How we’re building customer empathy and improving our SAT prep product by putting ourselves in our students’ shoes.
When you picture the average SAT test taker, an image of a stressed-out teenager likely comes to mind. And yet, here we are, two woefully unprepared thirty-somethings who will be sitting for the Official SAT exam on December 7th, 2019.
UPDATE: In an unexpected curveball, the College Board canceled our December SAT registrations as they only allow testing for reasons other than its “intended purposes” during the March, May, and October test dates. Lesson learned on our part – we should have read the fine print! We’re committed to seeing this experiment through and will be replicating test day conditions (proctor, timed sections, and all) and taking a second Practice SAT exam (from the College Board themselves) on December 12th, 2019. Stay tuned for our results!
Why Retake the SAT?
So that we can stop talking in the third-person, the two marketers in question here are Jessica Wan, our Vice President of Marketing, and Kemi Bello, one of our Content Marketing Managers. We’ve decided to retake the SAT, for the first time since our initial high school attempt many moons ago (13 and 20 moons respectively, to be fully transparent), for a number of reasons.
First, we want to use our prep and test-taking experience to check any assumptions we’ve been making about our customers, our product, and the overall test prep experience, spot any blind spots in our marketing, and, ideally, be better marketers as a result of this experiment.
Although we invest heavily in our marketing efforts at Magoosh (for example, our Marketing Team forms a third of our full-time staff at Magoosh), we know and are excited by the fact that there’s still so much we have to learn. In fact, we frequently hear from students who tell us that they wish we advertised to them MORE so that they could choose us as their study partner earlier in their prep journey.
We hope to use this experiment to listen to the feelings that come up for us as we ask ourselves the same questions our students ask of us: Where do I even begin studying for the SAT? What test score should I be aiming for? How do I structure my time? Where do I turn to for help when I’m stuck on a problem? How do I deal with the fears that come up as I’m studying?
Second, we want to build better products and improve upon what we believe to be the best affordable online test prep option by trying on our own test prep for size. Although we already ask every new Magoosh employee to use our products as a part of their onboarding process, we wanted to challenge ourselves a step further and prep not just on a trial or sample basis, but towards an actual test and score goal that reflects how and why our students use Magoosh.
A number of the Magoosh test prep experts on our Content Team have made it a regular practice to retake the standardized exams they help our students prepare for as a means of staying up on the latest content and ensuring our suite of Magoosh prep products are the absolute best they can be.
As marketers, although we serve as the product messengers to and from our customers, we realized we can be even better advocates for the product if we actually used it ourselves. Though this might seem like an obvious practice for any company, popularized in the SaaS world by the term “dogfooding,” it can be challenging to put into practice when your customer base is of a different demographic or at a different life stage than your team.
Most importantly, we want to be better Magooshers and build empathy with our customers by walking a literal mile in their shoes.
Every week, when we share stoke from our students in our team meetings, we’re consistently blown away by the discipline, resilience, and courage of our students as they embark on journeys to pursue the education of their dreams. Some of them share how they’ve been able to overcome crippling test anxiety and cope with rejection after rejection from their dream schools, while others tell us how they manage to juggle dedicated study while parenting a toddler and thrive academically despite tremendous socio-economic odds.
In short, studying for a standardized test can be a stressful experience, and test scores often stand as a barrier to the already uphill battle today’s students face to attain a quality education.
While our short experiment absolutely pales in comparison to the real experiences (and real stakes involved) for high schoolers, we hope to emerge from this test prep experience always carrying the perspective of our students close to mind.
Three Study Habits of Our Most Successful Students
Before we dive into our specific study plans, we wanted to remind you (and honestly, ourselves) that there is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to how to study for the SAT (or arguably, anything). Analyzing a sample pool of roughly 5,000 high school students who have studied with Magoosh, our data scientist Sam learned that the most successful of them tend to share three common characteristics:
- Good students study consistently over time. They don’t cram, nor do they study sporadically, and even the shortest 20-minute daily study block can add up to tangible score improvements over time.
- Good students balance learning with practice. They are not passive studiers, who read or watch a lot of content without trying it out themselves, and they are not solely stubborn practitioners, who march on through countless practice questions without stopping to understand the material and strategize for each study session.
- Good students focus on learning from their mistakes. They know what their strongest and weakest areas are and choose the discomfort of honing in on their areas of greatest potential.
