"Who Do You Think You Are, Exactly?"

(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

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 . . .

Fencing Experience

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.

Student Feedback

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.

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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.