Of the hundreds of emails that I receive, a huge number of them deal with the SAT reading section and what I think is the best way to approach it. I’ve responded to those emails only in relevant bits and pieces, but I know a lot of you crave a more thorough outline of my process. So finally, here it is.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
There is no point in doing any practice until you’ve memorized the 400 most frequent appearing SAT words. Doing this will get you the biggest bang for your buck. Without a strong vocabulary base, you’ll just get murdered by sentence completion questions and passages you won’t understand. And given that I’ve outlined the most painless way to do it in record time (under a week) in a previous post, there’s no excuse for not doing this first.
Learning to Read
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
These next few steps are the long, grueling part, but if you actually follow the guidelines, you will start to improve at a ridiculous pace. This part takes a lot of discipline and patience, but perfect scores don’t come through quick and dirty tricks; they come through hard work. I improved by 220 points using the method prescribed below (initial practice test score of 520 to a 740 in high school, eventually an 800 as a teacher).
The Official SAT Study Guide (blue book) contains 10 past exams. For the first 4-5 tests, practice through reading sections one at a time. Do not do the entire test or multiple sections at once. Do not time yourself. Take as long as you need to figure out the passage. As you go through each passage, you should be doing the following:
- Read the blurb in italics at the top.
- Underline and look up any new vocabulary that will help you understand the passage. Yes, keep a dictionary app open while you’re reading. Put those new words into Anki or any other flashcard system you’re using to learn SAT words.
- Reread as many times as you need to feel you have a solid grasp of the passage. Don’t feel guilty if you zone out or lose your place. Refocus and reread.
- At the end of the passage, state to yourself what you think the author’s main point is. A one word answer like “dinosaurs” is not a main point. A main point is an opinion or argument, something like “The fact that we portray dinosaurs as fearsome creatures undermines our ability to understand their history.”
This process may take 15-20 minutes for each passage, but fear not. Hard work pays off even when you think it doesn’t.
Learning to Eliminate
“At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.” – Barry Schwarz, The Paradox of Choice
Once you’ve read and understood the passage, it’s time to look at the questions. For each question, always start by eliminating answer choices, the ones you know for sure are wrong. Even if you spot the right answer immediately, look at the other choices and verbalize why it’s wrong as you cross them out. DO NOT SKIP THIS PART. By verbalizing your reasoning, you’ll force yourself to think about what characterizes bad answers. The reasons do not have to be complicated. Bad answers will typically:
- Not relate to the passage in any way
- Be related, but still outside the scope of the passage or question
- Be too extreme
- Be true, but not backed up by the passage
- Not reflect the author’s intent or main idea
These reasons themselves are a little vague. That’s on purpose. The whole point of this exercise is to get you to see the subtle distinctions between good and bad answers and to make those distinctions more specific for each question you encounter. This only comes through practice.
If you find that you can’t come up with a good reason to eliminate something, leave it as a potentially correct answer.
Keep in mind that your goal is NOT to find the right answer. Don’t even circle anything until you’ve done the crossing out. Your goal is to eliminate as many wrong ones as possible, as confidently as possible. Learning to identify the wrong answers is as important as being able to identify the right answer because it’s those extra options that will make you outguess yourself. Again, this is a skill that improves the more you practice.
Once you’ve eliminated as many choices as you can, only then do you actually try to figure out the right answer from the leftover options. What you’re doing is switching from “elimination” mode to “justification” mode, in which you come up with reasons why something is right rather than why it’s wrong. You’re training your brain to think in both ways.
As you keep doing more and more sections, you’ll naturally get more and more aggressive with eliminating answers. At first, you might eliminate only one answer choice when you come across a tough question, but over time, you’ll increase that to two or three. Through this process, you’ll learn how to narrow down your options extremely quickly.
This phase can take up to 30 minutes for any given section.
Once you’ve completed a section, use the answer sheet to star the correct answer on the page.
Some students like to gamify this stage by tallying up the total number of answer choices they’ve eliminated. One point for each correctly eliminated choice and one point for answering correctly. However, you’re penalized 5 points for each incorrectly eliminated choice. The more you correctly eliminate, the more points you get. Note that you’re not penalized for choosing the wrong answer among choices that you haven’t eliminated; you just won’t gain any points.
