom about the process or empathy for its objects--our children--than Ned Johnson. He shares in this important book the wise counsel he has been providing his lucky pupils.” —Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, former President of Harvard University

“Ned Johnson's confidence with and extensive insight into the SAT made my own test much less traumatic. Ned taught me to relax and to think about the test as something I could conquer.” —Kathleen Lawler, Yale University

“Every person that so much as glances at this book should take its lessons to heart. When Ned was my SAT tutor, he scribbled some words of advice on a stray note card. 'The key to being in the zone is to focus on the process.' I attribute the jump in my SAT score and my admission to the University of Pennsylvania to that note card, which, five years later, still hangs in my room for inspiration.” —Shira Epstien, University of Pennsylvania

“Ned Johnson's mastery of the subject matter, coupled with his pragmatic approach to tackling the SAT, enabled me to achieve a great score on the test and consequently acceptance into my first choice college.” —Brendan Sparrough

“Ned Johnson is a benevolent example of the visionary American entrepreneur. His meticulously crafted teaching techniques have resulted in thousands of young students increasing their overall self-confidence through dramatically improved test scores. My son benefited greatly from Ned's insightful and sensitive tutoring. Ned will continue to successfully lead Generation X through the minefield of standardized testing.” —George Crowley, Crowley Tech

“We had heard about the PrepMatters success stories when our son was in the 7th grade. Even though our son had some issues with dyslexia, his hard work landed him on the high honor rolls in his academically competitive school. We knew that he had what it would take to get into the college of his choice except for that standardized test score. Ned tutored him for several months . . . We will never forget that scream from Joe's room when he went online to see his great test scores! Joe got into his first choice college where he ranked in the top 10% of his freshman class.” —Ann Steckmeyer, Bethesda, Maryland

“Ned comprehends the peculiar anxiety associated with the new, monolithic SAT in a fashion that few adults do. He has deprived himself of sleep, food, and bathroom breaks to more effectively understand the test that has become acutely paramount in recent years. He is a supremely sensitive and concerned mentor . . .” —Andrew Kincaid, University of Pennsylvania

Conquering the SAT offers insightful commentary about the nature of standardized testing and the value that we place upon it in American society. More importantly, though, it illuminates unique strategies for parents who want to learn the ins and outs of the college admissions hierarchy and get their kids to the top of it . . .” —Paul Moskowitz, former PrepMatters student

“I went to Ned in the middle of my junior year in high school. I had never been a great test taker, but set high goals for myself on the SAT. During my first tutoring session, Ned told me to take the pressure off of myself by placing the SAT in its proper context . . . I can honestly say that I would not have made it through the SAT without him.” —Austin Clarke, Yale University

“As a PrepMatters alumna, I can proudly say that Johnson and Warner's methods helped to improve my score by nearly 300 points. With their guidance I learned how to overcome my test anxiety, and gained both important skills and the confidence I needed to truly conquer the SATs. The college process was significantly less stressful for both me and my family thanks to their instruction.” —Anna Salzberg, Kenyon College

“Ned Johnson approaches SAT preparation from a uniquely individual perspective. By breaking down each section of the test into a step by step process, Ned has demystified this test. His strategies help students find a clear and specific approach and give them confidence to do their best on this most stressful test. High school students should begin their studying with this book.” —Rhona M. Gordon, M.S., C.C.C., ASHA Certified Speech/Language Pathologist

“Ned taught me skills and strategies that I will use forever and most importantly built my confidence which dramatically enhanced my performance on tests.” —Mia Ferrara, Georgetown University

“Although Ned Johnson certainly taught both of my children valuable strategies for facing down the PSATs and the SATs, he distinguished himself in this mother's heart by caring for them as individuals and giving them concrete ways to combat anxiety so it did not interfere with their performances on these dreaded tests. Ned was a cheerleader and friend to my children at a time when they sorely needed an objective adult in their lives telling them that they could succeed at this! He also helped us--parents and children alike--keep the meaning of the test in a very healthy perspective.” —Linda Reider, mother of Suzanne and Rob, Bowdoin College

