Articles Written By: Robert Kohen

Prep Effectively with a Mistakes Journal

If you’re preparing the SAT, ACT, ISEE, SSAT or any other standardized test, it’s essential that you don’t simply study hard, but study effectively. Two essential elements of effective studying are analyzing your mistakes in-depth, and then reviewing what you’ve learned from them. How can you make sure you’re systematically tracking, reflecting on, and learning from every mistake when you’re spending months studying for a sprawling exam? With a mistakes journal. 

A mistakes journal is a powerful tool for optimizing and organizing your studying. It is essentially a place where you systematically log every question you missed along with a record of where the question is located, why you missed the question, what type of question it was and how you could tell, and what lesson(s) you learned from reflecting on your mistake. You may have missed a question about triangles, for instance, because you didn’t know a certain rule in trigonometry, you didn’t pick up on the cue that this was a trigonometry question, or because you tried to solve the problem in your head without first labeling the diagram or writing out your work. Using a mistakes journal forces you to reflect on what exactly is making you miss questions and how you can avoid those mistakes in the future. The other great benefit of a mistakes journal is that it facilitates review by helping keep track of everything in one place—not always an easy task when you’re taking multiple practice tests from different books and websites. 

Learning science has revealed that we best learn new information through an iterative review process. This means that you must revisit your notes multiple times before they will move into your long-term memory. Specifically, you’re most likely to commit material to memory if you first review it within 24 hours after you first encounter it, while it’s still fresh. This means that you should review new entries in your mistakes journal the day after you write them, and then again every few days until the notes are in your long-term memory. Every so often, you should review the mistakes journal in its entirety to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

You should also attempt to resolve any missed problems a couple of days after you’ve entered them in your mistakes journal. To do this, first print a blank copy of the test so that you won’t see your old notes. Once you’ve successfully redone a problem, make of note of that in your mistakes journal. In another couple of days, use the mistake journal to identify the problems you haven’t been able to redo successfully, and attempt those again. Repeat the process as needed. Every so often, you should attempt to resolve all missed problems to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. 

Lastly, remember that a mistakes journal can be as effective an aid in academic classes as it can be in test prep. Many students, seeing the benefits it brings to their test prep, start using the journal in school as well.

Is It Better to Take the SAT or ACT?

Once upon a time, many colleges looked upon the ACT with suspicion. These days, however, schools give the ACT and SAT equal weight in the admissions process. Gone are the days when students would simply sit for the test that was more popular in their region of the country. The number of students taking the ACT has risen drastically, and a growing portion of students are even taking both exams.

Given this newfound freedom, which test should you choose? It’s critical to carefully evaluate which exam is best for you. While there is some overlap between the SAT and ACT, they are still markedly different. Because thoroughly preparing for each can take many months (make sure to start early), it’s generally best limit yourself to preparing for only one. If you prepare for both, you sacrifice valuable time that is often better spent developing your academic and extracurricular profile. That said, high-scoring students aiming for the most competitive scores do sometimes benefit from sitting for both. 

The best way to determine which test is right for you is to take a full-length, timed practice test for each exam. Make sure the exam is an official one written by the actual test makers (send me an email if you’d like me to mail you one). If possible, have a parent proctor the exam. When you score the test, compare the two scores using the SAT-ACT concordance table (available on both test makers’ websites). If you score significantly higher on one exam, that’s usually the best exam to take.

If you perform equally well on both tests, consider which you found more enjoyable. The more enjoyable the test, the more effort you’re likely to invest in preparing for it, resulting in a higher final score.

In addition to taking a practice test on your own, here are some of the key differences between the exams that can help you best decide which is right for you:

• The ACT allows less time per question than the SAT. While many students can finish SAT sections and still have time remaining, students taking the ACT often struggle to complete the sections in time. If you’re a particularly slow test taker, the SAT may be a better choice.

• Reading is very different on each exam. The SAT, unlike the ACT, regularly features challenging passages in antiquated English (think Victorian novel) and questions that require nuanced, sophisticated critical reasoning to answer. ACT questions, by contrast, are more straightforward. Once again, however, time is much more limited on ACT reading. Students will often prefer one test’s approach to the other.

