Preview copies of my and Larry Krieger’s SAT vocab book will soon be available

Update: As it turns out, Larry and I are making much faster progress than expected on our new SAT vocabulary book. In fact, we’re hoping to have a full draft completed by the end of this week. We were originally aiming to make the book available in time for the May SAT, but we’re far enough along to be able to offer a beta version for March. (I think this is the first writing project I’ve ever been involved with that finished ahead of schedule!) 

If you’re signed up for that exam and interested in purchasing a pre-publication copy, please email so that we know how many copies to have printed, and we’ll keep you updated as details become available. Cost is tbd, but will most likely be around $15.

The book covers essential vocabulary for the multiple-choice Writing section (commonly confused words, transition words) and Reading section (vocabulary in context, key passage-based vocabulary); it also features a bonus chapter with tips for writing the new Essay. Larry’s been testing the material out with his students throughout the process, and they’ve given it very high marks!

When is a GMAT idiom question not an idiom question?

When it comes to the GMAT, idiom questions seem to cause a disproportionate amount of anxiety.

To some extent, this is understandable. English is filled with idioms: fixed phrases that, by definition, are what they are for no other reason than that the language evolved a particular way. There is no logical reason that insist on is correct while insist at is not. And for ESL students, the sheer number of these phrases can seem overwhelming. 

The reality, however, is that “pure” idioms are simply not that much of a focus on the GMAT. There are, of course, certain idioms that you absolutely need to know; however, the fact that two answers might contain the phrase research on while three others contain research into does not necessarily mean the only way to answer the question is to know which preposition the GMAT considers correct.

In fact, this type of pattern of alternating prepositions is sometimes nothing more than a distraction. In some cases, it may be possible to answer “idiom” questions without even addressing the idiom at all.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the following question. (It’s directly based on #789 on p. 707 in the 2017 Official GMAT Guide – please note that I can’t reprint the official version here for copyright reasons.)

While many of the neanderthal fossils discovered recently in southwest France appear to offer evidence of a connection between neanderthals and modern humans, the number of ambiguous fossils appear more likely at this point that they will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans rather than resolve them.

(A) appear more likely at this point that they will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans rather than
(B) appear more likely that it will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans at this point than
(C) appears more likely to aggravate debates on the origin of modern humans at this point rather than
(D) appears more likely at this point to aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans than to
(E) appears more likely that it will aggravate debates on the origin of modern humans at this point than to

When you look at this set of answer choices, it might seem logical to conclude that the question is testing debates on vs. debates over. If you’re not sure which version is correct, you might start to panic a little — but that would be a shame since you can answer the question without addressing the idiom at all.

The first things to notice is that (A) and (B) begin with appear (plural) whereas (C)-(E) begin with appears (singular). That distribution indicates that the question is testing subject-verb agreement.

What is the subject of that verb? That is, what seems more likely to inflame debates? The number of ambiguous fossils. Careful here: the true subject is the number (singular). The plural noun fossils is just part of the prepositional phrase of ambiguous fossils.

So the subject is singular and requires a singular verb (appears), eliminating both (A) and (B).

Now, look at (C), (D), and (E). Literally, just look at them. (D) is the shortest of the three, a clear sign that you should pay special attention to it. 

Now, think in terms of parallel structure: more likely to aggravate…than to resolve.

(E) does not keep the verbs parallel at all (that it will aggravate vs. to resolve), so it can be eliminated. 

Now you’re down to (C) and (D). If you know your word pairs and can recognize that more must be paired with than, not rather than, you can eliminate (C) on that basis.

Otherwise, if you find yourself absolutely stuck between two very similar answers without any way to decide between them, you’ll usually be better off opting for the shorter one. In this case, that rule of thumb will get you to (D), the correct answer.

So there you have it: an “idiom” question that really isn’t.  

And for an overview of all the rules tested on GMAT Sentence Corrections, click here.

Coming Attractions

I realize that my 2017 blogging record hasn’t exactly been stellar so far, but I’ve been hard at work on a number of projects. 

First, I’m excited to announce that I am collaborating with Larry Krieger (of the original Direct Hits and APUSH Crash Course fame) on a vocabulary book for the new SAT.

But, you say, didn’t the College Board get rid of all those (not really) obscure words? Isn’t vocabulary kind of…passé? As it turns out, vocabulary is still quite relevant. Both the Reading and Writing sections still include plenty of words that are unfamiliar to many students, and we’ve found an approach that efficiently targets only the material most relevant to the new exam. Stay tuned for more details. 

