Tag Archives: writing

Get Smarter in Five Minutes

Yeah, I know, I’m promising a lot. Is it really and for true possible to get smarter in five minutes? Heck yes it is. In fact, you can prolly get smarter in less time than that. The trick to getting smarter about any topic from Physics to French to fructivore physiology is to focus your thinking on that topic. Well, duh! But hear me out; focused thinking involves searching for patterns in the information, drawing comparisons between the object of study and other things you already know, translating difficult concepts into your own everyday jargon, and–in short–processing the information at a higher level.

Good news here, people. You already have one of the most powerful mental processing tools known to man literally at your fingertips. HINT: It has nothing to do with silicon or Steve Jobs.  Continue reading Get Smarter in Five Minutes

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

Easy Way to Up Your SAT (GRE?) Essay Score

Fourteen-year-old Milo Beckman did some great research to determine that longer SAT essays get higher scores. His finding are backed up by an MIT researcher who has found that length accurately predicts score 90% of the time. BONUS: Milo considered causality. He determined that length is actually what’s causing the higher score. It’s not just that better writers write more! Go Milo!

P.S. Since the GRE is a close cousin to the SAT and the essays are graded in a similar manner, it wouldn’t hurt to write more on the GRE essays as well!

The SAT: An Overview

The SAT Reasoning Test (note: NOT the subject specific SAT tests) is used widely by colleges and universities as one of their admissions criteria.  It is also often used as a criterion in awarding scholarships. It is claimed to test students’ abilities in subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics; subjects that are supposed to predict those students’ college success. It does not, however, do a very good job at this task, even by the admission of the College Board, the company that makes the SAT.

Normally taken by high school juniors and seniors, it’s become a dreaded rite of passage for many high school students around the world.  Let’s take a look at the basic layout of the test.

Given seven times a year in the U.S., and six times a year overseas. the SAT tests three different areas; reading, writing, and math.  Each of these are scored on a 200 to 800 point scale, and people usually talk about a combined score, adding the scores from each section together.  A mid-level score might be 1500, while a perfect score would be 2400.

SAT Sections

The SAT has several different question types including a short essay, five-choice multiple-choice questions, and grid-ins, where the student enters their answer on a number grid.

The Writing Section

The SAT Writing section takes a total of sixty minutes; thirty-five minutes test grammar and word usage in the form of multiple-choice questions.  Students will also be asked to spend twenty-five minutes writing an essay.

More details about this section, including exact question types and examples can be found here.  The writing section is relatively new and many colleges and universities do not even consider it in their admissions.  To find out how your schools of choice handle it, you will have to ask their admission’s counselors directly.

The Reading Section

The critical reading sections of the SAT include two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  Question types include sentences with a blank or two blanks in which you must pick the best word or words to go in the blanks.  This mainly tests vocabulary.  There are also short reading passages over which students must answer a series of questions about passage details, structure, main idea, author’s intentions, etc.  These questions mainly test reading comprehension and are the single, hardest section in which to increase your score, mainly because reading comprehension takes months or years to improve significantly.

See more details and examples of these question types here.

The Math Section

The math section of the SAT is also divided between two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  While the majority of the questions are five-choice multiple choice questions, there are also grid-in questions (the College Board calls these “student-produced response” questions), where students must fill in their answers.  The math section tests algebra, geometry, graphing, functions, basic statistics, and data-analysis.  American students can expect to have learned everything they might see on the SAT by tenth grade.

Students are allowed to use a calculator, although every question can be answered without one.  To see the specific question types and examples as well as more details on calculator usage look here.

The Unscored Section

Students will also have an additional twenty-five minute section in either critical reading, mathematics, or writing multiple-choice.  This section is used by College Board to try out new questions, and it does not count towards your score.  However, it will not be identified as an experimental section, and you shouldn’t try and guess which section is the unscored section.  Just do your best on all the sections.

College Board claims that this section is used to make sure tests and question types are comparable from test to test and to “insure fairness.”  It also enables them to do some research at your expense.

