17 February 2013

The Jane Austen Myth

One of the most insidious myths about the SAT that has somehow gained an inordinate amount of traction is the idea that reading lots of nineteenth-century novels is the best way to study for Critical Reading. And among nineteenth-century novelists, Jane Austen’s name seems to come up a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong — reading lots of nineteenth-century novels is certainly not a bad way to study for the SAT. Authors like Austen and Bronte and Dickens (and Fielding and Trollope and Defoe and Eliot) use tons of SAT vocabulary. Tons. A single chapter of Great Expectations probably contains nearly as many SAT words as you’ll find in all of Direct Hits. Reading any major work of nineteenth-century literature and looking up every word you don’t know is a fantastic way to expand your vocabulary.

But it’s not necessarily the best way, and it’s certainly not the only way, to prepare effectively for Critical Reading.

As some very sane, rational adult pointed out on College Confidential a month or so back, this is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

Here’s the problem: a lot of people (ok, girls) who score well on Critical Reading also happen to be huge Jane Austen fans. (Confession: I’m not, nor was I ever a Jane Austen fan; I find her books incredibly tedious). Because reading Jane Austen helped them score well, they then make a classic SAT-logic mistake and conclude that if reading Jane Austen worked for them (sample size of one), it must therefore work for everyone.

Can you see the problem with this?

Maybe they have things backwards: they enjoy reading Jane Austen because they’re *already* strong readers; it’s only because of their extant knowledge base that they’re able to boostrap themselves in acquiring new skills, e.g. figuring out new vocabulary words from context.

Maybe other people aren’t terribly interested in Jane Austen, or in novels period, and if they try to read them, they 1) will have just as much trouble with them as they have with the SAT, 2) will not bother to look up unfamiliar words because there are too many of them and it’s too hard to understand anyway, and 3) will get so frustrated that they just quit.

So to set the record straight: it is not necessary to read Jane Austen to do well on the SAT!

The passages on the SAT are not, for the most part, taken from nineteenth-century novels. Yes, very occasionally, a fiction passage or one passage in a Passage 1/Passage 2 set will come from a nineteenth century text, but the vast majority of passages are excerpted from works written in the last few decades.

So if you don’t much like Jane Austen, don’t worry. If you’d much rather read about superstring theory or the ethics of eating meat, I highly encourage you to do so — it is, after all, one of the SAT’s favorite topics. And for a list of where SAT passages actually come from, click here.

Leave a Reply