Results-oriented, personalized SAT/ACT coaching.


view:  full / summary

The Problem with Recycled Tests

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on June 16, 2016 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (0)

I’ve been in the habit of taking the June ACT test and October SAT test for several years now. I generally view the June ACT as one of the more challenging tests of the year, although generally not as difficult as the December test. 

I was surprised to find my June 11th test in English and Math to be easier than I had expected. The Science section was not as difficult, other than one passage, as I had expected. I sensed there was something different with this test. As soon as I left the test and checked my emails, I read that the June 11th international test in both Hong Kong and Korea had been cancelled only hours before the test was to have taken place. (1) Why? Because the ACT had apparently shipped its tests two weeks early and somehow that test had been leaked or compromised.

It is unclear if the ACT had planned on using the same form of the test both internationally and in the U.S. One would suspect that if the test had been confirmed as comprised in Asia that it would be possible that students had also seen it in the U.S.

What we do know is that the U.S. June 11th test was identical to the Feb, 2015 ACT – in other words, a recycled test.

The question is, did the ACT plan on using this recycled test in Asia, and had it been leaked sometime following Feb, 2015? Did the ACT assume that it was unlikely that U.S. students had seen this test, and so they kept the June 11th test as the Feb, 2015 test per the original plan?

OR did the ACT send a new form of test over to Hong Kong and Korea, and the new form was compromised in the two weeks leading up to the test? And if so, did the ACT take precautions to last-minute switch the form of the June 11th test in the U.S. to a recycled test (the Feb, 2015 test)?

don’t know the answer to this yet.

What I do know is that the ACT and College Board have been in troubled waters with cheating scandals for some years now with their use of recycled tests, particularly in Asia. Even though it would increase costs to have six or seven different new tests each year for each of the test dates, stopping the use of recycled tests would level the playing field and would allow students and families to rebuild their trust in the ACT and College Board.

At least the ACT cancelled the June 11th test in Korea when they confirmed the leak. College Board, on the other hand, has continued to move forward with recycled tests in Asia even in the face of known compromises. Making matters worse, College Board refuses to discuss this topic when investigative journalists call. (2) To top it all off, it appears that College Board has already recycled the New March SAT in the U.S. by reusing it in June. (3)  

Clearly, the use of recycled tests has its benefits for some students – particularly those who have somehow been provided access to those leaked tests. In addition, for even those students who haven’t seen the leaked tests, an older recycled test can at times present as just a bit less formidable. But in the end, given how nerve wracking test prep and test taking is for juniors and seniors in high school, I am quite sure that students don’t want to compete with an unknown quantity of other students who were “advantaged” by prepping with the very test that they now confront for real on a National Test Day.




Understanding New SAT Inflated Scores, Percentiles and Concordance

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on May 25, 2016 at 9:25 AM Comments comments (1)

College Board released scores almost two weeks ago from its March 5th National New SAT test date and the public school weekday New SAT test administrations. A flurry of articles, reports, and inflamed letters has appeared in response.

The highlights of what we have learned so far include:

Score Inflation: New SAT scores are “inflated” compared to the old SAT scores. For the vast majority of students, New SAT scores are roughly 60 to 80 points higher for corresponding sections of the Old SAT.

Percentile inflation: College Board is now reporting a newly defined Percentile called the National Percentile. This percentile uses a new definition and a new sampled reference group, “raising” percentiles by 6 to 8 points across the middle score ranges, and as high as 10 percentile points over part of the scale.

Substantially decreased Benchmark scores: In 2015, College Board defined college readiness as achieving a 1550 SAT score, which roughly 42% of students met. In the new SAT score reporting, the Composite benchmark is now a 1010 score, which equates to a 1370 on the Old SAT (37th percentile). The New Readiness standard has also been redefined with a lower GPA and a higher predicted likelihood.

Concordance Tables released after only one New SAT test: The last time the SAT changed its test in 2005 College Board waited a full year before producing Concordance Tables. Since many juniors were counseled to either take the ACT or the Old SAT early, it seems likely that these Concordance Tables are based on a non-representative student sample. It is highly likely that they will change significantly over time.

ACT CEO is NOT in agreement with College Board’s published Concordance of the New SAT to the ACT: CEO Roorda wrote two inflammatory letters explaining that the ACT was not consulted in forming the Concordance table and that we need a full year’s worth of data to create a “full and fair” sample.

Score Inflation

The Old SAT had an average (roughly 50th percentile marks) Composite score of 1500, comprised of roughly 500 scores on each of the three sections. The New SAT has an average that is closer to 1090, a full 90 points higher. The test has not been “dumbed down”, nor have students suddenly become brilliant. Instead, the test changes have created some of this discrepancy: 1) there are only 4 answer choices instead of 5, 2) there is no Wrong Answer Penalty, 3) challenging and arcane vocabulary has been eliminated, and 4) the test questions are supposed to be more closely aligned with real school work.

So the New and Old tests are different in content and scoring. More comparisons across a variety of score categories comparing New SAT scores to Composite (CR and Math) Old scores show consistent inflation in the 40-70 point range 1:

o A New SAT Composite score of 1200 corresponds to an Old 1130.

o A New 1300 score corresponds to an Old 1230 score.

o A New 1400 score corresponds to an old 1340 score.

o A New 1500 score corresponds to an old 1460 score.

o A New 1600 score is the same 1600 of the Old test.

Percentile Inflation

College Board prominently reports a National Percentile and further down in its report states a User Percentile (similar in both SAT and PSAT reporting). Students and families need to understand that the Percentiles stated in Old SAT reports were similar to the User Percentile, not the National Percentile. National Percentiles are based on a definitional change and a new sampled reference group. The Percentile definition has been changed from “the percentage of students scoring below you” to “the percentage of students scoring at or below your score”. (This new definition is in line with the definition used by the ACT). This definition change inflated percentiles by roughly 2 to 6 points on the PSAT.

