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The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT


The Perfect Do-Over

How It All Began

I’m a forty-eight-year-old mother of two teenagers, and this whole crazy “perfect score project” started out as a scheme to rescue my kid from . . . sliding by. I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself.

Initially, though, the number of test-prep options left me agog (over a million on Google). My original idea was to try out twelve different methods of test prep the year before Ethan would be taking his first SAT. But as I saw how vast and complicated the realm of SAT prep appeared to be, I kept adding layers to the idea. What was at first simply the notion of taking an official SAT at school with the kids mushroomed into a vow to take the test every time it was offered in 2011 (seven times in all). And I’d try out different locations for each test, which turned out to be a total of five. (I didn’t anticipate the issue of test centers booking up early and ended up having to repeat a few). I wanted to see if the location played any role in the test experience, so I chose schools ranging from an elite private school in the suburbs to an urban public school in the Bronx.

My journey would start with the first SAT of 2011, on January 22, and Ethan would take his first SAT exactly one year after me--in January of 2012. We’d overlap in our preparation about halfway through the year because (a) juniors take the PSAT in the fall (October of 2011 for Ethan; SAT No. 5 for me), so he’d need to study; and (b) I know my son well enough to realize he does better with some spare runway to build momentum.

In spite of the escalating nature of the project, I was excited about the “study together” part and assumed that by halfway through the year, with four SAT experiences under my belt, I’d have my bearings and be able to adroitly show my son “the SAT ropes.”

Let’s clarify something from the start, though: I did not expect Ethan to pull off a perfect SAT score (though I wouldn’t have discouraged him from trying had he wanted to do so of his own accord). I found that by putting the pressure on myself, not on him, I was able to hold the bar reasonably high without having to nag or push (too much). I was “modeling” the behavior that I was hoping to cultivate in my son. In the end Ethan came up with his own number, which we both agreed was the right one.

The Question of the Day

Daunted by the million hits on Google, I started with the College Board Question of the Day. My friend Catherine told me to sign up. She was a year ahead of me with her son Chris and was studying for the SAT alongside him, and I thought it looked like fun. You could say Catherine was my first SAT mentor.

The first week I tried answering the Question of the Day I got most of the questions wrong, which was unnerving. Now, granted, I was trying to answer on the fly from a BlackBerry while cooking breakfast and getting kids out the door--but still, it was upsetting. The second week I decided to focus and see if I could answer the questions if I paid attention. I did better, though I still missed the few math questions. I was encouraged, though.

By week three, I was so into it that I gave myself permission to take the later train to work if I needed a few extra minutes to get the question right. I’d become hooked on these questions. What began as a little fun with the Question of the Day had developed into a full-blown habit. My fourth week, I hit the jackpot: all seven questions right. I was over the moon. I told my children, friends, and family, made an announcement on Facebook and Twitter--even went so far as to write a blog post, declaring to the world: I’m going to get a perfect SAT score!

There was no turning back.

The Wrath of Perfectionism

From the beginning, that word “perfect” had people riled up--so much so that I started to feel self-conscious. I’d backpedal if I sensed someone was going to take issue with the word, and I’d lean on the “project” part, to ease people’s anxiety about “perfect.”

“What? Do you think the person who wrote The Happiness Project is happy?” I’d ask. “It’s a project,” I’d say. “It’s about the journey.”

I almost caved and called it “The Higher Score Project.” One night, during dinner, I received a call from the marketing expert for the group that was designing my website. She told me that “the team” wanted me to know they all hated the word “perfect” and were in agreement that I should switch “perfect” to “higher”: The Higher Score Project. I said okay, though it didn’t feel right, and immediately logged on to GoDaddy, where I purchased every conceivable variation of Then I returned to the dinner table, where I told my kids the new name.

“You just lowered the bar--a lot,” said my daughter, Daisy. Ethan nodded in agreement.

After word of the project got out in my very small town, I began to feel as though people were seeing me as “the mom who pushes her kids too hard.” I was sure I could feel people staring when I’d walk into local shops and could practically hear what they were thinking. “There’s that lady who’s pressuring her son about the SAT.” I’d try to convince myself it had to be my imagination, but then something would happen that would substantiate my fears. One time, I walked into a restaurant and a “friend” I hardly knew sidled up to me, a few glasses of wine into her evening, and whispered, “Don’t worry, I don’t believe what they say.”

A few months after I’d finished my seventh and final SAT, I was waiting in line with some other moms to meet with the guidance counselor assigned to the juniors. It was parent-teacher conference night at Ethan’s school, and the guidance line seemed longer than it had in prior years. I knew the woman sitting next to me a little better than the others because our sons were friends.

“So what’s this SAT thing I hear you’re doing?” she asked.

I didn’t want the other parents within earshot to hear. They’d think I was insane.

“I took the test seven times last year,” I whispered, “to see if I could motivate Ethan.”

The woman looked perplexed, so I continued. “I was overwhelmed,” I said. “I didn’t know which prep class to sign him up for”--as if that explained why a middle-aged woman would subject herself, willingly, to seven SATs.

She still looked confused, so I went on digging my hole.

“It started with that Question of the Day from the College Board,” I said, “and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but before I knew what hit me, I was into it--like, really into it.”

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one mom lean in a little and another tuck her hair behind her ear, subtly. I could feel what they were all thinking: “Does this woman know something about the SAT?”

Right then, the guidance counselor opened his office door and a mother walked out confidently, her “what’s next” checklist restocked. She was infused with a little more clarity than the rest of us, who were all waiting patiently for a turn with the college gatekeeper. The mother with whom I’d been whispering was called in next. She walked into the office, but before closing the door she turned around and asked--from clear across the room--“What’s the one thing I need to know?”

