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The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT [Hardcover]

Debbie Stier
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Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Debbie Stier on The Perfect Score Project

Mary C. Neal

Debbie Stier is a single mother of two teenagers. Her book publishing career has spanned two decades, most of it spent in PR where she was responsible for publicizing dozens of iconic books ranging from The Notebook to Marley and Me. Frequently covered by the media, including MediaBistro, The New York Observer and New York Magazine, Debbie regularly speaks on topics pertaining to social media and technology as well as, most recently, standardized testing.

Ethan Gumin graduated from Fordham Prep in 2013. An avid outdoorsman, Ethan attends Loyola University Maryland where he is in the Outdoor Wilderness Leadership program and is pursuing his academic interests in business and economics.

Debbie: Do you think the project had value or do you think your mom was completely insane to take the SATs 7 times?

Ethan: Looking back, I can see that the project was a great idea because I wouldn’t have done nearly as well as I did if you hadn’t taken the test all those times before me. I learned so much more from you than if I’d gone through the Blue Book on my own.

Debbie: What do you think the most important thing you learned from my mistakes was?

Ethan: You have to have all the basic skills down before you try to learn any tricks because without a solid base of math and grammar, you won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough on the test.

Debbie: How do you think the project affected our relationship?

Ethan: I think it made our relationship stronger because we spent so much time together. Studying for the SAT is very time consuming!

Debbie: Do you think that you are a better student because of the project?

Ethan: Definitely. I learned how to set goals and work hard. The test taught me the value of hard work and what it takes to achieve a goal.

Ethan: Has the project changed the way you tackle everyday “tests?”

Debbie: Yes! I don’t use the word ‘perfect’ as loosely and liberally as I did before the project started. I now realize it’s beneficial to pause before you set a goal and think first, rather than jump in with both feet and your eyes closed, like I did. It also changed how I parent. Before the project, I assumed my kids would follow along with whatever I said. I thought if I said, ‘Let’s go to Kumon and do worksheets,’ you guys would follow along simply because I was your beloved mother. About halfway into the project, I learned you might not follow, which shocked me. I learned (the hard way) that our relationship had to have deeper roots before I could count on you to follow me into any math trenches. Looking back, I can see that the strengthening of our relationship needed to happen before I tried to rope you into test prep. But ultimately, the beautiful lesson I learned was that investing in our relationship allowed us to have an SAT experience that took on deeper meaning than just a test score – and our scores improved a lot!

Ethan: Do you think Daisy is benefiting at all from the work we did together?

Debbie: I do! I’m doing “test prep” very differently with Daisy. I’m having her go back and shore up the fundamentals of math, grammar and reading before we start with the official “test prep.” I have her read the New York Times every day and we go over all the vocabulary words she doesn’t know, and we discuss the articles, starting with the main idea, which is a great exercise for the SAT reading section.

Ethan: What is the one thing all parents should know about the SAT?

Debbie: The SAT does not have to be a reviled rite of passage. Everyone loves to loathe the test, but it can be an opportunity for bonding. It’s the last big milestone before your child leaves for college – why not use it as an opportunity to connect? A shared experience – even “the SAT” – can create a powerful bond and rewards that go way deeper than a test score.

Debbie: What’s the one thing you think parents need to know about the SAT?

Ethan: Start studying early! Obviously, there are exceptions - students who will barely need to – but most of us need to start early. There’s a lot of material to get down – and your endurance needs to be honed and strengthened. If you start early, it will be a lot less stressful than trying to cram.

Ethan: Complete this sentence: The SAT is to parenting as ___ is to ___.

Debbie: I could answer this question in one of two ways: “The SAT is to parenting as root canal is to a dentist.“ Or, I could reframe: “The SAT is to parenting as soccer is to a soccer mom.” I prefer the latter.

Ethan: What’s the one lesson you hope people will take away from The Perfect Score Project?