The National group is reported to be a more stable population of students (All juniors), but has no relevance to a pool of students who are taking the SAT or ACT. This group is formed from a national sample, and it is unclear how it was derived, how accurately it reflects the national pool of students, or when or if it will be modified. These National percentiles cannot be compared to any prior data and by definition are inflated above the reported User percentiles. User percentiles (juniors who took the New SAT) are based on a changing population based on who is taking the test. Since different states are in fluctuation in deciding whether to contract with the ACT or SAT for public school diploma testing requirements, this population will continue to change over time.

One executive from College Board states his dislike for the User Percentile for just this reason – it is not a “stable” population. However, it seems unfair to the uneducated student to not provide more detail that explains that the User Percentiles are the only way to compare to prior years.This is why the Concordance Tables are necessary, and they have just been released.

Why did College Board inflate scores and percentiles?

Kate Dalby, a prominent SAT/ACT tutor in Pittsburgh, called these New scores (both PSAT and SAT) “The College Board Bait and Switch?” 2   Given the inflated scores and percentiles from the PSAT last fall, many students opted to take the New SAT instead of the ACT. How many of these students would have opted for the ACT had they understood the inflation? Dan Edmonds of Noodle Education speculates the College Board may be intentionally inflating scores to attract more students. 3  Certainly, College Board has been under intense competitive pressure with the ACT since in 2012 the number of ACT test-takers surpassed that of the SAT.

Substantially Decreased Benchmark Scores

Composite Benchmark scores that College Board defines as “college readiness” were substantially decreased from a 1550 (old SAT) in 2015 to a 1010 New SAT, which is equivalent to a 1370 old SAT. Percentiles for these scores have dropped from 42nd to 37th for these benchmark scores.

Looking deeper into the components of the Benchmarks, the Math section appeared virtually unchanged; however, the English-Language Arts benchmarks were reduced by at least 110 points. Almost half of the National Representative sophomores would miss the old benchmark, yet only 10% of National Representative sophomores miss the new benchmark. It is difficult to understand the rationale behind these changes.

College Board also redefined its Benchmark or College Readiness Standard to read, “The college and career readiness benchmarks for the SAT predict a 75 percent likelihood of achieving at least a C in a set of first-year, credit-bearing college courses.” The Old Standard had read, ’The college readiness benchmark was calculated as the SAT score associated with a 65 percent probability of earning a first-year GPA of 2.67 (B-) or higher.”

The change to the new Readiness standard brings the New SAT more in line with the ACT wording. The definitions did not contribute to the substantially decreased benchmark scores. Concordance Tables released after only one New SAT test In 2005, the last time that College Board did a comprehensive overhaul of its SAT, CB waited an entire year to create Concordance tables to equate the New and Old tests. This time, after only the initial new test, College Board produced its Concordance Tables. The majority of juniors were counseled to avoid taking the first two New SATs, so it is highly unlikely that these test results come from a typical representative sampling of juniors. It is unknown when or how often these Concordance Tables will be revised.

ACT CEO is NOT in agreement with College Board’s published Concordance of the New SAT to the ACT

Further, ACT CEO Roorda has published two letters 4 (first letter is printed in Dalby’s blog) expressing his anger and disagreement with the Concordance tables that attempt to equate to the ACT. First, the ACT was never contacted to collaborate in the production of these tables. The last time the SAT and ACT collaborated was 10 years ago. Roorda feels that in order to create a rigorous concordance, meaningful data must be collected for roughly a year. He tells students and their families that “Until then, we urge you not to use the SAT Score Converter. And not to listen to messages suggesting the old SAT and the new SAT, or even the ACT, are comparable. For me, that’s unequivocal…”

Stay tuned, because it’s clear that we’ll be hearing more about comparing New SAT-Old SAT-ACT scores as the data continues to be collected and analyzed….






ACT Research posts new article explaining New Essay scores

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on May 19, 2016 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (0)

The ACT has very recently posted a new technical research article for constituents to explain and defend its scaled scores on the New Essay format that was introduced in September of 2015. The main points of the ACT Research paper are:

1. Based on the research studies and the September and October 2015 administrations of the ACT tests, the results indicate that the New Writing test has “similar reliability, precision, and difficulty as the previous test.”

2. The same percentile is associated with a Writing score that is on average 3 to 4 points lower than the ACT Composite or English score. For example, a student with a 34 Composite score (99th percentile) is likely to achieve, on average, a New Writing test score of 30 (98th percentile). Only five percent of students have a New Writing score that is 10 or more points below their Composite score. One large reason behind the lower scaled scores for the Writing is that the population taking the optional Writing test is a self-selected smaller and higher-scoring population.

3. The gap between successive Writing test scores is larger than expected. The ACT expands on this concern by explaining the SEM (standard error of measure) for Writing and the other sections of the test. There is a SEM of one point for the Composite, 2 points for the individual sections, and 4 points for the Writing test. The SEM can be illustrated with this example:

     a. A Composite score of 30 means that the student has a 2 out of 3 chance that his true score is between a 29 and 31.

     b. A Math score of 30 means that the student has a 2 out of 3 chance that his true Math score is between and 28 and 32.

     c. A Writing score of 26 means that the student has a 2 out of 3 chance that his true Writing score is between 22 and 30.

The reason behind the much greater SEM for Writing is primarily that Writing is only one task (compared with 60 questions in Math, for example).

