Just study a little bit at a time

I’m the first person to admit that studying for the SAT is exhausting. After even an hour-and-a-half of tutoring, I often find that I need to take a long walk to clear my head. Sometimes spending 90 minutes explaining why choice (A) wrong because it contains a single incorrect word while choice (C) is actually right because it restates the main idea of lines 25-42, only in more abstract terms, is just so intense that it really does take me a while to recover. Given that, I find it amazing anyone could study for a standardized test for a long stretches of time.

My advice is, quite simply, don’t. Studying for the SAT or the ACT can be exhausting. If you treat them like a sort of mind game or logic puzzle, these tests can also be fun, but let’s face it, a lot of the time, they’re not. Especially if you’re sitting down to the Official Guide after doing two hours of AP Calc homework and trying to write that essay on Ulysses.

The most important thing for SAT/ACT prep is that you study consistently, not that you study a lot at a time. If you try to swallow the whole thing at once, you’ll get burned out and frustrated, and the test will start to seem totally overwhelming. Instead, spend maybe 15 minutes a day prepping, and only focus on the things you don’t know how to do. You won’t forget the other stuff.

Studies have shown that the people at the top of their fields spend most of the practice time strengthening their weakest skills rather than simply rushing through everything they’re already good at. The same applies to the SAT and the ACT. Quantity of studying does not equal quality of studying. You will need to spend some time figuring out which kinds of questions give you the most trouble, but once you’ve determined that, make a list of the rules/concepts you don’t know, and work through them one at a time. Fifteen minutes a day every day is better than doing nothing for two months and then trying to cram in two or three hours a day. You’ll be be calmer, retain more information, and your score will most likely improve more than it would have otherwise.

Don’t worry about diction questions

Diction (aka usage or “wrong-word”) issues are frequently cited as one of the top errors that the SAT Writing section tests, but the reality is that they only show up occasionally. In all the College Board tests I’ve ever looked at — and that’s quite a few — I’ve seen no more than a handful. It doesn’t matter if the other prep books include it all over the place; the College Board doesn’t.

So yes, while you should learn the difference between “affect” and “effect” so that you can use the words properly in your own writing, in terms of the SAT, I would not suggest that you spend your time memorizing long lists of commonly confused words. When usage errors do appear, they tend to be highly unexpected and often involve switching two words (e.g. “collaborate” and “corroborate”) that you’d never necessarily expect to be switched from looking at a “commonly switched words” list. You’ll either spot the error or you won’t. Besides reading a lot and developing a good ear for usage, there’s no real way to prepare.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my philosophy is that you should spend your time worrying about the things that are pretty much guaranteed to be on the test (subject- verb agreement, pronoun agreement, tense consistency, dangling modifiers, semicolons, etc.) and that are well within your control. As for the rest, it’s not worth your time to worry about. You can hit 750+ just focusing on the other, and once you’re in that range, it’s no longer about your scores.

P.S. In case you were wondering about the whole affect vs. effect thing, the former is a typically used as a verb and the latter as a noun: “I was strongly affected by the movie,” BUT “the movie had a strong effect on me.”

A suggestion for managing time on ACT English

If you find yourself in the habit of slowing down on the rhetoric questions and then having to race at the end of the English sections, please consider
trying this out. (If you’re fine on time and have no problem with rhetoric questions, you can ignore this post.)

On ACT English, you have 45 minutes for 75 questions, divided into five passages with 15 questions each. That breaks down into 9 minutes per passage, or a little over 30 seconds per question.

As you may already know, however, some ACT English questions take far more time to finish than others. Grammar questions are often fairly straightforward and can often be done in a matter of seconds. However, rhetoric questions, especially ones that require you to reread substantial portions of the passage, can take much longer.

Now, rhetoric questions are usually located at the end of each passage — but not always. Sometimes they come right at the beginning. Sometimes they’re mixed in with grammar questions. When that’s the case, forget them for a little bit. Mark the ones you skip so you won’t forget to come back to them later, then do all the grammar questions.

If you get done with the grammar questions before the 9 minutes are up, go back to the rhetoric questions you skipped; if not, move on and do the same thing for the next passage (but don’t forget to guess on the ones you skipped; it can’t hurt you).

Your goal should be to get as many questions right as fast as you can. No question counts more than any other question, so it’s in your interest to first do all the questions you’re sure of, then worry about the ones you’re shaky on.

So the bottom line is this: don’t waste time working on a question you might not get right at the expense of working on a question you’ll almost certainly get right.