Debbie: I hope people see that the SAT can be an opportunity to have a positive experience together. (I know no one is going to believe that, but trust me, if I did it, anyone can). Ethan and I turned it into a lot of fun. We’d nudge each other during TV shows if we heard “SAT words,” and it was fun having my 16-year-old son teach me math. Not to mention, it’s a great exercise for learning to explain a problem to someone else. Sharing the experience of the SAT can be a wonderful journey … together.


The Perfect Score Project is the perfect book for parenting in the age of anxiety.  What begins with a mother’s worry about her teenage son quickly shifts to the moving story of a woman discovering the roots of her own imperfections. By year’s end, you’re cheering Debbie on as she and her son sit side-by-side, helping each other score higher.  She has scripted the unimaginable: SAT—The Love Story.”
--Bruce Feiler, New York Times columnist and bestselling author of The Secrets of Happy Families 

“I loved this book. Debbie Stier’s story of her year-long project answers every question about the SAT—and somehow turns this information into a lively and engaging adventure.  I’m inspired to follow her advice (my poor fourteen-year-old has no idea).  Parents especially will find this account packed with invaluable insights, from a funny, endearing friend who gives the inside scoop on how to deal with the nightmare.”
--Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home

“This book isn’t what you might think.  More than just a guide to succeeding at ‘the test,’ it’s a primer for succeeding at life.  Stier deftly connects success, mindset, and habit.  The Perfect Score Project is the book every parent should read before diving into SAT prep.”
--Shawn Achor, New York Times bestselling author of Before Happiness and The Happiness Advantage

“What Debbie shows us in The Perfect Score is the possibility of strengthening our relationships with our children and empathizing with them in a time when anxiety often pulls us apart. I can so easily imagine using this book with my sons when it’s their turn to take the SAT as a way to ground us through the process.”
--Rosalind Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of Masterminds & Wingmen and Queen Bees & Wannabees 
“With The Perfect Score Project, Debbie Stier has accomplished the equivalent of moving mountains: she has made taking the SAT a fascinating, irresistible adventure.  The Perfect Score Project will have teens, their parents, high school guidance counselors, SAT prep centers and colleges reconsidering everything they think they know about the SAT and the world of test prep.  Debbie’s entertaining, pioneering and eye-opening book is a page turner that will grab you from the beginning.  And it may just inspire you to follow her lead and strive for a perfect score too.” 
--Emily McKhann, co-founder of The Motherhood and author of Living with the End in Mind
"Vince Lombardi, the greatest football coach of all time, famously said, 'If we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.' He could have been describing Debbie Stier's unforgettable chase for a perfect SAT score. Her tips, lessons, and no-nonsense insights are insatiably useful. Her story is genuinely moving--not just a woman's obsession with a test, but a mother's love for her son. A perfect 800 in my book!"
--William C. Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company and author of Practically Radical
“Debbie Stier is a break-the-mold person. She is far ahead of the curve in seeing the future and finding ways to articulate it. She sees how things fit together—the essence of creativity—long before others do.  So it’s no surprise that The Perfect Score Project is a break-the-mold book. Whereas the college application process, and in particular SAT preparation, fills parents and students with anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed, Debbie’s experiences and hard-won insights offer much needed clarity.”
--Ellen Galinsky, President, Families and Work Institute, and author of Mind in the Making
“I love this book more than I can say. Debbie Stier’s account will speak to anyone, like myself, who has spent their life trying to prove wrong the scores they achieved years ago, but it will especially speak to parents of boys who require special handling but for whom there is no proper instruction manual.  Debbie may have started out wanting to crack the SAT code, but she’s achieved so much more. This book is about motivation, and hard work, and parenting, but, above all, it's about forming the deepest bonds of family connection. So many parents will recognize themselves in Debbie’s amazing story -- they'll see themselves in her, and they'll see their children in her children. Sometimes a cigar is a just a cigar, and sometimes an SAT is just an SAT; but here the test Debbie took over and over and over again becomes a metaphor: she chooses to do the hardest work of her life, and it pays off in a thousand different ways.”
--Laura Zigman, author of the national bestseller Animal Husbandry

