Books and Courses
The SAT Black Book shows you how to maximize your performance on the SAT using your existing knowledge. Instead of encouraging you to memorize formulas, grammar rules, and lists of words, the Black Book gives a thorough strategic breakdown of the test and shows you how to attack the weaknesses of the SAT’s design. Click the cover of the book to learn more.
The ACT Black Book shows you how to maximize your performance on the ACT using your existing knowledge. Instead of encouraging you to memorize formulas, grammar rules, and lists of words, the Black Book gives a thorough strategic breakdown of the test and shows you how to attack the weaknesses of the ACT’s design. Click the cover of the book to learn more.
How We Can Help Your School Or Group
If your school or large group needs uniquely effective and innovative test preparation, then we can tailor a solution to fit your needs. We can create a custom combination of materials and in-person training to suit your budget, timeline, staff, and group-size. We have experience creating excellent results using all of the following modalities and platforms:
- books, cheat-sheets, and other written material
- pre-recorded videos
- online forums
- online webinars and chat sessions
- conference calls
For more information, please consult the following documents, and feel free to contact us using the form at the bottom of this page.
The STEM-Friendly Approach To Test Prep
Intelligent, effective test preparation doesn’t have to detract from a solid STEM education.
In fact, our test preparation can actually form the basis for an enriching STEM experience for your students. We can teach your students to see a test like the SAT or the ACT for what it really is: an instrument engineered by a team of mathematicians and scientists to generate reliable data on a scale of millions of results per year. Our test preparation is based on exploiting the weaknesses inherent in a test’s design, so your students will learn how we’ve reverse-engineered questions, time limits, and more.
Perhaps most importantly, they’ll get an excellent object lesson in the importance of following data and evidence over superstition and public opinion when it comes to tackling a problem.
- Click here for a 1-page executive summary of the STEM benefits of our approach.
Our founders are available to speak to your group, whether in person or virtually. Here’s a video of Mike Barrett doing a virtual Q & A with the audience of College Week Live:
Of course we appreciate all of the positive feedback we receive in our Amazon reviews and YouTube comments, but we also get our fair share of emails and private forum comments from satisfied students, parents, and teachers. Please click here to open a brief selection of testimonials in a new window.
Our founder, Mike, has written detailed responses to the questions that people ask him most often:
A: This is a pretty important question that I hear a lot. It makes sense–nobody wants to waste time and money on prepping for a test in the wrong way, and I think most people hear from their friends and family members that a lot of the test prep options out there are, unfortunately, a waste of time and money.
I think that if you watch just about any of my videos you’ll quickly get an idea of some of the things that make me different from everybody else, but I’ll try to summarize the reasons here, in order of increasing importance:
My online courses are accessible through any Internet connection at any time. We don’t have to work out a time that works for both of us, and you don’t have to worry about being late or missing class or anything, because the course is available whenever you are. This also means you can re-watch the videos as many times as you like, and you can ask me any questions you have in the members-only forum. Besides possibly having me move in with you, I don’t know how I could make my information more thoroughly and completely available to you.
Furthermore, anyone who signs up for my course and sticks with it gets full, unlimited lifetime access to all course materials–not like live classes you can only go through once, or even other online classes that usually limit your access to a few months. So if you’re planning to take the LSAT, but you don’t know when, you can sign up for my course and start preparing without the pressure of an expiration date.
It also means that if you’re taking the SAT and you’ve got siblings in the same household who will take it in a few years, they’ll be able to use the course too. Simply put, if you buy a course from me, you get full access forever, not just for a few months.
I want you to approach the test with a scalpel, not a wrecking ball. We’ll pinpoint the strategies that will get you the results you need, and throw out everything else.
Other people recommend time-wasting exercises like cramming vocabulary or reading novels or who knows what else. But I focus directly on the design of the test, so my techniques are always formulated to keep you focused on skills that will actually pay off on test day. Isn’t that what really counts?
At the end of the day, my strategies work, and the systems I use to teach them to people work, as well. I don’t just believe that my methods are faster, or that my delivery method is more convenient; I believe that my methods themselves are simply better than the traditional test prep methods. In other words, even if they were less convenient and took more time to learn, they would still be the better option because they actually get results. It’s just sort of a bonus that they happen to be quicker and simpler too :).