I personally saw one of my students drop from a 30 to a 22 Writing score and one from a 22 to a 16 Writing score based on their perception that the topic (business fashion) in the April, 2016 test was not familiar enough to create informed and detailed examples for support. Each of these students, however, dramatically improved his overall test scores and Composite score. The first achieved a 34 Composite and the second a 26 Composite. So both of these students were in the long tail of the SEM distribution, with Writing scores that were 10 or more points below their Composite scores.

4. “Research suggests that as students become increasingly familiar with the new prompt, scores may improve.”

5. “The ACT is working to improve communications with score users about limitations of different scales scores and to provide additional advice and support to minimize confusion and potential unintended consequences.”


Personal observations and recommendations regarding the ACT Writing test:

There have been several mainstream media pieces on the ACT Writing and the dismay of students with the lower scaled scores. One would hope that the admissions officers of colleges and universities are aware of these differences.

Interestingly, in a recent Linked-In tutoring forum, one of the active tutors reported that a local college counselor called around to various admissions officers to survey their awareness of some of the issues surrounding these ACT Writing scores. Most admissions personnel were NOT aware of any of these issues. So, this new ACT Research paper is timely, and Point #5 is important for the ACT to follow through with. Hopefully, admissions officers will become informed of these issues over this summer.

Last, anecdotal reports and the Washington Post article have suggested that when a student was unhappy with his New ACT Writing essay score and requested a re-scoring, most of the time, the re-scoring was higher. Given that the essay topics continue to vary greatly, and the successive scores continue to vary greatly, I would recommend that students keep this in mind.

For additional background on New Essay sample reports, read the 5- and 6-score essays on the ACT website link here:,





Number One Tip for ACT test-takers

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on March 22, 2016 at 2:20 PM Comments comments (0)

I offer small group mock testing frequently for my students who tutor with me, usually at least in the form of a baseline test and a mock test shortly before their first real tests. Although I take real ACTs and real SATs side-by-side with other juniors and seniors, I hadn’t had the opportunity to observe from the perspective of one who sits at the front of a class. I also hadn’t had the opportunity to walk around such a large group of students to watch their techniques of how they approach their test sections.

But this perspective and walking opportunity is exactly what I had the chance to experience on Sunday when I hosted a FREE mock ACT test for local high school students.

What did I observe? First off, I was somewhat struck by how tired many of these students appeared. This goes right along with the ideas discussed in a lead article in the Greenwich Time that morning about stressed out and sleep-deprived students. But that’s a whole other topic.

My most interesting observation, though, occurred after the test started. I noted how most students chose to work through their tests. All of the novice students had the bubble page lined up covering one side of the test booklet. Students read a question and bubbled in the appropriate answer on the bubble page. Nothing was written in the test booklet itself. Not in English, Reading, or Science. Sometimes, the students would write a formula or intermediate step in the math section of their test booklets. But frequently, I saw either pondering (mental math) or calculator-clicking. During the Reading, I watched as one student leaned back in his chair as he picked up the test booklet like a newspaper to put it in front of his face. I collected some of the test booklets at the end of this mock test experience, and some were totally blank, with nothing written in the booklet, not even in the Math section.

I contrasted these observations to the process that the three experienced test-takers used: they hash-marked through incorrect answers, underlined phrases of questions and phrases of passages, wrote out all intermediate steps in math, and drew all over the Science section graphs and charts. They transferred answers to the bubble pages only at the end of each passage in Reading and Science or at the end of each page in English or in Math.

This process is of marking up the test booklet, remaining focused on the test booklet, and tracking off the page only to transfer groups of answers to the bubble pages is my NUMBER ONE TIP for novice ACT test-takers.

   Image courtesy of Goldy at                                                                                                                                                                                         

Why is this so important?

• Focus!

• You know you have the correct answer when you’ve ruled out the incorrect answers.

• Saving your Working Memory

• Providing visual landmarks

• Improving speed when you choose to answer the questions in an order that differs from that presented in the test sections.


Your eyes lead to your mind’s attention. If you read a passage and constantly track off the page to a bubble page to answer each question, you are constantly shifting your focus away from the passage. In English, Reading, and Science, this leads to distraction. Think about when you meditate or pray: you close your eyes, right? Why? Because you are going inside. If you kept your eyes open, your mind would stray to what you were observing. This same stray is what the bubble page is doing to those students who maintain a one-for-one bubbling technique. It is far easier to remain focused on a passage when the bubble page is off to the right and out of the visual field.


In English, when you are deciding between grammar usage answers, it is far easier to be certain that you have the correct answer once you have ruled out each incorrect answer. This is how my students improve from missing 15 to 20 questions to fewer than ten or even five. The same holds for the Rhetorical Skills questions in English, the Reading questions, and the Science questions. Here, there is no one “right” answer; there is only one “best” answer. And that answer is always the most specific, literal response that answers the question. One must read all choices to know.


In Math, imagine working through problem after problem in you mind’s eye instead of by writing down intermediate steps on paper, or instead of drawing a complicated figure on paper. There is nothing wrong with this approach if you aren’t in the middle of a four-hour-long standardized test in which stamina matters. So, when you take an ACT test, save your working memory, boost your stamina, and avoid careless errors by keeping the problems visual on the paper instead of taxing your mind’s eye.


When you underline phrases of topic sentences in the Reading passages, or when you bracket off the lines specified in a line reference question, you are providing a great visual landmark for your eyes to direct your attention and focus. When you underline key phrases of questions in Science, you are much more likely to use the correct graph to determine your answer. When you underline a phrase in a high-difficulty math question, you improve your chances of answering the correct question. Underlining is a critical technique in improving scores in every section. With the bubble page out of the way, a student’s focus remains on the test booklet, and the pencil is more likely to be engaged with that test booklet.