• Math counts for half of the composite SAT score, but only a fourth of the composite ACT score. While weaker math students might thus seek to gravitate toward the ACT, the ACT covers a much wider and more advanced range of content from algebra, geometry, trigonometry and precalculus, whereas the SAT generally focuses more narrowly on algebra. Prepping for ACT math—particularly if a student is seeking a very high score—can thus take substantially longer than prepping for SAT math. The difficulty level of the questions is similar, although the SAT features more text-dense word problems. 

• The ACT contains a science section, whereas the SAT merely sprinkles a few similar science and data questions into its reading and writing sections. Little scientific knowledge is needed to do well on the ACT, however, as the test is primarily concerned with your ability to quickly analyze data like graphs and charts. Still, the science section can be a major factor in score differences between the SAT and ACT. For students aiming for the most competitive ACT scores, it is wise to review some scientific fundamentals, which can (as with the math section) make ACT prep last longer than SAT prep. 

• The SAT has recently featured some very unforgiving curves, particularly on the math section, making it difficult to achieve perfect or near-perfect scores. That said, the SAT tends to be more predictable than the ACT, which has been known to surprise students with a few random math and science concepts it has never tested before. And as stated above, the SAT generally covers a narrower band of material than the ACT. 

Use these tips to help decide which exam is best for you. While it may take some time to figure out which test is the right one, you won’t regret having done so. Carefully choosing between the two exams can help ensure you achieve your optimal score, maximizing your chances at college admissions and scholarships.

ISEE Scoring

If you or your child is preparing for the ISEE exam, odds are you’re probably a bit confused by the scoring. Out of all the standardized tests, ISEE probably has the most complicated and obtuse scoring system. It’s difficult to both accurately assess where you’re scoring on any given practice test and make sense of what that score might mean. In this article I’ll clarify how the scoring system works and what you can do to best estimate your ISEE scores on practice tests.

How ISEE Scores Work

First, it’s important to understand that the ISEE doesn’t provide a single, cumulative score like most tests. Instead, four scores are provided, one for each section of the exam: Verbal, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension and Mathematics Achievement. Although these scores are distinct, most schools will consider each score on its own and the average of the four scores. A low score on one section, then, can partially be made up for by a high score on another.

ISEE Scoring

Like most standardized tests, the ISEE considers the number of questions you answered correctly to be your raw score, and then converts that raw score into the official scaled score. Because there is no guessing penalty on the ISEE, the number of questions answered correctly will always equal the raw score. The same raw score may yield slightly different scaled scores, however, depending on the difficulty of that particular test. If the ISEE determines that a particular test they wrote is more difficult than usual, the curve will be slightly easier, and vice-versa.

Scaled scores for each section range, rather oddly, from 760-940. Accompanying these scores are percentile ranks—this tells you how the student performed relative to other students in her grade taking the ISEE within the past three years. An “80th Percentile” score means that the student did as well as or better than 80% of her peers. These percentiles largely stay the same over time, although they vary slightly.

Here’s where things start to get weird. The scaled scores and the percentile ranks do not really matter for admissions. Each percentile rank is converted into what the ISEE calls “stanines,” or scores ranging from 1-9, with 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest. The middle 50% of students will score 5 on any section—above 5 is above average, below 5 is below average. These stanine scores are what matter to admissions committees, and these are the scores you should be focusing on.

Whereas raw to scaled score conversions and percentiles can vary slightly depending on when the ISEE is taken, percentile to stanine conversions always stay the same. Here’s the official breakdown:

Percentile              Stanine

1-3                         1

4-10                       2

11-22                     3

23-39                     4

40-59                     5

60-76                     6

77-88                     7

89-95                     8

96-99                     9

If you score in the 98th Percentile, for instance, you’d receive a 9 stanine score.

What’s A Good ISEE Score?

What is considered a “good” ISEE score depends on the schools to which you’re applying. For many good private schools, a score of 5 or above is sufficient for entry. Some of the most competitive private schools, however, generally like to see scores of 7 or above. This is generally true of elite private schools in New York City, such as Dalton, Collegiate, Trinity and Horace Mann. A few of the most selective schools look for scores of 8 and 9, although 7’s won’t necessarily put a student out of the running.

Keep in mind that the group of ISEE test takers against which you’re being compared is not a random sampling of students at your grade level, but a self-selecting and generally academically strong group of individuals. For this reason, ISEE percentiles tend to be lower than percentiles on other types of national testing. An “average” score of 5, then, does not indicate an “average quality” student.