“Through tremendous personal dedication to the mastery of the SAT, Ned has put himself into the minds of the student and the ETS to provide exclusive tactics on how to excel on America's most important test . . . Like a marathon trainer, Ned coaches students mentally and physically for the long race ahead. His qualifications are top-notch, his advice fresh, and his results unsurpassed.” —Melissa Giamo, Pepperdine University

“An indispensable survival guide for all parents of SAT test-takers.” —Julia Novitch, Yale University

“Lively and easy to digest. This book should be in the collection of every public and high school library...” —Library Journal

“The authors offer sound advice on how parents can take into account learning differences in helping a child prepare for the SAT. A valuable resource to partner with those huge test-prep books, this one aimed at parents.” —Booklist

Library Journal
Guides for maximizing scores on the SAT and other standardized admissions tests are a popular area for publishers. Quite often, their products blend into one another, but that's not the case here. Johnson (founder, PrepMatters) and Eskelsen (tutor, PrepMatters) take a different approach. Rather than providing lists of vocabulary words and math problems aimed at helping students maximize their score, the authors unlock the secrets of how the test is constructed. Through promoting an understanding of that process, they give parents and students strategies for lessening anxiety and doing well on the SAT. The authors examine the various sections of the test, explain why people underperform, and provide strategies for doing well. They also look at factors such as learning differences, self-image, and the importance of self-confidence. Finally, they explain the value of goal setting and putting the SAT score in context as only a part of a student's educational plans. They offer examples of actual students and how they turned their particular principles into action. Throughout, the writing is lively and easy to digest. This book should be in the collection of every public and high school library, even if other SAT prep materials are there.
—Mark Bay

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.53(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.59(d)

Read an Excerpt

Conquering the SAT

How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed

By Ned Johnson, Emily Warner Eskelsen

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2006 Palgrave, Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-7667-3


ETS and the SAT

What do you get if you combine six haystacks with seven haystacks?
How many three-cent stamps are in a dozen?
How much dirt is in a hole two feet wide, two feet long, and two feet deep?
A farmer had six sick sheep. All but two died. How many are left?
I have two coins totaling 30 cents. One is not a nickel. What are they?

Heard these before? Chances are if you're good at these puzzlers, you'd have a leg up if you were to take the SAT. There's one big difference between the mind teasers above and SAT questions: on the questions above, you know someone's trying to fool you. On the SAT, most kids don't realize that the maker of the SAT, Educational Testing Service (ETS), is playing with their minds.

Let me illustrate with another puzzler. Try the following in your head as quickly as possible: start with 1000. Add 40. Add 1000. Add 30. Add 1000. Add 20. Add 1000. Add 10. What number did you get? Are you sure about that? Did you get 5000? So do most people, but most people are wrong. Using simple mathematics, this problem tricked you into a false deduction; essentially, you were led to select an incorrect answer on a problem well within your ability to solve correctly. Before adding the final ten, your total was 4090. Without a calculator or pencil and paper, it was too easy for your mind to use the final ten to round up to 5000, instead of the correct answer, 4100.

Math puzzles may be silly and pointless—just entertainment—but what if we had prefaced this question by telling you that your answer would greatly influence the course of your education and, by implication, your entire future?

And that you would be timed.

The situation is a little different now, isn't it? And, some may say, a bit unfair. After all, wouldn't it be more serviceable to test actual mathematical skill than to attempt to trap test-takers into making false assumptions? True, you won't see a problem like the one above on any SAT for several reasons, but you will see students making the same kind of false deduction on question after question on the test. In fact, the SAT is designed just so that will happen.

