ACT and SAT Test Prep During the Pandemic (and beyond) – free Webinar May 16

High school students studying for AP exams, SAT Subject Tests and the SAT and ACT have had their studies upended, as tests have been rescheduled –then cancelled – and even the College Board and ACT have not figured out upcoming test dates or formats. High school juniors have been particularly affected, while sophomores who are taking AP courses and planning their SAT and ACT studies are also wondering what comes next and how to prepare for it

Karen Berlin Ishii, a master tutor for the SAT and ACT, will update parents with the latest on the tests and give parents advice on scheduling and creating timetables for prep, with tips and resources for their students to help them adjust to this year’s unprecedented changes.

A Brown alumna with over 20 years’ teaching experience, Karen specializes in individualized prep for the ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, SAT, ACT and other admissions exams. She has taught for The Princeton Review and headed Boston Academic Tutors, creating courses for The British School in Boston, among others. She edits Barron’s prep books for the ISEE, SSAT, ACT and GRE and is a faculty member at Summer@Brown, where she conducts SAT and ACT workshops.

WHEN:  Saturday, May 16

WHERE: via Zoom

HOW: Registration is free and open to all HERE.




Navigating the College Admissions Process

An experts’ panel plus workshops for parents and teens

The Cornell Club
6 East 44th Street
New York, NY 10017

Saturday, March 7, 2020
9:30 am – 2:30 pm

College admissions has changed dramatically in recent years. No longer is the “well-rounded” student assured their top choice. Testing has also evolved, with changes in the SAT and ACT, while college costs spiral upwards. How can families best help their children make the right fit?

The Cornell Club is proud to present a special program for alumni and families featuring a stellar panel of experts in the college admissions process who will demystify these issues in presentations and Q&A.

This is a terrific opportunity to get answers to your questions from a range of top advisors in college prep and admissions. Attendees are invited to tailor the day to suit their schedules and interests with a panel discussion followed by lunch and two optional workshops:

“Getting a Handle on the SAT and ACT”                                                        Presentation and Q&A led by Karen Berlin Ishii

“Tips and Pitfalls in the Common Application”                                            Presentation workshop led by Andrea van Niekerk

Event schedule:

9:30-10:00am:  Registration and coffee/light breakfast
10:00-12 noon:  Panel presentation
12:00 noon:  Lunch Buffet
12:30-1:30pm:  Workshop: Getting a Handle on the SAT and ACT
1:30-2:30pm:  Workshop: Tips and Pitfalls in the Common Application

Participants include:

Andrea van Niekerk is a College Admissions Consultant with College Goals. Andrea was formerly Associate Director of Admission at Brown University for many years and also served as academic advisor to freshman and sophomore students.


Laura Clark is long time director of college counseling at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. She previously worked at Princeton University, in admissions for four years and teaching freshman writing in the English department.


Benjamin Bingman-Tennant is the National Director of Programs for A Better Chance, a national organization dedicated to creating educational opportunity and developing leaders among young people of color throughout the country.


Karen Berlin Ishii, a graduate of Brown University, is a college test preparation tutor of over 20 years’ experience. Karen also lectures on SAT/ACT prep for Brown University’s Admission Workshops series at Summer@Brown.


Cost: $40 individual, or $60 for up to three family members.
– Registration includes all presentations, continental breakfast and luncheon buffets.
– Registrants may attend any or all of the presentations offered.

Register by contacting Kerry Strassel:        or phone 212.692.1386.

How to Start SAT Prep in 8th-10th Grade

Whenever students take the PSATs – whether it’s PSAT 8/9 taken as early as fall of 8th grade, or the traditional PSAT/NMSQT taken in October of junior year – the scores and tests are posted on the student’s College Board account within two months of the test. That’s a great study tool for the next step – the SATs. Or the ACTs. I strongly recommend all students review their PSAT results, going over the questions they got wrong using the online tools, redoing them and then looking at the correct answers and explanations. It’s good to do that before too much time goes by so it is still instructive and students remembers more of what they were thinking when they did the test originally.

