04 June 2013

The perils of overconfidence (or: you won’t always recognize the right answer when you see it)

The distance between a high CR score and a truly outstanding one rarely runs along a linear path. Unlike Math and Writing, which are essentially based on a number of fixed rules and formulas and which can therefore be improved by the mastery of discrete concepts, Critical Reading cannot necessarily be improved by memorizing a few more rhetorical terms or vocabulary words. On the contrary, for someone stuck in the high 600s/low 700s on CR, raising that score into the 750+ range frequently involves completely rethinking their approach.

Given two students with identical solid comprehension skills and 650-ish scores at the beginning of junior year, the one who is willing to try to understand exactly how the SAT is asking them to think and adapt to that requirement will see rapid and dramatic improvement (often 100+ points). The other one will flounder, maybe raising their score 30 of 50 points, but probably not much higher. Occasionally, their score won’t budge at all or will even drop. They’ll get stuck and get frustrated because they just know that they deserve that 750+ score, but the one thing they will absolutely not do is change their approach. And by change their approach I mean assume that their ability to recognize correct answers without thoroughly working through the questions is considerably weaker than they imagine it to be. In other words, they have to take a step back and assume that they know a lot less than they actually do.

Let me explain: one of the things I continually find fascinating is that people can spout on for extended periods of time about the supposed “trickiness” of the SAT, yet when it comes down to it, they won’t actually take concrete steps to prevent themselves from falling for “trick” answers (i.e. answers that contain mistakes someone who is rushing or can’t bothered to fully read the question would likely make).

The best way I know of to reduce the possibility of getting “tricked” is to actually attempt to answer the question before looking at the answers — or at least to determine the general idea that is probably contained in the right answer. Working this way, however, requires you to abandon the assumption that you’ll be able to spot the right answer when you see it, even if you’ve made no attempt to figure it out beforehand.

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, answers to SAT CR questions are deliberately worded in a confusing manner. Unless you really know what you’re looking for, things that aren’t necessarily the case may suddenly sound entirely plausible, and things that are true may sound utterly implausible. You need to approach the answers with that knowledge and consciously be on your guard before you even start to read them. But in order to do that, you need to be willing to admit a few things:

1) Your memory probably isn’t as good as you think it is

Just because you think you remember what the passage said doesn’t mean you actually remember what the passage said — at least not all the time. Even if you remember well enough almost all of the time, it only takes a handful of slips to get you down from 800 to 720. Throw in a missed vocab question or two on each section and bang, you’re back at 680. If you want to get around the memory issue, you need to write down every single step of your process. It doesn’t have to be neat or even legible to someone other than you, but it needs to be there for the times you don’t actually remember.

2) Your thought process probably isn’t as unique as you imagine it to be

The test-writers at ETS are not stupid, and they know exactly how the average eleventh grader thinks — questions and answers are tested out extensively before they show up on the real test, and the wrong answers are there because enough high-scoring students have chosen them enough times. Don’t assume you won’t do the same. I also say this because many of my students are astonished when I trace the precise reasoning that led them to the wrong answer — before they’ve told me anything about why they chose it. They were laboring under the illusion that their thought process was somehow distinct to them. It wasn’t.

3) Sometimes, there is no shortcut

That’s a little secret that most people in the test-prep industry would rather not admit. A lot of students who are accustomed to using common answer patterns (e.g. get rid of anything that’s too extreme) to get to around 650-700 are shocked to discover that this technique won’t get them any further and that they actually just have to understand pretty much everything. Sometimes spotting the “shortcut” also requires very advanced skills that even relatively high-scorers don’t possess. On CR, the ability to determine the function of a paragraph from a single transition in its first sentence is a highly effective shortcut, but it involves a level of sensitivity to phrasing that most sixteen year-olds — especially ones who don’t read non-stop — haven’t yet developed.

4) Getting a very top score is hard

There’s a reason that only about 300 people – out of 1.5 million – get perfect scores each year. If acing the test were just about learning the right “tricks,” there would be a lot more 2400s.

If you really want to get your score up to 750-800 range, you need to respect that the SAT is in fact difficult and that it is your job to conform to it, not the other way around. If you don’t understand why a particular answer is correct, stop before you jump to blame the test for not making it what you think it should be. It doesn’t matter that you take hard classes. It doesn’t matter that your AP English teacher thinks your essays are brilliant. There’s something in your process that went awry, and it’s your job to identify and fix it.

Reading this over, I realize that a lot of what I’ve written in this post may sound fairly harsh. But I also know from experience that overconfidence is one of the biggest problems that can hold you back from attaining the scores you’re capable of achieving. It’s hard — I’m not denying it — but if you can take a step back and start to admit that you might not know everything you think you do, you might just have a fighting chance at an 800.

Leave a Reply