How To Ace Your SAT In The Least Time Possible

A lot of students stressed out when it comes to SAT.

This happens to most Malaysian students because well, it is outside of our comfort zone. We are not used to the US education system and suddenly have to take this exam to study in the US. If this doesn’t apply to you, well, lucky you.

When I first started out, it was the grind method for me. I can’t help it. There was so much to familiarize myself with that I can’t help but just plow through everything. All I did was just to read up and do as much similar SAT questions as possible.

It is important to get familiarize to the question type and the limited time to take the exam.

About two months into my preparation and almost as much time left till I take the SAT, I read upon Xiggi’s method to preparing for SAT on College Confidential.

It is good advice, something that I would try from the beginning. I measured my progress during my study session and almost came come up with similar study method as Xiggi. It allows the fastest progression in least time possible.

Here’s an extremely condensed version written by the original author. The only difference is that during Xiggi’s time, College Board published a red book known as 10 Real SAT that contain 10 past SAT exams. During my time, the format of the SAT changed and College Board released the blue book instead. There is also a new writing component to the SAT, where you need to write an essay.

Xiggi’s method

  1. Take 1-2 tests without time limit and with open books. Take your time to read the questions, answer it, and CHECK the answers, as you take the test. The idea is to make sure to understand all the terms. The score is far from relevant.
  2. Take the following 2-3 tests without time limit but close the books. Now, you are on your own. After taking the test, check the answers and make sure to check ALL your answers, including the correct ones.
  3. Take the next 2-3 tests, within the allotted time.
  4. Take the last tests and try to shave a few minutes. Look for patterns, shortcuts. Soon enough, you’ll recognize problems in a few seconds. However, make sure you READ all the questions. Trying to save 5 seconds in that part is NOT wise. Remember that you do NOT have to finish all the problems. As soon as you can determine the BEST answer with certainty, you are DONE. Managing your time wisely is the key to a great score. This comes from practice.
  5. I would also recommend working one section at a time. Spend about one hour on each section. Marathon sessions will not be as productive as repeated shorter ones.

Here is my take on the SAT. It is an exam not to test on your knowledge, but rather a test of skill. Once you get used to the pattern and able to conquer those types of questions, you will be able to take the test comfortably.

Lu’s Modification

College Board is no longer selling the 10 Real SAT, so we have to contend ourselves with the Blue Book instead. This in not a collection of past tests, but they are still from the company that produce SAT, so the questions are comparable.

Use the practice questions inside the book as in the Xiggi method. Then for the answers, College Board actually have explanations for each question in the Blue Book available online. I found them really helpful in analyzing the questions and understanding why such and such is the answer.

The downside to this is that it cost money to have access to the answer. Use them to help out with your practice. (You should realize trend by now that CB earns a lot from you) Pool with your friends to buy an access code or look for other methods online to access it.

Get the Blue Book (Official SAT Study Guide) here.

Get the Official SAT Online Course here for more practice questions from College Board.

Memorizing Strange Words

If you have started on your SAT preparation, you’ll sure to come across words that you have never heard before. I read a lot, have a couple big size dictionary at home, yet I also have a problem understanding certain words when I come upon them cause I never encounter these words before.

Look them out and write out their definitions when you come upon them. Some words are used more than others in the practice questions, so you will be more familiar with them. Other than that, try to learn a few new words a day and incorporate them into your daily speech so that you will learn them faster.

What I did actually was to rely on a book, WordSmart from Princeton Review. Inside was a list of words and their definition. It’s easier for me to refer to this than to look them up in the dictionary.

My cousin actually recommended the book to me, saying that it’s useful. She scored 1600 (max score in the old SAT) so I tend to trust her suggestions.

Get the WordSmart book here.

Essay Portion

Now, here’s what I would add to the method mentioned above. There’s a new writing component in the SAT, where you have to write an essay in just 25 minutes.I can’t believe that I’m saying this but the best way to handle this is to resort to your UPSR or PMR essay writing skills. Straight to the point and not too many use of flowery words.

This probably won’t give you the best score but with just 25 minutes, it is a safe route to get a good score. Develop your own style of writing to a point where it almost seem automatic to you.