Test Format

The SAT has a total of 10 sections. The 25-minute essay always comes first, and the final section will always be a 10-minute long, multiple-choice, writing section. Sections two through seven are always 25-minutes each and will alternate between reading, math, and writing in relatively random order. Sections eight and nine are 20-minutes each. In a single SAT administration you and the test-takers next to you may all have different versions of the test with section types (math, reading, writing) in different orders.  There are also two, ten-minute breaks; one after the third test section, and one following the sixth section.


It is very important to prepare for the SAT, not only to make it easier for you to get into the college of your choice, but also to put yourself in the best position to get scholarships and fellowships.  Plan on taking it two or even three times.  You can take a free SAT test here.  I’ve also written about my preferred test prep books here, and I’ve written about the advisability of taking a prep course here (although the article is specifically about the GRE test–similar to the SAT but used for graduate school admissions–the principles are much the same.  I’ve also written on the best schedule to prepare for a test such as this (again, it’s written specifically for the GRE, but the principles are identical.)

Best Schedule for Studying for the GRE (or any test!)

Many of the test prep books out there include schedules to help you prepare for the GRE or SAT, but every single one that I’ve seen has a fatal flaw!  Their schedules would have you studying each topic only once before the test.  That’s crazy!  No one will master a difficult topic, much less remember it a month or two later, if they’ve only practiced it once.

Many teachers know about spiraling curriculums.  A spiraling curriculum ensures that students keep coming back to the same topic at regular intervals.  This increases recall and promotes mastery.

Our schedule should do the same; things we know we should study less and less as the day approaches.  Things we struggle with we should work on more and more.  Moreover, the best study schedule would be flexible enough to work whether you have a week, a month, or a year in which to prepare.

Here’s a simple method that will…

  1. Make sure you study everything you need to before the test.  No worries about skipping something vital!
  2. Automatically have you review most the things with which you struggle most.  No wasted time.
  3. Enable you to clearly identify what you actually need to study.  That means confidence on the test.
  4. Put the knowledge into your long term memory.  No fear of studying it now and then forgetting it by test time.
  5. Enable you to study as much or as little as you need to in order to prep.  It’s easily configurable to your schedule and needs.

First, get a test prep book (or two) that is comprehensive, giving plenty of attention to each section of the test.  You want a book that explains things in a way that you find easy to understand.  The best way is to go to a book store, pick out five or six likely looking candidates, and thumb through each of them.  Pick the one that appeals most to you.  You’ll quickly find that they all have very similar techniques, but that some seem easier to understand or are more comprehensive.  Here are my personal picks for SAT and GRE.

Next, get a book that has actual practice exams.  I recommend GRE: Practicing to Take the General Test 10th Edition, which contains actual GRE tests released in the past.

Now begin following this schedule.

[hidepost]Day 1: Spend 45 minutes or so go through each different section (verbal, quantitative, and written analytical).  Read carefully.  Do the practice problems and work through all the examples.

At the end of each 45 minutes of study, bookmark the page you’ve reached, and take a five minute break.  After the break, begin your next 45 minute session.  On the GRE, this would mean you spend 45 minutes working through the quantitative section of the prep book.  Then take a five minute break.  After the break, spend 45 minutes going through the verbal section followed by a break.  Finally, spend 45 minutes studying the written analytical.  I would do another 45 minutes section learning new vocabulary as well.  More on that below.

Day 2:  Pick up where you left off doing the same 45 minutes + break pattern.  Work all the way through each section–verbal, quantitative, and written analytical–in this manner.  When you’ve worked all the way through a given section, quantitative for example, start over at the beginning of that section.

But now your schedule will change up a bit.  Spend twenty minutes working through the section each day.  As you come to things that you know well, put a check mark next to those items.  Next time you go back through the quantitative, you’ll see that check mark and know that you don’t need to study it.  You can skip it.