When you decide to work with me, you know that you’ll be satisfied or you’ll get your money back through my test prep guarantee. There’s no risk at all on your side of the equation. I wouldn’t be able to offer my guarantee (which is the strongest in the industry as far as I know) if I didn’t believe in my product one hundred percent.
A: Who knows?
I don’t mean to be flip. Actually, there’s a lot to be said on this topic, because I would argue that nobody knows for sure what the average results are for any test-prep company.
On top of that, even if we could know the average score increases, the number wouldn’t really be useful anyway.
Let me explain:
Reasons Why It’s Impossible To Track Score Increases Accurately
In order to track score increases, a test-prep company would have to have access to its students’ score reports. If the company doesn’t have access to students’ score reports, it has to be relying on students to report their scores instead. Relying on reported scores would be a bad idea from a scientific point of view, because (a) people could lie, either on purpose or by accident, and (b) not everyone will bother to report a score, meaning that the reported scores will be likely to come from customers who are more passionate about the company, which will mean that the reported scores might be skewed higher than they should be. So it’s not really possible to get accurate data without having direct access to a student’s official score report, which isn’t possible.
On top of that, there’s the fact that many students use more than one test preparation method as they get ready for a test, and some students don’t pay full attention to what they’re taught in a particular course. If a student signs up for a course with Kaplan and then decides halfway through that he’d rather try my approach instead, should his results be counted as an indicator of the validity of Kaplan’s ideas, or of mine? So even if you could get the scoring data for a particular student, it would be impossible to say for sure that the student was only influenced by one company, and that the student’s results (whether positive or negative) were a true reflection of the quality of the company’s instruction.
Why Knowing A Student’s Score Increase Might Be Misleading
When we talk about standardized test scores, it’s important to remember that all standardized tests have a “perfect” score that can’t be exceeded, and that all tests measure multiple skills. This means that score improvements of the same size might be easier or harder to get at different points in the scoring scale.
To put this in concrete terms, it’s typically much easier to help a student go from a 130 on the LSAT to a 140 than it is to help the student go from a 170 to a 180. The improvment in both cases is still 10 points. But a student who’s scoring 130 needs a lot of help and can choose from a variety of skills to improve on, and he can afford to make a large number of mistakes on any given day while still improving his score. A student who’s scoring a 170 has probably already made all the easy adjustments he can think of, and he has to make almost no mistakes at all if he wants to improve to a 180.
So new points generally become harder to get as we move towards the upper limit of the scoring range. If a company were to report that its average LSAT client improved by 15 points, would that mean that it tended to work only with people who started out being pretty bad at the LSAT? If a company said its average increase was 5 points, would that mean that the techniques were useless or that most of its clients were already in the 170’s before using the course? There would be no way to tell.
So, to put it concisely, I don’t try to track student performance because I’m a big believer in science and numbers, and I know that
(a) there’s no reliable way to get a student’s score,
(b) there’s no way to be sure that a student’s score had an outside influence, even if I could find out that score, and
(c) the size of an increase or decrease is meaningless without knowing where in the scoring range that increase or decrease occurred.
I would strongly advise you to be suspicious of any company or tutor that tries to impress you with an “average score” increase.
So what’s a test-prep tutor to do, if he can’t persuade potential customers with a meaningful indication of an average score increase? Sounds like a big problem, right?
Well, not really. My solution is this: I offer free videos and articles on my web sites that give you an idea of how I think and how I teach. You can even watch me work on some real practice questions to get a taste for the course. So you can already have some idea of whether you like the kinds of things I do. Then I back everything up with the strongest guarantee I’ve ever heard of in this field: If you try my course out and don’t like my approach, all you have to is let me know about it within 60 days and I give you your money back. No fine print :).
So while I can’t offer any meaningful data on the average user experience (and neither can any other test prep company, in my opinion), I do everything I can to give you a good idea of whether you’ll like my approach in advance by showing you some free videos, and I take your risk away by offering the strongest guarantee in test prep. (By the way, I can only do those things because I know from customer feedback that most of my students are very happy with my approach–I just prefer to be honest about the fact that I don’t have any meaningful way to quantify that happiness.)
