Thad’s father originally found us through Google. He was a very amped up man, the kind that probably didn’t need to drink coffee but did anyway to take it to an 11. Thadd was a notable baseball player at Greenwich Country Day School in his junior year, a shortstop, and had begun the recruiting process already, with various high level D-1 baseball schools, including some Ivy League Schools in Brown and UPenn. He had some family connections to UPenn, an uncle who had gone there in addition to his mother, though legacy seems to matter less these days than it used to.

His grades were fine; they’d definitely need some upkeep, particularly in English, which tended to give him the most trouble due to its ambiguity. Indeed, his father described the issues he was having with his current English teacher that fall and they did seem substantial. The teacher had been there forever so was well-entrenched. He had “high expectations,” which in this case merely meant that he would give poor grades for random and seemingly arbitrary reasons. A question mark in the margins without explanation generally took you down a third of a grade without further explanation. This teacher also had the added bonus of being unavailable to answer many questions and routinely took several days, or even longer, to respond to emails, probably because of his substantial coaching duties in the fall and winter. But despite all of these challenges, Thad still had a B+/A- in the course, and that grade was not going to make the difference in his college options. He did need a 3.5 GPA, but glancing at his other grades and academic chops, that wasn’t going to do it.

What would do it was the SAT score. While there was some vacillation and a few exceptions, the programs he was looking at essentially all required a 1300 SAT score as a base for their scholarships. That was going to be a bit of a challenge for him. On his first diagnostic, he scored a 960 overall. We did our algorithmic analysis of it, and it revealed holes all over the place. He had substantial gaps in his understanding of basic grammar, holes in all levels of mathematics, real struggles with reading comprehension questions, and above all, execution difficulty as well. Based on all of these underlying gaps, it was actually surprising he got as high as 960, but he did so on the sheer power of his problem solving; intellect was not really the problem. Luckily, there are well-known strategies to address all of the above issues with concrete strategies that even the most concrete thinkers can pick up. The SAT is, as the saying goes, a test of the ability to take the SAT, afterall. Anyone with a bit of time and commitment can get over 1450 with practice and the right direction. I’ve seen students with far less do far more than I could have imagined with the prep.

We began with the easy fixes. Starting with basic grammatical rules related to sentence structure, we went through and plugged the holes in his understanding, using very basic information as a guide. There’s no point in intensively studying the colon or dangling modifiers if it is extremely unlikely they will be tested on the SAT. You might see a colon, but it won’t be tested directly and understanding dangling modifiers, a relatively obscure stylistic/grammatical issue, isn’t tested by College Board. There’s no point in studying it, and including it in practice clutters a student’s mind with useless information for the purposes of the test. Sentence structure will most definitely be on there in a significant percentage, so we went through the core three rules of sentence structure and moved on.

In math, we likewise went through and covered the core concepts that were weak points for him. In his case it included things like solving quadratics, geometric formulas and simplifying exponents. We drilled the specific skills using practice problems of that problem variety out of the prep book, focusing only primarily on the problem types that were likely to appear on the test, tailoring our time in parallel to the specific likelihood. He improved in those areas immensely in a short time period using this type of focused drilling.

Finally, we devoted time to refining his reading comprehension skills. The technique we utilize involves focus on the introduction, topic sentences (College Board loves its topic sentences!), and rhetorical situation, all extremely likely to factor into the questions. Classifying and identifying question types is also part of our approach. For all its nuance, the SAT is pretty predictable in what it’s asking. If you can determine what the question is asking about, you’re 90% of the way towards solving it. In Thad’s case, his vocabulary and reading ability was actually quite impressive; he simply wasn’t putting his attention in the right places, nor looking for the error types that the SAT was testing, instead getting lost in the ambiguousness of answer choices and blindly guessing in the absence of a sense of this dynamic.

In studying these baseline skills, he raised his score to around a 1200 on the practice tests he was taking after about four weeks. That was when we shifted our focus to what we call ‘execution strategies.” When he initially took the math sections, he would occasionally get stuck on a problem and spend up to 5 or 10 minutes attempting to solve it using long-hand methods, without the necessary shortcuts (such as the rules for a 45-45-90 triangle for instance). As a result, he would either run out of time on a section and miss the last few problems altogether, or have to rush through the final problems without sufficient time. Several things helped him address this issue for math: first, we spent several weeks just covering popular short-cut methods in the problem types he was likely to encounter: various geometric rules, etc. We also spent time identifying and executing a backwards solution method by substituting in answer choices strategically in some problem types. Again, as with the reading section, identifying the question type and the topics that the test makers were querying brings you 90% of the way towards solving it. Lastly, we worked on developing an innate timer that would signal to him that it was time to take a guess, move on to another problem or skip the problem altogether based on how many answer choices had been eliminated and remaining time.

After 12 weeks, our ideal prep time coincidentally, Thad was ready for the real deal, and he took it on the first Saturday in December. We covered some preparation of the body and mind during the final week: best nutrition, sleep and mindfulness practices. It is, after all, a test of mental endurance as much as anything else. Putting one negative sign in the wrong place is not an issue of understanding but one of concentration, a highly undervalued part of achieving a particular score. He got a 1340 on his first official test, which was amazing for him, but was actually mildly disappointed, so much had his expectations for himself changed over the course of the fall. While he was set for scholarships, he signed up to take the test again. He now sought to score over 1400 to improve his chances with Ivys. He had his heart set on UPenn by that point. With superscoring (the ability to mix and match sectional scores for the best overall score) in effect, he achieved that goal in the spring, landing a 1440 composite score when all said and done.

The next year, to little surprise given his status as a highly recruited athlete, he received admission to UPenn. The higher score certainly didn’t hurt his admission certainly, but going over 1400 wasn’t really necessary. He had done it for pride at that point, with his heart involved in the prep work, it was about something more than just the tipping point for the scholarship, it was about dominating the test. His satisfaction in discussing it was obvious. Though bashful in discussing it, you could tell he felt pretty good about himself, especially given that he had worked his tail off to get there and would not be stopped. We still tutor with Thad, though he has done less now that he has acclimated to the expectations academically at UPenn.

These are the stories that continually remind me of the palpable results of hard work, with test prep perhaps more than any other task. With tangible methods put in front of a student, the upside for achievement is almost limitless. You can complain about the SAT for fairness until you’re inflated with indignity, but at the end of the day, one has to admit it does ultimately test the ability overcome adversity. He had faced the crucible of disappointment in his first diagnostic but rose flexing like a phoenix to conquer that storied mountain. Give me more of those stories, please. They last a lifetime.