The Hazards of Anecdotal Advice

Preparing for the ACT or SAT can seem daunting. Often, people instinctively turn to friends or online articles for advice. While some guidance from these sources is helpful, it’s important to examine the limitations of students who could be referencing an outdated version of the test, whose only knowledge of the exam comes from taking it, and who may have needs that are dramatically different from your own.

Our students commonly pass along what they’ve heard from their peers, and while some of it is good, solid information, a lot of it rings completely or, at least, partially false. For instance, some students will swear that “C” is correct the majority of the time when in reality, the answers on the test are evenly distributed throughout the exam – so C is no more likely than any of the other options. Another common tip passed around among high schoolers is to take the test on a particular date – take June, for example – because it’s easier than the others. There are several issues with this. Maybe June felt easier for one particular student, but, as everyone’s strengths are different, that didn’t necessarily hold true for others. Additionally, if the June test in 2015 truly was easier for most students, that doesn’t mean that the 2016 test will follow suit. Most importantly, the curve on the ACT renders any differences in difficulty irrelevant. If the June test truly was less difficult, then the curve would just be harsher.

Additionally, we recently worked with a student who scored higher on the ACT, but was told by a friend at Harvard that she should take the SAT solely because she had already taken the ACT previously. This was amidst the new changes (which made the SAT unstable and a bad choice for the majority of students). Combine that with the fact that every college will accept either exam, and her friend’s direction amounts to some pretty rotten advice. In the end, the student remained focused on her stronger test and exceeded even her expectations.

Looking to current college students for help – particularly those who attend prestigious schools – seems intuitive on the surface. However, students who attend top schools are often scoring in the top 99th percentile of college bound students nationwide, and therefore do not reflect the reality for the majority of other students. Also, these students have a very limited experience. Scoring well on a test does not make you an expert – especially as the tests continue to evolve.

The newly revised SAT gives a perfect example of this. In this article, Business Insider presents the perspective of a “Harvard grad with a perfect score on the SAT.” In the article, Chris Ryan (the aforementioned Harvard alum) offers last minute tips to scoring well on the SAT. There’s a major problem with taking his advice: the test that Ryan took years ago hardly resembles the current SAT.

In another article, titled “College Students Share Their Best SAT, ACT Test Strategies,” students from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University are consulted. Their advice includes some valuable tidbits, such as beginning to study well before the test, striving to learn new strategies, realizing that these tests are “not the be-all, end-all,” and the importance of skipping questions that are sucking up all of your time. Alternatively, some of the advice falls flat and illustrates a lack of expertise. When counseling students on time management, the WashU student claims that you should skip passages on the ACT Science section that include charts if you struggle with reading them. This information is not only inaccurate, it’s potentially quite harmful. Of the six ACT Science passages, five of them will reliably have charts, while only one may not. If a student were to try to follow this advice on test day, they’d end up frantic and confused – as they’d potentially be trying to skip over all of the passages.

Overall, it’s vital to use discretion when following advice about college entrance exams that comes from friends or articles. While some of it may be valid, keep the source in mind. Just because your uncle recently had his home remodeled, that doesn’t mean you’d want him creating blueprints for yours. Instead, you’d turn to the experts.

Guessing on Standardized Tests – LotD-R

I apologize if this is a little more “dense” than most of our wonderful blogs – just bear with me & I think we’ll learn a little something new together!

Guessing on Standardized Tests – Letter of the Day Strategy

Many tutors use various strategies when it comes to guessing on the ACT – one of the most common strategies is the Letter of the Day Strategy. With this approach, if a student comes across a question that they don’t know the answer to (and can’t do any eliminating of other answer choices) or if they are running out of time and need to fill in bubbles – they use the same letter every time throughout the entire test. Guessing is a very important and easy concept for a lot of tests – particularly the ACT and LSAT, as many if not most students have trouble with the timing of these tests.

Using the LotD Strategy is considered to be the gold standard of guessing methods – as it gives you the best shot at getting one out of four questions correct on average (or one out of five in the Math portion of the ACT). Randomly guessing is much riskier: you may have a chance to get more of the questions correct, but you also have a chance of getting all of the questions incorrect. **(You still technically have a 25% chance – 20% in Math – of getting the question correct – but the odds are now positioned in a much riskier manner, statistically speaking).

While the LotD Strategy is certainly a good, risk-aversion approach to guessing on standardized tests, particularly multiple-choice test, I think for many students it is found lacking based upon a given student’s performance leading up to the guessing. What if we can increase the odds of getting questions correct from 25%, on a four answer choice test, to 30-40%?

Regression Toward the Mean 

In statistics, there’s a phenomenon call Regression Toward the Mean – which basically says that even when things are randomized, there’s a tendency for the average to be achieved over a larger sample size. For instance, if you are looking at just four Reading ACT questions, the odds that one of the answers will be A/F is ¼, but in such a small sample, it could be that it will be two correct answers or more. Or conversely, none of the answers could be A/F.

When looking at the Reading test as a whole, the sample is larger (40 questions total), so the odds that ¼ of the questions’ correct answers are A/F becomes more reliable, as the random variance has been reduced (not eliminated – as there can still be statistical anomalies).

What does this Mean?

What does this mean for a student on test day?! Particular students who are accurate with the questions that they’ve answered, but still have timing issues with particular sections (very common on many entrance exams), can improve their odds of guessing correctly by applying the aforementioned statistical concept.

For example, if a student has ten questions remaining in a set of 40 questions, they can quickly take inventory of the answer choices they’ve selected on the first 30 questions and guess the letter that has been used the least. If done correctly, the student should have a good opportunity to increase their accuracy in their guessing – which in the end will lead to a higher score.

The LotD-R strategy isn’t for everyone – and learning to quickly assess previous answers is a new skill that many haven’t previously practiced – but for some students, the strategy will allow for an improved score with minimal effort.

– Caleb Pierce