Eighth grade and freshman year are early for formal test prep: Students have not yet been taught all of the math skills tested, particularly for the ACT. In reading and writing, the difficulty of the test passages and vocabulary is high for younger students. Nevertheless, students can and should begin to build skills specific to the tests. 

Here are 3 specific actions 8th -10th grade students can take to build a solid foundation for the SAT and ACT:

1) Add a daily regime of challenging periodical reading, starting with The New York Times or other sophisticated daily newspaper. (News aggregate newsletters are not recommended because it is important to build skills in sifting through the material and choosing for oneself.) 

– Read at least 10 minutes/day: short articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post are ideal.

– Read a sampling of the top stories and at least read the headlines – especially in those topics that are more difficult, e.g. politics. 

– Then read whatever topic in the paper interests you and also the opinion pieces (editorials, reviews of movies, etc). Movie reviews can be fun and easy for students to relate to if they’ve seen the films. This type of writing is very helpful in building vocabulary and rhetorical skills and comprehension.

2) Start a formal regimen of vocabulary-building, 1-2 new words/day. Many students find the free Visual Vocab CORE app a great way to start! Other excellent vocabulary building tools include the Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop series and SAT-level word lists at

3) Use official CollegeBoard practice PSATs to build math skills, tackling only those topics that are within range of subjects you’ve learned in school. Rather than tackling an entire timed section in Math, do individual problems, reviewing the answers and explanations afterwards. Advanced students may want to purchase PWN the SAT Math text to get a head start on test math – and take advantage of the challenging quizzes offered to textbook owners. 

When should students begin their test prep in earnest? Summer between sophomore and junior year is the best time to do a formal course or tutoring program, continuing at a lesser pace or with a break during junior year, depending on when tests are scheduled. That is the time, as well, to choose between SAT and ACT. Much earlier than that, students really haven’t studied enough of the material that is on the tests for the comparison to be valid.

No, ACT and SAT grammar is not dead

With the redesign of the SAT in 2015, many students rejoiced at the prospect of a revised Writing test: no more grammar, they thought! Actually, their celebration was premature. There still is plenty of grammar in the SAT Writing test – up to one-half of all the questions test grammar rules directly. The remaining half test usage, idioms, vocabulary in context, organization and understanding of the text. Similarly, the ACT English section – which has not changed in over 20 years – tests plenty of grammar, usage and punctuation. So strong grammar skills are still required.

The good news is that the grammar, usage, punctuation skills and knowledge tested on both these exams is quite circumscribed and thus predictable. Students who master this material can devote more of their time and focus to the content and context questions, which often require careful analysis – analysis that those caught up in grammar dithering don’t have time for.

For a fun introduction to some common grammar rules tested on both these exams, check out my Grammar Bloopers. I’ve collected over 30 grammar errors from popular publications (whose editors should know better!) and assorted advertisements (that get away with it because they can). Click through to the end or jump to Blooper answers and explanations at any point. 

Master these, and you’ll smile knowingly when you encounter one of your new grammar facts on the test. But be forewarned: you are likely to become of one of those who sees the grammar errors where others do not. Have you found some of your own? Great! Email the links to me and I’ll add them to the collection!

Don’t confuse SAT “Student Answer Service” with “Question and Answer Service”

Here’s a sample of QAS, showing Reading section results.

The College Board offers two different post-SAT services that have confusingly similar names but are very different in value. Everyone should order QAS, but most students should NOT order SAS.

For students in the US and Canada, Question and Answer Service (QAS) is offered in October, March and May. It costs $18 and may be ordered from the College Board website at the time of test registration or within five months after your test date. Internationally, it is only offered in May. Student Answer Service (SAS) is offered worldwide for every administration of the SAT that does not offer QAS.

Until recently, both of these services were on paper and took up to eight weeks after the exam to be sent to students, often too late to be used as a study tool for the next SAT. Now, most students access these digitally through their College Board accounts and they may appear as soon as SAT scores are available, just three weeks after the test.