Start with a thesis statement and expand it. Continue on with three paragraphs of content. One main point for each paragraph and 2-3 sentences for support. End the whole thing with a conclusion. Be logical and have a flow when you are writing.

It’s better to prevent your points from being cut due to grammar mistakes than to be too adventurous with your writing. The time constraint makes to hard to review and edit your essay. Also, I found that longer essays typically correlates with higher score.

Last Word

That should be all that you need to prepare for your SAT. Though I would also recommend getting a review book. I prefer the Princeton Review’s Cracking the SAT, or if you prefer more challenge, get the Barron’s SAT. Get plenty of practice, but approach the practice the smart way. I also have some past SAT tests, which I did add to my practice pile.

Before the test day, get plenty of sleep. The SAT test is a marathon and is quite taxing on your ability to focus.

Also, I understand that SAT books can be quite expensive (blame it on Malaysia’s low purchasing power). So, before you decide to buy a book, head to your nearest bookstore (MPH or Kinokuniya) to look at the price there. Then, go online to look at the prices there. Sometimes, the books that you want can be cheaper if purchased online inclusive of shipping cost though you must wait for the books to arrive. Decide whether the tradeoff is worth it or not.

Good luck, and go ACE that SAT.

The Formula That Killed Wall Street

I’d chanced upon a very interesting read about the cause of the financial crisis from Wired. The author suggests that misuse of David X. Li’s Gaussian Copula formula is to blame. I highly recommend reading the full article. Here is a short except from the article that particularly interest me.

Li’s copula function was used to price hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CDOs filled with mortgages. And because the copula function used CDS prices to calculate correlation, it was forced to confine itself to looking at the period of time when those credit default swaps had been in existence: less than a decade, a period when house prices soared. Naturally, default correlations were very low in those years. But when the mortgage boom ended abruptly and home values started falling across the country, correlations soared.

Bankers securitizing mortgages knew that their models were highly sensitive to house-price appreciation. If it ever turned negative on a national scale, a lot of bonds that had been rated triple-A, or risk-free, by copula-powered computer models would blow up. But no one was willing to stop the creation of CDOs, and the big investment banks happily kept on building more, drawing their correlation data from a period when real estate only went up.

“Everyone was pinning their hopes on house prices continuing to rise,” says Kai Gilkes of the credit research firm CreditSights, who spent 10 years working at ratings agencies. “When they stopped rising, pretty much everyone was caught on the wrong side, because the sensitivity to house prices was huge. And there was just no getting around it. Why didn’t rating agencies build in some cushion for this sensitivity to a house-price-depreciation scenario? Because if they had, they would have never rated a single mortgage-backed CDO.”

Bankers should have noted that very small changes in their underlying assumptions could result in very large changes in the correlation number. They also should have noticed that the results they were seeing were much less volatile than they should have been—which implied that the risk was being moved elsewhere. Where had the risk gone?

They didn’t know, or didn’t ask. One reason was that the outputs came from “black box” computer models and were hard to subject to a commonsense smell test. Another was that the quants, who should have been more aware of the copula’s weaknesses, weren’t the ones making the big asset-allocation decisions. Their managers, who made the actual calls, lacked the math skills to understand what the models were doing or how they worked. They could, however, understand something as simple as a single correlation number. That was the problem.

“The relationship between two assets can never be captured by a single scalar quantity,” Wilmott says. For instance, consider the share prices of two sneaker manufacturers: When the market for sneakers is growing, both companies do well and the correlation between them is high. But when one company gets a lot of celebrity endorsements and starts stealing market share from the other, the stock prices diverge and the correlation between them turns negative. And when the nation morphs into a land of flip-flop-wearing couch potatoes, both companies decline and the correlation becomes positive again. It’s impossible to sum up such a history in one correlation number, but CDOs were invariably sold on the premise that correlation was more of a constant than a variable.

This generally support the consensus that the crisis was magnified because Wall Street was dealing with securities that they do not understand.

Also, I would like to highlight a lesson that was ingrained when I was a student in the actuarial field.  Always state your assumption. When the assumption is wrong, everything else that was formulated based on the assumption will be wrong as well. Do not be too involved in the quantitative side and forget what the numbers signified.