Spend the rest of your 45 minutes working actual practice problems from the other book.  Don’t forget to go back to any you miss and try and determine exactly why you missed them!

Days 3 and 4: Repeat the process.  In each section, you will work all the way through it in 45 minute per day increments.  Then you will start over at the beginning of the section and repeat the process, dividing up the 45 minutes into review of the book and practicing actual problems.  Each time you review the section, you’ll check off more and more topics that you’ve mastered.  That means you’ll end up spending more and more time on the things you haven’t mastered.

Day 5: Pick an area in which your weakest in each of the sections and devote your full 45 minutes to mastering that one topic.  If the book you bought isn’t helping you grasp the concept fully, go back to the book store and look up the same topic in a couple of different books or do a search on the internet for lessons on that topic.  Here are some good sites for math help, some tips for essays, and some verbal help as well.  For example, in the quantitative I’m having a tough time figuring out how to do permutation and combination problems, so I’ll spend 45 minutes doing a tutorial on that topic I found on the internet.  After a break, I’ll spend 45 minutes working on mastering the sentence completions that have given me so much trouble, etc.

Day 6: Do an entire practice test that’s as close to the real thing as you can get.  Treat it like it’s really the test!  This is where you will identify key weaknesses, get down your timing, and build your mental stamina.  For GRE practice tests, I would begin with the free PowerPrep software from ETS.

Day 7: Take a day off to rest and recuperate.  This is important!  If you get burned out and stop studying or slow down too much it could be a disaster.  Take time off!

This schedule works great just as it is for practically any test.  For the GRE, I might apply this schedule as written if I were taking the GRE in one month.

If you have more time and energy for studying each day, you might run through the sequence twice a day (that is, you might do day one and two on one day, day two and three on the next day, etc.). If you have six months to practice, you might break it down, so that you aren’t doing as much each day, but follow the same sequence to make sure you cover everything.  If you only have one week to study, you may decide to do double or even triple your study each day.  Again, just stick with the sequence.

Make sure you don’t neglect your vocabulary, since learning new vocabulary is the single best way to increase your score in the verbal section.  I would treat that as an extra 45 minute section each day.  If you don’t have time to learn at least 300 new words before the test, I wouldn’t bother.  Less than that and you’ll have little chance of actually seeing enough of the new words you learned to increase your score.  300 words is the minimum; learn 1,000 or even 3,000 and you can add hundreds of points to your score.

Certain sections, such as the verbal, won’t require too much review before you have all the techniques down.  Once you feel confident in applying the techniques, the only way to improve is to increase your vocabulary.  At that point, instead of continuing to do 45 minutes of practice and review on the verbal, devote that time to doing more vocabulary.  Similarly, after you have written five or six of the written analytical essays, you may decide to stop practicing that and devote more of your time to some other area where you struggle.

If you apply this schedule above, doing four 45 minute sections (verbal, quantitative, written, and vocabulary) plus breaks each day, your study time works out to three hours and 15 minutes a day, six days a week.  Of course, you may be able to do less per day if you begin to prepare for the test several months out.

Use this schedule to break your studies down into manageable chunks.  You can work with the confidence that you’ll cover everything you need to do well on the test.  You can also be sure that your spending your time on the areas that will pay off most for you![/hidepost]

How to Love an Essay Test

Yes, you read right.  You can actually love essay tests.  For most of us, essay tests rank right up there with colonoscopies and tax audits, but read on, and you’ll find out why essay tests are actually the best kind!

Please don’t jeer or throw things, but I’ve always preferred essay tests.  I think it goes back to my freshman year in high school when Coach Davis, my history teacher, gave us an essay question that was something like, “What factors contributed to the victor’s triumph in the 1858 senate race between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas?”

My first thought on reading this question was, “Kuhhrap!  That Lincoln guy sounds real familiar, but who was Douglas?  Was I even here that day?” My ignorance was so complete that I didn’t even know who won the election, much less why.  (And you wonder why study skills are a concern of mine.)  However, by Continue reading How to Love an Essay Test