• How Ivy Bound Prepares its Students

    For ACT and SAT, Ivy Bound Test Prep offers private tutoring, semi-private tutoring, and classes.   Classes include Full, “Essentials” (less prep time), and “Speedy” (one or two sessions only).  Except for the “Speedy” classes, all students receive binders of strategies and practice materials; all receive practice tests licensed from test-makers and all are invited to group “Test-and-Review” sessions at no charge.

    Full Classes for SAT Math and Verbal generally run 27 – 33 hours over 9 – 12 weeks (2.5 – 3 hour sessions). Tutoring for Math and Verbal generally runs 20 – 30 hours, more if starting PSAT (or SAT) scores are below 500 and less if starting PSAT scores are 700 or above. Students should plan to begin 3 – 5 months prior to their target SAT date, and know there is nothing wrong with starting earlier, so long as the student has had a semester each of Algebra and Geometry.

    All Ivy Bound class students and tutoring students are invited to take practice tests.  We hold these 2x a month on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons.  Students use test materials given in their Ivy Bound packets and join from home for online proctoring (students in school-based classes or at-home “Form Your Own” classes might have Practice Test sessions embedded in their schedule).

    Students see results of their Practice Tests that day.  Proctors initially help with scoring and translating to the 200 – 800 scale.  Eventually, students can do all scoring and translating themselves.  Students can use score tables to then see how many more right they need to reach ___ score (say one that’s 50 points above \where they now stand).

    Full Classes for ACT run 35 – 45 hours.  Tutoring for most ACT students will like 30 – 40 hours. Ivy Bound can allow ACT students who are proficient at Math and Science to do a “half-time” ACT class online. They attend these parts of a class and do all Practice Tests in full. Conversely, a student who needs only Math and Science prep can do an online class that eschews the Reading, Grammar, and Essay prep.

    Ivy Bound’s Essay prep is two session of class, delivered in 50 minute phone conferences 11 months of the year.   The SAT and ACT essays remain the most “coachable” of the SAT and ACT sections. Ivy Bound’s students tend to make dramatic gains in a short time. The fast-paced single essay is the element of standardized testing most replicated in colleges at exam time. Unfortunately, the majority of colleges have not embraced it, and to our knowledge none has used the SAT or ACT essay for what it does best: capture a student’s creativity, thoughtfulness, and expression devoid of adult help, which polished application essays don’t do.

    All students may have their essays evaluated by an Ivy Bound instructor by purchasing a set of 3 or more evaluations.  Students then send us their essays and within two days receive a score and some hints for improving that score.

    Because some students do not need Essay prep, Ivy Bound generally keeps the SAT Math and Verbal course separate from the Essay.   ACT classes are also devoid of essay prep, unless a school or parent organizer wants the course to include the Essay prep.

    Ivy Bound’s success rate is very high.  Average SAT score increases among diligent students have ranged from 161 to 173 points (2-section scores, based on a previous SAT or PSAT).  The ACT improvements have come in slightly higher (3.35 points on the 0 – 36 scale, equating to over 200 SAT points). We look forward to more students joining in similar success.

  • What are the ACT and SAT Tests?