What’s the big difference between QAS and SAS? Question and Answer Service (QAS) is a tremendous resource, giving students access through their College Board account to a computer-based version of the entire test they took, showing a hyperlinked answer key with their answer choices noted, the correct answers and difficulty levels, types of question for each – just like the online PSAT review (minus the answer explanations). Students can – and should!– go back into the test pages to rethink and redo those questions they got wrong. Then click on “View Answer” to see if they got it this time and analyze their errors. This is a fantastic tool to learn from your actual tests, instead of just being handed a number. The QAS is so useful, that I recommend students plan their test schedule to include QAS dates whenever possible.

sample QAS for a Math question

The Student Answer Service (SAS), on the other hand, is almost laughably useless. It gives you everything that the QAS supplies – except the test questions! That’s right: just answer letters marked correct or incorrect. The only reason to order this is if you have located a pirated copy of the test, in which case you could cobble together your own makeshift QAS from knowing which questions you got wrong based on the SAS. It would only make  sense to order this if you have found a copy of that test after the exam.

I’ll be posting follow-up articles on how to leverage your QAS to best advantage and use QAS dates to guide your testing schedule. Be sure you subscribe in order to be notified when those articles are posted.





Bad PSAT scores? Here’s what to do

1) First, don’t despair! Go over your PSAT results in depth. Don’t focus on the scores; those are just your starting point. Go to the College Board website and follow the links to review your results in detail. That’s how you learn and improve!

Analyze your errors: Were you rushed? Did you lose focus? Were there math topics you haven’t learned yet? Was a reading passage too dense?

2) Plan your study time in order to make substantial score improvement – at least two hours of prep every week until your SAT. Once a month, take a full, timed practice test and then analyze your results, learning from your mistakes.

3) Take advantage of College Board and Khan Academy resources by registering for a free account on Khan Academy and linking it to your College Board account and test scores to get free personalized practice for the SAT.

4) Build your SAT power using great study tools. The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board has sample SAT exams written by the writers of the real SAT – with full explanations for every question, both in the book and on the College Board website. For more practice tests, The Princeton Review, Kaplan and Applerouth offer good facsimile SATs. For Math, get the terrific PWN the SAT: Math. For a comprehensive list of the best study resources for both SAT and ACT, here‘s a full, annotated list.

5) Finally, there’s one more thing to do: Check out the ACT. You may find it a better fit. Download and print the official ACT practice test on the ACT website. Take the test under timed conditions in one sitting, using the bubble sheet, and without distractions. Compare your results and consider which test you can most improve upon – not just which score was better now.

Whichever test you choose to take, you can thank your bad PSAT scores for the wake-up call. Now is the time to start your test prep in earnest.



My May SAT scores were bad – Help!

May SAT test results are in. Unfortunately, maybe you – like plenty of other students – woke up Thursday morning to disappointing news. Despite studying hard and doing better and better on your practice tests, you scored low on the real one. How could that happen?

The reality is that this test is a very long, stressful challenge and the experience of the real one is different from one taken at home, even under timed conditions. However, if you’ve made progress in bringing your scores up in home practice, you CAN translate that into real test improvement, too.

When you get the full 10-page SAT score report from the College Board, go over it in depth to analyze your weak areas. If you haven’t already ordered Question and Answer Service from the College Board for the May exam, do so right now. It costs $18 and takes 6-8 weeks to arrive, but it will provide you with a copy of the May exam, the answers, and your specific errors. It’s a tremendous study tool to help you work on optimizing your time, boning up on weaker math skills, honing reading comprehension, etc.

Now, summertime is here and you are free from the stresses and time constraints of other courses and tests and so you can really push your SAT skills. You can take the test again in August or October – even November (which is probably not too late for Early Decision, but call the admissions offices of any schools you are considering for ED to confirm.) For Regular Decision, even December is an option. Check out all the dates here – and remember to coordinate them with any SAT Subject Tests you need to schedule.