Second, the Critical Reader website will be getting a makeover. I’m still in the process of determining just how the site will be reorganized, but hopefully the new site will be live in the next couple of months. 

In addition, I will soon be releasing an updated version of my Complete GMAT Sentence Correction guide, which integrates more material from both the 2017 Official GMAT Guide and Official GMAT Verbal Guide. Every chapter will now be accompanied by a list of relevant questions in both of these books, along with the specific sub-topics they test, and discussions of specific Official Guide questions will be woven into chapters as well. A new chapter is also devoted to strategies for working through questions, providing a bridge from exercises dealing with individual concepts to dealing with test-style questions testing multiple concepts simultaneously. 

Also within the next couple of months, look for my GRE Vocabulary Workbook. Although the book does include some high-frequency word lists, it is not a vocabulary book in the traditional sense. (A bunch of those already exist, and I so no reason to add to the pile.) Rather, it’s designed to give prospective GRE-takers the chance to practice applying all the vocabulary they’ve studied. In addition to detailed strategies for working through both Text Completions and Sentence Equivalences, the book includes nearly 350 GRE-style practice questions targeting ETS’s favorite words. 


Why a vocab app isn’t enough if you want to ace GRE verbal

A couple of times in the past few months, I’ve had chance conversations with people who were either preparing for the GRE or had recently taken it. 

Inevitably, the subject turned to preparation for the verbal section, and both times, the GRE-taker in question lit up when they mentioned using an app to study vocabulary. As one of them enthused, “it’s like a game! You get to compete against other users and everything.” 

I admit that my familiarity with GRE vocab apps is limited, but when I had the first of these conversations, my immediate inclination was to double-check that the student knew that the GRE had changed a few years back — that the vocabulary section was no longer based on straight-up synonym and antonym questions but was rather focused on testing words in the context of sentences and short passages. 

Remarkably, the student — who struck me as very bright — seemed entirely unaware of that fact. 

I’m not sure just how common that situation is, but I’m writing this post regardless. Based on my experience with the old SAT, I suspect that even if GRE students know that vocabulary is tested in a way that no longer involves just knowing straightforward definitions, they’re not really sure what that means on a practical level, or what they can do to prepare. As a result, they pore over vocabulary lists (or apps), not fully realizing that being prepared for the GRE is more than just a matter of knowing lots of difficult words. 

As a matter of fact, it is possible to know lots of dictionary definitions of words and still find the GRE vocabulary section very challenging.

It is also possible to have difficulty with questions testing relatively straightforward words. ETS excels at writing questions that mess with your mind ever so slightly, questions that make you think: This should be simple — these are easy words. Why can’t I figure out what’s going on here? 

This is what’s going on: when the GRE was overhauled in 2012, one of the main goals was to make the test less about memorization and more about the type of reading that actually gets done in graduate school. The result was a shift in focus from the sort of über-challenging vocabulary that used to feature prominently on the exam to the sort of challenging but not overly esoteric words routinely found in mainstream publications such as The Economist.

Now, here’s the ironic part. When the SAT was overhauled in 2015/2016, it was changed in part because critics argued that the so-called “obscure” vocabulary that exam tested was disconnected from real-life reading. What ETS effectively did, however, was to take the set of words commonly tested on the SAT and move them over to the GRE. So what was once considered “obscure” vocabulary on the SAT magically became “relevant” vocabulary on the GRE. 

That’s another way of saying that the GRE isn’t interested in terribly interested in assessing whether you’ve memorized the dictionary; provided you have a relatively solid vocabulary, you probably don’t need to spend hours and hours studying hundreds of esoteric words. That’s just not what the test is about anymore.

So while some GRE vocabulary questions do require you to know the definitions of relatively sophisticated words, others are almost like miniature logic puzzles. The emphasis is on whether you can figure out what the sentence or passage is actually saying, and what general type of word makes sense in context. Whether the answer would conventionally be considered an “easy” word or a “hard” word is effectively irrelevant.   

To answer these questions, you must be able to infer relationships between sentence and clauses, sometimes with only subtle clues; sift through complex syntax and idiomatic phrasing; work backwards within questions, starting with a more-straightforward second or third blank and then moving back to a less clear first blank; and suppress your initial assumption about the type of word that belongs in a particular blank until you’ve obtained a fuller understanding of what a sentence or passage is saying. 