    1. The ACT and SAT are decent tests of skills and knowledge. They are not a great predictor of success after college, but since competitive four year colleges have made them a major factor in their admissions decisions and merit scholarship awards, it makes sense for students seeking admissions at highly regarded colleges to prepare for the ACT and SAT.
      • ACT/SAT test prep should not replace any efficacious part of a high school curriculum or wholesome extra-curricular activities.
    2. The ACT and SAT tests are a good standard to help in college admissions decisions, given disparities in high school quality and students’ choice of courses.
    3. Colleges overweight the ACT and SAT tests because other measures, like GPA, moral character, and school competitiveness, are difficult to compare.*
    4. Overweighting the SAT and ACT test gives a great opportunity to high school students who lack strong grades or are at less-highly regarded secondary schools.
    5. Overweighting the ACT and SAT means students with good grades and at good high schools have to protect them with a solid SAT test score.
    6. The ACT and SAT are not measures of fixed knowledge, skills, or “intelligence” (ask any of our students who have raised their scores 200+ points after two months’ preparation).
    7. The ACT and SAT are coachable. Almost everyone improves with training. The question is how much.
    8. To be blunt, but real: almost anyone seeking a competitive college who doesn’t attempt to master the ACT and SAT is sacrificing long-term fulfillment. We say this owing to the number of adults who rue their not having tried harder in high school, and to the trends that elite colleges carry MORE punch in hiring and grad school decisions than ever before.
    9. Though we try to make it otherwise, mastering the ACT and SAT is not particularly fun.
    10. Thus, we don’t want to drag out the learning. A few intensive weeks with us over the summer, or once a week for a full semester is all, if you do it right. Consider it a part-time job. ACT and SAT prep is now one of the responsibilities of the college-bound teenager.
      • We don’t drag out class time either. A semi-militaristic attitude towards promptness and missed classes helps everyone. We offer extra help and encourage parents to prompt students to use the Help Line.
    11. The best time to study for the ACT and SAT test is when the student has the most free time, often summer.
    12. Even for good students, the SAT Math is difficult because it asks familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways.
    13. Even for good students, the SAT Verbal is difficult because it asks vocabulary that is often unfamiliar and demands reading skills many students have never used.
    14. All other things being equal, the best time to study is early – the summer before junior year, junior fall, or junior winter (this assumes student has had a semester each of Algebra I and Geometry by then). Holding a great ACT or SAT score before senior year makes college decision making easier.
    15. The SAT test is no longer a socio-economically biased test. It does test things related to American culture, but that is the culture familiar to almost every American high school student. Though the SAT test may be unfair to the recent immigrant, colleges tend to assess immigrant applicants by other standards anyhow.
    16. Highly-ranked colleges are inappropriate for some students. We simply want every child who might find it appropriate to have all options open.
      • Highly ranked colleges merit your consideration BECAUSE JOB RECRUITERS AND GRAD SCHOOLS value that high ranking. Irrespective of the training students receive at the top-ranked colleges, the imprimatur of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, UChicago, Duke, Stanford, and CalTech carries significantly into the market for the first job, for graduate school, and perhaps even for promotions thereafter. Ask recruiters who unabashedly state that they have discrepant thresholds for interviewing candidates based on their school. Ask Nicholas Lehmann, who said in a PBS Frontline interview – “a good school puts you in the way of more opportunity”.
    17. For students willing and able to prepare for the ACT and SAT test who do their college search early, applying Early Decision is sensible so long as there is no need to shop among financial offers. According to The Early Admissions Game published in 2003 by two Kennedy School professors and a Wesleyan University economist, at some schools “Applying E.A. (early action) boosts an applicant’s chances by 18.9 percent – the same amount that a 100-point jump on the SATs would. The effects of applying E.D. (early decision, which is binding) are even more drastic, giving an applicant a 34.8 percent boost, which corresponds to a 190-point SAT advantage”. This was reported in The Harvard Crimson in February 2003. Anecdotal evidence shows that among E.D. schools where the admissions offices are not “need blind” (i.e. they do take need into account), E.D. applicants who will be paying in full have a better chance. When a non-need-blind college takes a high number of non-needy students, it has more money to give to needy applicants in the next round of offers.
    18. The PSAT is worth preparing for only if the student needs a strong score for self-esteem, has a decent shot at National Merit semi-finalist recognition or would be greatly aided by a minority recruitment program. Otherwise, the PSAT is a useless test: colleges do not see your scores, and it is not a great reflector of the ACT or SAT test. (It is significantly shorter, with fewer hard questions, and lacks the essay tested on the new SAT). We recommend to most students that their prep time target the ACT and SAT tests, and that they not be concerned about the PSAT.  In the process of prepping for ACT and/or SAT, their PSAT proficiency will rise.
    19. Plan to take the ACT and/or SAT at least twice following study. All colleges take the better score, and almost all, by our survey 95% of competitive colleges, cherry pick (aka “super-score”) the SAT.  They combine the best Math on one sitting with the best Verbal on a different sitting. About 50% cherry pick the ACT, super-scoring among all four sections.  This percentage is almost sure to rise throughout the decade.  Super-scoring is ALWAYS advantageous to students who take the same test multiple times.  There is no downside to a second test.
    20. The overweighting of the ACT and SAT tests in admissions decisions has caused anxiety and pressure. The best way to alleviate that anxiety is by being a well-prepared student.
    21. * Until the New SAT makes itself to a clearly-aligned standard, some colleges that used to weigh the SAT heavily have chosen NOT to put much weight on the SAT.  They weigh the ACT heavily still.


