To answer “student notes” questions on the digital SAT, ignore the notes and match the key words

To answer “student notes” questions on the digital SAT, ignore the notes and match the key words

Of all the pieces of advice I have for the Writing portion of the digital SAT, this is probably my #1, and it’s particularly important because it involves a new question type.

Whereas the paper-based post-2016 exam featured ACT knock-off “rhetoric” questions asking test-takers whether a given piece of information should be revised, added to, or deleted from a passage, the digital version has scrapped these items and replaced them with a much more complicated-looking type of question involving sets of bullet points representing notes that a “student” has taken about a topic.

Based on the material released by the College Board, it appears that this will be a very common question type: second in frequency only to questions involving transitional words and phrases, and potentially appearing as many as four or five times in a given module.

After working through a few of these questions, bouncing back and forth between the bullet-pointed information and the answer choices, occasionally losing track of exactly what I was supposed to be looking for and getting lost in a thicket of information, I had a classic “duh” moment: the questions themselves told me what type of information the correct answer had to contain—it was unnecessary to even look at the bullet points at all.

In this regard, “notes” questions are effectively the same as “specific focus” questions on the ACT, just with a bit more padding: although they are technically asked in relation to a passage, the context is for all intents and purposes irrelevant. All that matters is whether you can identify the key word or phrase in the question—what is being emphasized, presented, or introduced—and match it to the corresponding term(s) in the right answer. The language in some SAT questions is a bit more sophisticated, and the answers longer, but they basically work the same way. (I point this out for anyone who may need to take both the ACT and the digital SAT.)

Once I figured that out, I was able to answer most of these questions in a matter of seconds. A handful of times I had to read very carefully, but in some instances it was as simple as matching a word like “difference” or “compare” in the question to one like “whereas” or “however” in one of the choices.

They were—and I do not use this term lightly, given its history in relation to the SAT—trick questions.

For example, look at the following question. (Note: I didn’t want to run afoul of CB copyright restrictions, so I’m using one of mine, from the sixth edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar). I mean that literally: do not read it, just look at it.

Pretty complicated, right?

But when you pare it down to the essentials, it’s actually asking this:

Variety of materials = diverse set of media. It’s literally that simple.

You can treat pretty much every single “notes” question this way, leaving you considerably more time to devote to other questions that genuinely require more thought.

Or you could just take a nap until the next module.

How to work through transition questions on the digital SAT

How to work through transition questions on the digital SAT

Note: The strategies covered in this post can also be applied to the paper-based. Just cover up the transition that is already in the passage; otherwise, the steps are basically the same. 

On many versions of the digital SAT, you can expect to encounter about five questions per module testing transitional words and phrases, making this the most common question type on the Writing portion of the test. To ensure you earn what are usually fairly easy points, it is crucial to have an understanding of how to work through these questions before you walk into the exam.

The most important thing is to avoid getting caught up in the details—questions are designed not so much to test particular words as they are to test three main categories of relationships, namely continuation, cause-and-effect, and contrast.

As a result, the fact that therefore might appear in one set of answers, whereas a second might contain thus and a third hence is effectively irrelevant. These words serve the same rhetorical purpose—to indicate a result in a cause-and-effect relationship—and it is the relationship that is really being tested. The words themselves are secondary.

1) Read the question but not the answer choices

A quick glance at the question will tell you that it is testing transitions.

If you happen to notice that the answers consist of, say, However, Moreover, Specifically, and Therefore, that’s obviously a sign as well, but initially you should not worry about the specific words involved. In fact, you should do your best to ignore them because they are more likely to confuse you than to help.

2) Read the passage carefully from beginning to end, actively thinking about what you are reading

Just to be clear here, “from beginning to end” means from the first letter of the first word, all the way through to the final period. The passage will be short, so this is not a major imposition. It is very important that you read the whole thing because if you focus only on the area around the transition, you may miss information necessary to answer the question.

3) Determine the relationship between the statements before and after the transition, without looking at the answers 

Again, you have three main options: continue, cause-and-effect, and contrast.

