How I Got a Perfect Score on the SATs

Ok, so just as a disclaimer, I got 10 points away from a perfect score… but a title that says “How I got 10 points away from a perfect score” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Clickbait works, so…

The SAT is not a hard exam. I think there are a few mental obstacles that prevent students from excelling on the test, but if those can be set aside, there is nothing standing between the average student and a perfect score.

The key to beating the test is to step out of the test. Thoughtful, nuanced thinking about the test helps you identify the key principles that govern the test, moving the odds in your favor.

Roadblock 1: The test is hard. I think at every stage in life, you have people above you that tell you that your life is easy and just wait until you get to the next level. If you’re in medical school, residents will tell you, just wait until you get to residency. If you’re in undergrad, you’ll have med students telling you just wait until you get to med school. The cycle goes on, all the way down to when you’re in first grade, and your second grader sister is telling you, just wait until you get to long division next year.

My point is that it’s just a matter of perspective. Nowadays, everyone loves complaining about how little sleep they got and posting pictures of their notebooks and laptop with depressing captions about how long they have been studying for. It’s not a hard test. It’s just the first of many high-stakes tests that matter a lot more than your average high school exam.

Roadblock 2: You have to be smart to do well. Honestly, you really don’t. If you look at the literature on the SAT, it is very clear that the test is not testing your cognitive functions, but rather your ability to master the content of the test.

Think about it this way. The test is universal. It is given nationwide, and even taken by students internationally. In order for the test to be standardized, it has to be able to measure the college readiness of the lowest common denominator. All of this means that the test’s overall content, meaning the prior knowledge you learn from school, will not exceed simple, basic skills that almost any student in the American public school system is not already expected to know.

So how does the SAT create difficulty? Why is it so hard?

Well, first of all, the format of the questions is unique to the test. It asks questions in a non-straightforward way because it wants to test secondary and tertiary levels of synthesis. Can you take basic concepts and use them to synthesize second-order conclusions? However, the basic, core knowledge of the test never exceeds the bare minimum expectations of a student graduating from public school.

It won’t test you on Calculus, or even complex trigonometry. It barely even tests you on Algebra II. Similarly, it won’t test you on your interpretation on the symbolism of Shakespeare’s greatest works. It instead asks you to use basic concepts to derive *slightly* complex conclusions. I’ll illustrate with a graph.

No high school or lower level undergraduate course tests you on the top right box

This is a simple little matrix to help you classify the entire range of questions that you can be asked in any setting. Questions have two axes: difficult of concept, and amount of complexity.

Difficulty of concept is simply how cognitively difficult it is to understand an idea. The more abstract or advanced the idea, the more difficult its concept. For example, Calculus may be considered a difficult idea.

Complexity is how many steps it takes for you to complete a problem. The longer a problem, the more complex it is. The best example of these are the math problems on the SAT where you simply have to add and subtract values from a chart, except the numbers are really big. Super straightforward and laughably easy, but with an exasperating amount of steps.

I was given the advice by a professor in college, that no test will ever ask a question that is both high complexity and high difficulty- the red zone in the graph. It is simply not feasible to ask a student to solve a high complexity, high difficulty problem on a standardized test. There is simply not enough time to do so. Even in my undergraduate courses, I have yet to encounter a problem on an exam that was high complexity, high difficulty. The majority of the test, and every well-designed test is as follows-

1/3 low complexity, low difficulty problems- the green zone. These are the easy softball pitches. You should get these right 100% of the time. The other 2/3 are made up of the yellow zones on the graph. Half of them will be high complexity, low difficulty problems, and the other half will be low complexity, high difficulty. But you will NEVER encounter a problem that is simultaneously difficult and complex on the SAT.

Lots of people talk about “gaming” the test, which kind of gives off the impression to naïve students that you can “beat” the test with shortcuts. However, I think that gaming the test is extremely important, but not in the sense of shortcuts, but rather understanding the game theory behind the test. By understanding the test makers’ mentality and making proper predictions about their behavior, you carve out a niche for yourself by understanding the purpose of the test.

Towards the end of my study regiment before I took the test, I started to see these patterns emerge. I could begin to understand what concept I was being tested on by College Board, and I could make strong deductive conclusions about what answer they wanted me to select.

If you expected me to outline a special study regiment, unfortunately I really didn’t have one, other than really spending time on focusing on my mistakes and thinking about what makes this test tick. There are a few more core principles that helped me beat the test, which I instill into all the students I tutor, but this post is getting a little longer than I expected.

Although I’m on a hiatus, I run a SAT and STEM education company. Visit us at launchpadlabs.org and join our mailing list if your child, or you, are planning on taking the test.

Building stuff for fun.