  • Why the SAT Test is Coachable?

    When the College Entrance Examination Board promulgated the SAT as a meaningful test for evaluating college applicants, its prominent members publicly announced that marked score improvements are highly unlikely to be achieved by coaching. This continued for over 30 years. They pointed to the fact that few test takers show marked improvements upon taking the SAT a second time. But that omitted is the motivation factor: most students taking the SAT test a second time do not choose to undergo serious coaching in the interim. So it is no wonder that their skills did not increase significantly.

    The College Board finally evaluated the performance of students who took a thorough preparation course, or who diligently studied on their own. Shockingly, they found a high correlation between studying and higher performance.

    Ivy Bound has been coaching high school students to improve their SAT scores since 2001. The reason the smart academics who are part of the College Board, which develops and administers the SAT, were reluctant to admit the truth owed to a perception that the SAT would lose integrity if it were determined to be coachable.

    We don’t share that view. There is nothing wrong with coachability, so long as it is helping students master useful skills and so long as students from all backgrounds are able to take advantage of good coaching.

    Here is why the SAT test is coachable, and always will be: the human brain is incredibly fecund. The SAT is about knowledge and skills, and whether age 7 or 70, our capability to absorb knowledge and skills is limitless. Now, even a superficial look at the SAT shows areas that obviously can be improved with coaching and/or practice. It contains:

    • Grammar, Usage, Diction and Idiom
    • Vocabulary-in-context
    • Reading Comprehension
    • Arithmetic
    • Algebra
    • Geometry, and
    • Science Reasoning (only slightly, as of late 2016)

    Each of these seven skills is coachable. Applying these skills to the test itself is a matter of recognizing what the test will be asking, in terms of subject matter, format, and level of difficulty. The College Board used to make the subject matter, format, and level of difficulty open for all students to see. Since the 2016 revamp, The College Board has few actual past SATs to offer the public, but it is committed to releasing at least two per year.

    In order for any test to be a standard, students and their teachers need to know the criteria used for evaluations. That means at least some publication of the types of questions asked on the test. As soon as information is published, teachers can coach towards mastering those skills. This rests on the assumption that the SAT will have some consistency from year to year. It would be very difficult to markedly change the test each year because questions could not easily be pre-tested. Thus strong test consistency is the basis for every good prep program.

    The current version of The College Handbook (at over 1800 pages “handbook” is quite a misnomer) states that only 1 in 25 students who take the SAT test a second time improve their scores 100 points or more. That 1 in 25 figure belies a significant differentiation: some students actively prepare to better their scores the second time; most don’t. For students who are dedicated to improving, a 1-in-25 statistic is no barrier.

    Indeed, 80% of our students make 100 point improvements, and these kids are realistically shooting for 150 – 200 point increases. Ivy Bound is confident enough in the coachability of the SAT to make a guarantee with any parent for half the student’s tuition: a 100-point improvement for any uncoached student not yet at the 1400 level.

    Parents and students who listen to admonitions that “you can’t significantly improve your SAT test score” should at least try an easy antidote – attend a one-time seminar with a good instructor, and discover how much you can learn and apply to a test in a mere four hours. Those 200 point increases take work, over a period closer to 40 hours. But those with high college aspirations will probably find diligent test prep a small sacrifice.


  • Why the ACT and SAT Are Decent Standards

    If there is to be a standard that helps college admissions officers assess academic abilities, the ACT is a good one, and the SAT will again become a good one.  (The old SAT was an excellent measure).  Both tests measure knowledge and critical thinking skills desired for college bound students.

    Vocabulary, Writing Ability, Grammar, Reading Comprehension, Improving Sentences, Logical Reasoning, Spatial Inferences, Data Interpretation, Arithmetic, and Basic Algebra comprise 95% of the SAT and 85% of the ACT. Science Reasoning makes up the rest of the ACT.  It is difficult to call these skills “irrelevant”.

    At one point the SAT displayed an unfair cultural bias. But the test makers have changed and no longer are words like “regatta” and “wicket” tested on the SAT. To the extent there is cultural bias on the SAT, it is biased to American culture, a culture that any child raised in this country should be familiar with. The SAT will not test words like “bwana” and “sherpa”, words the Ugandan and Napalese student would know well. Given that few Ugandans and Nepalese seek entrance to American colleges, the SAT is properly confining the tested vocabulary to American culture.  As of 2016 the SAT eliminated directly testing vocabulary and now it is tested only in the context of Reading passages.

