Book Review: The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier

Debbie Stier, a full-time mother of two children, decided to try a novel experiment as her son Ethan prepared for the college process. Instead of simply encouraging her son to study and perform well on the SAT, Stier made it her mission to take the SAT as well, hoping to get a perfect score. Her adventures grew into an entertaining book, The Perfect Score Project. Below you’ll find a spoiler-free review. You’ll have to read the book to find out if Stier got a perfect SAT score!

Overall Contents and Structure

The Perfect Score Project nearly breaks 300 pages, but time flies as you read. The effect of Stier’s lively writing is more like a memoir with occasional educational asides, instead of a generic test prep book, so readers will find it enjoyable. The book is broken out into twenty chapters, each of which deals with a particular test prep method or SAT experience. The chapters follow in chronological order from the time the project begins (while her son Ethan is 16) to its conclusion after Stier takes seven full-length SATs over the course of a year.

An unexpected feature of the text is the boxes with advice and tips that Stier gathered during her SAT experience. There are several boxes during each chapter, and they concisely summarize key points or suggestions from that chapter’s test prep information. I found most of these text boxes to contain helpful information, and they didn’t detract from the memoir feel of the work as a whole.

Stier’s writing style is humorous and straightforward, which is what I expected from someone who spent years in the publishing industry. She provides plenty of anecdotes about her experiences as the mother of two children and as an adult SAT-taker, which makes for an entertaining combination. She even finds ways to describe the endless practice tests in engaging ways.

The Perfect Score Project | Basic Plot

The overall plot of the book is straightforward—Stier wants to crack the SAT and help her son Ethan do the same as he prepares to apply to colleges. The ultimate goal is for Ethan to achieve a top score so he can get a large merit scholarship, and Stier wanted to model good behavior for Ethan as he began his own test prep.

It’s what happens during this process that make the book unique. Debbie describes all of the steps she takes in detail, from making flash cards to going through different types of tutoring to finishing practice test after practice test. She really has tried it all!

Another strength of the story is the lengths that Stier goes to in order to provide historical context for the SAT and its changes. The SAT is very different now than it was ten years ago – even five years ago. This combination of history, personal experience, and humorous life stories makes for a great read.

The Perfect Score Project | Prepping for the SAT

Many of the chapters focus on a particular way of preparing for the SAT, and Stier tries nearly everything in her quest to reach a perfect score. She highlights what worked and what didn’t, from tutoring to online classes to math workshops.

Stier feels that taking full-length, timed practice tests is the most important part of preparing for the SAT. Just completing these practice tests isn’t enough: analyzing the results and keeping track of the mistakes is the best way to target future studying. Creating a list of commonly missed themes or problem types will help test-takers focus on the next exam and decide which practice problems to do. Cramming is only helpful in the short-term—reviewing notes the night before may help solidify a few formulas, but serious studying must take place over the weeks and months before the SAT.

One of the areas that Stier wanted to improve was her essay score, so she shares the succession of her results from each of the seven different SATs. One key point is that it’s possible to get a perfect 800 on the writing section without getting a perfect score on the essay. One can either get all the questions correct and have an okay essay, or rock the essay and miss a few multiple choice problems. Stier accepted that she wasn’t in the running to get a perfect essay score, so she focused on preparing for the multiple choice questions. Other test-takers might want to make a similar decision in order to allocate time efficiently while studying.

Several chapters discuss major SAT prep course companies, particularly Kaplan and The Princeton Review. Stier isn’t overly impressed by either company, especially Kaplan’s online course offerings. Technical glitches prevented her from completing a single section of the online course, and she made it clear that she prefers to work with test prep professionals in person.

Stier tried working with a few different tutors, and she came up with plenty of strong advice for choosing a good tutor. Make sure to look for a tutor that works with official College Board material and practice exams, because this material most closely mirrors the actual SAT. Setting goals for each tutoring session is also helpful, because they show students what has been accomplished and what is left to learn. Working on fundamental skills and test strategy together is key, instead of focusing on just one way to approach the SAT. Red flags for tutors include extensive use of practice tests, no strong SAT credentials, and “branded” advice, like only using a certain method to solve problems.

The best benefit that Stier received from tutoring was improving her math scores on the SAT. The combination of strategies that she learned helped boost her math score by over a hundred points. For more advice on choosing a tutor and seeing if a tutor might be a good match, look at our SAT tutor blog post.

The Perfect Score Project | Advice on Best Way to Take the SAT

A significant amount of Stier’s advice includes suggestions for when it comes time to take the SAT. She did go through seven different exams, so her tips do have some merit! Some of her suggestions are straightforward, like bringing plenty of snacks to have during breaks and making sure to have a watch. There are also several less familiar tips: sit in the front of the room near the center so there are fewer distractions, and choose a test center carefully.

Stier found out that it’s possible to contact individual test center supervisors to get information about the test environment, and she strongly encourages potential test-takers to do the same. She had a horrible experience when taking the SAT in a high school gym, and she recommends always calling to make sure that the test will be administered in a classroom setting with comfortable desks. Anyone who signs up for the SAT can call a school and ask to speak with the person who will oversee the exam. One chapter even includes her worst experiences with proctors—some of whom were awful.

Another key piece of Stier’s advice is to be careful when bubbling in the answers to questions. While this might seem like a silly tip to mention, it does make sense—there are so many different answer sections in the booklet, and it’s easy to start filling out the wrong section. A quick double-check can save time later. On a related note, Stier also recommends taking notes right away after the exam on how the sections went, and then comparing these notes to the official score report. This way test-takers can compare how they felt about each section to their actual performance.

The Perfect Score Project | Weaknesses and Areas of Improvement?

The writing was enjoyable throughout the book, as were the text boxes that summarized key strategies to use on the SAT. It would have been helpful to see a list of resources or suggestions at the end of the text, because the advice was scattered throughout the chapters. While there was an index, there was no comprehensive list of sources/websites/blogs that Stier used as she prepared. Readers can find this information only in individual text boxes.

The Perfect Score Project | Summing Up

I’d recommend this book as a fun read for parents of teens who are about to go through the college process, or even for teens themselves. Stier provides plenty of ideas for test prep and creative ways to get ready for the SAT, all in an appealing way that isn’t dry and overly academic. It was refreshing to see a mom go through this testing process and then help her son get ready, because it showed how active engagement can help teens succeed in high school. While few other parents will want to take seven SATs to help their teens prepare, everyone will find something interesting in The Perfect Score Project.