Here’s a quote that one of my friend put up on Facebook on life contingency. It’s funny if you get what it means.

“An actuary is someone who expects everyone to be dead on time".

US University Application Timeline

Now, this is where things get a little tricky. I could not emphasize enough how important it is to keep thing organized.

So, what I did in the past was to prepare a spreadsheet (you can do whatever that fits you). Inside, I set up everything with details and the deadlines. I will create another progress bar and pull forward those deadlines a little earlier so that I have some extra time to fall back on.

An example when this come in handy would be getting the teacher’s recommendation. Inside the spreadsheet, I would write down the teacher’s name, contact detail, and deadline etc. Since most teachers are busy, I will note in the spreadsheet at several instances to contact the teacher and ask them about how the recommendation goes.

Being organized will keep the application process less of a nightmare, especially if you are applying to a lot of schools.

Ideally, you will start this earlier but for some, like the scholarship students, the process starts around July.

For US Universities application, the application deadline would be around November (for Early Decision/Early Action) and around end of December (for Regular Decision). If you are applying to top US universities, do try to apply for ED/EA. You have a better chance of getting a spot instead of competing with other applicants in the regular round, with much higher acceptance rate. Also, you get to know the result of your application earlier, in December instead of April.

For Early Decision, if you get an offer, you would need to decide whether to accept it or not. If you accept the offer, you have to withdraw your admission from other
universities. For Early Action, there is no such clause. So, try ED?EA for the university that you really want to get into.

If you are a borderline case in ED/EA, your decision could be deferred to the regular decision instead.


Approximately 12-15 months before enrolment

Americans usually start this process a lot earlier than stated here.

Determine the university that you want to go to. You can check reviews and basic information from books, online or email the admission officers. Consider the size, majors, activities and your other criteria  about the university when deciding.

Also, if you need financial aid, check if the university offer financial aid to international students. Not all do offer them.

Once you decided on the universities, write down the deadlines on the spreadsheet. Also, begin registering for standardized test like SAT I & II, TOEFL or ACT. You can take the SAT test in Metropolitan College, KL (7 times/year), KDU College, Penang (not sure about number of tests held) or in Sinaran Institute, KK (2 times/year).

Do register early for the test because spots filled up very fast during peak season. I remembered being indecisive of when I want to take my tests only to see that spots are gone in just days.


Contact the university or go to their website to print out application form. Your application can be submitted through mail or online. Begin:

  • Writing your application essays for the questions from the application form. This is a vital piece for evaluating you as a candidate for admission. So, spend a lot of time on it and don’t be surprised to constantly rewrite the essays. I asked friends who entered top universities the amount of time they spent on their essays. Most used a few hours a week writing, then tweaking and the rewrite the whole thing again and yet, some are still not satisfied until they submitted their essays.
  • Request official transcript from your school. For Malaysians, this usually involved your secondary school report card and your college transcript.
  • Ask for teacher’s recommendation. Most universities usually asked for two teachers, from different teaching field. List down your achievements and traits you want them to highlight because you want to make the teacher’s job as easy as possible. Set aside a lot of time for this because the teachers are usually busy, forgetful and it takes time to write a good recommendation letter. Don’t expect to get a quick reply during the SPM/STPM examination period.
  • Ask for counselor’s recommendation. Ditto for teacher’s recommendation.

September to January

Complete your applications and send in all your forms, transcript, standardized test results during this period (before the deadline). Also, check that your teacher’s recommendation had been sent. Follow up with the teachers to remind them. Deadlines for EA/ED are usually in November. Deadlines for RD are in late December/early January.


By now, your admission result should come in. Decide on which university you want to attend and notify your decision to the admission office. Complete any necessary form.

June to August

The admission office will send you future information about what you should do. Settle you finances by now along with your accommodation and insurance with the university. Pay the SEVIS fee to apply for a visa at the US embassy as soon as possible. Then make travel arrangement and you are set to go. Prepare for the unexpected. Things can and do go wrong. You can be denied a visa at the embassy etc. That’s why it’s best to settle things as quickly as possible. Also, the embassy would need to see that you are able to support yourself overseas before they will issue you the visa. Hence, the finances.