From what I’ve seen of the new exam, I would argue that this step is even more important than before. The College Board appears to have caught on to the ACT’s habit of including multiple transitions in the same category, thereby allowing more than one answer to be eliminated without any knowledge of the actual passage.

Note that there are sub-divisions within some of these categories—for example, moreover and subsequently are both continuers, but they have very different uses. As a result, each of the four answers on the dSAT will generally have a distinct purpose, and there is usually no way to play games with them in order to eliminate two (or more) upfront.

4) Look at the answers, and find the option from the relevant category 

In almost all cases, there will be only one choice in the correct category, so that answer will be correct by default.

Although there may be very rare instances in which you are asked to choose between two similar transitions of the same type (e.g., however and nevertheless), these questions are true outliers and should not affect your overall approach.

Let’s look at an example.

We’ll get to the answers in a little while, but for the moment the process is the point.

The passage contains two sentences:

  • The first sentence tells us that the Aldabra giant tortoise is at risk of extinction.
  • The second sentence tells us that the decoding of its genome will help ensure its survival.

Those are opposite ideas, so we’re looking for a word in the however/nevertheless/despite this category.

Now you get to look at the answers.

Unfortunately, none of the usual, straightforward options are available. You might be able to work by process of elimination, recognizing that (A)-(C) are not contradictors. But if you don’t know that still at the beginning of a sentence can act as a contradictor (meaning “despite this” or “at the same time, however,”), you might get cold feet about actually picking (D).

If you wouldn’t ever do that, great. But as a tutor, I saw this all the time: students would carefully eliminate answers that did not fit, but when they were confused by the last option remaining, they balked and went for an answer that they had conclusively eliminated, just because they knew what it meant. (Remember: whether you understand an answer choice is unrelated to whether it is correct.)

By the way, I made the answer still rather than something more obvious because the dSAT seems to have a bit of a thing for this word—presumably because fewer test-takers know that it can be used the way it’s used here.

This is where the whole thinking in categories bit comes into play. If you need to learn new transitional words or phrases while studying for the test, don’t worry about the nuances of their meanings. Instead, worry about what categories they fall into.  (And tutors, if you have limited time with a student who is scoring anywhere below 790 in Reading/Writing, please, please do not waste it discussing minutiae such as nonetheless vs. nevertheless, which will never, ever be tested.)

To draw a STEM analogy, you essentially need to think of transitions as points in a data set that can be swapped with other, equivalent points without affecting an overall result. This time it’s still, next time it might be however. Doesn’t matter. If you know what belongs in what category, you’ll probably be good.

Now available: preliminary versions of the SAT reading & grammar books for the digital SAT®

Now available: preliminary versions of the SAT reading & grammar books for the digital SAT®

I am happy to announce that the preliminary versions of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, Sixth Edition, and The Critical Reader, Fifth Edition are now available for international students preparing for the new digital SAT in March, as well as tutors working with International students and any U.S. students taking the digital school day SAT this spring.

If you live outside the United States and unable to order from Amazon locally, you can order directly through The Critical Reader. Students located in South Korea will be able to purchase books through our Korean distributor, JMK Education. As of 1/29/23, we are in the process of arranging to have an order shipped to them.

Both books have retained their core components but have been fully reworked to reflect the content and format of the digital SAT. While it is possible that there will eventually be some minor reshuffling of content (particularly in the grammar book, since it’s not entirely clear whether certain concepts will tested on the digital exam), I hesitate to call them beta versions because the bulk of the material is effectively final.  The only major changes planned at this point are the additional of end-of-chapter practice questions/explanations in the reading book, and full explanations for end-of-chapter exercises in the grammar book.

In order to make the books available on the various international Amazon sites, there was no choice to publish to the main U.S. site as well—so yes, the books are technically available there now. However, I am aiming to release the expanded versions of both books by April, so you may want to wait to purchase them if you are planning to take the digital exam in June or later and do not need to start studying urgently. 

