Abstract out all unimportant information

I spend a lot of time teaching people to stop looking so hard at the details. Not that details are so bad in and of themselves — it’s just that they’re not always terribly relevant. There’s a somewhat infamous SAT Critical Reading passage that deals with the qualities that make for a good physicist, and since the majority of high school students don’t have particularly positive associations with that subject, most of them by extension tend to dislike the passage.

The remarkable thing is, though, that the point of the passage is essentially the point of the SAT: the mark of a good physicist is the ability to abstract out all irrelevant information.

Likewise, the mark of a good SAT-taker is the ability to abstract out all unimportant information and focus on what’s actually being asked.

One of the things that people tend to forget is that the SAT is an exam about the big picture — for Writing as well as Reading.

I say this because very often smart, detail-oriented students have a tendency to worry about every single thing that sounds even remotely odd or incomprehensible, all the while missing something major that’s staring them in the face. Frequently, they blame this on the fact that they’ve been taught in school to read closely and pay attention to all the details (and because they can’t imagine that their teachers could be wrong, they conclude that the SAT is a “stupid” test).

Well, I have some news: not all books are the kind you read in English class, and different kinds of texts and situations call for different kinds of reading. When find yourself in college social sciences class with a 300 page reading assignment that you have two days to get through, you won’t have time to annotate every last detail — nor will your professors expect you to do so. Your job will be to get the big picture and perhaps focus on one or two areas that you find particularly interesting so that you can show up with something intelligent to say.

But back to the SAT.

On CR, it’s fairly common for people to simply grind to a halt in passage when they encounter an unfamiliar turn of phrase. For example, most people aren’t quite accustomed to hearing the word “abstract” used as a verb: the ones who ignore that fact and draw a logical conclusion about its meaning from the context are generally fine. The other ones, the ones who can’t get past the fact that “abstract” is being used in a way they haven’t seen before, tend to run into trouble. They read it and realize they haven’t quite understood it. So they go back and read it again. They still don’t quite get it, so they reread it yet again. And before they know it, they’ve wasted two or three minutes just reading the same five lines over and over again.

Then they run out of time and can’t answer all of the questions.

The problem is that ETS will always deliberately choose passages containing bits that aren’t completely clear — that’s part of the test. The goal is to see whether you can figure out their meaning from the general context of the passage; you’re not really expected to get every word, especially not the first time around. The trick is to train yourself to ignore things that are initially confusing and move on to parts that you do understand. If you get a question about something you’re not sure of, you can always skip over it, but you should never get hung up on something you don’t know at the expense of something you can understand easily. If you really get the gist, you can figure a lot of other things out, whereas if you focus on one little detail, you’ll get . . . one little detail.

The question of relevant vs. irrelevant plays out a lot more subtly in the Writing section, where people often aren’t quite sure just what it is they’re supposed to be looking for, especially when it comes to Error-IDs. As a result, they want to understand the rule behind every underlined word and phrase, regardless of whether it’s something that’s really relevant. And because about 95% of the rules tested are predictable and fixed from one test to the next, a lot of the time the correct answers aren’t terribly relevant. Worrying about every little rule makes the grammar being tested appear much more complex than it actually is.

The reality is that if you only look for errors involving subject verb agreement, pronoun agreement, verb tense/form, parallel structure, logical relationships and comparisons, prepositions, and adjectives and adverbs, you’re going to get most of the questions right. And if an error involving one of those concepts doesn’t appear, there’s a very good chance that there’s no error at all. Thinking like that is a lot more effective than worrying about why it’s just as correct to say “though interesting, the lecture was also very long” as it is to say, “though it was interesting, the lecture was also very long.”

I’m not denying that understanding why both forms are correct is interesting or ultimately useful. I’m simply saying that if you have a limited amount of time and energy, you’re better served by zeroing in on what you really need to know.

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.

Finding the point

The single most important strategy you can use to get through SAT Critical Reading is to find the main point of every passage you read. Can this be annoying? Of course. You just want to jump to the questions and get them over with. Unfortunately, if you work this way, there’s always a chance that you’ll get thrown off by a distractor answer, no matter how good you are and no matter how well you think you’ll recognize the right answer when you see it.

The SAT rewards those who work through problems — Critical Reading as well as Math — very, very carefully. Most Critical Reading questions ask about the relationship between various details and the author’s overall point, and if you don’t take 15 seconds and define that point explicitly for yourself, sooner or later you will look right past it when it appears.

But where to find it?

The answer, it turns out, is pretty simple. There are three places it’s likely to be:

1) Last sentence, first paragraph (the classic place for a thesis)

2) First sentence, second paragraph

3) The last sentence of the passage

In general, you should automatically underline the last sentence of every passage you read — don’t think, just underline. It’ll usually sum up the point in some fashion, and if you find yourself totally lost, it gives you something specific to look back at.

Furthermore, do not ever, ever fail to circle/underline/notate in some fashion the word “the point.” It shows up far more often than you’d think. If the author is telling you what the point is, it’s the point. Really.