Test-Taking Strategies

Baby Algebra Upgrade: How Many Solutions Does A System Of Linear Equations Have?

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this Baby Algebra series! Now that you’re working with linear equations and systems of linear equations, I’m going to teach you a little shortcut to solving—or even skip having to solve!—some of the problems the SAT will throw at you on this topic.

How To Answer A “Big Picture” Reading Question On The ACT Or SAT

Both the SAT and ACT ask these “big picture” reading questions, so lots of tutors and test prep companies try to prepare you to answer them. In this post, I’m reviewing the strategies that you’ve probably heard before…and sharing the simple and effective one that works for my students, which I bet you haven’t!

Conquer the SAT "Evidence Question"

Evidence Question Header.png

For my students studying for the SAT, no question tends to consistently frustrate on the Reading Section as much as the dreaded Evidence Question does! And because this special question type is usually linked to another question, you can easily have 12-18 of these in a single Reading section. Here’s how to quickly identify this question type, avoid the common pitfalls, and get it right!

Identifying Evidence Questions

The first step to understanding this problem type is to immediately recognize it. Simple, right? Well, once you know how to pick it out, it absolutely is. Here’s the template:

14. Blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)


Without reading actual words, can you see the syntax that this question has? It’s a Reading question with numbers in every answer choice, first of all! All the numbers begin with the word “Line.” There’s then a set of parenthesis, which contains quotation marks, a couple words, ellipses, more words, and finally, more (closing) quotation marks.

Now, if we take another step back, we will notice something else…

14. Blah blah, blah blah blah previous question?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

Did you catch that? This evidence question (like most of them) actually links and works in conjunction with the question before it! Questions 13 & 14 are actually a question set! If you answer them together—the way I’m going to show you to do it—you get two correct answers for the work of only one question...and a whole bunch of helpful hints about the actual answers.

Not too shabby, huh? It certainly makes it worth your while to know how to ace this question type.



Avoiding the pitfalls of the Evidence Question

The issue most students have with Evidence Questions is that they answer the first one first, then go onto the next question, realize too late it’s an Evidence Question, and try to figure out which excerpts from the text made them figure out the answer to the previous question. The problem is, if you already answered the previous question, how are you going to go back in time to figure out which sentence clued you into that fact? Add to this the issue that you were blindly answering the first question in the pair, possibly having to reread or scour the entire passage to find it and waste valuable time! Especially since the Evidence Question TELLS YOU which four sentences in all the passage you’ll find your answer! Basically, the test-takers TOLD YOU where to look to get BOTH questions right. Don’t waste these valuable clues! Recognizing the Evidence Question right off the bat will save you time AND the potential for error.


Here’s how to rock the SAT Evidence Question!

1. Before you read the passage, glance at the questions for any that are Evidence Questions. DO NOT READ THEM. Just notice the syntax and acknowledge it’s an Evidence Question.


2. If the Evidence Question has “previous question” in it, you know it’s a 2-question set. STAR both of the questions. It should look like this:

*13. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?

A) Blah blah blah

B) Blah blah blah

C) Blah blah blah

D) Blah blah blah

*14. Blah blah, blah blah blah previous question?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)


3. Answer those starred questions as pairs, NOT individually.

Use whatever reading strategy you normally use on the section or passage. When you get to a starred question, you read it and ask yourself this question about it: is this looking for a specific answer or is this an open-ended question? Examples of questions with specific answers are “According to the passage, what does Kelly most fear about Rebekkah?” or “What happens immediately after the star implodes?” Examples of questions with open-ended answers are “Kelly thinks Rebekkah is…?” or “According to the passage, what is true about Soviet satellite countries?” 

Based on whether it's specific or open-ended, you'll answer it in one of two ways. I'll demonstrate both.


4. If the question clearly has one correct answer, you’ll pretend the answer choices to the second starred Evidence Question are the answer choices to your question.

Like this:

*13. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah?

A) Blah blah blah

B) Blah blah blah

C) Blah blah blah

D) Blah blah blah

*14. Blah blah, blah blah blah previous question?

A) Lines 4-6 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

B) Lines 7-11 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

C) Lines 12-13 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

D) Lines 45-49 (“Blah blah…blah blah”)

So, you’ll read the first question, read the answer choices of the second question, and answer the second question in the pair. Then—and only then!—you'll summarize the quote in the answer you've chosen for the second question.

Here's the payoff: that will be the answer to the first question. For free. In a snap. 

