Of the hundreds of emails that I receive, a large 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 the passages and answer choices you don't understand.
Don't buy into the myth that the SAT no longer tests vocabulary. Flip through any practice test and you'll see some really tough vocab words, not to mention Old English from the 1800s. The only way to get a good handle on these passages is to memorize and understand the words comprising them.
And given that I've outlined the most painless way to memorize these words in record time (under a week) in a previous post, there's no excuse for not doing this first.
Find Your Untimed Dictionary Score (UDS)
Now before you start practicing, you need to figure out your untimed dictionary score (UDS).
Here's how to find it:
- Find a practice test you haven't done before.
- Do the reading section untimed and with a dictionary app open.
- Look up the words you don't know in the passages and in the questions.
- Really try to get every question right. Take as much time as you want.
- Once you're done, calculate your score using the scale for the exam.
- This score is your untimed dictionary score (UDS).
Now why is your UDS important? Because it represents the score you currently could get if vocabulary and timing weren't an issue. By factoring out vocabulary and timing, you get a true evaluation of your critical thinking skills. In other words, the gap between an 800 and your UDS reflects your lack of critical thinking skills.
Let's look at some possible scenarios so you see what I mean:
- Your UDS is an ~800. This means you're fully capable of getting a perfect score as long as you know the vocabulary and can answer the questions fast enough. Well, your priorities are clear— learn vocabulary and do timed practice tests.
- Your UDS is a ~700. This means that knowing all the words is still not enough for you to get a perfect score. You're missing something in your critical thinking and you're losing 100 points because of it. Maybe you're getting tricked by second-best answer choices or making interpretations that aren't fully backed by the passage.
- Your UDS is a ~600. This means your comprehension and critical thinking skills need a lot of work. To improve, you should continue doing practice tests untimed and with a dictionary to fully dissect the mistakes in your thinking. I'll be outlining the specific steps you should take later on in this post.
The gap between your UDS and your actual score reflects your lack of vocabulary and speed. If your UDS is a 750 but your actual score under exam conditions is a 600, then you're losing about 150 points due to vocabulary and timing.
The brilliance of the UDS lies in the confidence that a lot of students get when they find out they are in fact capable of a high score. Low-scorers who manage to get a high UDS start to believe in themselves once they realize the only thing standing in their way is vocabulary. They know that timing is easy to improve from there.
If you're a low-scorer with a high UDS (740+), you can ignore the rest of this post for now and just focus on building your vocabulary. But if you have a lower UDS (below 740), then read on to learn what you should do to improve your critical thinking skills.
My Approach to Improving Critical Thinking on the SAT Reading Section
"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." — Marcus Aurelius
If you have a low UDS, then you need to learn through exposure what it means to read critically. These next few steps are the long, grueling part, but if you actually follow these 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.
So The College Board has released 8+ past exams. You're going to take 4 of them and practice the reading sections by following these steps:
1. Learning to Read
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. This process will look a lot like the one you went through to find your UDS. As you go through each passage, you should be doing the following:
- Read the background description in italics at the start of the passage.
- Underline and look up any new vocabulary that will help you understand the passage. 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." If it's a fiction passage, summarize what happens in a sentence or two.
This process may take 20+ minutes for each passage, but fear not. Hard work pays off even when you think it doesn't.
2. 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 should you 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 for 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 passages, you'll naturally get more and more aggressive in 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.
Remember: The key to improvement is not so much in finding the right answers as in finding all the wrong ones.
Once you've completed the entire section, use the answer sheet to star the correct answers on each page.
Note that this is different from putting X's next to each question you got wrong. This step is not about grading yourself. You'll be looking at every question again, whether you got it right or wrong.
4. Reflection (The Most Important Step)
"Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action." — Peter Drucker
Now that you've starred the correct answers, it's time to review each question. How you do so depends on the scenario:
- You happen to get the right answer, but among several answer choices that you couldn't eliminate. In other words, you got the question right but you were unsure of yourself. You had to choose between 2-3 "close" answers or maybe you just lucked out. These questions are extremely important to review. Now's the time to look back at why those "close" answers were in fact wrong and why the answer you picked turned out to be right. Doing this exercise makes you aware of gaps in your critical thinking and logic. Trust me. You will learn to think in the right way for how the test is designed.
- You didn't get the correct answer but you also didn't eliminate it. This is the same scenario as the previous one, but you got unlucky. Reflect on the difference between your answer and the correct one. What makes your answer wrong and the correct one right?
- 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 these review sessions with concrete, specific reflections on what went wrong for each question. A tutor can help during this phase.
Make sure you give yourself enough time to truly understand your mistakes. If you're scoring below a 650, you should be spending at least 20 minutes in this reflection step for each reading section that you do.
5. Ramping Up
After you've repeated the steps above for 4 practice exams (4 reading sections), 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 with the passages.
For the remaining practice exams you have, you're still going to take the sections one at a time, but you're going to do them 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. Your vocabulary and reading skills still aren't strong enough yet, but that's ok. The time it takes for things to click is different for everyone. Keep memorizing words and practicing.
The Finish Line
You should be keeping up with your vocabulary flashcards quite frequently, learning new words as they come.
By the end of this entire process, you should have done the reading sections of:
- All 8 exams officially released by the College Board
- The April 2017 School Day SAT exam (basically another practice test)
- The 2 PSATs released by The College Board
- Khanacademy or the Official SAT Daily Practice App (for additional practice)
You can find the resources above on the resources page or through a google search.
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 reading this Ralph Waldo Emerson essay which showed up on a previous exam and ask yourself if it's truly possible to understand it without a good vocabulary.
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 ~1180 and worked their way up to a ~1560 for me to ever believe otherwise.
Consider this your kick in the ass. It's time to get busy.
1. Should I read the passage first or jump to the questions?
If you're following the method above, 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 succeeding despite your strategy, not because of it.
2. This seems to be a long-term plan. What if my exam is in 2 weeks?
That's right. I believe in a long-term approach. If your exam is in 2 weeks, then this entire post is irrelevant. In this case, you might need to resort to tactics like jumping straight to the questions for passages you don't really understand. Anyway, a short-term approach is beyond the scope of this post, so I won't get into it here. My best advice would just be to practice as much as you can.