In addition, Sentence Equivalences present their own particular form of trickery: determining the correct answer is not simply a matter of knowing whether each individual word makes sense in context. Rather, you must be able to determine which pair of words create the same meaning when plugged in — words that may or may not be synonyms. 

Even if you know all of the words perfectly, it’s very easy to get confused and start second-guessing yourself. This can happen just as easily when the words are simple as it can when the words are hard. Actually, I would argue that it’s more likely to happen when the words are simple!

To be fair, if you have a liberal arts degree (or a B.S. from a program with substantial requirements in the social sciences and humanities), and are extremely comfortable navigating complex academic prose, the context-based aspect of GRE vocabulary probably won’t be too much of an impediment to a high verbal score.

But that said, the pitfalls described in the previous paragraphs are very real, and studying vocabulary alone won’t prepare you for them. Furthermore, things that seem a little tricky when you’re sitting at home in your living room can be positively mind-bending when you’re under pressure in an actual testing situation. 

If you don’t have a lot of experience reading academic non-fiction, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, then a vocabulary app — even a really great one —  is unlikely to offer you comprehensive preparation for the GRE. It may be necessary, but it will almost certainly be insufficient. 

So what can you do?

At the very least, you need to get yourself an Official GRE Guide and an Official GRE Verbal Guide. These are the only two books that contain questions written by ETS, and they are therefore indispensable for obtaining an accurate idea of what you’ll encounter on the real exam. Any additional books, mine included, should be used to supplement those guides. 

If you are extremely weak on vocabulary and need to build some fundamentals, I would even go so far as to recommend that you purchase a copy of the old SAT Official Guide and work through the sentence completions there first. Most of the questions are considerably easier than GRE questions (although there is some overlap at the high end), but they are also ETS-produced and draw from a similar pool of words.

And if you have a lot of time to prep for the exam, set aside 15-30 minutes or so a day to read the type of material you’ll find on the GRE. Explore the many links on Arts & Letters Daily or, if you have access to JSTOR, look through the many journal options, start by picking a topic you’re interested in, and find some articles related to it. (Try to pick things written in a relatively straightforward manner, though; GRE writing, while sometimes dense, is not overly laden with academic jargon.) 

As you get more comfortable reading, try to branch out into areas you know less about. If most of your classes have been in the humanities, for example, make sure to read scientific articles and vice-versa. Write down and look up every word, phrase, and idiom whose meaning you’re not 100% certain of. Anything that isn’t exceptionally technical, you’re likely to encounter again. 

How to write those pesky “why this college” essays

Ah, Christmas break… A whole week to sleep late, hang out with your friends, and stuff yourself with leftovers. Unless, of course, you’re a senior trying desperately to finish your college applications. Even if your main essay is done, you might still have a bunch of supplements waiting to be done. And if that’s the case, then chances are some of those supplements include the perennial “why this college?” question.

In some cases, you may not be able to answer entirely truthfully (I needed another safety school, my parents are making me apply), but even assuming that you actually want to attend most of the schools you’re applying to, this question can be hard to get started on.

If that describes your situation, this post is for you.

The first thing to understand is that “why do you want to attend x university” is not a trick question. Admissions officers are not looking to be flattered, or to be told how prestigious their institution is. They genuinely want to see what appeals to you about the school, and whether your interests and needs are aligned with what it has to offer. They also want to know whether you’ve visited, explored the website, read the course catalogue, etc. (Don’t worry if you live too far to visit, or couldn’t afford to – as long as you’ve shown sufficient interest, it won’t matter.) Just how seriously are you taking your application to their school?

This is not just about judging applicants, by the way; it’s also about managing yield. As soon as colleges send out their acceptance letters, the balance of power shifts, and colleges must anxiously try to woo students away from their competitors. The percentage of admitted students, known as the yield rate, affects their rankings. So it’s in their interest to try to identify the students most likely to attend. A student who seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a school will therefore have an edge over comparable applicants with lukewarm or general statements. Your goal, in part, is to persuade the admissions committee that there is a real chance you will attend school x if admitted.

But if you’re not sure how to go about actually generating an essay, here’s a roadmap.

The key to writing a successful “why this school essay” is to be as specific as possible.

In general, you want to avoid clichés such as “rigorous courses” or “renowned faculty” or “stunning campus.” Pretty much every school has the first two, and when a school has third, they’re used to applicants mentioning it – a lot. Instead, focus on explaining how the school is a good match for you in particular, and vice-versa.

A good way to check whether you’ve accomplished this is to plug in another school’s name and see whether the essay still fits. If it does, chances are you’ve written something way too generic.

