The Perfect Score Project: The story of a mom, her son and seven SAT's

Debbie Stier thought she could motivate her son if she climbed into the SAT trenches with him. But what started for Stier as a scheme to rescue her son from "sliding by", became an obsession to superscore her way into the 97th percentile.  One small traffic accident, a television purchase, an apology note written in "SAT words," a crisis in which her children moved out to live with their father and a large dose of humble pie later, Stier's enslavement to the SAT bore fruit.  Most importantly, she was deemed by her son to be "the best SAT mom in the whole world." And seven -- yes, 7! -- SAT's later, she wrote The Perfect Score Project to share all she had learned -- from test prep and "bubbling" techniques to the secrets of snacking. But it's more than a book about standardized testing -- it's an intimate story of a family, a self-help book and a tale with a happy ending. We're a sucker for that combination.

Stier joins us today to answer our questions about her journey down the rabbit hole of answer sheets, the best free resources for preparing for the SAT, test day tips, the funniest thing that happened to her on the way to a perfect score and more…


It's accepted wisdom that familiarity with the SAT can improve performance. How did your performance improve in taking the test seven times?

Interestingly, it is accepted wisdom that you can improve an SAT score (thus, a $4.5 billion test prep industry), but the College Board reports that research shows average score gains to be a mere 5-20 points -- after test prep.

I raised my superscore by 330 points and my son raised his by 590 points from his sophomore PSAT.  We beat the odds many times over.

We both raised our scores by methodically working our way through the nuts and bolts of the fundamental skills of reading (vocabulary), writing (grammar) and math.  We also worked on test-taking strategy, which is what I think most people traditionally think of as “test prep” (though most students would have trouble achieving significant score gains from strategy alone), and we worked on our endurance.

The SAT is as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested. Nothing in college or in my career prepared me to focus so intently for such a sustained amount of time. Therefore, it’s essential to take full, timed practice tests to build endurance before taking a real SAT.  And trust me, no one thinks they have time for this!


What surprised you the most in your quest for the "Perfect Score"?

It takes much longer to master a subject (math, in my case) than I could possibly have understood without going through the experience of working very hard to learn math and yet hardly moving the needle on the SAT math section.

I had no problem learning math, what I could not accomplish in one year’s time was mastery: I could not develop the instant recall and ease in applying new learning to un-familiar problems that comes with time and practice. Over that year I learned a great deal of high school math, but I didn’t become proficient, and proficiency is what the SAT tests.

Test tricks won’t compensate for a weak foundation. This was a painful lesson for me when it came to math.

That said, great test prep works when you do have a solid foundation. My score gains in the reading and writing sections were the result of expert test prep on top of a rock-solid foundation, which I’d built over the course of twenty-plus years in book publishing. Without that base, no amount of test prep could have saved me.


What is the most important thing students can do to perform well on the test?

1)   Use official, College Board material (the Blue Book and the College Board’s online course) as the centerpiece of all test preparation. Any/all supplementary material should lead back to the mother ship to decode and decipher the official material, rather than to replace it --  i.e. don’t use any “unofficial” practice tests.

2)   Give yourself a nice long runway so that it’s an enjoyable experience. Most students should plan on a full school year.

3)   Endurance Train (i.e. full, timed practice tests). The SAT is every bit as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested.

•      Experienced tutors advise 10-15 full practice tests.

•      Review all mistakes until you can explain them to someone else.

•      Keep track of errors and guesses by category (e.g. four subject-verb agreement mistakes).

•      Mimic the actual test conditions as closely as possible.


 Any test day tips for students?

1) Avoid Careless Errors -- Read every word in the question and answer choices, don't get stuck on a question, and use your calculator (even for the easy questions).  Also, make sure to turn the last page of every section -- especially at the end of the test, when you're tired.

2) Sit in the front row, if you’re allowed to choose your own seat, to diminish distractions.

3) Keep your own time during the test. Don’t rely on the proctors. Bring an analog watch. You can’t use a phone or a watch that beeps. I had one really bad SAT experience where the proctor botched the time and the 5-minute warnings on nearly every section.

4) Bring the right snacks. The test is only 4 hours, but it will be a good six hours from the time you have breakfast until you’ll be free for lunch.  Plan to use the 3 five-minute breaks wisely. My favorite snacks were apple (fills the belly), super dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher), water, Listerine strips.

5) Make sure you are at a test center that administers the SAT in classrooms, versus gyms and cafeterias, which are noisy and distracting.

 Would you share the best free resources you found with our readers?

The College Board’s SAT Website


What do you think of commercial test prep? How helpful is it?

Any “test prep” (book, tutor, course, etc.) that uses unofficial material is suspect. The exception would be supplementary material that helps decode official material.  That is the tell-tale sign of good versus bad test prep.


Do students need a test prep tutor to succeed?

Obviously, everyone is different, and I’m sure there are self-motivated, methodical students who could work their way through the free material without needing guidance. However, that was not my son (nor was it me!). 

Most of us don’t know what we don’t know and it’s very hard to teach yourself something new. That’s why god invented great teachers. I imagine that most students would benefit from a great tutor even if just for a few sessions to help focus and guide.  Most tutors will negotiate sliding scales.  In fact, the most expensive tutoring service I found turned out to be the most generous with financial aid and egalitarian as well.

What’s the funniest thing that happened to you on this quest?

I think it’s a tie:

Running into the neighborhood kids at one test. They ignored me from 2 feet away.

Going to Kumon for myself after my high school kids flat-out rejected the idea (that’s a polite way of describing what happened).  I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to Kumon, but it’s filled with little munchkins and appropriately sized furniture. Parents are supposed to wait in the waiting room (which was actually the only thing I didn’t like about Kumon).  So there I was, week in and week out, sitting at those miniature desks in pint-sized chairs, taking the math tests with the little kids who were doing circles around me. After repeating Level D (long division) three times, I gave up on Kumon – and there were sixth-graders in there, working on their Level O certificate (i.e. calculus).  Humbling…..

Any thoughts about the changes the SAT announced this week?

I’m going to take a “wait and see” approach. (That sounds so official, right?). The College Board is going to reveal some of the new questions in mid-April and then I’ll weigh in more fully.

I will say this though: I’m not a fan of dumbing down vocabulary! Dumbing down vocab = dumbing down reading comprehension = dumbing down “critical thinking.”

 At the end of the day -- or the project -- what was the most important lesson you learned?

The real miracle of our family SAT project was not our score gains (which were hundreds of points more than the College Board reports average score gains to be after test prep).  The real magic was that my teenage son morphed from a happy-go-lucky little tadpole, who was perfectly happy to slide by in school doing the least amount possible, into a goal-oriented, motivated young man. Ethan learned, really, for the first time, how to work hard.  And he gained confidence by achieving his own score goal (actually, he surpassed his goal by 30 points).  He uses what he learned from the project about hard work in school. Ultimately, he finished high school with his highest GPA ever – post family SAT project, and he entered college with expectations for himself and confidence that I don’t think he would have had had we not done this project together.

 So, any temptation to take the revamped test in 2016 to see how you fare?

Of course!  I imagine if I study hard, I’ll do well (and the opposite is probably true as well!).


You can buy the book here!









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