One of the answers in the first question will match the quotation you've selected as the right answer for the second question. That's the right answer. And you didn't have to go wading back through the passage to find it. 

In this example, you’d read #13, read #14’s answer choices, answer #14, THEN answer #13.


5. If, on the other hand, the first question in the set is an open-ended one, we’d change things up just a little.

You’d still read the first and then read the answer choices of the second. But this time, you go back to the first question with that information. Based on only the four pieces of evidence in the second question's answer choices, which of the answer choices in the first question fits? If all you knew were those four sentences, what would the answer to the first question be? If those four sentences were about what Kelly thinks about Rebekkah, for example, what aspect are they focusing on? That's your answer.

Now you have to go back and answer the second question, right? So which of the four sentences in the second question's answer choices mentioned the element that you've identified in your answer to the first question? 

So in our example, you’d read #13, read #14’s answer choices, answer #13, THEN answer #14. Make sense?


Learning to recognize Evidence Questions gives you a leg up.

This question type is tricky, and no mistake: that's why the test makers use it, and it's why my students who grasp this technique make great gains in their scores. Evidence Questions can represent up to a third of the entire reading section: nailing them makes a HUGE difference in your score. If you can learn to see this type of question coming, it is worth your while to learn my technique for answering them. It saves you time, and gives you a way to avoid errors. And all you have to do is understand the way this type of question works, and actually take the hints the questions themselves are handing out.

If you need me to walk you through this technique (it's one among many that I teach my students based on my detailed work with the tests!) in person or on Skype, I'd be happy to. Reach out to me here and let's make sure you have every advantage possible going into test day. 

Stepping Up Your Math Confidence: The Girls' Guide to Fearless SAT & ACT Math

High school girls often lack confidence in their math abilities, and that can do serious damage. Here are my top tips for firing yourself up for fearless math!

Kristina's Must Haves to Bring on Test Day



It's almost Test Day!  With the SAT coming up this weekend, aren't you excited?? I sure am!  And in an effort to mimic those celebrity Q&A’s where Cosmo asks Taylor Swift for the contents of her bag, I decided to do the same, in the form of a checklist.  So here are the contents that SHOULD be in YOUR bag before you leave the house this Saturday (or Sunday, if you observe the Sabbath) to take the SAT. This check list of what to bring on test day applies whenever you take an SAT or ACT.

7 Things to Bring on Test Day:

1. Your Admission Ticket! After all, you have to make sure you’re really registered for the SAT or ACT.  This should have your photo on it and necessary information so the testing Powers That Be don’t accidentally let in some 50-yr-old engineer dude sporting a pocket protector to take the test for 17-yr-old Kelly. The College Board and ACT get a bad rap when they let things like that happen.

2. Your Photo ID! This is the 2nd line of defense to make sure you are really you and not creepy previously-mentioned engineer dude.

3. Your Calculator!  Preferably a graphing calculator you are comfortable using. There are several from Texas Instruments, like the TI 83, TI 86, etc. Your calculator can be scientific and graphing, but it cannot connect to the Internet, be attached to a laptop or phone, or have a QWERTY keyboard. Please make sure you check the batteries to make sure they don’t run out on you… that totally BLOWS!

4. Pencils, pencils, and then more pencils. I always used to use mechanical pencils, but the SAT doesn’t like those for the Essay.  Feel free to use them for the multiple choice.  And make sure the eraser actually erases, please.

5. Layers of clothing.  I don’t care if it’s 20 degrees right now, you ever know which testing center (i.e. high school) is going to be too cheap to use the heat, or so over-zealous as to cook you alive.  The same fear abounds when it’s sweltering out.  Some places will freeze you to over-compensate, while others try to save on their AC bill and hope your sweating and panting doesn’t force you to bubble outside the cute little circles. The best remedy? Dress in layers that you can remove or add on as needed. A trusty hoody is great for this.

6. Water. If you’re taking a 4 hr long SAT, you really need to make sure you don’t get dehydrated.  Do you know what happens when you get dehydrated, little SAT Vixen? That’s right: you get tired. Or else you start getting thirsty on a conscious level, in which case your random thoughts are “I’m thirsty! When is this section over?!” – while you reread that short passage 4 times in a loop because you can’t hold your focus.  You get the idea. Just hydrate.

7. Snacks.  Guess what’s worse than getting thirty or deciding you need to use the restroom the moment the math section starts? Getting hungry rumblings in your tummy.  Not only is it embarrassing when everyone looks searchingly around the room to uncover the source of your loud hunger pangs, but the moment you notice you’re hungry, it’s too late! You’re now thinking of that instead of cross-multiplying those proportions.  Bring something nourishing and easy to eat, like a Luna bar or an apple, and eat a little bit during each of your breaks to keep your blood sugar and energy (and thus, focus) steady.