When it comes to the applying for US universities, a rule of thumb is to keep organize. Prepare for setback and overcome them as soon as possible. Pace yourself or you will be stressed out trying to rush through things.

US Education–What Makes It Different From Others

The information here are mostly from my personal experience. I had went through the whole process back in those days, and also from other applicants that I helped out with – my friends and aspiring applicants who contacted me.

I started this because I want to see more Malaysians apply to the US, in particular Sabahans. I find the general awareness of US education especially lacking for those from North Borneo. Sorry, my friends from Sarawak. You know just how disproportionate large you guys are among the top US universities population.

When I first started put exploring about the US university application process, I found it intimidating to say the least, all those forms, procedures and essays. To put it simply, Malaysians just aren’t used to the US university application process. So, I try to help out if I could. When my friends are trying to apply to US universities, some seek me out for guidance. I provided some advice, guidance and for some, reviewed their personal essays and gave pointers so that their essays showcase more of their personalities. Face it, in top US universities, competitions are stiff and every little bits help to let the applicants stood out from the crowd.

So, why US?

When I first started out, I cannot understand why would anyone want the US education. To tell the truth, if you meet me several years ago, I would have preferred the UK education system and would have aim for Oxbridge. However, I continued on to US, but that was because I had a full scholarship to go there.

In the end, money talks and that probably sums it all.

It’s flexible. It’s all about options!

During my time in the US, I truly realized why some people prefer the US education. Whereas the UK, Malaysia, or the Australian education system would provide guided road from early on, the US education system is all about one’s own path. It is all about options when it comes to the US system. During my university time, I majored in Actuarial Mathematics and Economics, picked up and later dropped an International Studies major. However, I also took an acting class out of interest. I would not have the same opportunity if I did not take the US path. In fact, US universities allowed applicants to apply as undecided whereas other system would have needed a major decided before applying.

Also, grab a copy of any top universities ranking and you will see that US institutions occupy a large number of the top spots. The large size of US meant that there are a lot of education institutions to choose from and a variety of courses to take.

If you’re good, it’s cheaper to study in US

When it comes to financial, the US tuition might appear as more expensive. But, studying in the US could actually be cheaper than in UK or in Australia because the US universities tend to be more generous with their financial aid (provided you know where to look). In a sense, think of the US education cost as a ceiling, it is possible to pay for the maximum amount but you can work to keep it from reaching the limit in the first place. But for the best ROI, nothing beats the Malaysian public universities when it comes to value for money.

Have Laser Sharp Focus by Coming Back from the Brink

My mother used to tell me, “If what you are doing is worth doing, then do it with your best effort.” And how are you supposed to bring out your best effort? By having a laser sharp focus, concentrating all your energies into executing the plan until it bores fruit.

When I was in college, the students I knew who are inspiring and have a larger than life persona are focused. They are very committed in the cause they are doing. But you may argued, “Lu, I don’t know what I want to do yet, I don’t have a focus in life. So, why should I spend so much energy on something that might not provide and returns?”

It doesn’t matter. What is important is that you are convicted to do something and you spend time and energy to nurture it. Such commitment begot success, and such achievements in return will bore out opportunities. As long as your focus is apparent, it is fine because everyone wants to side with a winner.

It is a everyday script, imbedded within you. You like to be with the winner, and you want to be a winner too. But, to become a winner in the first place, you have to have focus.

This piece about Bob Parson, the founder of GoDaddy, was precisely about having that focus.

He had sold a previous company for $60 million, and had spent his wealth building GoDaddy. His wealth fell to $25 million, then $15 million. With just $6 million left, he decided to take a retreat and consider whether he should give in.

He took a trip by himself to Hawaii and decided to quit while he still had money. He worked out how he would divide what was left: pay off creditors, give employees bonuses, and squirrel away a little for himself.

After checking out, about to head home, waiting outside his hotel for his car, he noticed one of the valets. He was about Parsons’ age. He was smiling and joking. He seemed to love his work.

This valet changed Parsons’ perspective and thereby his life. Parson thought, “If GoDaddy fails, I’ll just park cars.” It didn’t seem that bad a life after all.

He threw out his plans and calculations and decided to go for it.