The best way to find out a realistic score to target is to contact the schools to which you’re applying and ask for the typical scores of admitted students. Some schools publish this information on their websites. Just remember to focus on the stanines.

How Can You Determine Your ISEE Score?

If you’re preparing for the ISEE, you’ll want to make sure that you take a number of timed, practice tests. Unfortunately, however, ISEE practice tests—both official and unofficial—generally lack concrete scoring information. Usually only an extremely broad range of scores is provided, so it’s impossible to have a good sense of what stanine you’re scoring in.

In order to get a better sense of your scores, a simple rule of thumb is to calculate the percentage of questions you answered correctly on any given section. To do this, take the number of questions answered correctly, divide it by the total number of questions, and then multiply that result by 100. Once you have the percentage, use the number in the tens place to determine your stanine: 90% correct or greater is a 9, 80%-89% is an 8, 70%-79% is a 7, and so on. The result won’t be perfect, but it should be relatively close to the actual stanine.

Recap

When considering ISEE scores, always look to the “stanine” score. You can roughly approximate this score by taking the percentage of questions answered correctly on any section and then converting the number in the tens place of the percentage to the stanine score. The “average” score is a 5, although this does not indicate only “average” academic ability. Check with the schools to which you’re applying to find out what scores you should be aiming for.

The Best Books and Practice Tests For The ISEE Upper Level

If you’re studying for the ISEE Upper Level exam, timed practice tests should be at the core of your preparation. Use these tests to learn what ISEE questions are like, how to best approach them, how to manage your time, and what your weaknesses are. If you identify a weakness in a learnable skill, such as a mathematics formula, brush up on that skill with targeted lessons, review and practice problems. By targeting your weaknesses and working with actual ISEE questions, you should begin to improve your scores.

Unfortunately, the ISEE has only released one official Upper Level practice test. Unlike some other standardized tests out there, the ISEE is very guarded with their questions. That said, there is enough quality material available to work with if you know where to look.

Here are the very best practice tests for the ISEE Upper Level.

The Very Best: Official Tests

Start with the official ISEE Upper Level practice test, available for free online here. Note that this test is slightly abbreviated (it leaves out the “experimental” questions you’ll see on test day that don’t count toward your score), so it will be a little shorter than the actual exam. That said, this is the best ISEE test out there—the questions are authentic ones, written by the test makers themselves.

Once you’ve worked through the Upper Level test and completely understood why you missed the questions you did, there is one other official ISEE test you can take: the Middle Level official test. Even though this is “Middle Level” (for students entering grades 7 and 8), it is remarkably similar to the Upper Level exam. Some of the advanced math topics that appear on the Upper Level exam are missing, but otherwise the test is extremely close to the Upper Level in terms of difficulty and question types.

After finishing these two official tests, you still have more official ISEE questions you can study. They can be found in the “Sample Test Questions” sections of the What To Expect On the ISEE Middle Level and Upper Level booklets that I link to above (these booklets contain both the official tests and the practice questions). Make sure to work through and understand these problems before moving on to additional practice tests.

The Best Unofficial Practice Tests

When it comes to unofficial practice tests, there are a number of high quality tests out there that match the question types and difficulty level of the real exam very well. That said, there are more bad practice tests than good ones, so it’s important to choose your tests wisely.

As a general rule, practice tests written by experienced individuals who tutor and understand the ISEE well tend to be of higher quality than tests written by the large prep companies (Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.). They can also be more expensive, however. While some of these books might cost $20 or $30, I believe they’re worth their price. There are individuals and companies selling ISEE books for hundreds of dollars apiece, but I have chosen to leave these books off this list. It’s not that their tests aren’t high quality—it’s just that you can find just as high quality tests for significantly less money elsewhere.

The following three books all offer extremely well written, high quality practice tests that match the question types and difficulty level of the real thing:

Five Practice Tests For the Upper Level ISEE, by Chad Mills – This is my absolute favorite of these three books. While all three are fantastic, these tests are the closest to the real thing that I’ve seen. The author acknowledges that he’s studied both the released ISEE questions and the official National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards off of which the ISEE is based, and it shows in the variety and quality of his questions. This book also has five tests, which is three more than the other two books.

ISEE Prep Tests 1

The Best Unofficial Practice Tests For the Upper Level ISEE, by Christa B. Abbott – Two high quality tests written by another experience ISEE tutor.

ISEE Prep Tests 2

Ivy Global ISEE Upper Level Tests, by Ivy Global – This book also features two excellent practice tests.

