The SAT Prep Black Book

Be Careful With Diagnostics, Even From The College Board

“All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions.”
- Leonardo da Vinci

A lot of test-takers try to assess their weaknesses with some kind of diagnostic test, whether from the College Board itself or from a tutor or test prep company. In fact, the score report you receive from the College Board after you take an official SAT or PSAT provides a breakdown of your supposed strengths and weaknesses based on the questions that you missed.

In my opinion, you want to be very careful when you consider this kind of feedback, because it overlooks the fact that there are many, many ways to miss any given SAT question, and they might not have anything to do with the College Board’s idea of the question’s type.

For instance, you might miss a reading question because you don’t know some of the words in the question, or you might miss it because you misread the question, or because you were in a hurry and didn’t have time to consider it carefully enough. You might miss a math question for any of the same reasons, or because you made a simple mistake in the arithmetic component of an algebra question, or because you keyed something into the calculator incorrectly. And so on. But diagnostic reports can’t measure the reasons that you miss things—they can only try to classify each question and then assume that people who miss a question are bad at answering questions of that class.

For instance, the score report might show that you missed a question that it considers to be an algebra question, and recommend that you improve your algebra as a result. But it may turn out that you really missed the question because you accidentally multiplied 2 and -2 and got 4, which has nothing to do with algebra.

So I rarely pay any attention to such diagnostic reports, and I don’t encourage my students to worry about them in most cases. The only limited exception I would make would be in an extreme case. For example, if you miss every single Sentence Completion question on a practice test and don’t miss any other questions in the Critical Reading section, then there’s a good chance that you need to work on your approach to Sentence Completion questions.

Outside of those kinds of situations, though, I would recommend that you pay more attention to your own feelings about where your weak areas are, as long as you’re trying to diagnose those weaknesses honestly. For instance, it’s tempting to look at an SAT Math question that involves circles and assume that you missed it because you’re not good with circles, but, if you pay close attention to how you tried to answer the question, you may realize that you actually missed it because you ignored two of the answer choices and didn’t notice that the diagram was drawn to scale. Either way, the experience of looking back over a question you missed and trying to figure out why the correct answer is correct, and how you might have arrived at that correct answer if you had looked at the question differently, is far more helpful than accepting a diagnostic report at face value.