Know Your Enemies

You know the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I know this firsthand because when I first moved to Hollywood, I knew nobody.

Hollywood?! Yep, if it weren’t for my truly selfless passion for teaching you the SAT/ACT, I could have been a famous director. Lol, just kidding. The truth is, after 400+ film job applications (with a dismal response rate of 1.7%), I gave up my vague Tinseltown dreams. I had zero connections, and the few gigs I did land weren’t teaching me anything beyond how to efficiently order lunch for the crew or memorize coffee orders. Once, I got to paint a wall (yay for manual labor). Sad times.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I had thrown in the towel and moved onto college admissions/test prep that I really started connecting with interesting people. In the span of a few years, I had worked with the families of A-list movie stars, famous rock musicians, the CEO of a massive movie studio, big time film producers in charge of $300 million budget movies, the creators of hit shows on primetime television, and even a billionaire.

I was already out of the film business by then, but it was sooo true that once I had worked with one of these people, the referrals streamed in.

So what’s this all got to do with you? I promise you there’s a point.

We’re going to apply this universal notion of “who you know” (with a twist) to your SAT/ACT prep.

You have to know your enemies.

These are the concepts, grammar rules, vocab words, tricky question types, or approaches that you don’t know yet. These “enemies” are ravaging your score.

The first step to an effective review program is identifying these enemies. If you do this, I promise you, you will end up spending LESS time to improve MORE. It all starts with knowing what you don’t know. Then you can systematically break down what you need to study and have a clear sense of how far away you are from your goal.

It sounds so obvious, but most students never take the time to document their areas of weakness.

Without an organized “hit list” of enemies, you are studying haphazardly. You’re probably just taking practice tests or sections and reviewing your mistakes. This is sloppy, ineffective studying because you’re not making a concerted effort to defeat any particular enemy. You’re doing a mediocre job at holding back all the various enemies (a little vocab here, a little geometry there, some subject-verb agreement elsewhere, and so on).

Keep this golden principle in mind: the key to improving your score is NOT to know a little about every concept. The key is to know EVERYTHING about a good number of concepts (you only need to master ALL concepts if you’re shooting for a perfect score).

You can still obtain highly respectable scores, even in the 700s per section (or over 31 on the ACT) without knowing every tiny concept.

If you’re taking the test this weekend or the next, you have limited time. So stop doing random practice tests and questions and flopping around like a goldfish. You need to target your specific weaknesses, even if it means you don’t get to review other concepts at all.

For example, if you become a master at every possible verb and pronoun issue on the SAT, you just aced 35% of the writing test. If you master all function questions in math, you just made easy work of about 10% of the SAT math test. Would you rather master these big game concepts or some niggling concept that shows up once a test (or sometimes not at all)?  Find your BIGGEST areas of weaknesses, and annihilate those enemies.

One of my core concepts about studying is it’s not about HOW MUCH you do, but HOW you do it.

When I used to study for tests in school, I would start by making an outline of every single concept that could possibly show up on the test. Sometimes, a good teacher would provide that, but more often than not, I had to make my own.

So for math, you might start with something like this:


  1. Equation functions
  2. Graph functions
  3. Table functions
  4. Shifting functions
  5. Symbol functions
  6. Box of equality of functions


  1. Difference of squares
  2. Sum of squares
  3. Stacking (system of equations)
  4. Factoring
  5. Substitution


  1. Triangles
  2. Pythagorean theorem
  3. Special right triangles
  4. Triangle inequality rule
  5. Area, perimeter, and angles
  6. Circles
  7. Radius tricks (inscribed and circumscribed circles)
  8. Arc lengths, sectors, and central angles

Of course, a comprehensive “hit list” is ideal, but that takes time to flesh out. If you’re taking the test this weekend or the next, you probably don’t have the time to ensure EVERYTHING you don’t know makes it onto your list. That’s okay. Just start by listing out a solid number of sticking points (maybe 10 enemies you want to focus on this week).

Then just focus your remaining time on those 10 concepts, but be systematic. Don’t do a little bit of concept 1, then move onto concept 2 and 3, then back to concept 1, then concept 4, and so on. That’s being sloppy and haphazard again. That leads to feeling frantic—not good for your stress levels.

So, start with concept 1—master it. Then move onto concept 2—master that. Systematically work your way down the list.

If you’re having trouble creating your list, pull up all your old tests, questions, etc. and casually scan through questions you’re missing and identify the CONCEPT behind each one. No need to do a full blown Excel spreadsheet to track how many of each concept you missed. A general sense is good enough, like “Oh, I seem to have missed 5 of these triangle problems…I should probably review triangles.”

Also, once you identify ONE concept you don’t know, others will bubble to the top of your head easily. Maybe you start by identifying “subject-verb agreement,” which reminds you that you also don’t understand “subject vs. object,” which leads to “ambiguous pronouns,” and so forth.

Be as specific as possible. Broad categories like “verb rules” or “Algebra” won’t cut it. You want something detailed like “inverted subject-verb agreement” or “tone question” or “parabolic symmetry.”

Whatever you do, DO NOT jump straight into another practice test. Instead, create a short “hit list,” then go practice those specific concept types. Master them, THEN go ahead and take another practice test to see where you stand.

Knowing your enemies is the key to making a CONCERTED effort to improve, rather than a frazzled dance between a million different concepts. The plague that afflicts too many students is taking practice test after practice test and never seeing any significant score increase. I refuse to let that happen to you, but we have to commit to disciplined, targeted, and systematic review.

Let me know in the comments below how you plan to stop being a victim of haphazard studying.

Good luck, intrepid test-takers!

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