Chyten’s Mastering the SAT Book Review

As an assessment expert with 15 years of experience writing SATs, ACTs, State and National assessments, curricula for international publishing firms and government entities (including NASA), and State Boards of Education, I was called in to do a comprehensive analysis of Chyten’s SAT curriculum. I did a lengthy comparison between Chyten and other preparation books available on the market, online, and in prep schools for which I have not worked (to avoid conflicts of interest).  My pay was independent of my findings and I have been offered nothing else in exchange for my honest opinion. As such, I offer Chyten my sincere and fervent congratulations on creating a preparation system like no other I have seen.

Structure and Formatting

While such considerations may seem trifling, it is often small things that create great solutions. Many a newspaper has lost readers because stories were laid oddly or the print was too small. A student may buy a test prep book and find it so difficult to use that it finds its way into the library donation bin. Publishers of curriculum, state tests, and national assessments create specific layout and style guides for their writers, artists, and designers. Style guides derive their data from educational-psychological studies. Every nuance is carefully considered before it is implemented. From doctor’s offices to billboards, design looms large in the human mind, whether the mind recognizes it or not.

Take, for instance, Kaplan’s SAT prep book. It is akin to the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books. The strategies for each question type are separated from the practice questions. The reading information is interrupted by a math strategy and the practice tests are interspersed throughout. In attempting to simply locate the vocabulary section, I went through the table of contents and found vocabulary at the end of several practice tests in the book and in the middle of the math skills. Incompetent is frustrating in the extreme. It’s incomprehensible why a book would complicate its layout in an attempt to look comprehensive or “smarter” than other books. It’s simply annoying.

Chyten’s curricula, on the other hand, are laid out very simply. The testing categories are divided and grouped logically. Each skill is given the extent of consideration appropriate to its importance and frequency on the actual test. Other books on the market, particularly Barron’s, spend too little time on frequent question types and too much on things that are of little import. In the actual SAT, the critical reading skills section comprises a large majority of the non-math questions. In fact, the Critical Reading section alone has 40 questions. However, Barron’s devotes only 228 pages of its 921-page tome to the Reading test (and 100 of those pages are a vocabulary dictionary).

The layout of the Chyten SAT prep book uses sharp type-print on bright, thick paper stock, making it easy to read. Gruber’s books use a newspaper-like material; I’ve gotten ink bleed from it. A clearer, thicker stock lends the image of authority, expertise, and professionalism because that is the material national publishers use in their own curricula.

The tabs are an excellent addition to the materials. Unbelievably, I have not seen tabs in the books of any prep school or testing publication. It does not exist in the top 6 best-selling SAT books currently on the market (as determined by Amazon’s sales records). It is, again, a small detail that demonstrates an attention to detail vital for those who will be taking assessments. Enabling students to move with ease from section to section makes the Chyten experience less stressful than other schools.

The headers are well-spaced and easy to read. The use of white space in between concepts and practice exercises draws students’ eyes downward and allows for rest periods in between characters. It also enables better skimming and searching for specific practices and information. Important information is accentuated through the use of highlighting.

The fact that the strategies are separated from the practice questions is extremely important. This enables a student is to work on a practice exercise while their strategy book remains accessible for reference. A student can be working on a practice SAT with their Chyten book open in front of them rather than having to flip backwards from their practice questions to an earlier portion of their book. This wastes time and is less efficient—students will turn to an earlier place in the book and lose their place in practice, or have to look several times because they have forgotten the answer to their query by the time they relocate the practice question.

The reason other bookshelf-SAT systems do not separate practice questions from instruction is financial in nature:  parents are less likely to invest in an over-the-counter SAT preparation course if they have to buy two books. Even though having the two separated is economical and more helpful to the student, most people will psychologically deem the opposite to be true (“one is more efficient than two”) and bypass that system for a larger, but single, volume. Chyten has the good fortune to structure their classes so that the practice section is different because it benefits students.  I’m impressed that the school retained their advantage. This is typically not the case in other prep schools who design their own curriculum so that anyone can be a tutor no matter how inexperienced they are. The book is complete and the tutor effectively unnecessary. Often I have had students ask what the point of attendance was when they only used the book. Why not simply purchase a book and save the expense? One such school experienced a student drop-out rate of about 30% when parents realized how their system worked.