Or how about trying the ACT? About 10% of students do better on one test than the other. Maybe the ACT is the one for you. You can take the ACT in September and be done, too. Here’s the ACT calendar.

Having the luxury of multiple additional test dates to retake the SAT or switch to the ACT is just the start, though. If you want to raise your scores, retaking the test alone is not enough.

Plan on a serious, regular regimen of SAT or ACT study this summer, putting in 1-2 hrs of study time on a daily or near daily basis. If you can’t study all summer, make that 2-4 hours a day for at least three weeks, preferably a month. Treat test prep as a full-time course. (It certainly is more important to your admissions than any actual full year course you took in high school!) Make sure to take a full practice test once a week and review your results, analyzing your errors, redoing mistakes or questions you guessed on. The more comfortable you get with the timing and the stamina needed for a full, timed test taken in one sitting, the better you’re likely to do on the real one.

Get ready for SAT test day

Taking the SAT soon? Follow these tips to approach your test with confidence.
1.    Study, but don’t cram.
2.    Get in the zone! Focus in a quiet environment before working on your practice tests, as if at the actual test.
3.    Take a working holiday for test prep. Consider taking the day before test day off from school (with a parent at home to help) – do a practice test, review, and get into your zone: calm, focussed and positive.
4.    Have everything ready to go the day before.  You’ll need: calculator, several sharpened #2 pencils, ID, ticket, extra calculator batteries, snack, drink, layers of clothing (zipped sweatshirt, etc), wrist watch (preferably one with a bezel or silent stopwatch function that you have studied with so you can pace yourself). Put those extra batteries in a pocket; you may not be allowed to bring your backpack into the test room.
5.    Know the route. Know how to get to the test center and how long it takes, keeping traffic in mind. Got gas in the tank?
6.    Get a good night’s sleep. Set your alarm and a backup.
7.    Warm up the brain! Get up a little bit early and do some practice questions before you go.
8.    Food is brain fuel. Eat a sensible breakfast and bring a good snack and drink to the test. Are you a coffee drinker? Great; get your caffeine on. If not, however, don’t choose test day to start.
9.    Arrive early. Thirty minutes early is good so you can choose where you want to sit, away from distractors, if possible.
10.    Ignore idle chatter. Focus on yourself, instead, and your test.
11.    Congratulate yourself. You’ve done your best: you should be proud!

Testing Timers silent stopwatch aids pacing on the SAT and ACT

A boy, a test, a watch: That’s the combination that made for success on the ACT – and a deceptively simple business idea.

Students have always struggled with time management on the SAT and ACT, but amazingly – despite the vast variety of stopwatches and timers on the market – no one has made one that was silent and allowable for use on these tests. When high school student Jordan Liss took the ACT, though, he decided to change that.

“This has been my vision since I took the test three years ago,” said Jordan, a student at the University of Michigan. “It’s always been about me knowing how to do it the right way. I knew how the watch had to be designed based on my own test prep, using the training I had, using the textbooks and my test experience.” Like most students, Jordan didn’t start out using a watch to pace himself. He used his cellphone as a timer when practicing at home, but at the test site, no cellphones are allowed. Students may or may not be able to see a clock on the wall, and the proctor won’t be giving detailed timing notices.

But pacing is critical on the exam. The science section of the ACT, for example, has six-seven passages with complex experiments, graphs, tables and text. Students are expected to digest the material and complete thirty-five questions in thirty-five minutes – that’s a brutally slim five to five and a half minutes per passage, including bubbling in the answer sheet. For students caught on a difficult question in an early passage, time is up before they reach the later passages.

Jordan’s watch, Testing Timers, is a terrific tool for SAT and ACT prep and invaluable on the exam itself. With a dedicated model for the SAT and a separate one for the ACT, the watch allows students to choose the test section by name and length, start timing, pause if desired, and go back to regular watch at any time. One of the cooler features of the watch is a digital running stitch border around the digital time that indicates time remaining. For some sections of the test, it is divided by passage number, which is extremely helpful on the ACT, in particular, where speed is a major factor in the test’s difficulty. Jordan says he came up with the unique feature as he was at gym, working out. Describing the epiphany, he says, “I was on the elliptical, wondering how far I was on my workout, when I suddenly realized that’s exactly what I needed for my watch! That was the last thing I put in the watch when structuring the conceptual design.”