ISEE Prep Tests 3

Can Be Helpful But Not Always Great Practice Tests

This section is reserved for practice tests written by the giant prep companies. Some are better than others, but none are anywhere near as faithful to the actual ISEE Upper Level as the exams mentioned above.

These tests might still be a good option if you’ve already exhausted all the above practice tests and don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for the exorbitantly priced tests that are out there. Here they are, in order of best to worst:

The Princeton Review: Cracking the SSAT & ISEE – This book features one Upper Level ISEE test, and it’s actually pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as the tests I’ve already mentioned, but it’s still pretty on target and worth taking.

ISEE Prep Tests 4

Barron’s SSAT/ISEE – This book features two ISEE practice tests. They’re not classified as “Upper Level,” but they generally match the Upper Level test in difficulty. While the Barron’s features some challenging questions, which is a plus (given the ISEE does as well), some of the questions require calculations that are nearly impossible to do in a timely fashion without a calculator. This is different than on the actual ISEE, where any arithmetic can usually be simplified so that lengthy calculations are unnecessary.

ISEE Prep Tests 5

Peterson’s Master The SSAT & ISEE – This book has two Upper Level tests. The tests are a little uneven: some of the questions approximate ISEE difficulty well, whereas others don’t. Some of the math sections are almost entirely made up of word problems, unlike on the actual ISEE where there are a number of geometric figures and visual presentations of data.

ISEE Prep Tests 6

Kaplan SSAT & ISEE – Please avoid these practice tests. There are two, both of which are written as hybrids of the Middle and Upper Level versions. The questions fall far below actual ISEE difficulty level and do not reflect the range and variety of ISEE question types.

ISEE Prep Tests 7

Recap

Make sure that ISEE practice tests form the core of your prep plan. There are a lot of ISEE Upper Level practice tests out there, but it’s important that you work with the best of them. Always work through the official tests and questions first. Once you’ve finished those and learned from your wrong answers, use this guide to help select the best unofficial practice tests. Remember, practice makes perfect!

How To Improve Timing On ACT Science


The ACT Science section is notoriously fast paced, allowing only 52.5 seconds per question. To make things even more difficult, the ACT presents you with more information than most mortals could possibly hope to read and understand in the 40 minutes it provides. It’s imperative, then, that you work quickly in order to do well, and this means having the right strategy to manage the clock.

ACT Science Improve Timing

How can you actually finish the science section on time? The most important thing you can do is to skip reading the passages and instead go directly to the questions. You should do this on every passage type except the conflicting viewpoints passage, in which two or three people share their conflicting opinions on a topic and no visuals are provided. Because the conflicting viewpoints are strictly text-based, it’s essential that you read them in their entirety in order to answer the questions.

For every other passage type, however, you need to go directly to the questions because there is simply not enough time to read everything the ACT tells you. The ACT deliberately places extraneous information in each passage, expecting you to identify what you need to answer each question and discard what you do not. Trying to read and make sense of everything will usually do more harm than good to your score.

Since most questions ask for specific information that can be found in the visuals, work from each question to the appropriate visual in order to find the needed information. This will work for most questions, although on some you will also need to briefly read the passage introduction or experiment description in order to identify the correct answer. Only look at the written descriptions if the visuals are not sufficient on their own.

As you work through each set of questions, first answer questions about the first experiment or figure, then questions about the second experiment or figure, and so on. The details of each experiment of figure will be fresher in your mind when answering questions if you group the questions this way.

Around five of the thirty five questions on ACT science will be conceptual in nature, meaning you generally won’t be able to answer them on the basis of a visual alone. These usually appear as the last or second-to-last question in a passage. Since these questions require an understanding of the passage as a whole, it’s best to save them for the end of a passage question set. Look back at the passage for more information to help answer them, but if you’re stuck on one of these questions after more than 90 seconds, make your best guess and move on to the next question.

While this strategy will save you much needed time on ACT Science, it’s also essential that you practice often by taking official, timed practice sections. Here are some general strategies you can use as you practice ACT science. Identify your mistakes so that you can learn from them, and review what you’ve learned often. As you grow both more accustomed to the strict time limit and better at answering ACT Science questions, your speed will naturally improve.

By combining the question-first strategy with extensive timed practice and review, you’ll be on your way to both finishing the ACT Science section on time and hitting your optimal score.