He went ahead to the do or die simulation. This allows him to focus his thoughts, not on whether would this work out, to a how can I overcome this obstacle. There is a change in mentality to a must win mindset. You see, people have an inherent fear of failure. The greatest stumbling block to humanity’s achievement was the initial fear itself to start something for fear of failing. Here, Bob Parson accessed his worse case scenario, where he would just start all over again. He could live with that.

Then I thought coldly, honestly, clinically about failure. I realized it would not be as bad as I feared and that there were a few simple things I could do to reduce the downside risk.

Then I decided to go all in.

He did that, and that’s what makes all the difference. This mentality influence was noted a long time ago, only that the worst case scenario is harsher. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote about war strategy and tactics. One of them involves burning down the boats. Now, this is a real do or die scenario.

Essentially, he suggested to remove any return routes (boats) to help push the army forward. This does not mean keeping some boats afloat, just in case. This actually means to burn down all boats and the reasons to back out with them, and put all your energy and focus towards moving forward – together. I can imagine the conversation between the soldiers go like this:

Soldier A: I’d just burnt off all our boats.

Soldier B: But why? We don’t have any escape route if the enemy push us back.

Soldier A: Well, since we are going to die anyway. Won’t it be better to fight forward and win to live another day.

What do you think the mentality of Soldier B will be like after this. It is corny but human behavior is the same over the millennia. You can achieve the best result only if you have focus. With the boats burned, the little voice that was speaking in the back of the head “what if you fail” suddenly turns to “I can’t fail”. Which side do you think won the war on that day?



The Fall of MF Global and the Greece Issue

MF Global Holdings is the latest of the high profile bankruptcies that I had been reading on. In many ways, its fall was quite similar to Lehman Brothers. I attributed its collapse to two main cause – overleveraging and weak economic environment. MF Global was a brokerage firm. It was supposed to execute orders for its clients and earn fees from this trades. However, it also began trading its own deal as a way to supplement the incomes from those fees. During good times, this was well and the employees enjoyed good bonuses but recent months were not good times. MF Global fall, while other brokerages are still standing, because it has overleveraged on its assets. Its methods of execution was similar to the pre 2008 crisis, it still take massive risk and leverage on a relatively narrow investment.

According to Forbes’ Robert Lenzner, MF Global has leverage ratio of 82 to 1! It owned $41 billion in assets, against which it apparently had $39 billion in debt and an equity value of $500 million plus $325 million of investment grade debt. When Lehman Bros fell in 2008, it was levered up only to 30.7 times, already a very shaky position to be in. Also, CEO John Corzine apparently was buying short term Euro debts on the chance that the Euro would recover and his investment would pay off big. I don’t know if he is oblivious that many smart money hedge funds are taking the opposite view, shorting the Euro debt when they could. Not to say that this contrarian approach is not recommended. John Paulson did it with the subprime crisis and it pay off – a lot, but he has the data and understanding to back his positions. So, was John Corzine faulty in his analysis? Perhaps, or perhaps not? He might be right that the European financial market will rise again, but in this case, his timing is way off.

The reason behind this plight was Europe’s weak economic outlook, in particular Greece. Isn’t it an irony that financial crisis occurred because there is too much confidence, too much spending and too much borrowing, yet the solution to get out of the crisis is more confidence, more spending and perhaps more borrowing. I assumed that the bailout fund was enough to buy a little confidence and more time for Greece to settle things out. Then, the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou pulled out a shock yesterday by having a referendum on the latest aid package to solve its debt crisis. He is asking his people to vote for the next move because this is all political. His public approval was very low due to austerity measures from EU’s pressure to handle Greece debts but the people itself do not necessary want to move out of the Euro Zone. Basically, he is saving his seat of power, but sacrificing his country in return. This shatters any lingering confidence that investors would have in Greece and reflected badly on the Euro block. A referendum takes time to complete, time that financial markets do not have. PM Papandreou is negating other countries goodwill and sacrifices in helping out Greece.

After all, this trouble started because Greece cheated about its borrowing statistics to gain entry into the Euro in the first place. And now, it is expecting other countries to clean up its mess but rejecting their help at the same time! I don’t like this at all, this is leaving a very bad taste in my mouth.