One point that Jordan emphasizes is that students should do their timed drills and practice tests using the watch; don’t save it for test day. Before bringing the product to market, he shared it with high school students studying for the ACT and “wasn’t too surprised to hear students talk about raising their scores.” He advises students, “If you practice with this watch and you raise your score, I’m not surprised. Don’t sit in the kitchen eating your dinner, watching TV, using your iPhone to time yourself. Practice like it is the real test; keep pace.”

The Testing Timer watch is a unique and very helpful tool for test preparation and at $40 ($48 for extra time accomodations model) it is reasonably priced. It’s simple to use and the manual is even on the website, always convenient for the wired generation. Check it out and see if it helps your pacing on the test.

One caution: Since the new SAT was introduced in mid-2016, the list of  items prohibited at the test center has gotten longer. It is possible that this watch may be prohibited by a proctor. The ACT is a little less stringent, but in any case, be prepared to put it away if challenged.  It can be used as a simple digital watch when not in timer mode and I have not yet heard any stories of students being prohibited from taking the watch into the test. Still, even if you don’t use it on test day, it remains an excellent training tool for  practice tests and internalizing your pacing strategies for either SAT or ACT.

What you should be reading to prepare for the new SAT

Sure, you are slogging through challenging novels in English class, muddling along detail-strewn sagas in history and still trying to keep up with the Kardashians (stop that, by the way). It’s all good, but it’s not quite enough. If you are a sophomore or junior in 2017 or later, you don’t know what it was like before, but trust me: the SAT is a lot different in mood, emphasis and difficulty than it was just a year ago. Yet, you are still studying the same curriculum at school as students who took the old test. You are going to have to do something different if you want to distinguish yourself on this new test.

The new SAT is obsessed with historical documents (not these historical documents, but if you haven’t seen Galaxy Quest, do watch this extremely charming movie that won’t help you on the SAT but will give you a little joy). The new SAT also has a thing for what I call archaic parlor dramas: works by Oscar Wilde and other snarky Victorians, Jane Austen, and the writings of other authors –just crying out for a Merchant-Ivory production. Then there’s a smattering of sociology, anthropology and hard-core science writing.

I find that most students are surprisingly adept at the science passage; I guess that’s one thing the new SAT has got right. The current high school curriculum, now geared more towards STEM and designed to fulfill Common Core standards, does prepare students better for challenging science writing. But parlor dramas and 18th-19th century political treatises? Not so much.

Here is a starter list of some works that my recent students have found helpful:

• Franz Kafka’s Metamophosis is excerpted in one of the official SAT practice tests. If you’ve never encountered Surrealism, you’ll be flummoxed, but you can read the story in full here.

• Another writer whom I recommend is Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who died in 2015. You can find his articles for the New York Times and some excerpts from his works here. His books are here. Dr. Sacks is a favorite of both the SAT and ACT; both tests’ makers have excerpted his works more than once because he wrote beautifully with tremendous humanity – and sophisticated vocabulary and style. You can learn from him to apply to your essay, too…

• Check out some Oscar Wilde’s stories and/or plays: The Importance of Being Earnest (silly, funny, very facetious), The Picture of Dorian Gray (thrilling story).

• If you like this sort of thing, check out Lost in Austen, the British mini-series about a modern Londoner who magically becomes enmeshed in her favorite romantic tale. Tremendous fun and it will build your vocabulary and understanding of rich English speech. Did you know that “want” also means “lacks”? If not, it seems that your vocabulary wants sufficient depth.

Speaking of vocabulary, I’ll address that in a post soon. Suffice to say, vocabulary is NOT over; it’s just harder to study for in the new SAT.