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Decoding the SAT: Part 1


The SAT/ACT is that scary test that students generally take later in high school to get into college and hopefully get some scholarship money. The good news is that this test is “standardized” which means that when writing the test questions, the test-makers follow the same patterns, profiles and standards by writing similar questions each time; this tests the same skills in exactly the same way without being literally the same questions. Students can then obviously learn these hidden recurring patterns found on the test and become very test savvy since they tend to not be straightforward but based more on logic and reasoning. This in result teaches students to understand how to answer questions quickly and more correctly.

Preparation is the key to doing well on the SAT/ACT. Students should start at least in 9th grade or earlier if they are participating in a 7th grade talent search such as The Duke TIP Letter.  The PSAT/NMSQT is also written by the same SAT/ACT test-makers and can count for huge scholarships in a student’s junior year but can be taken for practice in the ninth and tenth grade year. When students start preparing early, time is on their side. Waiting until later in high school usually results in more test anxiety since students already have a full plate and less time to learn how to take the test and certainly less time to practice.

There are three sections on the SAT/ACT: Critical Reading, Math and Writing. The test is three hours and forty five minutes long and is offered seven times a year. There are no penalties for taking it as many times as students want since colleges usually just take the highest scores and often will combine high scores from different tests. Consequently this gives a student a higher score which can result in more college money.

The first section in the Critical Reading section is Passage-Based Reading. Most students abhor these passages found in this part of the test. Often they have to read four passages, work twenty-four questions and do it all this in twenty-five minutes which is about a minute a question, not counting the four passages. For most students, this section can be daunting because they are under great time constraints to finish. It is practically impossible for students to finish this section on time if it is approached in a normal way. Besides that, the test-makers have built in tricks to make the students pick the wrong answers. For example, an answer choice may true and found in the passage but in reality it doesn’t answer the question.

There are three types of passages in this section that are followed by some related questions and five answer choices. The Long Passage usually contains several paragraphs. The Short Passage is usually one paragraph long and the Dual Passage section contains two passages that are connected by a similar topic: they may agree, disagree or complement each other.

In school, students are often taught to read all the questions first, and then read the passage and then the all questions again on the test. Naturally, this is the same approach that most students take when it comes to the passages found on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. The students then run out of time which of course results in a lot of blank answers and a lower score.

Usually students read the entire passage and sometimes more than once which is a huge time-waster. Once students identify the three question-types: Line Citation, Vocabulary Use and Overall Passage  and reorder them correctly, they can generally skip 70% of the passage and still get every answer right. Speed reading is not the key to conquering the passages but knowing where the answers are found is. As a matter of fact, there is very little reading involved.

In this section students often second-guess themselves and change their answer to an incorrect one. This is typical since the test is designed to steer students into that trap Since the test is standardized, it also means that the wrong answers follow the same wrong patterns and when a student learns them, it can help them not fall into the same old trap and miss the same question types again.

Another problem is when a student over thinks a question by reading more into it or over analyzing each answer choice to try and make it fit. This only leads to choosing a wrong answer choice. On top of that, the questions seem to have more than one correct answer which makes the test confusing. So students think that they have to pick the best-version of the answer. But the truth is, each question only has one right answer because the test is objective–not subjective.

There are also trick answer choices that appear to be correct but actually contain one of four wrong hidden patterns. For example, answers often contain some extra information that wasn’t found in the original sentence so these answers are usually wrong. A goal on the passages if for the student to eliminate them first and be left with the one answer that doesn’t break any of the rules. Once a student has determined and eliminated a wrong answer then they should not reread it again since that can waste time.

Passage-Based Reading questions can be answered quickly and correctly once a student learns the recurring hidden patterns designed to make them choose incorrectly. It is not how fast a student can read the passages, but knowing how to distinguish the one right answer from the four wrong ones. The answers are generally found in the same place every time. Knowing this can cut your reading time in half.

The second part of the Critical Reading section is Sentence Completion. In the section, students are given sentences that contain one or two blanks and they have to find the best word that fits inside the blank(s). Unfortunately many students pick answers that sound good but often those are trap answers. The secret to doing well is to understand the eight key elements that point them to the answer that are found inside the sentence. These are things like: scope words, strengthening words and commas. For example, if the word “but” is used, then the students should look for an opposite answer.

After reading the sentence, students need to circle the key element and then draw an arrow to the other part of the sentence to clarify the word they are looking for. Then look at the five answer choices and find the perfect fit. If two answers have similar definitions then they are both wrong since there is only one right answer. Students should always mark off wrong answers first to help them not second-guess themselves.

The goal is to predict the word that would fit into the blank and then find the one that is similar. But students also need to be aware of trick answers that lure them to pick them and they should never choose an answer unless 100% sure it is correct. Often words look like the perfect word but in reality have a different meaning. For example, the perfect word may be something like “illusion” and one of the answers may be the word “allusion”.

Big vocabulary words often permeate this section so having a vast word repertoire is a plus but knowing how to figure out words is more important. There are over 171,000 words in the dictionary and only the test-makers know which words will actually be on the test. Fortunately this is a logic-based test, not content-based so not knowing all the words isn’t necessary for a high score but knowing how to figure them out is more important.

Sentence Completion can be mastered once a student learns that the sentence itself generally points students to the correct answer. Critical Reading is more an ironic name since the two sections have less to do with reading and more about where the correct answers are found. Since students only have about a minute a question, it is crucial to eliminate the obvious wrong tricky answers first and spend time only on the ones that are relevant. Knowing how to approach the SAT accurately results in a better scores, more confidence and bigger scholarship money.

Jean Burk is a homeschooling mother and author of College Prep Genius: The No Brainer Way to Test Success! She has been the featured SAT expert for FOX, CBS, NBC, and The Homeschool Channel. Both her children received full-ride scholarship offers because of their SAT and PSAT scores. Her revolutionary program is taught in schools and homeschool co-ops across the country and helps thousands of students raise their SAT/ACT scores as much as 600 points.

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