Imagine reading a long passage of two columns of paragraphs followed by ten detailed questions in random order about the passage, and having only 8-1/2 minutes to do this? Then, repeat three times. That’s what the ACT Reading test is all about.

Each student must discover his best techniques for the Reading section, but I teach several different approaches for the different types of passages, and all of my approaches recommend that the student complete the questions in a different order than the one presented. If you do this, and then you attempt to bubble one-for-one, you will waste a tremendous amount of time searching for each random bubble on the answer page. It is far more efficient to circle the answers in the test booklet in the most efficient order, followed by transferring all ten reading answers to the bubble page at once. This technique also improves efficiency for the Science section, where students also benefit from answering the questions in a different order than that presented.

If you like this Number One Tip, please make sure to approach your ACT practice using this same approach. Always use a bubble page when you practice partial or full sections, and practice marking up your test booklet and transferring to the bubble page at the end of passages or pages.

Let me know if this technique makes a difference for you!

What are your favorite techniques to build efficiency?

A Random Walk down the SAT Score Trail

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on February 2, 2016 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (0)

Collegeboard is about to introduce its New SAT in just one month.

These recent events --
• misprinted test booklets
• “anomaly” tests with unusual scales, and
• the past month’s PSAT percentile reporting

-- suggest some opacity and randomness in the SAT scoring and reporting process. Will we be seeing even more of this phenomenon with the roll-out of the completely redesigned SAT next month?

The Misprinted Test booklet scandal(s)

The Known Scandal of June 2015

Many parents of seniors graduating this year heard about or may be aware about the June 2015 misprinted test booklet scandal. There were articles everywhere, from the WSJ to the NY Times. A large number of test booklets were incorrectly printed with the timing for either Section 8 or Section 9; random test booklets stated that these sections were 25-minute sections when they were really 20-minute sections. The problem became one of inconsistent proctoring: some proctors stuck firmly to their cue sheets and dismissed the student who raised his hand to tell the class that his test booklet said that the section was supposed to be 25 minutes, while others gave in to the timing stated on the misprinted test booklets (not knowing about the printing error).

Collegeboard could not fairly score this test when some students were given 5 extra minutes on one of the test sections. CB ultimately decided to keep the test but score it differently. CB chose to score only the first two 25-minute CR sections (48 questions instead of 67) and only the first two 25-minute math sections (38 questions instead of 54).

So what did this mean for student scores? Well, with fewer total questions per section, each miss and/or omit subtracts more points from the top scaled score than it would if there had been the “normal” number of questions scored. This is similar to what occurred on the “old” PSAT. Most of my top tutoring students who were already in the 90th+ percentiles were flat-to-down on this test. I had one fortuitous student who improved almost 200 points, but he was coming from a slightly lower baseline. He was thrilled, but he was clearly the outlier.

There is no question that the students who took the June 2015 SAT were disadvantaged. CB made up for this debacle by offering a free test – the October 2015 test – for juniors who wanted a “re-do”. Little did these juniors know that another scandal awaited…

The Unknown Scandal of October 2015

What most parents have not yet heard about is the likely misprinted test booklet scandal of October 2015.

I took this test. When I took the test, I noted that the first CR Section 2 had only 23 questions. CB designs some tests to have one CR section with 23 questions and one with 25. This can be a little tighter on the pacing since the 25-question section would also have the back-to-back long passages. But I was prepared after finishing and reviewing Section 2. I was thinking ahead.

When I got to my Section 5 CR, I was very surprised to see that it, too, had only 23 questions. I had never before seen an SAT test with only 65, instead of 67, questions in CR. So I thought, “maybe CB will have 21 questions instead of 19 in the 20-minute final CR section?” But again, that did not happen.

I was mystified when I left the test room, wondering what a 65-question CR test would like for scaled scores.

I received my online scores in 19 days, and when I opened the details, I was shocked to see that there were 67 questions reported on CR, and I was reported to have omitted two of these questions. I called Collegeboard that day for the first of my TEN phone calls over the next two months!

I thought that CB would want to research my complaint about a misprinted test booklet, because, as I told them, I was concerned that if my test booklet was missing questions and printed incorrectly, it was highly likely that this random test booklet appeared across the country, just as the test booklets had in June. CB Customer Service assured me that they could easily find my test booklet to confirm whether my test booklet had missing questions. They told me that they had escalated my concern and that I would hear back from a manager within 7 days.

Did I hear back? No. I called again, and I opened a Case Number with my complaint. I was told that I would hear back from a manager within 48 hours. I received my QAS report in the mail and realized that I had never seen some of these questions. This Section 2 was not the same as the Section 2 of the test that I had taken.

Again, I heard nothing back from CB. One would think that CB would be invested in making sure that it was aware of another misprinted test booklet issue if indeed another scandal had occurred. But one can also see how it would be in CB’s best interests to keep this latest error under wraps. It was to CB’s advantage that the October test is primarily a “senior” test; most seniors don’t care about the details of their score misses or go carefully through the QAS. This potential problem would not even occur to most students.

Eight more phone calls provided no resolution to my complaint. No CB representative could confirm that my test booklet had been found or analyzed. Since I had a perfect 800 score in Math and a perfect 800 score in Writing with a 12 Essay, I think I had been “on my game” that day. The fact that CB knowingly chose to never acknowledge my concerns seems strong evidence that, indeed, there was another misprinted test booklet scandal that took place in October, 2015.