So, now that you’re ready, good luck and show that SAT who's boss!!

I love being able to help as many high schoolers as possible reach their testing goals, so if you've found this list of what to bring on test day at all useful, please pass it along to 3 of your friends!



Page Turn Zen: My Favorite Secret to Overcoming Test Anxiety (that can instantly increase your score by hundreds of points)



In all the testing frenzy that goes on Junior and Senior years, there is a lot of attention that goes intolearning vocab, grammar rules, and math concepts.  There is a lot of attention paid to testing strategy, when to guess, how many questions to attempt in order to earn a certain score, and the like.

However, even after mastering all of these topics and strategies, some of you may still struggle to increase your SAT or ACT score.  What gives?!

It’s called test anxiety. And nobody talks about it.

It’s not your fault that you might be struggling with this problem.  Most test prep programs and tutoring companies use what I like the call the “brute force” method: throw more practice problems and work-for-work’s-sake your way in hopes that you will eventually improve your score.

They don’t realize that psychology is half the battle.  And no matter how well you know your stuff, if you are one of the many students affected by test anxiety, then you know first-hand how all the new material you learned just seems to fly out the window the moment the timer starts and the proctor says, “You may begin.”

I see this all the time, and it can take many forms:

  • Bright students who second- and third-guess themselves, often changing their correct answers to incorrect choices out of fear,
  • Juniors and Seniors feeling so much pressure that they over-analyze themselves to death during a test,
  • Students who exhaust so many of their mental resources worrying, that they don’t even finish the section at hand.  This happens especially with math-phobic students!

So what can you do if this is you?

Enter Mental Mastery Technique #2: “Page Turn Zen”

You probably agree that if you’re going to give an amazing SAT or ACT performance, you need to calm down.  You need to focus.  And the best way to do that is simply to be present. In the moment. In your body.

And here’s what you’re going to do to get there:

1)   At the beginning of each section of the test, and every time you are about to turn the page (hence the name), STOP.

2)   Close your eyes.

3)   Take 3 deep breaths.

4)   The entire time you are breathing, notice where you feel the breath in your body.

Let’s analyze this a moment, shall we?

1)   I like having my students begin each section with a clear head.  Thus, I think that starting each section (especially the essay section) with a few seconds of centering activity is ideal.

Sometimes, usually during a math section, students begin to tense up as the problems get increasingly harder.  This makes sense: there’s nothing like that very first problem you can’t solve to shake your confidence!  That’s why you are going to STOP and get back to reality at every page turn.

2)   You want to close your eyes to remind yourself that no one else in the testing room matters.  You are the master of your domain and of your trusty pink sweatpants.  For the 10 seconds when you do Page Turn Zen, not even the impending test question staring back at you from the page can bite.

3)   Taking three deep breaths is about the time it takes the average person to relax for 10 or 12 seconds.  If you feel nervous that three breaths will take too much time, then please time it with your iPhone stopwatch in advance of Test Day to assure yourself that you are not using up much more time than this.

You need to take slow breaths to slow down your heart rate, which might be out of control at the moment.  You need to take deep breaths to get oxygen to all the cells in your body – especially your brain cells!

4)   As you take your three breaths, you are going to focus on the physical sensations you actually feel in your body.  As in, do you feel sweat or warmth on your palms? A stretch in the back of your rib cage? A cold tingle on your upper lip as you exhale? A tickle in your nose as you inhale?  Try to pinpoint the actual, physical sensations as they occur.  Be the curious observer.  None of it is “right” or “wrong”, nor does it mean anything.

By keeping your attention singularly on your physical sensations for the 10+ seconds, you are getting back to the present moment, completely eradicating over-analysis and allowing yourself to get back to your natural state: smart, resourceful, quick, and clever.

To get the best results, you are going to want to start practicing this as soon as you can, in every situation that presents itself! Doing math homework? Practice Page Turn Zen before and during your page turns.  Doing history homework?  Stop and do Page Turn Zen whenever you are turning a page or writing onto the next page of your notebook.  Doing practice questions of any sort, for your SAT/ACT prep or even for your Driver’s Ed test? Do Page Turn Zen.