The popular (but generally false) perception is that the SAT is "hard" because it tests advanced concepts in verbal and mathematics skills. The SAT is a tough test, but not because the material it covers is difficult or particularly advanced. In fact, many high school students find the math sections challenging in part because the concepts are comparatively remedial to their current mathematics classes.

The SAT is a tough test precisely for the reasons that the above math problem tricks so many intelligent people: we're not expecting to be tested in that way. We are drawn into the problem because it seems manageable and straightforward, yet our confident answers turn out to be incorrect, time and again. To understand the psychology of the SAT, we must understand what happened when we added those numbers in our heads, and why that problem is so universally successful. To fathom what our children taking the SAT experience, we must first discover what lies at the crux of the most famous test in American education. We must learn what the SAT is all about.


You might think that the ETS offices in Princeton, New Jersey, are populated by retired math teachers, English professors, and educators of all sorts. One imagines heated staff meetings discussing the state of college preparatory curriculums in this country and the role of standardized testing in staving off intellectual illiteracy. And perhaps that does happen.

What you might not imagine, however, are the bristling crowds of educational psychologists, psychometricians, and statisticians—experts in making tests and predicting results—in those very offices, and the significant role these scientists play in constructing the test that more American teenagers take than any other. In reality, ETS is a quite profitable nonprofit organization made up of test-writing experts plotting out predictions and manipulations of teenage testing behavior.

This is neither shocking nor a secret. ETS is the best at what it does, and what it does is rank millions of high school juniors and seniors according to an agreed-upon standardized system: the SAT. Creating and administering a widespread and complicated ranking system simply isn't the province of high school geometry teachers or literature buffs. Never mind that the SAT has gone through numerous and somewhat drastic permutations throughout the years. Never mind that "SAT" no longer stands for Scholastic Achievement Test or even Scholastic Aptitude Test. The acronym doesn't stand for anything anymore—it's simply the most successful test in America run by the most successful test-makers in America. It doesn't have to stand for anything.

Building and running the SAT machine is a big job, and one that ETS ensures it is singularly capable of accomplishing. ETS and its largest client, College Board, have spent half of the last century striving to achieve two important benchmarks: reliability and validity. A test is reliable if it produces the same results over time. A test is valid if it accurately measures the skill or ability it purports to measure. The SAT has been trying to predict how a high school student will perform during his first year of college and has been trying to get consistent predictions over decades.

In order to claim that the SAT can make reliable and valid predictions, ETS has had to make sure of several things. First, that SAT scores are comparable from test to test—a student taking the May 2005 test should achieve approximately the same score as he would on the November 2006 test. This requires not just that each test is fungible with any other test, but that the test itself is standardized, so that each student in each test administration is measured with the same stable measuring rod. Second, that security and confidentiality be inviolate—no small feat for a standardized test with the vast range of administration of the SAT. Finally, ETS has to ensure that the SAT continues, despite years of alterations and criticisms ranging from racial bias to grammatical errors, to possess a reputation for testing intellectual aptitude rather than classroom achievement. In other words, people need to equate SAT scores with intelligence for the SAT to retain its position in the pedagogical world. Without this critical last factor, the SAT becomes a meaningless and arbitrary people-sorting machine, one that cannot claim to equalize the playing field of socioeconomically biased secondary school educations. America, and those parts of the world hoping to send their students to America, must believe that the SAT can find merit in the disadvantaged and undereducated and will reward that merit by opening the doors of elite universities. Overwhelmingly, ETS has met these goals in the SAT. People believe in the test, so it works.

While no one can argue the reliability of the SAT, barring scanning errors, its validity continues to be challenged. In fact, the substance and form of the SAT have changed several times over the past few decades. For the average consumer, however, actual validity is much less important than perceived validity. Most American families are content to let the universities battle ETS on the question of the SAT's validity while they focus instead on making sure their sons and daughters snag the highest score possible. And as long as universities continue to rely on the SAT, high school students will continue to take the SAT.