I am not sure if my test booklet was only missing two questions. I believe that the questions that I had were not in the same order as those in the booklet. So, this misprint was likely to cause not only two omissions but also a couple of other random misses in the long passage because the Answer Key did not correspond to the questions in the misprinted booklet.

How many points was this misprint worth? My guess is somewhere between 40 and 80 points.

How significant is this? I can tell you that I have students who take another test to improve a mere 30 points. So, yes, this would be very significant to most of my students.

So, if you are a senior graduating in the Class of 2016, you likely took a Random Walk down the SAT trail. If you were a lucky one, you avoided taking the June or October 2015 tests. If you were not so lucky, you were unknowingly disadvantaged by having taken either or both the June or October 2015 tests.

More on the randomness of CB test scores in my next blog on Anomaly test scales.

I’ll also be addressing the opacity of the recently reported percentile scores on the New PSAT.

Features of a Top-Scoring SAT Essay

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on November 6, 2015 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (0)

On the current SAT, the 25-minute essay section comes first. It helps set the tone for the rest of the test. Done well, a winning essay will help a student relax and feel confident with the start of the multiple choice sections. If not done well, the essay will linger in the mind of the student and erode his confidence. This is the one somewhat right-brain activity on the SAT. I would argue that top-scoring essays are somewhat formulaic, however. It is easier to know what the “formula” is than to creatively organize a 25-minute essay “on-the-fly”.Even with a formula, the key to a high-scoring essay is having specific and descriptive examples to use for support.

Go-To List of examples

To prepare for the essay, I recommend that students create a Go-To list of people and events that they know about before the test in order to feel confident that in the first 3 minutes they will be able to creatively “choose” examples (from that list) that fit the essay prompt. In creating the Go-To list, students may choose examples from their academics – history and recent English books – and from their knowledge of current events. Student-athletes often follow professional athletes; these sports stars can make wonderful examples for the SAT essay. Recent movies, tv shows, and even personal anecdotes are fair game. Students should review a list of recent SAT essay prompts and see how many of the recent prompts might work with their examples.

Strong stance that is Qualified

Once prepared with a Go-To list, students should understand that the task is always a persuasive essay that requires a student to take a stance. To achieve a higher score (e.g. 10 or higher out of 12), a student must acknowledge that both sides of the argument could work. This allows students to show more critical thinking. A student does this NOT by being wishy-washy but by taking a firm stance that is qualified with a set of conditions that must exist in order for that stance to hold. For example, one might state, “Technology should be avoided, even when it makes our lives easier, WHEN 
the technology introduces significant danger to people.” 
A student can then use a “however” clause to explain that when the conditions are not present, the opposite stance holds. Or, a student may opt to allow that “however” to be implied. Either way, this leaves open the opportunity for a student to provide a “Twist” example in his final body paragraph – that is, taking the opposite stance when the opposite conditions hold. This structured thesis statement with a set of conditions is the first part of the formula for a high-scoring essay.

Additional elements of a successful essay

In addition to having prepared Go-To examples and structuring the thesis statement, a high-scoring essay also has these key elements:

• 3 embellished, descriptive examples – one in each body paragraph

• plethora of high-difficulty SAT vocabulary words

• unique punctuation – semi-colons, colons, or question marks

The detailed, descriptive examples in the next three body paragraphs are the second part of the formula. Students may opt to write positive examples (character takes the student’s stance and is successful), negative examples (character does NOT take the student’s stance and fails), or Twist examples (set of conditions is opposite and so the stance is opposite too). Students will NOT be graded down for incorrect facts; indeed, specificity is required for the higher score. So if you don’t know your facts, or you can be clever and make up plausible “facts” that enhance your argument, do so! In addition, students should try to add as many high-difficulty SAT vocabulary words as possible. Last, being creative with punctuation can also help boost a score. Consider adding semi-colons, colons, or question marks. Varying sentence length and structure, or adding rhetorical questions will make the essay more interesting.

12-Score essay example from October 2015 test

Yes, I sit with the regular students and take these tests, too! My essay examples may differ somewhat from those of a typical junior in high school. In my Go-To list are GMOs, vaccines, and health-oriented issues. And you may notice that I forgot Thomas’s name in the Maze Runner movie. Nonetheless, my essay provides a successful example of the winning formula.


October 2015 ESSAY PROMPT: Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below:

Some people say that leaders are most effective when they are unwilling to compromise. Leaders who refuse to yield are likely to gain the respect of others because they stay true to their beliefs despite fierce opposition. Other people say that leaders are most effective when they are willing to compromise. Leaders who are willing to compromise, they argue, find better solutions to problems because they can understand different perspectives.

ASSIGNMENT: Are leaders more effective when they are willing to compromise? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.


Essay response:

Leaders are not always more effective when they are willing to compromise. If the leader’s original idea benefits the community-at-large or is better for the greater good, then the leader must stick to his original game plan. However, when a compromise would yield a far more beneficial (or less harmful) result, then the leader should compromise. Matt in the Maze Runner movie, the Governor of CA, and the CEO of Monsanto all support this position.

In the Maze Runner movie, Matt quickly became a leader when he broke the long-standing rules of the tribe by entering the maze at the end of the day when the walls were closing. He understood that forces were occurring more quickly, and in order for the tribe to survive, its members would need to change their ways. When all of the walls in the maze opened, Matt vehemently argued that they must get the “Runners” to enter the maze while the others would have to hold down their huts and flee to hide in the forests. The tribe argued, but Matt held steadfast to his vision. In the end, the majority of the tribe survived only because Matt followed his vision and convinced enough of the tribe to band together and follow his lead. Had he compromised, the tribe would surely have been overcome by the monsters.