“Debbie Stier's saga of descending into SAT test frenzy is jam-packed with truly sound advice for conquering test fatigue, understanding superscoring, overcoming performance anxiety and perfecting the ‘fine art of bubbling.’ Enjoy Debbie's cautionary tale of obsession and taking seven SATS -- but don't try this at home!"
--Christine VanDeVelde, coauthor of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step

From the Author

I'm a 48-year old mother of two teenagers. In 2011, I took the SAT seven times.

It was an attempt to light a fire under my teenage son (aka your typical teenage boy; i.e. uninterested in any test, much less a 4-hour-long high-stakes, standardized one).

I thought maybe he'd be interested if I climbed into the trenches. On that front, I scored. I even overheard him telling a girl the other night that "the SAT was fun," (which it was, I just never thought I'd live to see the day when he'd admit that). Right after he took his SAT (he took the test twice), I asked, "Was it fun?," and he told me, "It was less bad than it would have been had you not done it with me," which became his stock answer if anyone asked. Until the other night, when face-to-face with a pretty girl who had to take the test herself. Then it was "fun."

In the end, the project was a success, especially in ways I'd never imagined. Start with the fact that my teenage son morphed from a happy-go-lucky little tadpole who was in need of a lot of "re-focusing" when we began the project, into a hard-working, driven young man who will be heading off to college in a few short weeks.

Over the course of the year I gained a lot of clarity about the gillions of niggly "SAT questions" that plagued me at the beginning -- questions such as, "When do I start?" or "How do I pick a tutor?" And, I now consider myself to be an expert at detecting the early warning signs of "parental love meets teenage apathy" collisions. (Just in time to prepare my 15-year-old daughter.)

And so, I wrote a book about the journey, The Perfect Score Project available now.

I'd describe it as a hybrid: part guide to decoding (and acing) the SAT/part memoir. It's the story of how I grew as a mother, and how my son and I managed to eek some joy out of the SAT process. It's also a toolbox filled with tips I learned about the SAT--things I might not have thought of, such as What makes a good testing location...or The truth about brand-name SAT prep...or How to know if you should self-study, take a class, or use a tutor...

Ultimately, the book is about how I managed to motivate my teenage son to care about the SAT--and, to rescue him from...sliding by.

From the Inside Flap

It all began as an attempt by Debbie Stier to help her high-school-age son, Ethan, who would shortly be studying for the SAT. Aware that Ethan was a typical teenager (i.e., completely uninterested in any test) and that a mind-boggling menu of test-prep options existed, she decided--on his behalf--to sample as many as she could to create the perfect SAT test-prep recipe.

Debbie's quest turned out to be an exercise in both hilarity and heartbreak as she took the SAT seven times in one year and in between "went to school" on standardized testing. Here she reveals why the SAT has become so important, including the cottage industries it has spawned, what really works in preparing for the test, and what is a waste of time. 

Both a toolbox of fresh tips and an amusing snapshot of parental love and wisdom colliding with teenage apathy, The Perfect Score Project rivets. In the book, Debbie does it all: wrestles with Kaplan, enrolls in Kumon, navigates, paints her kitchen with "memory joggers," meets regularly with a premier grammar coach, takes a battery of intelligence tests, and even cadges free lessons from the world's most prestigious (and expensive) test-prep company.

Along the way she answers the questions that plague every test-prep rookie, including: "When do I start?" "Do the brand-name test-prep services really deliver?" "Which should I go with: a tutor, an SAT class, or self-study?" "Does test location really matter?" "How do I find the right tutor?" "How do SAT scores affect merit aid?" and "What's the one thing I need to know?"

The Perfect Score Project's combination of charm, authority, and unexpected poignancy makes it one of the most compulsively readable guides to SAT test-prep ever--and a book that gets you to think hard about what really matters.