That isn’t to say you can’t come up with a general template that you adjust for each school, but the essays should not be interchangeable.

So start by thinking about the subjects you’re most likely to major in or, if you’re not sure, think about which classes you enjoyed most in high school. Was there a topic or unit you particularly enjoyed (e.g. genetics in Biology, the Civil War in History)?

Was there a paper or a project you were particularly proud of? Is there any field you’ve had a little bit of exposure to but couldn’t study at the high school level (e.g. archaeology, sociology)?

Do any of your academic interests carry over into your extracurriculars (e.g. computer science and robotics club)?

Go on the website of each school, find the relevant departments (the main page will usually contain a link to “academics” or “departments and programs”), and look through the undergraduate classes.

Are there any courses that sticks out as interesting or unusual? Anything that makes you think, “Wow, that sounds really interesting?” Make a note of those classes, and write a few sentences explaining why they’re so appealing to you.

Are you interested in doing an internship, working in a lab, or studying abroad? See what the options are for those things.

If you’re applying to school in a city, look into what sorts of opportunities there are for local businesses. Don’t just say you want to be in an exciting/dynamic/diverse urban environment that will expose you to different kinds of people. Talk about what companies might like to intern with, and how the school in question can help you gain practical experience in a field.

Remember that at some schools, research can be difficult for undergraduates to get involved in; the best opportunities tend to be reserved for graduate students. If a school makes it easy for undergraduates, especially freshman, to conduct research from the start, that’s something to talk about.

What about the structure of the curriculum? Are there distribution requirements, or is there an open curriculum? Maybe you like the fact that a university cares about ensuring that its students gain competence in a variety of areas, or maybe you’re the sort of intensely focused, self-directed studier who would excel in a more open system.

Next, looks at housing and extracurricular activities.

Is there anything unique or unusually appealing about the housing system? (One former student of mine wrote, for example, about a school’s system of pairing freshman roommates that he thought was “brilliant.”) Is there a residential college system? Special-interest housing?

Look at clubs. What activities have you enjoyed the most in high school and want to continue participating in during college? Or maybe you’d be the most enthusiastic member of the school’s quidditch team.

Finally, choose one memorable/interesting/quirky (but not too weird) thing that sticks out about the school for you. It can be very small – maybe you were just impressed by how open and welcoming all the students you met on your visit were – but it should be unique to that school.

If focus on these things, you should have no problem churning out 250-300 words pretty quickly.  

The new administration, Common Core, and the new SAT

Reuters’ Renée Dudley has come out with yet another exposé about the continuing mess at the College Board. (Hint: Coleman’s “beautiful vision” isn’t turning out to be all that attractive.)

This time around: what will happen to the new supposedly Common Core-aligned SAT if Common Core disappears under the incoming, purportedly anti-Core presidential administration? 

As Dudley writes:

The Core’s English Language Arts standards call on students to grapple with important readings, including hallowed U.S. documents such as the Declaration of Independence and works of American literature. Coleman’s redesigned SAT embraced the same concept. The Core’s reading standards “focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information … based on evidence in the text” – a pillar of the new SAT. And the Core’s math standards call for “greater focus on fewer topics” – another principle echoed in Coleman’s new SAT.

Former College Board vice president [Hal] Higginbotham was among the first to raise concerns about hitching the SAT’s future to the Common Core. 

In his February 2013 response to Coleman’s “beautiful vision,” Higginbotham noted that some states wouldn’t begin implementing the learning standards until the 2014-2015 school year, the same time period in which Coleman wanted to launch the redesigned SAT. It would take years for teachers and students to get fully up to speed on the new curriculum, he and others argued.

“That circumstance leads me to wonder whether all students will have arrived at the starting line at the same time and whether the playing field for them will be level,” Higginbotham wrote in his memo to Coleman. Some students might be “more comfortable and competent than others in what will be presented” on a test aligned with the Common Core, he wrote.

As a consequence, a Common Core-based SAT “will inadvertently favor students from those geographies that have made the most progress” with the standards, Higginbotham wrote. Such a situation “raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity.”

and later: 

It’s unclear how Trump’s election – and his choice of a Common Core opponent for secretary of education – might affect the SAT and the College Board. Coleman hasn’t spoken publicly about the president-elect’s views.