Conclusions

The formatting and structure of the Chyten materials is attuned to students’ needs and it presents its lessons in accordance with the structure and nature of the actual SAT. Its tabs are innovative and allow students to reference their material for practice questions with ease. The important information is called out in a way that draws students’ eyes, enabling a quick acquisition of strategies. The use of a separate strategy and workbook is vital to a student’s speed and accuracy while practicing what they have learned. I am extremely impressed with the layout of the materials.

Presentation Style

Test prep books are about as exciting as stripping paint off of a house. Students approach studying with the same passion and eagerness they would have if attending an autopsy. Add to that the dry, barren landscape of poor prose, cumbersome topics, and somnolent facts of an SAT test, and it’s a wonder that college campuses aren’t devoid of ultimate Frisbee players.

This is why Chyten materials get another accolade from me. They are extremely witty and brutally honest about the nature of standardized testing. The SAT is not a measure of intelligence or potential success in a university setting. It is a test of how well you take the SAT. Chyten materials convey this with regular reminders that students are learning to outwit a franchise that exists solely to take their money and convince them of their mediocrity.

Chyten’s introduction to the reality of the test calms the restless anxieties of test-taking. It encourages students, builds up their confidence, and convinces them throughout that they will be successful with some hard work and help. Chyten’s approach to students’ keenly felt trepidation is fantastic: dispel the power and authority of the SAT to judge potential.

I find the sardonic humor to be precisely targeted at 16 to 17 year olds, who have only recently discovered abstract, critical thinking. The art of skinning authority speaks to the teenage heart and allows them to feel their own power. Once students reach the cognitive sphere of abstract thought, they begin to realize that power corrupts. Chyten confirms this subconscious suspicion, emphasizing the money and marketing aspect of the ETS and their SAT. This gives students a passionate desire to learn how to reveal the man behind the curtain and slay the wizard. This is the perfect motivational tool.

Belief is the most powerful force in humanity. If you convince students that they are up against the man behind the curtain and not the great and powerful SAT, then they will perform better even without study. Chyten’s iconoclastic view of testing has an automatic placebo effect on students. They BELIEVE they will do well because the power of the SAT is dispelled and presented bare and predictably vulnerable to a prepared student.

Let’s compare Chyten’s approach to easing student fears and building confidence. In Princeton Review’s opening pages, an attempt is also made at humor and criticism. The humor is vapid, but it’s there. However, after two pages of identifying ETS as a corporation that makes money selling the test to the College Board and how ETS sits on a hunting club estate, Princeton Review includes a paragraph entitled: “How Important Are SAT Scores”. They then display two pie graphs, labeled “Small Liberal Arts Colleges” and “State Schools and Universities”. The pie graphs show that the SAT is given fully 40% of the consideration you will get at a state university admissions board. In liberal arts schools, the emphasis is 25%. In essence, Princeton Review fails what Chyten succeeds at: minimizing the fear students naturally have about the test. Princeton Review contradicts its own advice by stating that the SAT is extremely important if one applies to a larger, well-known school. Consistency builds belief. Princeton Review is not consistent. Chyten is.

In Chyten materials, the prose is witty and conversational. The style is easy to read and avoids cumbersome words like “cumbersome”. The critique of authority and power speaks to a teens’ own experience. The encouragement helps allay test anxiety. When one considers all of this, Chyten is far superior in style and presentation than any other prep book.

Vocabulary

When analogies ruled a large percentage of the SAT with biased impunity, vocabulary skills were extremely important to achieving high scores. Coupled with Sentence Completions, vocabulary acumen was necessary for more than half of the Reading sections.

This is no longer the case. There are only two dozen or so Sentence Completions out of 67 reading questions. The Writing Section has no vocabulary and the passages in Critical Reading are not allowed more than two or three vocabulary-in-context questions per passage set (this is because the vocabulary questions are considered mostly easy questions and we test writers are not allowed to be that lazy). However, Barron’s and Gruber’s have huge dictionaries of words. Barron’s is 100 pages long and Gruber’s is 43 pages with additional word lists. By including such huge dictionaries, these prep books may confuse students into believing that vocabulary is more important than it really is. A student might easily waste several days studying these words. When cramming, the human mind can only absorb a limited amount of data because students are placing everything into short term memory. They might lose other skills through excessive vocabulary study.