About the Author

Debbie Stier is a single mother of two teenagers.  Her book publishing career has spanned two decades, most of it spent in PR where she was responsible for publicizing dozens of iconic books ranging from The Notebook to Marley and Me.  Frequently covered by the media, including MediaBistro, New York Observor and New York Magazine, Debbie regularly speaks on topic pertaining to social media and technology as well as, most recently, standardized testing.  She lives with her son and daughter in New York City, but you can find her at

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


The Perfect Do-Over

How It All Began

I’m a forty-eight-year-old mother of two teenagers, and this whole crazy “perfect score project” started out as a scheme to rescue my kid from . . . sliding by. I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself.

Initially, though, the number of test-prep options left me agog (over a million on Google). My original idea was to try out twelve different methods of test prep the year before Ethan would be taking his first SAT. But as I saw how vast and complicated the realm of SAT prep appeared to be, I kept adding layers to the idea. What was at first simply the notion of taking an official SAT at school with the kids mushroomed into a vow to take the test every time it was offered in 2011 (seven times in all). And I’d try out different locations for each test, which turned out to be a total of five. (I didn’t anticipate the issue of test centers booking up early and ended up having to repeat a few). I wanted to see if the location played any role in the test experience, so I chose schools ranging from an elite private school in the suburbs to an urban public school in the Bronx.

My journey would start with the first SAT of 2011, on January 22, and Ethan would take his first SAT exactly one year after me--in January of 2012. We’d overlap in our preparation about halfway through the year because (a) juniors take the PSAT in the fall (October of 2011 for Ethan; SAT No. 5 for me), so he’d need to study; and (b) I know my son well enough to realize he does better with some spare runway to build momentum.

In spite of the escalating nature of the project, I was excited about the “study together” part and assumed that by halfway through the year, with four SAT experiences under my belt, I’d have my bearings and be able to adroitly show my son “the SAT ropes.”

Let’s clarify something from the start, though: I did not expect Ethan to pull off a perfect SAT score (though I wouldn’t have discouraged him from trying had he wanted to do so of his own accord). I found that by putting the pressure on myself, not on him, I was able to hold the bar reasonably high without having to nag or push (too much). I was “modeling” the behavior that I was hoping to cultivate in my son. In the end Ethan came up with his own number, which we both agreed was the right one.

The Question of the Day

Daunted by the million hits on Google, I started with the College Board Question of the Day. My friend Catherine told me to sign up. She was a year ahead of me with her son Chris and was studying for the SAT alongside him, and I thought it looked like fun. You could say Catherine was my first SAT mentor.

The first week I tried answering the Question of the Day I got most of the questions wrong, which was unnerving. Now, granted, I was trying to answer on the fly from a BlackBerry while cooking breakfast and getting kids out the door--but still, it was upsetting. The second week I decided to focus and see if I could answer the questions if I paid attention. I did better, though I still missed the few math questions. I was encouraged, though.

By week three, I was so into it that I gave myself permission to take the later train to work if I needed a few extra minutes to get the question right. I’d become hooked on these questions. What began as a little fun with the Question of the Day had developed into a full-blown habit. My fourth week, I hit the jackpot: all seven questions right. I was over the moon. I told my children, friends, and family, made an announcement on Facebook and Twitter--even went so far as to write a blog post, declaring to the world: I’m going to get a perfect SAT score!

There was no turning back.

The Wrath of Perfectionism

From the beginning, that word “perfect” had people riled up--so much so that I started to feel self-conscious. I’d backpedal if I sensed someone was going to take issue with the word, and I’d lean on the “project” part, to ease people’s anxiety about “perfect.”

“What? Do you think the person who wrote The Happiness Project is happy?” I’d ask. “It’s a project,” I’d say. “It’s about the journey.”