Ensuring that the new editions matched the level of quality of the previous editions while getting them to publication in only a few months has been an enormously challenging process, and again, I very much appreciate everyone’s patience while I worked out all the unforeseen (but inevitable) last-minute kinks.

Note: comments on this post have been closed. If you have a question regarding book orders, please send us a message via the contact form, or email thecriticalreader1@gmail.com.

Writing cheat sheet for the digital SAT® now available

Writing cheat sheet for the digital SAT® now available

For those of you taking the digital SAT in March, I’ve made a new version of my free Writing cheat sheet available for download.

Although the core content of the digital Writing test is similar to that of the current paper-based version, there are a few key differences—most notably, the extremely high emphasis on transitional words and phrases; the introduction of student “notes” questions; and the elimination of diction/register questions—and the sheet has been updated to reflect these changes.

As I mentioned, it may take me a few more weeks to get the reading and writing books on international Amazon, but in the meantime, I’ll try to put up a few posts on the most important features of the digital exam.

Update on revised SAT books for the digital test, 12/31/22

I apologize for the delay and appreciate everyone’s patience. This is the fastest I have ever had to revise such a huge quantity of material (there was no way for me to begin serious work on the updates until the College Board released the first full digital practice test at the beginning of October). And because I am an actual person who sometimes has to deal with life beyond test preparation, I needed to take a break for a couple of weeks during the holidays.

Happy New Year, congratulations to everyone who got done with testing or into college, and wishing you a good 2023.

-EM

Update 12/1: As of the beginning of December 2022, I have completed drafts of new editions of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar (6th edition) and The Critical Reader (5th edition).

While the books retain many key elements, they have been substantially overhauled and are now fully aligned with the digital exam—based on the four practice tests released by the College Board—and will be available for purchase for international test-takers  in some capacity by late December or January 2023.

Both books will be in something very close to their final form; the only major difference will be in the number of exercises (particularly in certain chapters of the Reading book) and the presence of detailed explanations for every question in the end-of-chapter exercises, which are likely to be too time-consuming to produce in full for both books by the end of the year.

Also, full disclosure: there will only be time for the books to undergo one round of proofing, so there may be a few lingering typos (this is the unfortunate price for getting them out so quickly).

Otherwise, as in previous editions, each guide contains a full chapter devoted to each question type; numerous worked, in-chapter examples with step-by-step explanations; and numerous strategies for simplifying questions and zeroing in on key information.

I’ve worked incredibly hard on the revisions over the last couple of months, and I feel confident that they will provide thorough preparation for students taking the digital test in March.

I expect finalized versions that have detailed explanations for the end-of-chapter exercises and that have undergone multiple rounds of proofing to be available sometime in the spring of 2023. Current sophomores who are preparing for the digital PSAT next fall should have plenty of time to work with them over the summer.

I appreciate everyone’s patience and will be posting previews of both books as soon as possible.

Important: update on new Critical Reader book editions for the digital SAT

Important: update on new Critical Reader book editions for the digital SAT

I apologize for not having posted an update sooner, but I’v had an unusual number of projects to juggle over the last several months and have only been able to begin serious work on the updated SAT books in the last few weeks. I understand, however, that everyone is very anxious for information regarding the new exam as well as eager to work out a prep plan, and that the earlier international rollout of the digital test has made things challenging for current eleventh graders living outside the U.S. So I’ll do my best here to outline my own timeline regarding book releases here and to provide some interim options for prep materials.

First, the basics. Yes, I will revising my SAT reading and grammar books to reflect the content and structure of the digital test. They updated versions will be completely new editions: 5th edition of The Critical Reader, 6th edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar.

The essential content and structure of the books will not change, although they will likely be somewhat slimmed down to reflect the shorter, more focused digital reading and writing sections (two sections, 27 questions each, with performance on the first section determining the difficulty of the questions seen on the second).

I am tentatively aiming to make the books available on Amazon in February 2023 so that they can be used for the international March test, although I cannot guarantee that timeline at this point. I can, however, state with a fair degree of confidence that they will be ready by the summer of 2023, for students preparing for the digital PSAT in the fall.