One more little sidenote–you might be asking yourself, “Can’t he just tell me about the specific score increases of a few specific kids he’s worked with who did really well?” The answer, strangely, is no, I can’t. Which sounds crazy, but it’s true–the FTC recently changed the rules to make it illegal for a company to talk about quantifying a specific customer’s result without giving information about the average customer’s result.
(They supposedly did this to protect consumers from claims made by the people who advertise weight loss supplements and get-rich-quick real estate programs, but the rules apply to everyone.) Since I have no way of knowing what my average student’s score increase is, I can’t tell you about specific students of mine, either. It’s a shame, because I would really, really like to–but that’s just another reason why I offer my blog and my guarantee. You can get a ‘taste’ of how I do things by looking around here, and if you decide to sign up, you have absolutely no risk in case you decide it isn’t for you.
(thoughts on test-prep credentials, if there is such a thing)
I get a lot of emails from people asking me, usually very politely, just who the hell I think I am exactly, where I got my test-taking ideas from, and other things of that nature. I understand why people ask this question, because I realize it strikes a lot of people as pretty strange that somebody comes along and starts talking about how most people in the test prep industry don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. It naturally raises the question of what my background is, and why I think I know better than they do.
So let me state for the record, in front of God and the Internet, that I have no formal credentials or certification whatsoever when it comes to helping people do better on standardized tests. (Well, none that I’m proud of, anyway. Side note–When I was in college I taught briefly–very, very briefly–for Kaplan. To do that I had to go through a training course for a few weeks. The course taught me how to teach the Kaplan way, which includes techniques like never letting a student see you work out a question for the first time. I ended up doing myself the favor of forgetting everything Kaplan ever taught me about teaching.)
But nobody else has any formal credentials in this field, either, because there aren’t any formal credentials to be had.
There are no college degrees in the field of beating standardized tests, nor is there any kind of international test-beaters’ union, or even a loosely affiliated underground network of localized test-beating cells.
Anybody who wants to can start advertising himself as a test-prep tutor for any test at all. He can even begin publishing books or hiring teachers to form a company. Nobody has to demonstrate any ability or provide proof of any kind of training to be able to get started in this field.
(You might be thinking that this would be a good reason to trust an established company like Princeton Review or Kaplan, which have been around for decades. But they’re actually some of the worst offenders of all–as one small example to keep us from getting side-tracked, check out how the Princeton Review is totally incorrect when it comes to the passive voice on the SAT.)
So that means, unfortunately, that if you’re trying to choose a test prep provider based on the provider’s participation in some kind of universally respected accreditation process, you’re out of luck.
And that, in turn, raises another question: How are you supposed to know which tutors or companies are actually good at prepping people to take tests?
I think there are two things you should consider looking for in this regard. Here they are:
1) Demonstrated results with official test questions
When you’re trying to get better on a standardized test, it’s absolutely critical that you work with real questions–otherwise you run the risk of learning strategies that only work against the kinds of fake questions that are invented to make the strategies look good. A shocking (to me) number of companies, schools, and tutors try to prep you with questions that are made up by Kaplan, Barron’s, McGraw-Hill, or some other publisher, instead of having you work directly with the real test. (Here’s an article with more background on why it’s so important to use real test questions.) A reliable tutor only works with real questions, period. If you look at some of the sample videos I have out for my SAT course, ACT course, LSAT course, ISEE course, and SSAT course, you’ll see that I always show you new ways to think about real test questions. This way, you can be sure that the things I’m talking about will really apply on test day.
2) Strong guarantees with no fine print
If a company stands behind its courses, it should have no problem offering a strong guarantee. But, while most prep companies claim to offer strong guarantees in bold type on their web pages, they use asterisks and fine print to dilute their promises; in the end, they really don’t guarantee very much at all. They tend to make you jump through a lot of hoops to exercise your guarantee. In a lot of cases, even if you do manage to produce proof that you completed all your assignments and attended every single class and practice test, all the company offers you is a chance to re-take the course anyway. I, on the other hand, offer a simple, strong guarantee for every one of my video courses: If you decide you don’t like it within 60 days, for any reason, I’ll be happy to issue you a refund. No hard feelings, no questions asked. I can only offer a strong refund policy like that because I know my approach works, and I know the vast majority of my students like my courses. (Click the “guarantee” link for more on refund policies in the test prep industry.) I even go a step further with my refund policy, actually, by letting PayPal process all my payments, so you can have the backing of a trusted third-party payment processor when you sign up for one of my courses.