The Governor of CA, on the other hand, refused to compromise with the issue of forced vaccines. Earlier this year in 2015, SB277 was passed. This new law requires all school children to be vaccinated on schedule in order to attend public schools. We have scientific evidence that this onerous law will definitely harm a great number of infants and young children as we have knowledge of the harmful ingredients of toxic metals (aluminum and mercury), foreign DNA, squalene, formaldehyde, and even potentially nagalese, an enzyme that impairs the immune system. Many eminent doctors wrote letters to the Governor and to the head of HHS arguing that this law would be harmful. The Governor CA should have compromised by maintaining philosophical or religious exemptions to the vaccines.

The CEO of Monsanto is another leader who should have compromised for the greater good of humanity. Monsanto’s mission is to one day control the world’s food supply. They are doing this through the proliferation of genetically modified foods and the use of glyphosate – Round Up – which was recently named a carcinogen by the WHO. Even if Monsanto believed that its poisonous food and fungicides were appropriate, the CEO of Monsanto should at least compromise by allowing all GMO food to be labeled. However, Monsanto has spent tens of millions of dollars battling state initiatives to prevent labeling and to prevent consumers from knowing what they are eating. Had the CEO of Monsanto been willing to compromise, more people would be able to avoid toxins.

Leaders are more effective when they are willing to compromise only when doing so allows for the greater good of the community.


Ok, so now that you have the formula, go write!

Lifestyle Area #3 -- Get Your Sleep!

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on October 31, 2015 at 6:45 PM Comments comments (0)

A while back, I started a 3-part blog on the 3 key Lifestyle areas to achieve peak performance on the SATs/ACTs. In my first blog, I addressed Nutrition. In my second blog, I addressed Meditation. In this blog, I address SLEEP. These three elements are the foundations for a balanced, healthy lifestyle that lead to peak performance in testing and other life events.


Everyone needs sleep to function properly. An adult needs between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night, while teenagers need between 9 and 10 hours. That’s right…teenagers actually need more sleep than adults. But I can attest that the majority of the students who I tutor are sleep-deprived and receive nowhere near this recommended number of hours of sleep.

Sleep is vital because it is an active process in which the brain works to heal the body by producing hormones that are beneficial for repair and growth. Sleep is also the time for the brain to consolidate memories of what has been studied and learned that day. In short, new knowledge is integrated into a person’s existing knowledge base while he sleeps. Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM sleep) happens in the last part of the night sleep and is associated with the important functions of learning and memory. This is why ensuring adequate REM sleep is so important prior to major tests.

Many students don’t understand the importance of sleep and what they lose out on when they deprive themselves of it. Many believe that it is wise to stay up the night before a big exam (like the SAT or ACT) to study late, rather than going to bed early to get at least 8 hours of sleep. However, research has consistently shown that taking the time to sleep before an exam will benefit your test score more than four or five hours of staying awake staring at notes that you probably will not remember. In fact, the National Institutes of Health found sleep-deprived students have lower GPA’s and lower test scores because that lack of sleep impairs memory and concentration.


In a study conducted by the Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola, members of the NeuroPsychiatric Disease and Treatment Center in the University of Turku (Finland) found that sleep deprivation impairs visuo-motor performance, which is measured with tasks of digit symbol substitution, letter cancellation, trail-making or maze tracing. Visual tasks are especially vulnerable to sleep loss because iconic memory has short duration and limited capacity. Sleep deprivation also increases rigid thinking, perseveration errors, and difficulties in utilizing new information in complex tasks that require innovative decision-making. Deterioration in decision-making also appears as more erratic performance on a variety of tasks (tests included!). In the U. of Turku study, motor function, rhythm, receptive and expressive speech, and memory deteriorated after just one night of sleep deprivation.


So we now understand just how important sleep is in achieving peak SAT-ACT performance. Even when a student is somewhat sleep-deprived in general, making sure that she gets at least 8 – 9 hours of sleep at least two nights in a row before a big test will make a difference. How can teenagers achieve this goal of at least 8 hours of sleep a night? Here are some tips:

• Turn Electronics Off: Make a commitment to turn off all electronics 30 minutes before bed. Blue light emitted from computers, smart phones, and tablets hurts natural sleep processes.

Eight -- Yes, Eight Hours: Set a routine and commit to getting at least 8 hours of sleep, but preferably more when possible. • Smart Snacking: If you have to stay awake to study, try low-calorie non-caffeinated foods like sunflower seeds. Snacking will keep you awake but will not interrupt sleep when you are ready to snooze.

• Say No to Stimulants: From caffeine to energy drinks, stimulants -- both legal and illegal-- have been shown to impact sleep, and that will impact your ability to remember what you just stayed up late to learn.

• Remember to REM: If you have to stay awake before an exam, get at least 6 hours of sleep the night before. This will allow you to get at least some amount of REM sleep, which occurs later in the night and helps consolidate your memories.

• Limit Naps: If you nap during the day, keep it to 30 minutes or less. You are better off studying during this time and sleeping later in the night.

• Exercise Consistently: Exercise helps students in two ways -- making you more alert when it's time to study and helping you to relax when it's time to fall asleep.

Ultimately, ignoring the need for sleep leads to lower grades, decreased productivity, and lower standardized test scores. However, making a commitment to sleep will lead to a lifetime of learning and health with much less effort and time!


Lifestyle Area #2 -- Add Meditation to your daily ritual

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on May 12, 2015 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (1)

A few weeks ago, I started a 3-part blog on the 3 key Lifestyle areas to achieve peak performance on the SATs/ACTs.  In my first blog, I addressed Nutrition.  In this blog, I address Meditation.  In my final blog, I will discuss sleep.  These three elements are the foundations for a balanced, healthy lifestyle that leads to peak performance in testing and other life events.