If the books are not ready by late winter 2023, I will do my best to make a (physical) beta version available for international students only. Depending on the number of copies involved, this may involve some additional production costs. If this ends up being the case, I will post pricing information as soon as I can.

I am also planning to rework the current grammar workbook into a combined reading-writing test book, but that will most likely not be ready until summer or fall 2023.

Where things stand as of now (late September 2022):

As you may be aware, this past summer the College Board released a document with test specifications and sample exam questions for the digital test.

Working from that blueprint, I managed to put together drafts of all the major chapters in the updated Critical Reader, and my initial impressions were confirmed by the full digital practice exam released by the College Board several days ago. As a result, my future work will consist of reworking/reformatting old exercises and explanations to practice questions in previous editions, as well as writing some new ones. (Note: if you want to view the new exam, you will need to create a College Board account and download the Bluebook app.)

Because fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions have been revived, I will also be reintegrating a fair amount of material from the original (2012-13) edition of The Critical Reader.

In terms of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar: a substantial portion of the punctuation and grammar content will remain essentially the same. (There are really only so many ways one can test commas, dashes, and colons!) However, the Diction and Register chapter will be removed, as those question types will no longer appear on the exam. In addition, I will be adding new material covering “note-taking” questions (essentially a form of supporting-detail question; see RW #12, https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/digital-sat-sample-questions.pdf) and will be reworking numerous sample questions and exercises to cover the new “one passage-one question” format.

In the meantime: 

If you are looking to get a jump on ways to prepare for the digital SAT now, my recommendations are as follows.

If you want to use the current (4th) edition of The Critical Reader, focus on vocabulary-in-context, main ideas, inferences, reading for function, extended reasoning, and graphs. Although the format of the new test will be different, the actual concepts tested are essentially the same. Although literal comprehension questions will not appear on the new exam, I would also suggest at least reading through that section: difficulties in this area will make it hard to answer questions that involve more advanced reasoning.  You do not need to worry about paired “evidence” questions at all.

For vocabulary, you may also want to use the original (pre-2016 exam) Sentence Completion Workbook or, if you are very motivated, even GRE Vocabulary in Practice, focusing on one-blank completions only. Fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions on the digital SAT may appear in the context of a short passage (as they do on the GRE) rather than a single sentence (as was the case on the pre-2016 SAT), so there will be considerable overlap between easier one-blank GRE vocabulary questions and dSAT ones. Remember that “hard” words may appear in the passages as well as the answer choices, and that these can involve alternate meanings of common terms.

If you want to practice with short passages and sentence completions, you may also find it helpful to purchase the first edition of The Critical Reader, which features many such passages, in addition to a chapter on sentence completions. Because this version does not include graph questions, you should not practice with it exclusively.

For Writing, you can use the current (5th) edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar,  focusing heavily on the chapters on transitions and punctuation, and skipping the material on diction and register. Aside from the fact that each dSAT Writing question will accompany a different passage, the actual concepts tested will be effectively identical, and the current book should leave you extremely well prepared for the exam.

If you do want a trove of single passages accompanied by one question, you can of course also use the Question of the Day archive.

For authentic SAT questions, you may want to work with short passages and sentence completions from pre-2016 exams. You can probably order an old Official Guide for very little money on Amazon, and I would assume that there are still many old tests floating around the internet as well.

And as always, I recommend spending 10-15 minutes a day reading a reasonably serious adult periodical such as the New York TimesThe EconomistThe AtlanticScientific American, and making a list of the words you don’t know. It does not matter how short dSAT passages are if you are missing key vocabulary or have difficulty following a person’s argument!

The bottom is line is that if you’re among the first cohorts to take the new exam, you may need to piece prep materials together for the next few months; however, given what is available for the previous and current versions of the SAT, you can still prep very effectively.

I will be posting updates as my work on the books progresses, so please stay tuned!