    Our only strong objection to the ACT and SAT is their strict time limits. Neither academic nor professional life demands quick assessment of the skills listed above. Good reasoners should have the time to make sure of their answers, as any diligent academic or professional would make that time.

    If there is one thing we’d like to see added to the exam it would be creativity. But creativity is among the most difficult things to objectively assess. To some extent the Geometry problems in the SAT do assess creativity. Using rules that virtually all test takers have been exposed to, students are rewarded for combining the rules, and/or creating spatial arrangements that help solve a problem.

    The reason a nationwide exam like the SAT can and should have importance is that the results allow colleges to assess each student on an equal footing. Grades do not do that, owing to the vagaries of school grading systems, and to the varied populations at the schools. Even the most meaningful, standardized grading cannot replace a broad, equatable test like the ACT or SAT. The ACT/SAT is a far better determinant of merit than poise, primping, and lineage.  These were the subjective categories for admission in the first half of the 20th century, which the SAT largely replaced.

    Those who dislike the pressure that can accompany the SAT test should recognize that in any meritocracy there will inevitably be pressure to excel at something. If not the SAT, then soccer, or thesis writing. Were the SAT filled with trivia, then we would not champion it (one reason why we despise so many of the state-wide “proficiency” exams is that many of them test esoterics). But when pressure to excel indeed leads to excellence, with minimal casualties, that is a positive.

  • Why Strong Students Do Not Always Lock In High SAT Scores & How to Get Motivation

    While there remains a strong correlation between high grades and high SAT scores, it is especially exasperating for parents to see their diligent teens failing to complement their high grades with high SAT scores. Since explanations may lead to solutions, allow us to hypothesize based on our experience with high school test-takers and the SAT in particular.

    Correlation does not equal causation

    Though the correlation between high grades and SAT scores is strong, it is wrong to say that mastering a school’s English and math curricula will result in 1200+ SAT scores.  Any causation is better attributable to work ethic by the student than to a transfer of skills in traditional curricula, especially in the English section. Since the SAT tests very coachable skills, a student’s desire to master those skills plays a large role in her/his performance.

    The correlation that we believe has the highest elements of causation is parent expectations. It is no secret that the children of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors garner a huge share of the highest SAT scores. Though some attribute “smarts” to genetics, we are not in agreement. The children of well-educated professionals have high standards that they are 1) exposed to and 2) motivated to meet.
    Exposing High Standards and Meeting High Standards

    For students at a strong public school or even a mediocre prep school, exposure to the college admissions process and standards comes almost automatically. For motivated students in schools that send few kids to competitive colleges, we recommend that their parents stay in touch with parents who chose a college preparatory school for their kids.  If they do not know such parents, consult actively  with a college placement counselor. Form a posse to seek out the information that many other kids are exposed to beginning in 9th grade.

    Ivy Bound’s first class of students took place in south central Los Angeles. The four students who chose to be in the class were daughters and sons of working class Mexican Americans. Three of them are among Ivy Bound’s top improvers and one attained the school’s record for highest-ever SAT score. As far as exposure to the SAT itself, that’s easy –$24.95 at Amazon buys any kid The Official SAT Study Guide. There is no excuse for not knowing what skills are tested on the SAT.

    How does a student get the desire to master the SAT?  We cannot say. Fear of not keeping up with peers who are bound for competitive colleges is a good motivator for some.  Fear of failing their parents’ expectations is a motivator for others, but a dangerous one (the reward for meeting such expectations is probably a more positive motivator). Though far from a scientific survey, we find that the students who have improved the most just want to meet a certain number for the sake of meeting that number. By this we mean they are not telling us “I just have to get in to ______ college”, or “I have to meet the score my dad expects”, but “I want a 2100.”

    Here’s one reason why “I want a 2100” is a good attitude and can lead to success: it divorces the consequences of the test from the studying and doing of the test. Consequences are the things we both aspire to and fear. Unfortunately fear too often takes over. In the process a student’s mental energies along with emotional energies are distracted. When the student can remind himself “here’s how I’m supposed to do this test,” instead of “here’s what happens to me if I don’t get into Stanford,” the anxiety is reduced.