So those are two kinds of informal credentials, I suppose.
But let me also explain a little bit about my background, so you can understand where I’m coming from and why I might be worth listening to. I’d say there have been three major influences on my current approach to test prep:
- my study of linguistics in college
- my study of fencing
- over a decade of student feedback
Linguistics is, roughly speaking, the application of science and math to language. (Well, actually, there’s a whole other kind of linguistics that’s closer to anthropology, called “sociolinguistics,” but that side of it never interested me. I was into the scientific stuff.) Linguists treat language as a natural system with rules and patterns that can be uncovered through the careful study of real speech. In my linguistics classes, I learned how to look for the underlying constraints in a stream of words that seemed not to be governed by anything. The ultimate goal of linguistic analysis, like the ultimate goal of any science, is to explain and predict as many things as possible in as few rules as possible.
When I first tried to share my test-taking approach with other people, it was near the end of my college career. I had just spent a few years analyzing speech in terms of rules, environments, and underlying forms, and I just sort of naturally began applying those ideas to the questions on the test. In a sense, I treated correct answer choices the way a linguist would treat the correct form of an utterance, and I treated the incorrect choices as a linguist would treat incorrect utterances; I started looking for ways to describe what made the correct answers correct. In this way I could analyze the things I had always done subconsciously when I had succeeded on standardized tests in school. I was able to break down my approach into discrete concepts that I could teach to other people.
In some cases, it was easy to identify important parts of questions. For instance, in the analogy questions of the old SAT, it was frequently possible to answer a challenging question just by paying attention to the suffixes in the answer choices. In other cases, it was a bit harder to notice what was going on: on the SAT Math section, all the questions follow certain rules and patterns when you learn how to look at them the right way, but at first all you see is a bunch of jumbled math ideas on a page, with each question looking very different from the others.
I also quickly discovered that many of the “rules” other people were following were totally wrong. One popular example was the idea that “extreme answers” on the reading section were always wrong; there are several examples of ‘extreme’ choices that are correct in the official College Board practice books for the SAT.
I’ve continued to use this type of analysis for all the tests I’ve taken on and beaten. It works for any nationally administered multiple-choice standardized test, because the very nature of those tests requires that they use the same underlying ideas over and over–more on that in the next section . . .
When I was in college I started to fence. Fencing is an incredible sport that relies more directly on strategy than perhaps any other sport. After college, I had the extreme honor of meeting and training fairly extensively with Laszlo Szepesi, a coach of multiple Olympic gold medalists and a genius when it comes to strategy and teaching.
Through fencing, I learned about a model of strategic thinking called the tactical wheel; I also eventually studied classic strategy texts, like The Book Of Five Rings, and modern strategic models like the OODA loop.
All of this taught me, ultimately, to try to view competitive situations through the eyes of my opponent whenever possible. When I began thinking systematically about testing companies like the College Board, the LSAC, the ACT, the ETS, and so on, I asked myself: What does the company want to achieve through its test? What are the practical obstacles to that goal? How might those obstacles be overcome by the testing company? How does all of this help to explain the choices the companies make in the designs of their tests?
By asking these questions, proposing theories to answer them, and exploring those theories, I was able to figure out a lot of what the testing companies do. And I owe that, ultimately, to the strategic training I derived from studying fencing.
Fencing also taught me how to learn and refine new skills, and how to teach them to others. Almost every movement in fencing is unnatural for almost everyone, because most of us move naturally in ways that allow us to generate power and momentum. But fencing rewards speed and changes in direction, not power and momentum, so any fencer who wants to become great has to learn to control his body almost from scratch. There are a variety of ways that a coach can help him do this.
It was through watching Szepesi that I learned how to ease students into unfamiliar ways of thinking so they could learn them more easily.
But perhaps the single most indispensable influence on my test prep career has been various types of feedback I’ve received from a huge number of people with a variety of different backgrounds: students, parents, teachers, counselors, consultants, et cetera. In the years that I’ve been helping people improve their test scores through face-to-face tutoring, phone tutoring, books, large classes, small seminars, and video courses, I’ve had experiences with students I could never possibly have anticipated. These experiences have helped me strengthen my technique and broaden my perspective, and they inform everything I do when I’m working with a student.