Soon, this practice will be so ingrained that you immediately do it and will not have to think about it.  And THAT’s how you end up increasing your score by leaps and bounds and utilizing all the knowledge you’ve collected in that pretty brain of yours. ;)

So, while people pay top dollar for my services, I’m giving you this advice for free, because I’m committed to seeing you get into the college of your dreams.  And while this test anxiety tip doesn’t cost you anything, if you found this helpful, please do me a favor and share it with 3 friends.

Nailing the SAT Essay Part I: Sloppy Success vs. Perfect Mediocrity

So many of us women – at any age – suffer from feelings of having to be “perfect”, whatever exactly that is. I, for one, started feeling this way in middle school – gotta love puberty! - but the quest to be perfect exploded in high school.  In the top-ranking public high school in the country – Talented and Gifted Magnet in Dallas, Texas – I was taking 8 (you read that right) concurrent AP classes my Junior year, and obsessing about getting 99’s across the board on my report card.  I was a little “cray”.

Luckily for me, my misplaced desire for perfection had definite endings – the end of the grading period, the end of the school year, etc.  Also, luckily for me, my course-load was math/science/computer-heavy, where there is an end to every problem and you just have to get there.

But what do you do when you’re writing an essay, and there are infinite ways you could craft your words, infinite examples you could utilize, infinite combinations of sentence structures and ways to weave your argument?

That, my friend, is when you need to chuck this need for perfection out the window…  ESPECIALLY if you are writing a timed essay on the SAT or ACT!!

See, even though you might not have experienced it yet, in the “real world” (outside of school), it’s fairly impossible to be “perfect”.  There will always be someone more skilled, smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, more “successful”, and wealthier than you.

If you wait until you’re “perfect” before you submit that report/manuscript or audition for that part, you’ll be waiting a long time - possibly forever – before you follow your dreams.

And if you wait until you think you have the “perfect” essay written in your head before you put your pencil on the paper and start writing it, time will be called before you finish your introduction!!!

In my experience tutoring and coaching countless high-schoolers for the SAT and ACT, the biggest essay obstacle I’ve seen is when the student just wasn’t able to finish her essay in the designated time: 25 minutes for the SAT and 30 minutes for the ACT.  (Or more, if you have extended or double time.)  That’s when you see essay scores of 2 or 4 out of 12 possible points.

Sadly, the test-graders only see what’s on the page.  They will NEVER see the beautiful thoughts in your head, or your gripping stance on how history repeats itself unless we can innovate as a society.  Therefore, your job is to get your thoughts on that page so that they can be graded.  And whatever will be, will be.

In general, if you can just write and finish the 2 pages you’re allotted on the SAT (or get 2 pages written on the ACT), you’re looking at a safe score of 8+ out of 12.  While not phenomenal, this is waaaaay better than a 2, and could mean the difference of 100+ points on the SAT Writing section!

So, if this is you, and you are paralyzed by a need to be perfect, you may be wondering how you can go from never getting your thoughts on the page and scoring a 2 – to letting go and getting a solid 8 that can be built upon.

It’s easy: practice being sloppy!

For the next month, I want to you try the following exercise, which I learned from Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” and adapted to get results for teenagers prepping for the SAT:

Mental Mastery Technique #1: Practice Sloppy Success

1)    Get a blank sheet of computer paper.

2)    Set the alarm on your phone for 5 minutes.

3)    Start writing!  Your goal is to completely fill up the page in the 5 minutes before your alarm goes off.

That’s it!  However, here are some helpful hints, as this seems way easier than it actually is:

  • Keep your pen moving and write whatever pops into your head. If you are blank, write “blank” until something pops into your head.
  • DO NOT erase or cross out anything! Not even a misspelled word.  You need to get used to not being perfect for the sake of this exercise.
  • Don’t worry about perfect grammar, complete sentences, or “stupid” ideas.  This is an exercise in getting your thoughts on the page without censoring.
  • Don’t read what you wrote. You even have my permission to throw away the sheet of paper afterwards.

I’ve gotten amazing results for my students with this practice, sometimes in as little as a couple days.  Why?  For several reasons:

  • No more over-analysis-paralysis!  Something actually gets written!
  • By writing whatever comes up, you are releasing feelings of test anxiety and other emotions onto the page, so it no longer takes up your valuable head-space.
  • You are shifting the focus of what you’re trying to accomplish: finishing as opposed to being perfect.

Please help yourself and give this a try. Right now!  After all, it only takes 5 minutes.  Then post your comments below to share the results you get.

Very Important: Can you think of a friend/classmate who’s suffering from writer’s block on the SAT or ACT essay? Share this post with them – you might just save their score!