I felt like Katie Couric had just asked me one last question before the commercial break.

God, I hope I don’t embarrass my son.


Taking full, timed practice SATs using College Board material (only) is an essential ingredient for success on the SAT.

Mimic the actual test conditions as closely as possible, including the five-minute breaks and bubble sheets.

It’s critical to review all mistakes until you understand them so well that you are able to explain them to someone else.

Keep track of how many questions you got wrong or guessed at and categorize them (e.g., three triangle problems wrong, four verb agreement mistakes).

The SAT is every bit as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested. Experienced tutors advise taking ten full practice tests prior to sitting for the real SAT, and the most exclusive test-prep companies have their students take fifteen or more full tests--before ever taking an official test. The College Board offers twenty-one practice SATs and plenty of extra practice problems, between the Blue Book and the online course.

A few weeks after declaring my goal, I had breakfast with an SAT tutor. I told her all about my plan: the perfect score, the different methods I would try, the various test locations, and so forth.

She looked at me with eyes of pity and didn’t say a word.

“But I answered the Question of the Day right seven days in a row,” I said. “Isn’t that what I’ll be doing on the SAT?”

She smiled, but remained silent, so I went on: “One year, twelve methods, seven SATs . . .” I couldn’t get a word of feedback out of her. “But it’s my lucky year,” I said in a last-ditch attempt to shake loose some sort of reaction. My birthday was scheduled to fall on 11/11/11 that year, and I was feeling lucky.

Not a peep.

My lucky year didn’t unfold at all the way it was supposed to.

Trying to Light the Fire

The project started as a way to help Ethan--to ignite a fire and motivate him--but not too far into it I got a teensy bit crazed. (Okay, maybe it was more like possessed.)

Call me crazy, but I enjoyed studying for the SAT as an adult and, yes, I do realize this is unusual, especially when you consider that my high school scores were abysmal. Actually, maybe an SAT obsession makes complete sense if you look at it through that lens. I’d always assumed I hadn’t done well in high school because I hadn’t tried hard, or cared. That was 1982, and things were different back then. Now I wanted to see what I could do if I did try and did care.

Looking back, maybe I should have called it “The Perfect Do-Over.” But that insight didn’t come until much later. At the time, this was about how I could salvage Ethan’s thirteen years of education, at the very last minute, with the SAT.

I ended up salvaging a lot more than that.


Back to the Future

There are many shitty things about being a grownup. You have to make money. You have to do taxes. You have to show up for your bail hearings. . . . But one of the few upsides of being an adult is that you NEVER have to take the SAT again.

--Drew Magary, Deadspin

The SAT, circa 1982

I remember two things about my SAT experience in high school in 1982:

It felt like everyone had the playbook except me.

I was relieved to find the word “iota” in the analogies section (which no longer exists) because it was the only question I was sure of on the entire test.

My scores were very bad, and they had the effect of whittling down my college choices to the “SAT-optional” schools of the day. I knew of only five such colleges: Bennington, Bard, Sarah Lawrence, Hampshire, and Bowdoin. I didn’t have the grades for Bowdoin, so I applied to the other four.

Out of this experience, I built a story that made sense: I didn’t do well because I didn’t try, and I didn’t try because I didn’t care. Of course I would have done better if I had studied.

As a mother thirty years later, I produced another story that made perfect sense--a story about helping my son perform well on the SAT. In this story, I was trying to rescue my kid from doing the minimum. I wanted to motivate him to study for the SAT without nagging. I didn’t need my son to be a star, that wasn’t the issue. I wanted him to go to a decent college, and I needed a way to pay for it.

Thinking about my son, I didn’t remember any “trauma” or “unresolved issues” or “test anxiety” from my own SAT experience. Why would I? Low scores or not, I had gotten into college, where I had done well, and I had had a successful career in book publishing. I had no idea I was carting around any baggage. One day, though, I was enlightened by sheer serendipity.

A Treasure Trove of Truth

Years ago my parents delivered a box with my name on it, which they’d found in their basement. They told me to throw it out if I didn’t want it, but instead I put it in my basement.

This was out of character for me. I hate clutter. I’m sparse. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I rid myself of things, and it doesn’t even matter what those things are. I love the sensation of seeing Hefty bags filled with “stuff” waiting at the curbside for garbage men to pick up.

But for several years the box sat unopened in my basement.

When I moved houses, I brought it with me to my new basement, where it waited another year or two until I repositioned it in front of my office door, thinking that if I had to trip over it to get into my office I might open it, finally.

Cut to December 2010.

I had to register for the January 2011 SAT. I logged on to the College Board’s website but, feeling nervous, found myself procrastinating. Casting around for something to do that did not involve registering for the SAT, I decided it was as good a time as any to open up that box.

Inside I discovered my very own treasure trove of truth, waiting for me after almost thirty years. The box was filled with water-stained letters, all stuck together in a unity of neglect. The letters seemed so grateful for the fresh air that they fluffed up in anticipation of enlightening their suddenly attentive reader.

The letters had all been written to me in the years 1982 and 1983, my junior and senior years of high school, the exact same period I was about to live through as a mother with my son.

Apparently, we used to hand-write long letters back then. I’d forgotten this. Some of the letters were over ten pages long. They were written on rice paper and yellow legal pads, in ballpoint pen that was smudged from having survived years of basement floods. There were love letters and notes from my parents, letters from best friends, and cards from my long-dead grandmother, who always signed off by saying she’d included a stamp so I’d write back.

The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT
by by Debbie Stier

  • Genres: Education, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony
  • ISBN-10: 0307956687
  • ISBN-13: 9780307956682