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How a Russian Immigrant Scored a Perfect Verbal Score on the SAT, and Lessons TOEFL Students Can Learn From This

Today, our friend Ivan at italki is sharing his experience on the SAT. As a non-native speaker, he had many challenges to overcome, and learned several lessons along the way. No matter what the test–SAT or TOEFL–all non-native speakers can learn from his story. 🙂 

I spent 12 years somewhere between Russian, Ukrainian, and Central Asian cultural influences, with Russian and Ukrainian being my primary languages.

We were taught English in school, but I was nowhere near prepared for a life (much less test-taking) by the time we arrived to the United States. My family made up about 25% of the Russian population in the small southern town that was our new home.

By the time I was a High School junior (4 years and 3 SAT tests later), I scored within my target range. Not only that, I had the highest score in my grade, and most surprisingly even for me, a perfect verbal score. I had managed to beat out every native English speaker in my (100+ student) grade. I got lucky. I stumbled into a few very useful influences and resources, and away from several very unhelpful assumptions about facing the test. I even managed to learn something about myself along the way, but more on that later.

Though obviously test preparation can be done in many ways, these few observations have helped me both beat the test and keep it in appropriate perspective:

The Map is NOT the Territory

The test does not measure your ability to think, reason, or your inherent intelligence. The test does not measure your ability to perform in college. The only thing that any test can assess is how well you can take the test.

Sure, your ability to “beat” the test shows a level of inventiveness, persistence, and concentration, which are all surely useful skills in life and academic settings. Still, it seems odd to put so much importance on a single test, whether it is SAT, GRE, TOEFL or any of the other hoops one must brave in an academic or professional setting.

The most important realization that came to me during my practice for the SAT is that my foreign-ness, my lack of understanding of cultural references, and my accent all had no impact on my verbal score. The only things that mattered was the ability to read, learn a very particular pool of vocabulary, and see analogies like one would see mathematical equations. A test is not a representation of your verbal or math ability, except as framed by the very narrow constraints imposed by the test writers.

With this in mind I did the work, corrected my mistakes, practiced my skills for passing the test. I did not let myself be deluded that the SAT score meant something about me, my abilities, or my intelligence. This helped me keep my spirits up, but also allowed me assess myself realistically, giving an appropriate amount of attention to test prep, and pursuing skills and interests I cared about.

Test-taking is a skill. Treat the test as a hackable game.

I started preparing by reading the book “Up Your Score.” It’s a whimsical romp through the world of SAT, and if the words “whimsical romp” seem out of place next to “SAT prep”, then you’re halfway to getting the point of the book.

The tone of voice was fun, friendly, even sarcastic. This attitude really made me feel better about the test. I was almost excited to take it on.

My attitude helped shaped my eventual outcome, before I practiced my first analogy or memorized my first vocabulary word. Knowing that the test CAN be beaten helped me beat it. I saw the SAT as hackable, and was emboldened by the fact that there are tricks and generalizable rules that can be found and learned about defeating it.

Each Saturday morning I would get up, time myself, and work through a full SAT test. I completed 7 real SAT tests out of the book “10 Real SATs”. I would then have lunch, and go back through the test, scoring myself. The next two hours I would spend going back to the questions I’ve missed, and figuring out why I had made a mistake.

This was not normal or natural behavior for a 16-year old teenage boy, and of course there was a large amount of parental “encouragement” as additional motivation. Still, without that whimsical attitude towards the test, I would not have been able to stick it out. I was imagining myself battling a tough enemy that had secret weaknesses, and all I had to do was uncover those weaknesses.

This perspective is fundamental in approaching test prep, educational tasks, and building up any skill. Malcolm Gladwell famously proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of concentrated practice to become a domain expert. Thankfully this number is directed towards real world skills like golfing, accountancy, or any other skill-based profession, and not test preparation. Still, getting good at something takes time and practice, especially when this something is taking standardized tests.

A good attitude helps you know that the challenge can be defeated and overcome, and makes the struggle and the work bearable. What’s more, looking for the hidden weaknesses and “hacks” to get to your goal helps prevent the loss of attention in practice. There’s an expectation of uncovering another secret weakness, and that can make practicing a skill closer to being fun.

One thing that the aforementioned accent and lack of understanding of cultural references were deficiencies in very real social and language skills. I managed to turn my SAT prep into a way to make up for those.

Find Outcomes That Matter

I got the score I wanted and got accepted into the school I wanted. Still, I would think my two months were wasted if I did not extract some personal value from the experience. I was able to expand my vocabulary, and become cursorily acquainted with the themes and structures that serve as fodder for the reading sections.

Even practicing a simple skill like vocabulary-building helped me get more familiar with English as a real-world skill. The rewards I got out of my practice wound up helping me adjust better to life in the U.S., communicate better, and fundamentally improve my understanding of my adopted home.

What’s more, these basic skills made it easier for me to acquire languages in the future. My passion for language has taken me around the world. From Rome, GA to Honolulu, D.C., Chennai, Osaka, Shanghai, I have been able to explore a vast, exciting world, and understand myself better through it. I think that perhaps my life would have been much less exciting had I not made these few observations early on:

  • The challenge CAN be beaten.
  • The challenge doesn’t define who you are.
  • The challenge can teach you something useful, all you have to do is uncover it.


About the Author: Ivan Batishchev is a part of the team. is a community marketplace that connects language learners with teachers around the world. Learners can find a native teacher to improve their fluency through 1-on-1 lessons on Skype. There are over 3000 teachers on italki teaching over 50 languages, and thousands of language lessons taking place every day.

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