Meditation:  Archeologists and scholars agree that Meditation has been around for almost 5000 years, although it did not start to become popular in the West until the 1960s when Hatha Yoga and Transcendental Meditation grew within the U.S. and Europe. In 1990, Jon Kabat-Zinn put Mindfulness Meditation on the map when he founded his Mindfulness for Stress Reduction program at UMass for treating patients with chronic pain. In 1997, Drs. Deepak Chopra and David Simon founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, advocating the use of meditation as one of its three foundational tools. Today, many people, including top executives and celebrities, have adopted a consistent practice of meditation in their daily lives.

Why is meditation important?

There are many benefits, but let’s focus on the top 3 for high school students who need to experience peak performance on their SATs/ACTs and high school academic exams:

1) Meditation improves Concentration and Attention. Research dating back to the 1970s showed that Buddhist monks who meditate extensively perform far better at concentration tests than does the average person. A more recent 2010 study published in Psychology Today followed 60 people who received 3 months of intensive meditation training. The results showed dramatic “visual discrimination” improvement among those who participated in the meditation training. The researchers concluded that meditation greatly improves the way that we process visual stimuli.

But it doesn’t take this type of intensive training to produce improvements in concentration and focus. Many have found benefits after practicing as little as 5-10 minutes daily during the first week of starting a program. Meditation causes the brain waves to change to a “de-concentration” state. This results in more focus and concentration when performing daily tasks which require concentration; it gradually shifts the “wandering mind” into a more organized, connected state.

2) Meditation reduces anxiety. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University published a meta analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine of over 49 meditation studies that met specific scientific research criteria on size, control groups, double-blinded, etc.; the researchers concluded that meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. Mindfulness meditation that focuses on the breath and on remaining present stops the constant mind chatter that causes many people to believe their emotions and projections when they are really fantasies of the mind. The practice of meditation helps all of us to remain present with more non-judgmental perspective on our daily tasks.

3) Meditation improves memory recall. Harvard Medical School published a research study in 2014 looking at subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation over an 8- and 12- week period. Catherine Kerr at HMS concluded, “Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall…Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the (alpha) brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”

With these amazing benefits of meditation, every high school student (and adult) should have a goal to begin a meditation practice now!

For those who feel that “I don’t have time”, you can start with as little as a few minutes a day to 10 minutes a day. The key is consistency and getting started. Since the benefits improve concentration, focus and memory recall, you will find that meditation allows you to be "in the flow” more often during your daily tasks, allowing you to accomplish more in less time. This will give you back the time to consistently meditate.

How to Get Started?

There are many ways to practice meditation, and some are as simple as just closing the eyes and focusing on the breath or on repeating a mantra. The myth that you have to focus on “clearing your mind” is just that; the practice of meditation helps you to focus on something else – for example, your breath – so that when you have thoughts, you are able to recognize them, not attach to them, and simply let them float away. For teenagers who are more prone to use technology, there are exciting apps and “helpers” that can encourage you to begin meditation and stick to a routine.

Here are several interesting ideas – some I have tried and some that were recently reported in Mindful magazine:

Zen12 – Musical meditation “helper”. Inspire3, the creators of the MP3 program, claims that “each 12-minute session brings the benefit of an hour’s regular meditation.” Its MP3 programs use “brainwave entrainment” to actively help shift the users’ brainwaves into the relaxed states much more quickly. I have personally used this program over the past nine months to finally help bring my meditation practice to a daily ritual.

• Deepak Chopra guided meditations: Some of these meditations are as short as 9 minutes; others are 25 minutes. Deepak Chopra also has many CD offerings for purchase with themes for a consistent mantra-based practice or guided practice.

Stop, Breathe and Think app. This app for both IPhone and Android recently won the 2015 Webby People’s Choice Award. It offers the basics of meditation and provides a sampling of different types and different lengths of meditations.

Mindfulness Training App. This app helps provide a newbie to meditation with some background and training from the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn and some of his followers.

Insight Timer. This is a combination meditation timer and trainer as it provides guided meditations.

• Two other four-star-rated options: Headspace and Calm. Both apps offer free 10-minute starting training meditations along with more advanced services for a fee.

Have you started meditating on a regular basis? What benefits have you noticed? Which apps or tools do you use?

Recent Changes to format of and increasing complexity of ACT

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on April 17, 2015 at 6:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Based on other master tutors’ opinions shared in tutoring forums in which I participate, many of us believe that the ACT content has consistently become more challenging over the recent years. Further, the ACT has recently introduced minor changes in format of which students should be aware. The recent changes in format have taken place in the Reading and Science sections. The ACT has announced that it will be changing its essay in September 2015, but for the next two tests during this academic year, the essay will remain the same - a persuasive 30-minute essay prompt frequently on a school-oriented topic and sometimes on a broader theme.

Reading: The ACT introduced in its June 2014 test a Paired Passage format for the Humanities passage (Passage #3). This new Paired format has reappeared on all subsequent tests. Since I believe that students should have no surprises, they should plan for this. Since some of the Paired passages have presented with additional complexity, and a student may want to spend more time on this passage if so, a student may decide to flip to Passage 3 immediately and do this passage first. That way, if the passage were more complex and the student needed closer to 10 minutes to complete this passage with accuracy, then the student could subsequently attempt to increase her speed and complete the next two passages in under 8.5 minutes. If a student uses the technique of transferring answers to the bubble page only at he end of each passage, this re-sequencing of the passage technique may provide a student with higher performance on the Reading section.