Chyten has adjusted to this reality by focusing on Latin and Greek root words and vocabulary groups. Grouping vocabulary by similarity is a brilliant idea. By grouping words and emphasizing what a student already knows subconsciously about their language, Chyten materials are again galvanizing a student’s confidence and mental resources. From the standpoint of cognitive psychology, this is an expert way of enabling short term memory to hold vocabulary. It is easier to learn information in groups rather than individually. Students develop a “gut” reaction to words and can remember the shade of meaning that they learned when studying associated words. A shade of meaning is all it takes to hit a difficult question with words you’d swear weren’t English.

Grouping words and teaching students to rely on their “ear” for language and their internal memory of word associations gives students the perfect edge for Sentence Completions without over-emphasizing vocabulary skills.

Sentence Completions

Myriad strategies have been written for Sentence Completions and all are effective in some way. It is difficult to find an innovative approach to questions that are as old as education itself: the contextual sentence. Students encounter questions like this in first grade as they learn to read (Billy went to the

_ store. Grocery? Puppy? Fireworks?). These types of questions are used in constructed and extended response questions across the country. They are a staple in the long career of public and private schools. That’s why I was surprised when I came to this section of the Chyten materials.

Sentence Completions seem to be vocabulary questions on the surface. However, their deeper purpose is to assess whether a student understands the inherent logic of language; whether they can follow one complex thought from beginning to end.

These two points are why Tip 2 is so original and effective. I was deeply impressed by the concept of teaching word pairs that are often, seldom, or never used in conjunction with each other in sentences because they are not idiomatically paired in English. This enables students to quickly eliminate distractors and gives them an edge when guessing the key between the remaining options.

Tip 5 is extremely important. I found this strategy to be essential in my own teaching, even though it was not in the curriculum I was given. Choosing the “SAT” word is quite innovative and can raise scores dramatically by enabling students to hone in on one or two choices. They fail to take into account that, when writing an assessment, the distractors are very rigidly designed. You cannot have an outlier: a single option that is too different from the other options that a student is automatically drawn to it. It’s a type of entrapment. So, assessment developers have to watch out for outliers. However, the SAT writers for some reason are not trained to avoid this. In order to write for ETS, one must have an M.A. This is an excellent policy, but it’s been my experience that writers write assessments better than teachers or experts in sundry fields. It appears as though SAT writers are not trained to avoid outliers, clanging, cueing, cognitive leveling, etc. This is why Chyten’s method is so vital: ETS lets this happen, so students should capitalize on their poor training programs. It takes a very keen eye to notice that the SAT has these problems. I was exceedingly pleased to see this critique in Chyten’s book. I did not see this skill in other books. In fact, Princeton Review tells students not to choose attractive answers. But, when you couple tip 5 with the other skills taught by Chyten, choosing attractive answers is quite efficacious.

The Spy skill is common in prep books. Everyone recognizes that test writers have to ensure that all distractors are “plausible, but clearly wrong” and that there is ONLY ONE key.  When writing the SAT, and ACT for that matter, I often will go back to the sentence completions and redo them to ensure that there is a Spy in every one and that no distractor is TOO plausible. All test writers do this. Chyten, again, keenly sees this weakness in the test and teaches students to exploit it.

Let’s take a look at another prep book for a moment and contrast Chyten’s method of conquering Sentence Completions with another top-selling prep book and school franchise: Kaplan.

Amazingly, I could find NO mention of a Spy (a non-proprietary name like “clue”). I find this astonishing: not teaching students to look for context clues when that is the entire point of these questions. Simply amazing. When treating vocabulary, Kaplan has no vocabulary building section with exercises. Kaplan has neither categories of words nor mention of idioms. In fact, they have no real strategies at all when it comes to Sentence Completions. They use what I call the “Any-Idiot-Method.” It consists of: read, predict, plug-in.