    One thing that dampens desire is the attitude that “the SAT is a stupid test”. A test that helps evaluate grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, math, and logical reasoning is not a stupid test.  Anyone in your child’s midst who is purveying that attitude should be quarantined, teachers included. The current SAT is a decent test of skills and knowledge that are important in higher education, if not everyday life. It could be a broader, less coachable, and thus fairer test, and we’d like to see it untimed, but on the whole it is a well-crafted test and is no longer racially biased. If not convinced, see our piece on “Why The ACT / SAT Are Decent Standards”.


  • Why SAT Verbal Skills May Not Meet Expectations

    A reason why even the diligent child of two well-educated parents might not lock in a good SAT score is that the child’s verbal education never targeted skills tested on the SAT.   Particularly if the child is not an avid reader, s/he is unlikely to absorb the vocabulary tested in some SAT questions, and unlikely to appreciate the vocabulary in the harder passages. Drilling vocabulary can only go so far, and it’s not especially fun.

    A failure to target skills includes a neglect to instill careful reading. A careful reader, armed with good vocabulary, should score a 700 on the SAT verbal. Though students at fine schools might proudly cover Dickens, Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Wharton in one semester, they are rarely called upon to parse a single paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. The SAT tests short, dense passages. The makers of the test excerpt passages from fiction and scholarly reviews and further edit them so as to pack a lot of information in a mere 60 lines. Few high school teachers invoke similar passages, followed by questions where the right answer sometimes turns on the forcefulness of a single word.

    Yet SAT Reading Comp success is driven by careful analysis, both at the “big picture” and at the “detail” level. In 1994 the College Board significantly changed the format of the SAT verbal section to elevate the importance of reading. In 2005 The College Board re-formatted to place even more weight on reading, by cutting out Analogies. In 2016 the College Board cut out Sentence Completions, leaving reading and grammar as the sole components of SAT Verbal.

    The divide between most students’ reading skills and those tested on college entrance exams (we include ACT here) is going to get larger. Graphic novels, containing many pictures to keep children’s attention, are replacing regular novels. Students who don’t become accustomed to  undiluted prose will be greeted by difficult (because unfamiliar) passages on the ACT and SAT. Graphic novels might get a child to read in the first place, but staying tethered to books only when there are pictures is a prescription for a miserable ACT or SAT score.

  • Why SAT Math Skills May Not Meet Expectations

    The math sections of the SAT have many questions that directly correlate with a traditional high school curriculum. Nevertheless, many “A” math students receive only mid-range scores on the SAT math.

    One reason is that even in a well-taught math class, the students never see questions that the SAT asks. Kids spend a whole year in Algebra I, and a whole year in Geometry.  They may never fuse the two, yet at least some SAT questions combine Algebra and Geometry.

    Another reason is that high school math makes use of intricate and often lengthy calculations. The SAT rarely does. When students are tempted to take out their calculators for what is bound to be a two-minute or more exercise, they should think again. Step back, for there is usually a creative, simple way to nail that problem in less than 60 seconds.

    Indeed, the SAT now has a section where calculators are not allowed. Students whose high school work weds them to a calculator lack the ability to do these problems un-aided.

    Finally, the SAT tests some “logic” aspects of math.  Rarely does a high school teacher teach “logic”. The closest is typically geometry, which builds logical thinking through proofs.  SAT never asks for proofs, yet it very much rewards logical thinking. Indeed, since 1996, The College Board has called its test the “SAT I Reasoning Test”. Buried into the math section are questions relying on “pure logic” and others relying on “vision”. The “housing lots” questions, profiled in the cover story in Time magazine, exemplify a combination of logic AND vision questions.

    “It’s Just Test – Taking”

    Notice that our analysis is void of discussing “test-taking skills”. That is because we attribute little to them. The “tricks” and time management skills that can avoid test-taking impediments can be taught in 90 minutes. Students these days are used to standardized tests. Once kids are familiar with the format of this test and a few test taking and time-management “tricks”, the remainder is skill mastery.

    So we conclude by imploring schools to teach mastery of the valuable skills tested on the SAT. If “teaching to the test” is a taboo phrase, that’s understandable. Teach good skills that the test rewards. That will reward the students.