Science: For both the Oct 2014 and the Feb 2015 ACT tests, the Science section changed in format by providing 6 passages rather than 7. The number of questions -- 40 in total – has not changed. I believe that it is likely that the Science section will continue to reflect this new format with the upcoming April test and beyond. The new format was organized with 4 passages of 6 questions each and 2 passages of 7 questions each. Only one of he 7-question passages was a Conflicting Viewpoints type. Pacing for this format will be slightly different to be able to finish within the 35-minute time constraint. I recommend that students aim to complete the 6-question passages in 5 to 5.5 minutes and the two 7-question passages in roughly 6.5 minutes. (For extended time accommodations, most students will want to continue with 7-minute 6-Question passages and 12-minute 7-Question passages for a 60-minute section.) This would allow a regular-time student to finish the section in 33 to 35 minutes. I recommend flipping to the end passage immediately to confirm if you have 6 or 7 passages. Further, I continue to recommend considering flipping through the section to locate the Conflicting Viewpoints passage and doing this first. Again, if a student transfers answers to the bubble page only at the end of each passage, this re-sequencing of passages should be handled easily and not present a risk of mis-bubbling.

Math: the Math section has become increasingly challenging over the recent past due to an increasing number of long word problems in the first 30 questions and due to more advanced topics in the final 20 questions. There is no question that a student who has had advanced trigonometry and pre-calculus is at an advantage for this test compared to a student who is currently taking Algebra 2. Some of the recent high difficulty topics have included:

• Synthetic division

• Vertical AND horizontal asymptotes

• Inverse functions

• Stem and leaf plots

• Co-terminal angles

• Graphing and graph shifts of trigonometry functions sine and cosine

• Increasing number of abstract number and operations problems that look like SAT problems and are well-suited to the Picking Numbers strategy

• Complex conjugates

• Recognizing Even and Odd functions as graphs

• Piecewise functions

• Law of Sines and Law of Cosines

• Inverse trig functions to solve for interior triangle angles

• Arithmetic Sequence Problems requiring you to create a Sum

Good luck to all of my students and everyone else who is taking the April 18th ACT!

Address these 3 Lifestyle Areas to Achieve Peak SAT-ACT Performance

Posted by Sharon DeNunzio on March 28, 2015 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Students and parents continually ask me what else they should be doing in addition to SAT or ACT practice to perform better on the real standardized tests. My most frequent question is, “What should I be eating the (morning, week, month) of the test? Let me address this question first.

Nutrition is the foundation for academic performance, and this is particularly true on Test Day. What is good nutrition?

LOW SUGAR of all forms, including fructose in fruits. This means that sodas and sports drinks are OUT and filtered water or “Smart” water is IN. Fruits are healthy snacks but should be limited in quantity to keep within a daily total limit of sugar intake. Dr. Joe Mercola recommends that healthy adults adhere to a goal of an overall daily sugar limit of roughly 25 grams; this is equivalent to just over 6 teaspoons. (1) Snacks should be chosen carefully not just for their healthy ingredients, but also with the sugar limit in mind. For example, sweetened yogurts are good snacks, but care should be taken to choose the Greek style that contains lower sugar content and higher fiber.

Students should understand that sugar (and any food with a high-glycemic index, like wheat, that breaks down into simple sugars) is the underlying cause of insulin spikes and unsteady blood sugar levels. This feeds cancer, heart disease, diabetes, distractibility, mental fogginess, gut problems, and general fatigue.

Lots of high-quality FATS! Did you know that our brain is 80% fat? As such, foods that are rich in omega 3 fats and antioxidants continue to be the foundation of cognitive nutrition. (2) We need high-quality fats to feed our brains and bodies into peak performance: olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, and wild salmon. This is one of the keys of the popular and successful Mediterranean diet.

Appropriate amount of high quality proteins: grass-fed beef; grass-fed lamb; non-GMO-grain-fed free-range chicken; wild fish and shellfish low in mercury (salmon, scallops, shrimp, cod); and pasture-raised organic eggs.

• Lots of organic vegetables (3) from all colors of the rainbow: green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, colorful bell peppers, turnips, kale, swiss chard, spinach, beets, sweet potatoes, etc.

Fresh green herbs and spices: parsley, cilantro, garlic, black pepper, tumeric, cinnamon, etc.

What do I recommend for breakfast the morning of the test? Eggs and avocado (add some sautéed vegetables), left-over dinner high-quality protein with salad or vegetables, coconut milk or almond milk greek yogurt with chia seeds, nuts, and/or raisins, or a breakfast smoothie with berries, greens, coconut milk and chia seeds.

What to bring to the test for snacks? Nuts, a turkey and avocado sandwich (consider gluten-free bread like Udi’s), or a protein bar that is reasonable in sugars. And LOTS of filtered H2O!

As you look through the list of “good nutrition”, you will see that there is not much room for processed foods. These foods, for the most part, are NOT real foods. So they should NOT be a part of your regular diet.

Some of my favorite recommended snacks for teens include:

• Sliced apples or pears with almond butter

• Carrots, sliced cucumbers and celery with hummus

• Seasnax Seaweed snacks with toasted onion

• Baked kale chips

• “Go Raw!” and “Doctor in the Kitchen” Snack packages with superfoods like chia seeds, and nuts.

• Handful of raisins and walnuts, or handful of almonds

In addition to nutrition, meditation and regular sleep (roughly 8 hours per night) will also have important effects on academic and test performance. More on this on the next blog…

What have you found in your dietary habits to help you feel and perform better at school and on standardized tests?


(1) Mercola article 3-24-15 “Sugar Industry Has Subverted Public Health Policy for Decades"


(3) The Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen list is helpful for shoppers to know which vegetables should be purchased organic versus which are acceptable as conventional: ;