Gary Gruber is a very nice person. I worked on his book by writing exercises and answer explanations using his tactics, even though I found some of them time-consuming for students. For example, his Sentence Completion method is the “Try-it-all-until-something-works” method. He recommends that students plug every answer choice into the sentence until one works. No elimination strategy is mentioned. I tried this method on a few questions. Even though I immediately knew the answer, I continued to plug in as quickly as possible. It took about 30 seconds for the easy ones and a minute or more for the two-blank questions. That could kill a student because there are Critical Reading questions ahead. Gruber also has a dictionary that is 107 pages long and contains 3400 words used on SATs at some point. Again, this is a waste of time when no strategy is presented.

Critical Reading

The Critical Reading section is a stroke of genius. I have never seen this method before and it is amazing. The Zig-Zag method has a place of pride in the museum of tests that I operate in my mind. It is fantastic. From the stand-point of a test writer, it enables students to avoid our biggest trap: providing distractors that contain information that is well below or above the section with the key in it. By reading the question, then the lines that answer it, a student will never be caught by forgetting what concept occurred when in the passage. For example, a student is asked about why coffee houses were outlawed in many countries. The answer is because they were a place of conversation and conspiracy, where revolution was fomented. BUT! Four lines further down, the passage states that coffee becomes extremely expensive and rare in times of war. If a student missed the transition phrase and I offered that fact as an answer choice, they might grab it. The Zig-Zag method prevents this. The student goes to the section and reads until he or she finds the answer. Then the student stops and moves on to the next question. Suppose a student were to read the questions first. While looking for the answer to the coffee question, they would read the question, then the passage. By the time they had finished reading the passage, they’ve forgotten the questions. When the then read the questions, they’ve now forgotten where in the passage they saw the answer. It is just the way of the brain to lose recently acquired information if the thought process is interrupted by new data. This waste of time disappears when using the Zig-Zag method.

The strategy of resisting the answer choices is interesting. By having an oppositional attitude, students are not identifying with the answers. One distractor is always something that a student likes; a statement that’s nice and pleasant in order to attract the eye. One distractor typically recounts something from the passage word-for-word. Some distractors would be right but for ONE WORD. Chyten’s Critical Reading chapter addresses all of these common pitfalls by having students resist answers and watch for double agents—even looking for them specifically to eliminate an answer choice.

Tip 5 is also very important. A key immediately becomes an incorrect answer if you say it is true in all situations. The SAT uses mushy language and weasel words (“helps prevent” or “sometimes does”). The reason assessment writers must use such language is because we cannot offend. One of the things I taught my students is that the SAT is pro-diversity, pro-individualism, and pro-authority. If an answer choice says that something is always true, then they are not adhering to their principles. If we all have the freedom of personal belief, then something can never be always true. There is always an exception in there somewhere. This is why test development specialists have to use weasel words. Chyten has keyed into our existence and restrictions with this tip. Of course the correct answer waffles a bit: nothing is always absolutely true. I am impressed with the exercises for the absolutes. I believe it to be key to understanding this very important rule.

I used the Zig-Zag method on a passage and I found it to be easy once I had done it a couple of times. I was very wary of this method because I was not reading the passage. I needed to convince myself that it worked by doing it a few times.

When we compare the Zig-Zag method to ANY other prep book, they all fall short in their pool of bickering. Several want you to read the passage thoroughly, and then answer the questions (the College Board’s book, of course, recommended this because a student does not have the stamina or the experience thinking synthetically that is required to master this section quickly). Others recommend students read the questions first, and then underline information that can answer that question, writing the question number to the side. I very strongly disagree with that method because of transitions in the passage that change ideas. I also believe that if students were good at locating information needed to answer the questions, they wouldn’t need a prep course.

Other schools recommend reading the questions, then the passage, and then answering the questions. This triple whammy easily costs students and extra ten minutes. Who can remember what the questions were when reading the passage? Who can remember the answers when reading the questions? In this method, students read the questions, then the passage. Then they go back to the questions because the thought required to read the passage ensures that the student has already forgotten the questions. They then have to go the passage and reread it for the answers. That’s a preposterous waste of time.

Chyten’s method stands aloft from the fray and offers students a real shot at getting a perfect score on these sections. It is this amazingly innovative strategy that sets this curriculum apart from others.