I’ve followed Dudley’s series of articles on the Common Core with great interest, and for the most part, I think she’s done a very valuable service in terms of revealing some of the more serious problems plaguing the new exam — problems that include the recycling of recent exams so that students received the same exam they had already taken, the leaking of test forms before the exam, and the inclusion of items that did not meet the specifications set out by the College Board. 

In this case, however, Dudley’s reporting inadvertently (I assume) encourages some fundamental misunderstandings about Common Core, what it actually involves in terms of curriculum, and how it relates to the redesigned SAT. 

A few key points here.

First, in regards to the idea that Common Core could be uniformly rescinded: the federal government’s role in CCSS is limited, at least in terms of imposing the standards. CC was adopted by individual states, and individual states will decide whether to retain or abandon the Standards (or pretend to abandon them while renaming them State Standards).

To be fair, Dudley does mention that CCSS was adopted on a state-by-state basis; her concern is that anti-Core sentiment at the top may translate into more states dropping the Standards. 

That, however, brings me to my second point. As Diane Ravitch points out, the DOE may be effectively outsourced to Jeb Bush and Co., major proponents of Common Core. Coleman even released an announcement *praising* Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education.

Despite nominal political divisions, all of these people are effectively on the same side, at least where charters, school “reform” (privatization), school choice, etc. are involved. There may be degrees of disagreement over, say, the value of vouchers or the accreditation of for-profit vs. non-profit charters, but they are basically ideologically aligned. 

As Steven Singer has written about (link also courtesy of Ravitch), Devos, who has claimed to be opposed to the Core:  

[Is] a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-Common Core think tank, Foundation for Excellence in Education, where she hangs out with prominent Democratic education reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad…

She founded, funds and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), an organization dedicated to the implementation and maintenance of Common Core…

She’s even spent millions lobbying politicians in her home state of Michigan asking them NOT to repeal Common Core…

Next time, Dudley might want to take a piece of edu-speak to heart and “dig deep” before taking anyone in the president-elect’s circle literally. 

Third, the notion that schools can somehow teach a Common Core “curriculum,” and that students who have not used that curriculum (at least on the verbal side) will be at a significant disadvantage, reveals the extent to which popular understanding and coverage of the Core are muddled.

To reiterate: the redesigned SAT does not test any specific body of knowledge related to English, nor does the Core require significant concrete knowledge beyond vague formal skills (comparing and contrasting, identifying main ideas, etc.) whose mastery largely depends on students’ knowledge about the subject at hand.

In the eleventh grade standards, for instance, U.S. Historical Documents are provided as examples — Madison’s Federalist 10 is cited as a source for analyz[ing] how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text, but the text itself is not actually required reading. 

While a handful of documents are mentioned by name (The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address), the primary directive is to analyze “seminal texts” and seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance. (

As for the new SAT, the majority of the Reading questions on that exam are effectively designed to test whether students understand that texts say what they say because they say it — in other words, comprehension. 

The questions are phrased in a byzantine manner, to be sure, but that is primarily to give the illusion that they are testing skills more sophisticated than the ones they are actually testing (and far less sophisticated than those tested on the old SAT). 

The combination of vague standards and quasi-random selection of historical passages for the exam means that the best-prepared students are those who have prior knowledge of the passages in question.

But because the College Board does not publish a comprehensive list of documents, movements, individuals, etc. with which students should be familiar (that would cross the line from “standards” to “content”), preparation for that portion of the exam largely depends on what students happen have covered in history class — which in turn depends on individual schools, even individual teachers. And that is a matter of chance, on many levels. 

Leveling the playing field? Hardly. 

That’s the fundamental problem with the coy, standards-aren’t-curriculum-but-they-sort-of-are game the College Board is trying to play. Students’ ability to employ skills such as analyzing language, identifying main ideas, or evaluating sources, is always to some extent dependent on their knowledge. The unspoken assumption of the Core seems to be that students will of course be learning formal skills in context of a well-structured, coherent curriculum, but that’s often not at all how things work in practice. 

If it is never made clear what specific content students must master, and teachers are trained to focus primarily on formal skills, students probably won’t acquire the knowledge they need to apply the formal skills in any meaningful way.

Failure to understand that means any coherent conversation about the problems with the Core is a non-starter. 

As for the relationship between student performance on the Verbal portion of the SAT and access to a Common-Core-aligned curriculum … Anyone who thinks that a student whose English classes have been devoted to endlessly reiterating the importance of using “evidence” — that is, citing from a text — to “prove” that a book says what it says will necessarily be better prepared for the SAT than a student who has learned something of substance, really does not understand the issues at play here at all.