Our Study Plan to Retake the SAT and What We’ve Learned So Far
Before we dive in, an acknowledgment of the privilege that comes with this experiment:
It’s important for us to name that, unlike high school students around the world whose hopes are pinned on getting into their dream college in the US, Jessica and I have no life outcomes resting on our performance on the SAT next month. We’re both college graduates and tech sector employees who have the resources and company blessing to experiment as part of our roles, and, though we’re not the content experts at Magoosh, still benefit from the support and access to knowledge of our peers. We recognize that access to affordable, quality test prep is a barrier to so many students around the world, and hope that Magoosh can continue to chip away at leveling the educational playing field.
To glean the most from this experiment, Jessica and I will be embarking on parallel study paths that mimic the decision that many students are faced with: should I use free SAT resources or splurge on a paid SAT prep product? Jessica will be taking the paid route, using our Magoosh SAT Premium product to study, while I (Kemi) will be embarking upon the free route, sticking with some combination of our Magoosh High School blog, SAT & ACT YouTube channel, and our free SAT prep and flashcard apps.
In our experience, most students only spend a month or less actually studying, so we kicked off our 1-month SAT study plan with a SAT Practice Test from the College Board to set our score baselines and inform our study focus. Jessica scored a 1390 (out of 1600 total) on her practice test, while I scored a 1380. To be fully transparent, our practice test was taken on company time, and our SAT registrations and Jessica’s Magoosh Premium account were paid for by Magoosh.
It’s now been roughly 10 days since our SAT practice test, and we have exactly three (gulp.) weeks before taking the official SAT.
So far, I have…yet to study, which has already helped me empathize with students who tell us that the hardest part is finding the time while juggling a million other high schooler responsibilities, laugh/cry. Jessica has found that juggling a full-time job and a family makes for a stressful study experience, and that “cramming doesn’t work.” We’ve both learned that thou shalt not be hungry whilst taking the SAT, as we really struggled with this during the 3+ hour practice SAT.
You’re Invited! Join Us On Our SAT Study Experiment.
Whether you’re a marketer or UX researcher interested in our product learnings and takeaways, or a student looking to learn the pros and cons of free vs. paid SAT prep resources, we look forward to sharing our SAT study journey with you.
We’ll be sharing updates within this blog post both before and right after our official test day on December 7th, as well as a final report back on our official scores and (hopeful) score improvements.
How Did It Go? Our Experiment Results
Our Score Improvement:
- Jessica’s November 7th SAT Score: 1390 (750 – Verbal, 640 – Math)
- Jessica’s December 12th SAT Score: 1470 (740 – Verbal, 730 – Math)
- Jessica’s Score Improvement: +80 points!
- Kemi’s November 7th SAT Score: 1380 (740 – Verbal, 640 – Math)
- Kemi’s December 12th SAT Score: 1450 (760 – Verbal, 690 – Math)
- Kemi’s Score Improvement: +70 points!
Our Study Experience & Takeaways:
Jessica’s Total Study Time: 1.9 hours
Kemi’s Total Study Time: 1.5 hours
Jessica’s top learnings:
Don’t underestimate practice tests! Taking even one practice test fully helped with the feeling of timing – what pace is appropriate to get through everything. I felt this most keenly on the Writing and Math (no calc) sections. Coincidentally, they’re the shortest sections.
Remember that the SAT is a marathon and it tests your ability to focus. You really can’t get distracted or you lose precious time. Having a positive attitude and a feeling of confidence is helpful to get you through the marathon. Once doubt slips in, it’s easy for that doubt to persist and affect your performance.
Kemi’s top learnings:
Confidence is Key! I felt a HUGE difference in my mindset on my second vs first try (I felt less stressed, more sure of my answer choices, and wasted less time hemming and hawing over unsure questions), and I think that had to do with two things: 1) I reminded myself incessantly that the test wasn’t a measure of how smart I was (maybe silly but for me, huge) and 2) I felt relief because I knew what to expect – the College Board resources and first practice test helped me get a handle on the question format, timing, and which questions types I struggled with most.
Speed Matters; it’s not enough to simply know the content. Each section felt like sprinting a marathon, and I had to be really mindful of pushing myself to answer questions quickly. The challenge there is that there are purposefully placed trick answer choices and I sometimes had to sacrifice getting a question right in order to answer it quickly, or vice versa, and I feel like this directly impacted my score.
Have you ever taken on an experiment like this to put yourself in the shoes of your customers? We’d love to hear what you learned in the comments!