From there, you can compare your totals across sections with the same number of questions, the hope being that your total grows as you get more and more confident eliminating wrong answer choices.
“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” – Peter Drucker
Now there are a couple situations that can arise when you review each question:
- You happen to get the right answer, but among several options that you couldn’t eliminate. Ok, so you got the question right but it was an uncomfortable one and you may have just lucked out. It’s always bothersome to have to choose between 2-3 “close” answers. These questions are extremely important to review. Now’s the time to look back at why your other open choices were in fact wrong and solidify in your mind why the answer you picked turned out to be right so you can feel more confident next time.
- You didn’t get the correct answer but you also didn’t eliminate it. This is the same as the previous case, but you got unlucky. Reflect on the difference between the answer you chose and the correct answer. What makes the correct answer the correct answer?
- You eliminated the correct answer. This is the worst case and indicates some form of misinterpretation on your part. Reflect on why you thought it was wrong and why it’s actually correct in the context of the passage.
- You got the right answer, and you were able to eliminate all the other choices in getting there. This is the best case scenario – you understood why the right answer was right and why all the wrong answers were wrong. You should not spend any time reviewing these questions.
It’s important that you come out of this review session with concrete, specific reflections on what went wrong for each question. A tutor can help during this phase.
If you’re in the 650 and below score range, you should be putting in at least 30 minutes into this review for each section. You may not need as much time if you’re already scoring a 650+.
After you’ve nailed down this process for the first 4-5 tests in the Blue Book, it’s time to put your skills to the test. By now, you should have quite a few SAT words under your belt and you should feel much more comfortable reading through passages.
For the rest of the tests in the book, you’re still going to take the sections one at a time, but you’re going to do it timed. Exact same process. No dictionary.
The timing may throw you off at first. That’s ok. Practice going faster.
If you still feel like a fish out of water on these sections, go back to taking the sections untimed with a dictionary. It will mean that your vocabulary and reading skills still aren’t strong enough yet, but that’s ok. The time it takes for it to click depends on where you’re starting from.
Go to the Resources Page and download all the past exams that the College Board has released for free on its website. You’re going to do all these sections as well and review your answers as you did before.
You should be keeping up with Anki quite frequently, learning new words as they come.
At the end of this entire process, you will have done 14-15 exams worth of reading sections. Depending on your starting point, expect to see 150-350 point gains.
Note: Should I read the passage first or jump to the questions?
If you’re following this method, you will read the passage first. If you’re doing well by jumping straight to the questions, you’re probably a solid reader already and you’re probably succeeding despite your strategy, not because of it.
A Method for the Madness
“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it.” – Chinese Proverb
This method works. It worked for me and countless other students who had the discipline to stick with it. Over the years, I’ve seen and experimented with approaches that say underline this or summarize that, and what I’ve found is that those approaches work for some students and not others. I’ve even come across people who claim vocabulary is unnecessary and a waste of time. Really? Well, let’s put that to the test. Try doing one sentence completion question where you don’t know any of the words and see how well you do.
If you’ve found something that works for you, by all means run with it. But you know what approach has always worked?
Knowing exactly what to do and how to do it.
If you know what all the words mean instead of trying to guess, if you take the time to understand the passage instead of trying to skim, if you learn to distinguish between bad answers and good ones instead of playing games in your head, you will be unstoppable. But this confidence is only something you get by DOING.
Getting an 800 is not as hard as we think. We often seek complex explanations for complex feats. “It can’t be that simple,” we say. But it is, if only we stick to the proven framework. Seeking alternatives is one way we distract ourselves from the hard work. It’s easier to read about how to do something than it is to actually go out and practice it. If there were true shortcuts to an 800, everyone would get a perfect score. It’s my firm belief that high scorers are made, not born. The SAT isn’t an IQ test. There are just too many examples of students who started out with a 1600 and worked their way up to a 2300 for me to ever believe otherwise.
Consider this your kick in the ass. It’s time to get busy.