What all those statisticians spend their days doing in consultation with all those psychometricians and educational psychologists is making sure that their product keeps capturing the testing market. Like any good manufacturer, ETS needs to be indispensable to the college admissions process. So far, those statisticians and psychometricians have been right on the money: their product, the SAT, delivers a consistent and reliable ranking of millions of hopeful students year after year. Further, the SAT has withstood any number of attacks from students, parents, schools, and universities, seemingly without even slowing down production.

Every year the publication of SAT scores is met by intense scrutiny from parents, educators, and civil rights leaders. Schools and parents often look to SAT scores as a measurement of how well the schools are educating their children. Civil rights advocates and concerned citizens generally look at the disparity of scores between different racial and socioeconomic groups to see if the gaps are widening or closing. Scores trending in the wrong direction generate great consternation and further criticism of the SAT. Gone are the days of questionable analogies, such as "regatta: oarsman," that raised the ire of critics citing unfairness and bias. What inner-city child, after all, would have had occasion to come across a regatta? (Gone altogether, for that matter, are analogies.)

In 2005, the first year of the new SAT, criticism included a revelation of serious scoring mistakes by Pearsons, the firm contracted to score the test. This triggered a New York state senate hearing, headed by state senator Kenneth P. LaValle, and a class action lawsuit brought by a Minnesota law firm on behalf of affected students. If the media furor over the scoring snafu wasn't enough, the accumulation and analysis of statewide scores revealed that average scores on the SAT had dropped, reversing an otherwise positive trend for the decade as a whole.

Critics can say what they want about ETS and the College Board—and there always seems to be a lot to say—but whatever it is that ETS is selling, people are buying. Every year's onslaught of lawsuits and attacks subsides as nervous high school juniors sharpen their pencils to take the SAT yet again. No matter the controversy or criticism, students will continue to take the test as long as colleges require it. As long as colleges require the SAT, students will believe that the test must be a reliable and accurate predictor of their academic worth.

What Is ETS Selling?

Your daughter may be relieved to hear that her biology test will be graded on a curve: if she bombs it, hopefully everyone else will too, and she'll be mercifully handed a respectable C. The SAT will always be graded on a curve, but that's not always good news to the examinees. All students who take the SAT are graded against each other rather than against a strict numerical scale. This is inherent to the basic purpose of standardized testing for college admissions: universities want the elite students, the top percentiles, not necessarily just the empirically well-prepared students. If, by some freak anomaly, almost all of the students taking the SAT answered almost all of the questions correctly, one might assume that ETS still pledges to rank those students on that eternal curve so that colleges can determine which students were infinitesimally better and thus more deserving of admission. What good is it to Harvard, after all, if all of its applicants sport perfect scores?

By the way, a perfect score is no longer 1600. The new SAT ushered in a whole new section, the writing test, with its own 800 possible points to add. With 800 math section points, 800 critical reading (the old verbal section), and 800 writing, a perfect score is now 2400. Remember, however, with the curve, that "perfect" isn't a fixed number of correct questions. With a bell curve, a student can miss several questions and still get a perfect score. Even more confusing, with that bell curve, a missed question in math may not count the same as a missed question in critical reading or writing. ETS will doctor the curve until the proportions of scores matches the curve.

The curve, therefore, can push nearly identical testers into artificial hierarchies. One misstep can drop an otherwise perfect tester down 20 or 30 points as the curve seeks to correct an errant bulge in scoring. Additionally, because scores are always multiples of ten, the gap between a 1790 student and an 1800 student can seem meaningful and can make a critical difference in college admissions. The benchmarks of scoring become harder to pin down when a student's score is not based strictly on the number of correct answers but on how others performed on that same test.

