Debbie Stier faced a crisis. The oldest of her two children was approaching college age, and she hadn’t saved for tuition. What’s more, Ethan was, in her words: “a boy who was ‘happy getting B’s’ and had gotten an awful lot of them.” He was neither an honors student nor an extracurricular overachiever.

When Stier read that high SAT scores can translate to merit scholarships, she hoped this might be Ethan’s ticket. The former publishing executive decided to explore test prep options to see which might prove best for her son, but her idea soon took on a life of its own. This 48-year-old mother ended up taking the SAT seven times, hoping to achieve a perfect score that would motivate Ethan.

Never fear, Stier doesn’t come off as a pushy Tiger Mom in The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT. However, it’s fair to say that things didn’t always go smoothly. At one point her children got so fed up that they briefly moved in with their father.

In the end, Ethan became a motivated SAT student who got into college, besting his mom in math, and even scoring better than she did on the essay. Stier improved her own scores, and while math remained a thorn in her side, on one test she scored an 800 in writing, and on another scored a 760 in reading.

Stier discovered that long hard work is the only ticket to SAT success, starting with a solid foundation in math, grammar, reading and writing. Her top piece of advice: “Taking full, timed practice SATs using College Board material (only) is an essential ingredient for success on the SAT.” And by taking these practice tests, she means taking them many times.

Along the way, she found some well-known, free online resources to be a waste of time, and was ultimately impressed by a high-priced tutoring company that she had earlier resisted. Good news: She also found some worthwhile free resources, including some you’ve probably never heard of.

Stier’s chronicle of her obsession is full of self-deprecating humor and meaty sidebars analyzing everything from test prep books to SAT grammar and math tips. This is an invaluable resource to read and re-read during the college testing journey.

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