I would like to make brief mention of the passages created by Kaplan for use in their practice tests. I found one paired passage in which the connection between the two was so tenuous as to be nonexistent. Passage 1 was about language and etymology and the other was against political parties, looking through the lens of the Founding Fathers. The Passage 2 had absolutely no mention of rhetoric, speeches, or language of any kind. In addition, both were written in the lazy first person present. The actual SAT has, perhaps, one argumentative or literary passage in the first person. But Kaplan had several. This is an amateurish way of writing because it’s simple to do. In the first person, the necessity of weaving complex transitions and concepts through various characters and subplots is not present. One may simply ramble through. The questions for the Critical Reading passages in Kaplan were equally atrocious. However, I think I know why.

I once tried out for a teaching job at Kaplan. I am a professional public speaker and my test class blew the managers away. But I had to take the SAT and get within the top 1% scores. Of course, their tests were written by Kaplan instructors. I got two wrong on the Reading section and told them they had written the questions incorrectly. However, my math at the time was very rusty. The last test I took was the GRE and the LSAT, and those were years back. They really wanted me, but you had to score high. That meant that their tutors were fine test-takers, but not especially effective teachers or writers. Chyten hires only those with graduate degrees. This is certainly a better strategy to acquire quality tutors.

Writing & Grammar

When it revamped its SAT in 2005, the College Board took the Writing II subject test and included some of those questions in its actual SAT. The perfect score for the SAT rose to 2400 and students broke into cold sweats because grammar was now a part of the test. I theorize that there were two reasons behind this change. 1. The College Board saw that the ACT was becoming more accepted by Eastern and Western schools where the SAT once held dominance. More students prefer the ACT because it feels like an easier test. The College Board was concerned about losing money to its one major competitor, so it added a grammar section to be more ACT-like. They can now claim that they, too, teach grammar. 2. The analogies were becoming a flash-point of controversy. The analogies, unless they were the purely vocabulary-centered ones where the two words were synonyms or antonyms, were based on outside knowledge. You had to know that a pride and lions had a relationship. You had to know that glass was made of sand. While teaching Korean students, there was this analogy—shoe : mat :: napkin : mouth. The primary relationship was wiping. All of my Korean students chose plate : table. I asked why and they said that you put your shoes on the outside mat before you enter the house. You never wipe them. It’s disrespectful.

Needless to say, something had to be done. So the SAT now has grammar.

Chyten’s introduction to grammar is excellent in that it points out that the College Board prefers certain grammatical styles. Grouping the questions into five categories and subcategories facilitates searching for grammatical examples while taking a practice test. The groupings are rather original, as well. While all prep books group grammar information by categories, Chyten groups by central skill rather than what would be found in a comprehensive grammar book. For example:

Gruber’s manual has 60 tiny type-set pages on grammar. It is grouped the way a traditional grammar class or book would be grouped. He begins by teaching parts of speech before moving on to clauses, verbals, modifiers, mood, verbs, tense, nouns and pronouns, connectives, etc. This is very comprehensive. This is correct. This is indexed. This is insane.

In teaching grammar by the skill set necessary to do well with a type of SAT question, students can begin to see the patterns on the test. The section on comparisons is a great example. Faulty parallelism is a favorite on the SAT. Chyten doesn’t explain verbals and pronouns and connectives in order to teach students how to answer this question. Chyten has quick, simple explanations of all of the kinds of comparisons a student will find on the test. Students would have to learn 4-5 different lessons in order to obtain the same skill set if they were to use Gruber’s method. Most books teach the Writing Section in the same way: they offer a grammar refresher. What makes Chyten stand out is categorizing aptitudes together. When you present things epistemologically, the learning process takes less time and offers more impressive results. By the time Chyten has completed its instruction, students will be able to go to an SAT Writing Section and categorize the questions as they move through the test.

The skills taught in the grammar section are perfect; there is neither too much nor too little information. It has the perfect mixture of comprehensiveness and brevity. I’d use this before any other prep book for the SAT. I’d use the others for reference on a doctoral thesis.