There's a lot of chatter about the increased difficulty of the SAT since the March 2005 "upgrade," which aimed to appease critics who claimed the test was outdated and ineffective, but the curved grading system assures that students will most often shuffle themselves out similarly regardless of test changes. If the same group of students takes a more difficult test, the statisticians predict that the top students will score at the top and the bottom students will score at the bottom, regardless of test difficulty. The curve makes sure of that. Difficulty, however, is not easy to measure, even on standardized tests. The SAT always has and always will test a specific and peculiar skill set, and altering the range of that skill set won't change that fact.

So why does the SAT matter for admissions? Who exactly is buying this bell curve, and why? The most cynical answer might be because of U.S. News & World Report. Arguably, few things have changed the college admissions landscape as much as the annual ranking of colleges by that zealous periodical. The rankings are based on several criteria, but all are numerical, and few are as difficult to argue with as the average high school GPA and average SAT score of enrolled freshmen. As an added bonus, those are two numbers that parents and prospective students understand very well.

GPA and SAT, incidentally, are the two variables of the college-ranking rubric that can be most directly affected by admissions decisions. Alumni giving, graduation rates, professor-to-student ratio—the other quantifiable variables are less affected by what happens during admissions committee meetings. So when a college weighs prospective students, it is always tempting to choose students with higher scores to boost its ranking. After all, a higher rank will result in more applications, a higher selectivity, and an overall increase in prestige.

In fact, U.S. News & World Report has started to wield an inordinate amount of power in the college ranking wars, so much so that some schools, such as Reed College in Portland, Oregon, have begun to opt out of the system entirely. For the vast majority who have chosen to stay and play the ranking game, jumping up just a few spots can make a critical difference in the popularity and prosperity of their schools, which makes paying close attention to SAT scores that much more attractive. Imagine a university attempting to increase its ranking in the annual U.S. News & World Report college issue. It's not so easy to increase the faculty-student ratio or decrease average class size or stimulate more generous alumni donations. You also would have a difficult time making quick or inexpensive changes to the various quality of life factors. You can, however, admit and matriculate students with higher SAT scores and jump up more easily in the rankings that way.

Additionally, the average SAT scores of students at school X, Y, or Z both affect and respond to consumer demand. If I am trying to decide between school X and Y for my son or daughter and think highly of both, it's hard not to think better of the one with an average SAT score 100 points higher. Schools that post high SAT scores are more attractive to other students with high SAT scores. It's like a club. Remember that despite much evidence to the contrary, there is a common perception that SAT scores serve as a reliable proxy for intelligence. Who doesn't want to go to the school where the smart kids go?

For a more practical and less conspiracy-driven analysis, imagine being an admissions official looking at thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications. If you can use a combination of GPA and SAT scores to mathematically and automatically eliminate one-third to one-half of the applicants, you can now spend 50 to 100 percent more time looking at the remaining applicants and, arguably, make better decisions.

Moreover, as College Board studies attest and have generally been endorsed, GPA and SAT scores combined are a better indicator of first-year college success than is GPA alone. As loathed as the SAT is by so many, imagine trying to look simply at GPA. It would be a daunting challenge to compare my son's honors English class to your daughter's AP English class, particularly if my son's school doesn't offer AP classes. Or, in another scenario, what if my son's school is a tiny public high school that has had but a handful of applicants to college X in its entire history and your daughter's school is a tony private boarding school with a long history of sending its graduates to college X? It could be perilously easy to return to the very chummy situation that existed before the widespread use of the SAT when certain young men from certain schools were accepted to certain colleges simply because the heads of those schools in effect anointed those boys. The SAT was first championed by James B. Conant, then president of Harvard, to break that cozy relationship and broaden the pool of men from which the class was drawn. (They didn't think of including women until some time later.)


Excerpted from Conquering the SAT by Ned Johnson, Emily Warner Eskelsen. Copyright © 2006 Palgrave, Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ned Johnson is the founder and president of PrepMatters, Inc., and is one of the most sought-after tutors in Washington, D.C. Emily Warner Eskelsen has worked at PrepMatters for several years. The authors have logged over 30,000 hours of SAT tutoring.

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