I almost caved and called it “The Higher Score Project.” One night, during dinner, I received a call from the marketing expert for the group that was designing my website. She told me that “the team” wanted me to know they all hated the word “perfect” and were in agreement that I should switch “perfect” to “higher”: The Higher Score Project. I said okay, though it didn’t feel right, and immediately logged on to GoDaddy, where I purchased every conceivable variation of Then I returned to the dinner table, where I told my kids the new name.

“You just lowered the bar--a lot,” said my daughter, Daisy. Ethan nodded in agreement.

After word of the project got out in my very small town, I began to feel as though people were seeing me as “the mom who pushes her kids too hard.” I was sure I could feel people staring when I’d walk into local shops and could practically hear what they were thinking. “There’s that lady who’s pressuring her son about the SAT.” I’d try to convince myself it had to be my imagination, but then something would happen that would substantiate my fears. One time, I walked into a restaurant and a “friend” I hardly knew sidled up to me, a few glasses of wine into her evening, and whispered, “Don’t worry, I don’t believe what they say.”

A few months after I’d finished my seventh and final SAT, I was waiting in line with some other moms to meet with the guidance counselor assigned to the juniors. It was parent-teacher conference night at Ethan’s school, and the guidance line seemed longer than it had in prior years. I knew the woman sitting next to me a little better than the others because our sons were friends.

“So what’s this SAT thing I hear you’re doing?” she asked.

I didn’t want the other parents within earshot to hear. They’d think I was insane.

“I took the test seven times last year,” I whispered, “to see if I could motivate Ethan.”

The woman looked perplexed, so I continued. “I was overwhelmed,” I said. “I didn’t know which prep class to sign him up for”--as if that explained why a middle-aged woman would subject herself, willingly, to seven SATs.

She still looked confused, so I went on digging my hole.

“It started with that Question of the Day from the College Board,” I said, “and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but before I knew what hit me, I was into it--like, really into it.”

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one mom lean in a little and another tuck her hair behind her ear, subtly. I could feel what they were all thinking: “Does this woman know something about the SAT?”

Right then, the guidance counselor opened his office door and a mother walked out confidently, her “what’s next” checklist restocked. She was infused with a little more clarity than the rest of us, who were all waiting patiently for a turn with the college gatekeeper. The mother with whom I’d been whispering was called in next. She walked into the office, but before closing the door she turned around and asked--from clear across the room--“What’s the one thing I need to know?”

I felt like Katie Couric had just asked me one last question before the commercial break.

God, I hope I don’t embarrass my son.


Taking full, timed practice SATs using College Board material (only) is an essential ingredient for success on the SAT.

Mimic the actual test conditions as closely as possible, including the five-minute breaks and bubble sheets.

It’s critical to review all mistakes until you understand them so well that you are able to explain them to someone else.

Keep track of how many questions you got wrong or guessed at and categorize them (e.g., three triangle problems wrong, four verb agreement mistakes).

The SAT is every bit as much about performance on test day as it is about the knowledge being tested. Experienced tutors advise taking ten full practice tests prior to sitting for the real SAT, and the most exclusive test-prep companies have their students take fifteen or more full tests--before ever taking an official test. The College Board offers twenty-one practice SATs and plenty of extra practice problems, between the Blue Book and the online course.

A few weeks after declaring my goal, I had breakfast with an SAT tutor. I told her all about my plan: the perfect score, the different methods I would try, the various test locations, and so forth.

She looked at me with eyes of pity and didn’t say a word.

“But I answered the Question of the Day right seven days in a row,” I said. “Isn’t that what I’ll be doing on the SAT?”

She smiled, but remained silent, so I went on: “One year, twelve methods, seven SATs . . .” I couldn’t get a word of feedback out of her. “But it’s my lucky year,” I said in a last-ditch attempt to shake loose some sort of reaction. My birthday was scheduled to fall on 11/11/11 that year, and I was feeling lucky.

Not a peep.

My lucky year didn’t unfold at all the way it was supposed to.

Trying to Light the Fire

The project started as a way to help Ethan--to ignite a fire and motivate him--but no...
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