The Essay

The essay section is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. To have actual essay questions from SAT test is invaluable. No other book offers this or actual winning essays. A Chyten student should score no lower than a 4 with all of the resources available in Chyten’s essay section. Just a few pages condensed so much exemplary advice, the result is stellar. The rich vocabulary options and the alliteration recommendation are completely original. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the suggestion to use alliteration or sensory adjectives. It is so simple, and yet, so distinctive among prep books that I just shook my head and smiled.

By offering examples of essay prompts from previous tests, Chyten is doing quite a service to its students. It allows students to have several ideas for essays in their head: a memory, an opinion, an explanation, etc. If they have outlines of such essays in their minds and the means to flesh these ideas out quickly, they will be prepared for any essay prompt. The step-by-step writing tips to avoid redundancy, confusion, rambling, and unconnected thoughts is fantastic. Chyten does not teach an esoteric writing course. Chyten teaches real-world skills and techniques that, if followed, will result in sterling prose and a score of 4-6 on the essay. I am a professional writer and have taught writing for years. I also write assessments and writing prompts for tests around the country. If every student learned these tools for effective writing, teachers everywhere could retire their red pens. I cannot speak highly enough about the essay section. It is mind-blowingly, indispensably, unarguably the best writing advice I have ever seen in any test prep or writing curriculum. I can say nothing but, Well Done.

Math

The math section is grouped perfectly. There really are few tricks to preparing for the math section of the SAT. Students must simply know what they’re doing. That’s it. Chyten’s math section is, again, appropriate in length. It does not “overkill” like other prep manuals. One only has to open Kaplan or Gruber’s math sections to see why Chyten is so much better. Like every other section, Chyten offers a comprehensive course in a compact way.

Chyten identifies and explains math traps to students (and there are several). Math writers are taught to devise distractors based on simple errors that every student makes. They might stop one step short of the complete series of steps required to answer. They might offer an answer choice that reminds you of part of the word problem (clanging). They might simply offer a lazy choice, in case a student just quickly does the problem without truly understanding what is being asked.

Another important strategy introduced in Chyten’s math is to view the word problems as though they were critical reading passages. This is a novel idea that can have big implications for students who get flummoxed when faced with math word problems.

The samples of the various types of problems is ample and varied, providing a good mix of the questions one is most likely to encounter. All-in-all, I find the math section excellent in preparing students for the SAT.

Final Thoughts

As an assessment expert with 15 years of experience writing SATs, ACTs, State and National assessments, curricula for international publishing firms and government entities (including NASA), and State Boards of Education, I was called in to do a comprehensive analysis of Chyten’s SAT curriculum. I did a lengthy comparison between Chyten and other preparation books available on the market, online, and in prep schools for which I have not worked (to avoid conflicts of interest).  My pay was independent of my findings and I have been offered nothing else in exchange for my honest opinion. As such, I offer Chyten my sincere and fervent congratulations on creating a preparation system like no other I have seen.

Chyten’s greatest strength is the ability to condense knowledge into manageable skills and to eliminate the clutter and extraneous noise of other preparation systems. By remaining succinct but exhaustive, Chyten helps students focus on only those skills vital to success. Other prep systems bombard students with information that draws them away from the very specific tools necessary for success on the SAT. Any more instruction would distract and any less would detract. If I were to tutor again, I would want to use this system because it dispenses advice and sharpens skills I know to be invaluable to a perfect score on the SAT.

My ultimate conclusion is that Chyten has achieved something extraordinary that leaves every other SAT preparation course wallowing in mediocrity. I have written and examined thousands of pages of material on the SAT, from practice questions to an entire 12 volume curriculum used in a different franchise. Because I have been in this field so long, I no longer expect to be surprised by an innovation or enjoy a little awe at a test prep book. It is a jaded position, but one based on experience.

That is why I am pleased, and not a little surprised, to offer the highest recommendation to Chyten and its SAT Prep Course. It is refreshingly innovative where it should be and perfectly sound and comprehensive where it should be. Parents would be doing their students a disservice by purchasing a book off the shelf or bringing them to inferior prep schools. In order to assure your students’ comfort and success, you should bring them to Chyten Education Centers. If they study, practice, and employ the methods I learned in this book, they simply cannot fail.

The Rake Group, Inc.