When I answer a student’s question in a forum or over the phone, I have the experience to know what kinds of questions a student is likely to have later in addition to the questions she’s asking right now; I can tell whether a student’s difficulties with a test are actually what he thinks they are (they usually aren’t). This often allows me to help my students get very nice results where they had previously failed, and to save them the significant amounts of frustration and wasted time that most students experience when they prepare.
So if you were wondering where my approach to test-taking comes from, and why it’s different from the vast majority of what you’ll find out there in the rest of the industry, I hope this gives you a decent idea of how I developed my ideas and how I stand behind them. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me or post them on one of the appropriate articles of this blog.
A: Unfortunately, I’m not accepting new tutoring clients at this time.
A: All of my courses cover the current “version” of a test, though the courses are not updated every year.
There’s a perfectly good reason for this: The tests don’t change every year. In fact, they don’t change for years at a time, usually decades.
Of course, lots of test prep companies would like you to believe otherwise, so they can sell you a new set of useless practice tests every year. But here are three articles that should help you understand what’s actually going on:
So the short answer is that my materials are all current and up-to-date, and you don’t need to worry that the test is evolving or anything–any updates that actually change the test are announced months in advance, and will be reflected in my materials.
A: My courses are designed to be maximally effective in minimal time. When I was a student, I hated teachers and courses that didn’t value students’ time. Now, as a tutor, I remember that my clients often have demanding schedules, and a lot of extra-curricular activities to attend to. (And even if they didn’t, they have the important business of being young to attend to–who wants to spend an entire summer getting ready for a test?)
At the same time, we have to recognize that every student is a unique person with unique goals in a unique situation, which makes it impossible to say exactly how long it should take a specific student to master what he needs to master.
Generally speaking, students who are able to spend some time going through the course right away usually learn the techniques in a few days, see decent improvement in a few days to a week, and feel very comfortable applying them on most questions in a few weeks (maybe two to four weeks).
Some people start a course only a few days before test day (or even the night before) and get results they’re happy with. If you read that and you think it sounds reasonable, there’s a good chance you could pull it off too. On the other hand, if the very idea of doing that makes you start hyperventilating, you may fall into the category of people who want to spend a month or more preparing in order to feel comfortable.
Here’s some information that’s a little more specific to each test:
- 7 training videos that range from 10-30 minutes each
- 100 short videos of around 2-5 minutes each that show me applying my techniques in real time to a real LSAT practice test. (It isn’t necessary to watch all the solutions videos, but lots of students like to.)
- An exclusive members-only forum where you can ask me any questions you like about getting ready for the LSAT, including questions about real practice tests from the LSAC (you can use this as much or as little as you like)
SAT Course (includes full access to the ACT Course)
- 13 training videos from 10-90 minutes each, averaging around 30 or 40 minutes
- 170 short videos of around 2-5 minutes each that show me applying my techniques in real time to an entire SAT test (It isn’t necessary to watch all the solutions videos, but lots of students like to.)
- An exclusive members-only forum where you can ask me any questions you like about getting ready for the SAT (you can use this as much or as little as you like)
ACT Course (includes full access to SAT Course)
- 10 training videos that range from around 5-35 minutes each, averaging around 25 minutes
- 215 short videos of around 2-5 minutes each that show me applying my techniques in real time to an entire real pracice ACT test (It isn’t necessary to watch all the solutions videos, but lots of students like to.)
- An exclusive members-only forum where you can ask me any questions you like about getting ready for the ACT (use this as much or as little as you like)
ISEE Course (includes full access to SSAT Course)
- 11 training videos that range from 10-30 minutes each
- 388 short videos of around 2-5 minutes each that show me applying my techniques in real time to one entire real practice ISEE test each at the Lower, Middle, and Upper Level (It isn’t necessary to watch all the solutions videos, but lots of students like to.)
- An exclusive members-only forum where you can ask me any questions you like about getting ready for the ISEE (use as much or as little as you like)
SSAT Course (includes full access to ISEE Course)
- 11 training videos that range from 10-30 minutes each
- 25 short videos of around 2-5 minutes each that show me applying my techniques in real time to real sample SSAT questions
- An exclusive members-only forum where you can ask me any questions you like about getting ready for the SSAT (use as much or as little as you like)
A: When a customer or blog visitor has trouble watching a video, by far the most common reason is a temporary slowdown in an Internet connection, or a temporary server overload.
