Preparing for the SAT: 5 Questions with the Cofounder of Bell Curves

akil belloEveryone prepares for the SAT in different ways. Some people invest in one-on-one tutoring while others take free practice tests online. We spoke with Akil Bello, co-founder of Bell Curves, about what students can do to prepare for the SAT the best way for them.

The ACT surpassed the SAT in number of test takers this year. Why do you think that is? Should students take both?

The number of ACT test-takers has increased in part because, as Mark Twain once put it “there are three kids of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” The comparison between ACT and SAT test-takers is not completely apples to apples and is therefore deceptive (more states use the ACT as a graduation requirement than use the SAT), Also, more students have access to the information that the ACT is a viable competitor; many traditionally thought the only option for applying to college was to take the SAT and are now realizing they can choose to take the ACT instead or in addition.

I am not a proponent of students taking both tests. They are fairly different tests and there is little gained in having to split your focus onto two different tests. My advice would be to take a practice test with each and decide as early as possible which test to focus on and then prepare as well as possible for that test.

How far in advance should a student start studying?

Theoretically in the the womb. Test-specific prep should be the icing on the educational cake. It should be teaching students to apply knowledge they already have to a new format. If a student has been developing his reading skills and critical thinking skills over the course of his entire life than test prep takes very little time. I’ve blogged a bit about this at

To more directly answer the question the amount of time required depends on the student’s current level of preparation, academic background, and comfort level with standardized exams the amount of time it takes to prepare will vary. I would say most students to make a reasonable improvement will need at least 2 months to prepare, assuming they are putting in at least 5 hours a week learning the content on the exam and taking at least one practice test timed every 2-3 weeks.

For students unable to spend a lot of money in tutoring or test prep courses, what is the next best resource – online or off – that they can turn to?

There are many online prep services that have been created in the past few years and they vary in quality. You have to test them and determine if they offer value to you. Consider the following when looking at the online programs:

  • Clarity of instruction – does the explanatory content make sense to you or are they speaking in science nerd terms that you don’t get.
  • Type of instruction – is it text based or video based? Do you prefer interactive learning platforms (java or flashbased) or static lecture/book style (video or text). I’ve seen sites that use “video” but its only the video of someone’s hand working out the problem with a pencil and talking to you.. not what I would want to watch for hours.
  • Quality of materials – how ACT/SATish are the practice problems. If a student thinks the questions are not like the test than don’t use that site. Its often difficulty to get the right “feel” and “flavor” when creating practice ACT/SAT materials.

If you choose books and offline materials I would purchase a preparation book and a practice book. A preparation book will include strategies, formulas, rules, and advice necessary for the test. The practice book I would recommend is the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide 2nd edition, which contains 10 practice SATs from the creator of the SAT.

If you had to choose one thing for a student to do to score well on the SAT, what would that be?

Learn to pace themselves appropriately. Most students don’t realize that you don’t need to answer every question correctly to get a great score. On the SAT, to get a 600 in the Math section you only need to get about 2/3 of the available points, if you skip the last 1/3 of the questions.

What is Bell Curves and how can you help students prepare for standardized tests?

Bell Curves is a test preparation company that provides resources to help individuals and organizations understand and prepare for standardized tests. We work with students, schools and organizations to provide courses and tutoring for students, information and assistance for organizations trying to set up their own program, and workshops for parents and students.

We help students by offering free workshops to inform them about how to prepare, courses to help them get prepared, and tutoring if they choose to prepare one-on-one.

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