In the majority of these cases, the problem will fix itself if you wait a minute or two, or try closing and reopening your browser window.
If you’re still having trouble (or just want to have the best video-watching experience possible while using the Internet), you can also try these steps:
Get the latest version of Flash, the free software that our video service (and most other video services) depends on. You can update to the latest version here:
If you’re using Internet Explorer to surf the Internet, you might try switching to either FireFox or Chrome:
(Even though many people use it, Internet Explorer can be a bad browser for video.)
One more thing: if you’re connecting to the internet using a 3G or cellular connection, the videos will almost certainly take a little while to load, since that type of connection is always slower.
If you try these fixes and you’re still having trouble watching the videos, please let me know, and we will figure out exactly what’s going on and resolve the problem.
A: Each of my courses is designed to be a complete preparation resource, consisting of three parts:
1. A complete set of training videos covering every aspect of getting ready for the test
2. A video walkthrough of me applying my techniques in real time to an entire real practice test
3. A members-only forum where you can ask me any questions you might have about preparation
The only other thing I would recommend you purchase is a set of real, official practice questions from the company that makes your test (not from Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barrons, McGraw-Hill, or any other third-party publisher).
You’ll need to buy these practice questions because you’ll want to try them out before test day to make sure you’re mastering the ideas correctly. They need to be official questions from the company that makes the real test so you can be sure that what you encounter in your practice sessions will accurately reflect what you’ll see when you take the test for real.
I should also point out that the testing companies offer free practice tests and free question sets. Some people are able to get the techniques down from just working with those free materials, but most people will choose to buy some more practice tests. You can usually get a set of practice tests in a book for around $20 (and frequently for much less on Amazon.com).
As a side note, I always emphasize quality over quantity when it comes to practice. It’s much better to spend time thoroughly understanding one practice test than it is to make yourself do twenty of them without pausing to review them, and to make sure you’re improving your understanding of the test itself.
A: Believe it or not, video games are actually a lot like standardized tests. I know it doesn’t seem that way at first glance, but think about it–when you play a ninja video game, or a football video game, or a racing video game, are you really using the skills that a ninja, a quarterback, or a driver would need to use? Of course not. The video game is sort of a simplified, broken down, controlled and predictable version of the actual activity, so much so that what makes you great at the real-life version won’t necessarily help you at all in the game version, and vice-versa.
The same phenomenon exists in standardized testing. Standardized tests supposedly measure your ability to do whatever it is you want to do–be a lawyer, attend grad school, get into a certain college, or go to a private school. But because the tests have to be standardized and largely multiple choice, and because of a lot of other limitations of the testing format, standardized tests end up being only loosely related to any kind of real-life ability. Taking a standardized test always turns out to be a unique activity with its own bizarre rules that rewards an unlikely set of skills.
And, in the same way that someone who wants to get better at a football video game should spend time playing the video game, and not actually on a football field, someone who wants to do well on a standardized test needs to learn the rules and patterns and structure and weaknesses of the test, instead of focusing on the things the test pretends to measure. Taking standardized tests at face value is one of the single biggest mistakes you can make.
To make a long story short, being good at a video game and being good at a standardized test both require a similar approach. They’re both standardized, predictable, limited simulations, and learning to exploit those inherent weaknesses is what will get you the best score in the least amount of time.
You may be wondering what that means, exactly.
Well, the “higher scores” part is probably self-explanatory: we’re a uniquely effective test-prep company, and we help you get higher scores on your tests.
But what about the “playing” part?
“Now playing” was a great turn of phrase dreamed up years ago by one of our students. She said she came up with it for three reasons:
- We were one of the first test-prep companies on the Internet to make extensive use of video-based tutorials, so “now playing” can refer to the idea of clicking “play” on our videos.
- Unlike most other test-prep companies, we emphasize a “game-based” approach to standardized tests. We teach you to think in terms of at test’s objectives and limitations, and how to exploit them.
- Finally, we always try to “play” in the sense of having fun with our students, clients, and even business partners. People relax when they’re playing. They learn better when they’re playing. They have more fun when they’re playing.
So we play. And we help you score higher.
Here are a couple of Mike’s early videos, to give you an idea of what we’re talking about: