A couple of weeks ago, MarketWatch reporter Charles Passy contacted me about the process of doing SAT/ACT prep on a budget, and we had an impromptu and delightful conversation about the test-prep process and the changes it’s undergone over the last couple of decades. While I’m thrilled to see this site mentioned in his article as a source of free test prep, I also realize there wasn’t room for him to include much of what we discussed.
Hence this post.
(For the record, I know I’ve been away for a while, but I finally got started on trying to revise my SAT grammar book for the new test in 2016, and, well, let’s just say it’s been eating up a lot of my time…)
Anyway, my conversation with Mr. Passy certainly wasn’t the first one I’ve had about low-budge test prep, but during and after our conversation, a couple of things occurred to me. An awful lot of fuss gets made about the correlation between test scores and socio-economic status, and while I am in absolutely no way denying the very real and stark macro-level educational disparities that correlation reflects, I also think there are some nuances that often get missed. (I know, nuances get missed in the sound-bite/twitter-ized popular media — how difficult to imagine!)
The usual media story goes something like this: you hire a high-priced tutor, pay them some ungodly sum, the tutor teaches the kid some “tricks,” and wham! the kid’s score goes up a couple of hundred points.
That makes for a convenient narrative, but the truth is a little more complicated.
Now, to be fair, tutoring does occasionally work like that, but usually only for kids who were scoring pretty well in the first place. They just needed to hear someone say one or two things that would make it all click into place. They didn’t need help learning to identify prepositional phrases or main ideas, and they certainly didn’t stumble over the pronunciation of common words. Some of them could have ultimately have figured things out even without a tutor.
For all those kids who improve by huge amounts, there are others who dutifully go to tutoring week in and week out, sometimes for months on end, and come out barely better (or worse) than they were at the start — even with a very competent tutor, a category that I would like to think includes moi.
“More tutoring is always better, right?” a parent wrote to me in an email recently, nervous about what she could afford. Well, no actually. Sometimes more is not better. Sometimes more is worse. Sometimes more backfires, and the kid just wants to be left alone. Sometimes the kid doesn’t really make that much of an effort. Sometimes the kid has so many holes in their foundational knowledge that they can’t get to a point where they can integrate and apply new knowledge under pressure, on the fly. It all depends on where the student is starting from, where they want to get to, and how much they’re willing to put in. And so on.
When it comes to standardized test scores and income, people tend to assume that the correlation is invariably linear, up to the highest levels: that is, a student from a family earning $250,000/year will automatically score better than a student from a family scoring $100,000/year, who will in turn always score better than a student from a family earning $75,000/year, and so on. Reasonably, they therefore assume that a student from a family earning, say $5 million/year is pretty much guaranteed to reach the highest echelons of SAT or ACT score-dom, and one from a family at the tip-top of the 1% is pretty much guaranteed a perfect score.
Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of my personal experience.
Almost all of my weakest students have come from the most well-off families. And by “well off,” I mean Upper East Side townhouse/penthouse/house in the Hamptons wealthy. Some of them had been tutored in every subject, for years. Not coincidentally, they tended to have a lot of gadgets but not many books. Often their vocabularies were staggeringly weak. Staggeringly. As in, you would probably not believe me if I told you the words they didn’t know. They were so used to being spoon-fed that they simply did not know how to figure things out on their own, and there were no real stakes for them. They’d continue to be equally privileged whether they attended Muhlenberg or NYU.
My relatively strong students have tended to be from well-off but not extraordinarily wealthy families. They had houses and nice things and vacations, but they also had some exposure to the world of ideas. Often they were willing to put in a moderate amount of work, but they lacked a realistic conception of effort relative to payoff.
My strongest students have been from from families that truly valued learning. Regardless of how much money they had, they were willing to spend on education (though granted none of them could be called poor). A number of them were from immigrant families, and some did not learn English until relatively late. But they were willing to accept that they didn’t know everything already, and they worked hard.
Then there are the kids who can’t afford tutoring at all — or who don’t want their parents to shell out for tutors — who simply buy my books, sit down with them diligently for a couple of months, and get perfect or near-perfect scores. I know they exist because they sometimes send me emails thanking me. Those emails make my day.
These kids are the ones that gets overlooked in all the discussions about scores and socio-economic status. Some of them do spend hours combing this site and PWN the SAT and Erik the Red and College Confidential tracking down the answer to every last Blue Book question and pull their scores into the stratosphere. Yes, they are comparatively few, but they exist, and sometimes they actually learn a lot in the process.
Don’t their accomplishments deserve some recognition too?
Occasionally I’ll stumble across a passage that seems perfectly straightforward to me, but that I see students get confused about over and over again. One such passage begins in the following way:
Through a friend’s father, Elizabeth found a job at a publishing company.
Her parents were puzzled by this. The daughters of their friends were
announcing their engagements in the Times, and those who joined the Peace
Corps or had gone to graduate school were filed under the heading of
“Useful Service” as if they had entered convents or dedicated themselves to
The passage continues for another couple of sentences, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.
That my students should have such difficulty with this of all passages was a mystery I had filed away in a mental drawer somewhere, to be trotted out an examined from time to time but never yielding sufficient clues for me to draw any real conclusions from.
Then I had a couple of illuminating moments.
First, I had a student miss a Writing question because she did not know what the Peace Corps was. This was a girl who liked to read and had already scored a 750 in CR — not the type of kid I’d expect to have that sort of gap.
Next, a friend of mine who teaches high school told me that her AP students did not understand what a mistress was — as in, they had never been exposed to the concept and couldn’t really grasp it.
She also told me the following anecdotes about her son, who had just finished his freshman year of high school: One, he had accidentally bubbled in, on a practice ACT, that he intended to pursue a two-year college degree because she’d recently explained to him that it took her two years to get her master’s, and he didn’t realize that people go to school for four years of undergraduate education before they go to graduate school. And two, while going over a newspaper article with him, she discovered that he did not know what pesticides were. This despite his having attended an über-progressive middle school with a community garden!
Incidentally, her son is a very smart boy (albeit not much of a reader), but no one had ever bothered to explain to him these very basic pieces of information that most adults take for granted. Everyone, his mother included, assumed he knew them and therefore never saw any reason to discuss them. His mother was absolutely gobsmacked when she discovered what he didn’t know. (If you’re a teenager reading this, don’t be so quick to laugh. I guarantee that there are some very important pieces of information about life in the real world that you don’t know either.)
The moral of the story? Every time I think I’ve stopped taking things for granted, I discover that I need to strip away yet more of my preconceptions about what pieces of knowledge I can and cannot assume students possess.
After all that, I started taking a look at the SAT from another angle: that of cultural reference points that most adults don’t give a second thought to but that plenty of kids taking the SAT haven’t picked up. I was inspired, of course, by E.D. Hirsch, but the reference points aren’t so much Great Events in Western Civilization as they are things you learn from reading a newspaper on a regular basis. Even a really bad newspaper.
Then today I happened to be going over the passage cited at the beginning of the post, and suddenly I had a lightbulb moment. It’s chock-full of references that wouldn’t give most adult readers pause, but that the average teenager wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of.
1. “Announcing engagements in the Times”
Assumed knowledge: The Times refers to a newspaper, e.g. The New York Times. When people get engaged, they sometimes post announcements in the local newspaper. Usually the people who do this are relatively well-off or socially prominent, especially in a newspaper like The New York Times. This piece of information suggests that Elizabeth’s family is probably at least upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy, which in turn suggests why her parents are surprised that she doesn’t want to take money from them.
2. The Peace Corps(!)
Assumed knowledge: The Peace Corps is a governmental organization that places American volunteers (usually college graduates) in various high-need areas in the developing world. Members may teach English, help preserve wildlife, or run recycling programs. In general, they have a reputation for being left-leaning tree huggers.
3. Graduate school
Assumed knowledge: “Graduate school” refers to any post-college academic program leading to a masters or doctoral degree. Most masters program last two years, and most doctoral programs 5-7. The doctorate is the highest academic degree one can receive. In order to apply to graduate school, you must first obtain a bachelors degree (four-year undergraduate degree).
Assumed knowledge: a convent is a place where nuns live apart from the world in order to devote themselves to prayer. For a good part of European history, unmarried women were expected to enter one. By equating joining a convent with “Useful Service,” the author is being ironic — that is, suggesting that Elizabeth’s parents would have considered it more useful for Elizabeth to renounce all worldly goods and lock herself away than to take a job at a publishing house.
Are you starting to get the picture?
Technically, it is not actually necessary to understand all of these references to answer either of the questions that accompanies the passage. But that is somewhat beside the point. The point is that if the reader does not have a pretty darn good idea of what these things refer to, the passage itself has the potential to read like sheer gobbledygook. At that point, it’s not even relevant whether the questions can be answered without that information because the reader is so thoroughly lost that he or she can barely even focus on the questions.
Knowledge deficit indeed.
1) Do not take anything for granted
The more I tutor, the less I assume about what any given student can or cannot do. In fact, now assume that my students do *not* possess any given skill until they’ve clearly demonstrated to me that they’ve mastered it — and that includes reading the words that are actually on the page. Harsh? Perhaps, but I’ve learned the hard way that students, even high scoring ones, often have unexpected and sometimes very large gaps that need to be addressed as quickly and directly as possible.
Here’s a brief sampling of things students of mine have not known:
-SAT passages have arguments; they’re not just “talking about stuff.”
-Introductions and conclusions contain important information
-Discussing an idea is not the same thing as agreeing with that idea; phrases like “some people think” indicate that an author is introducing an idea they do NOT agree with.
-Main ideas usually come before, not after, specific examples.
-The word “important” is important>
-A colon can be used to introduce an explanation.
-“Is,” “are,” and “were” are all parts of the verb “to be.”
-Singular verbs end in an -s; plural verbs do not.
-How to sound out unfamiliar words (thank you whole language!)
And the following vocabulary words: permanent (two students in the same week, both native English speakers — I’m still reeling from that one), surrender, compromise (first meaning), tendency, and chronicle.
2) Take everything your students say in stride
Do not *ever* criticize or make fun or them for not knowing as much as you or your other students. You have no idea what they have or haven’t covered in school, and I’ve met some pretty bright kids who were missing some pretty serious basics. It’s nice that you could figure things out on your own, but alas, the same does not hold true for everyone else. No matter how surprised you are by something they sincerely don’t know (and aren’t just being lazy about), try not to react. Your students are starting from where they’re starting from, and jumping on them for not knowing what *you* think they should know won’t really accomplish anything. Explain what you need to as neutrally as possible (or have them look it up) and move on.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine had her daughter try a session with a tutor she’d met by chance at the gym. She didn’t know anything about him, but he talked her into a trial session. When he met with her daughter, however, he spent virtually the entire session berating her for not knowing things that “all” his other students knew, and he made a point of telling her that they were scoring 2200+. That’s nice for his other students, but guess who lost a job?
3) You are there to focus on your student, not yourself
Doing well on the SAT and teaching someone else to do well on the SAT are two totally different skills, and what worked for you might or might not work for them. Don’t get hung up on your own accomplishments; they’re only relevant insofar as they allow you to help other people achieve their goals.
4) Be precise, but don’t over-explain
You might be able to recognize all those picky little grammar rules without knowing what anything is called, but your students will most likely need to be taught things directly. Avoid saying things like “well… it’s kinda like this,” or “you’ll just know how to recognize it after a while.”
There’s a fine line between giving someone just enough terminology to be able to understand a concept clearly and giving them so much information that they start to feel overwhelmed. It’s your job to know what information is relevant to the test and how to explain the necessary underlying concepts, and which information is superfluous or likely to be confusing.
5) Don’t ask students whether they understand, just test them or have them explain it back to you in their own words
Kids are not always the most accurate judges of what they know, and plenty of times they’ll just say “yes” to get you off their back. Go by what they do, not by what they say.
6) Adjust your approach to the student’s level and needs
This might sound very obvious, but different students may have very different sets of needs — a student with a weaker background may need things explained slowly and repeatedly, while one with stronger preparation may only need to hear things once. If you treat the former like the latter, they’ll end up confused and frustrated; if you treat the latter like the former, they’ll get bored and tune out. One of the fabulous things about private tutoring is that you don’t have to follow a one-size-fits all approach; you’re free to focus on whatever the student needs to focus on. A student scoring below 600 usually requires a very different approach than one scoring 730 and aiming for 800.
7) Use College Board or ACT material only
This is exceedingly important for Critical Reading: most College Board passages are based on the “they say/I say” structure; they’re designed to gauge students’ ability to follow arguments throughout a passage and keep track of various points of view and attitudes. The passages used in most commercial test-prep books do not include this structure (or, if they do, include it in a too-obvious way), and students will not have the opportunity to practice identifying it and employing the many shortcuts that quick recognition of it can create.
8) Be realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish, and don’t make guarantees
If you’ve only worked with a relatively homogeneous, well-prepared group of students and have never encountered a student who couldn’t sound out “methodology” or didn’t know that “to found” could be a verb, it’s easy to overestimate what you can accomplish. Unless you’ve worked with the extreme low end (300s), persistent 400/500-range scorers, and/or students who were never properly taught to read, you have no idea how challenging it can be to help some students improve.
On the surface, the answer to that question might seem pretty simple. If Critical Reading is a reading test, then wouldn’t the obvious way to raise one’s score be to read more? Well… maybe. But also maybe not. Like most thing involving the SAT, it depends where you’re starting from, what you know, and where you want to get to. And if you’re looking for a summer study plan, then you need to think about what you can realistically accomplish in the space of a few months.
If you’re not one of the “lucky” people who’s read so much since childhood that you can simply intuit the answers to Critical Reading questions, then spending your summer trying to slog your way through Dickens or Dostoevsky probably won’t miraculously allow you to acquire that skill — especially if you don’t actually enjoy reading five-hundred page nineteenth-century novels and will spend most of your time trying not to tune out while reading them. You might pick up some vocabulary, especially if you keep a list of unfamiliar words, look up every single one, and go out of your way to learn how they’re actually used, but if you’re not a strong reader in the first place, a Great Work or two won’t suddenly compensate for years of just reading things like Harry Potter or Twilight (or nothing at all). As a matter of fact, reading fiction will most likely have limited value in terms of helping you recognize and summarize arguments, understand rhetorical strategies, and make inferences in the precise way that the SAT requires.
A couple of months back, I stumbled across a paper in which Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein discusses the difficulties that the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction pose for English teachers. Bauerlein makes the very valid point that English teachers are trained to teach literature, not “informational texts,” and that requiring them to shift their focus to non-fiction would not only require them to abandon their area of expertise but would essentially create a curriculum that would place a physics textbook on the same aesthetic footing as Hamlet.
I’m not entirely convinced by Bauerlein’s next claim, however, namely that students who are continuously exposed to a rigorous curriculum consisting primarily of challenging classic works of fiction do not really need to study non-fiction because they will be able to automatically transfer the comprehension skills they’ve developed over to non-fiction texts for tests like the SAT. As evidence, Bauerlein cites Massachusetts pubic schools, which do generally offer a traditional curriculum based on challenging works of fiction and whose students consistently obtain some of the highest reading scores in the country.
As a product of the Massachusetts public school system who studied a curriculum much like the one Bauerlein describes, and who went on to achieve top Verbal scores with minimal formal prep, I think Bauerlein is generally correct in stating that the comprehension skills developed through the study of complex classic work of fiction do carry over to non-fiction.
At the same time, however, there are important differences between the two genres, and it seems like an oversight for schools to focus on developing the former at the expense of the latter (especially since so much of college is based on non-fiction reading). The type of character/plot/theme-based analysis I did in school and the kind of structural/rhetorical/inferential reading required by the SAT required two very different approaches, and the fact that I literally understood what I was reading on the SAT did not make what it was demanding of me any less foreign. I intuited the gist of what it was trying to accomplish well enough to figure out what I needed to give it, but it would have been much, much easier if someone had sat me down with a “complex text” like, say, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and directly taught me to analyze its arguments rhetorically and logically à la the SAT.
But I digress.
The point I’m trying to make is that unless you fall into the very small minority of people who have somehow automatically absorbed everything the SAT tests just by reading, the best way to improve your Critical Reading score is to practice reading critically — the extent to which you can do that outside the structured format of SAT practice tests depends on you. But if you are going to do some independent reading for the specific purpose of prepping for the SAT, here are some suggestions.
1) Focus on relatively short pieces of non-fiction. They don’t have to be as short as CR passages, but they should be short enough for you to practice looking at how they’re organized. That’s much easier to do in a three-page article than in a twenty-five page one.
I would strongly suggest that you go on Arts & Letters Daily and pick an article or a couple of articles to read every day; pretty much everything on there is written at or above the level of the SAT. The New York Times Opinionator is also great.
2) Look out for pieces that discuss some of its most common topics and themes: string theory, the effects of technology on the reading/writing and the humanities, animal cognition, the body/mind problem, immigrant/minority experience. (There are LOTS of articles that touch on these subjects on Arts & Letters Daily because these are hot topics in the real world.) After a while, you’ll start to get familiar with the conventional arguments surrounding these debates, which means you’ll have to waste a lot less energy just trying to figure out what they’re literally saying.
3) Look up every unfamiliar reference, not just vocabulary words — names, places, concepts. Never heard of de Tocqueville or Hegel or Stanislavsky? Go find out who they were and why people care about them. Critical Reading does not exist in a box; it’s designed to reflect the Common Core, and passages are deliberately drawn from a wide range of topics in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The more you know about the world, the easier it will be to literally comprehend readings about an incredibly wide range of topics (it’s much harder to appreciate a passage about an anthropologist if you don’t know what an anthropologist does.) It’ll also give you lots of fodder for the essay.
4) Treat everything you read like an SAT passage. Pay particular attention to the introduction and the conclusion when looking for the point, and see how quickly you can figure it out. Make sure you’re clear on when an author is expressing their own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas, and look at the words and phrases they use to indicate or suggest agreement vs. disagreement. Notice when an author is supporting their point with personal anecdotes vs. hard facts vs. broad generalizations, using extreme language (expressing “the strength of a conviction”), and using common words in alternate meanings.
Provided you understand what you’re reading and can accurately identify the elements discussed above, pending even thirty minutes a day reading this way will most likely help you go just as far — if not farther — toward increasing your Critical Reading score as simply sitting with a Princeton Review book and taking practice test after practice test. You’re also a lot more likely to learn something in the process.
When people “SAT prep,” they have a tendency to lump it all together in one undifferentiated mass. So here I want to talk about the differences between these kinds of preparation and what different types of students can realistically expect to gain from them.
I tend to classify anything from a couple of sessions through about three months as short-term prep.
Short-term prep itself falls into two categories: the kind that focuses narrowly on improving a small number of skills, and the kind that focuses primarily on finding strategies that will best leverage the student’s existing skills.
On the whole, I find that short-term prep is most successful for high-scoring students who know their strengths and weaknesses and have identified a few specific goals to accomplish. In my experience and quite contrary to popular test-prep wisdom, it can actually be much simpler to raise a score from somewhere above 650 to an 800 than it can be to raise a 570 to a 650 — or even a 610. There’s almost no way to hit the high 600s, or even the mid-600s, without having solid skills, and at that point improving one’s score primarily becomes a question of identifying and focusing on a handful of discrete concepts. When a single problem such as timing in involved, it is sometimes enough to work through a representative sampling of questions to illustrate various principles and strategies, which the student can then practice applying independently.
Let me give you an example. In the past year, I’ve worked with two students who already had 800s in both Math and Writing but whose Reading scores lagged more than 100 points behind. Both of them came to me with very specific issues: one needed work only on timing, so we talked about how getting the gist of each paragraph from reading the first few sentences eliminated the need to waste time trying to comprehend every single word, and about how to identify overall structure quickly by reading topic sentences.
The other student needed work understanding hard humanities passages, “function” (purpose) questions, and “big picture” questions. The former jumped to an 800 from a 680 after only a single meeting (I had also done a couple of sessions with him months earlier, before the PSAT) and a few practice tests; the latter rose to a 720 from a 650 after about three months of more or less consistent work. We starting off just doing the most difficult humanities passages I could find so he could practice figuring out the important points without getting bogged down in confusing language, then worked up to full tests.
Short-Term prep for lower-scoring students (below 600) students can be effective, but its maximum benefits tend to show up in the Math and Writing sections, which are rule-based and relatively straightforward. In my experience, it rarely produces the kinds of significant gains in Critical Reading that higher-scoring students see.
Here I do have to mention that students with solid skills who are just beginning SAT prep may not score well because they haven’t learned to transfer their skills to the test; there’s often a very big difference between someone who scores a 550 CR on their-first ever practice test and someone who’s still scoring 550 after a year of prep. Provided that they are willing to spend lots of time learning vocabulary and do not have difficulty thinking strategically, a student starting at 580 and aiming for a mid-600s score can sometimes learn enough to parlay their skills into a 50-70 point increase in the space of a few months. (If they want to spend more than a couple of months prepping seriously, however, they can often raise their scores well into the 700s).
For students scoring persistently below 600 (let’s define persistently as after six months or more), however, short-term prep is usually a much dicier prospect. In such cases, a sub-600 score is usually an indicator of multiple missing skills, and the amount of work involved in acquiring those skills is what sets Critical Reading apart from the other two sections. As one article I came across recently termed it, reading is ‘three-dimensional” problem. No matter how self-contained a passage may seem, it always has a real-world context; the more familiar the reader is with its subject matter and the conventions of its genre, the faster and easier the reader will be able to understand it.
There’s also the decoding aspect: students who never learned to read phonetically are often either stymied by unfamiliar words and will come to a grinding halt when they encounter them, or simply plug in a similar-looking word that causes them to misunderstand the passage. When this type of confusion happens repeatedly, students can end up with only the most fragmentary idea of what they’ve read. A lack of familiarity with complex grammatical structures (multiple clauses, non-essential clauses, inverted subject-verb structure, separation of subject and verb within a sentence) and the ability to intuit where a sentence or a paragraph or an argument is going can also severely impede comprehension and make reading an excruciatingly slow and confusing process.
The real problem, however, is that fluid comprehension results from the interaction between all of these skills, in ways that researchers do not entirely understand. What researchers do understand, however, is that the relationship between the acquisition of individual skills and overall reading level is exponential. *All* of the skills must reach a critical point before their interaction results in a jump to a noticeably higher level; drilling concepts in a single area has limited effects. And because, as I discussed in my last post, because persistently low scores often result from a combination attention and memory issues as well as self-management difficulties and lack of contextual knowledge, it can be extraordinarily difficult to find success with a strategy-based approach.
That’s not to say that these students can’t improve from long-term, skills-based preparation if they are willing to work very, very hard, simply that there are no quick fixes when someone has so many gaps across the board. When the College Board says that test-prep doesn’t make much of a difference, this is what they mean, and in this sense I can’t help but agree with them. Trying to do short-term prep with a very weak student has made me realize how well-constructed the SAT really is. What seem like simple tricks to a 700-level student are actually huge obstacles to one scoring 250 points lower.
While long-term prep (six months+) might seem like the better option, the reality is that its efficacy varies widely and, as is the case for short-term prep, depends on the particular student’s needs.
In my experience, there is usually no way to raise a below-600 Reading score to 700+ (or even 600+) without serious, sustained long-term effort, and students who are aiming to cross a major score threshold should be aware of the work involved in achieving such a goal.
The most successful students I’ve had by far are the ones whose parents came to me with the understanding that test-prep was likely to be a long-term project, one that would require consistent work, and who were actually willing to put in that work — or whose parents were willing to force them to put in the work. The father of one of my students kept a massive index-card box full of vocabulary flashcards with which he would proceed to torture his son on a daily basis. It took a year, but he played a huge role in getting his severely ADD (but extremely smart) son from a flat 500 CR to a 670.
Let me repeat that, by the way: not a quick fix, a year.
This type of prep typically involves acquiring skills that for whatever reason are either not being mastered or not being learned period in school. It also tends to involve some fairly intensive remediation, and that simply takes time. You wouldn’t try to learn a year’s worth of chemistry in one hour a week for a couple of months, would you? So why on earth would you treat the SAT that way? And I would argue that that is in fact a valid analogy: Critical Reading tests concrete, specific comprehension and reasoning skills that can be taught much the way any subject can be taught — the only difference is that those skills are not, for the most part, being taught in the classroom, and tutoring must often replace school rather than complement it.
I used to argue with Debbie Stier about the amount of time an average student should reasonably expect to spend studying for a 100+ point increase, but having learned the hard way when enough of my mid-range students didn’t improve after a couple of months, I now concur with her assessment of a year. It’s a safe bet that you’ll need that long to digest new skills to the point where you can apply them on the fly in a high-pressure situation when you’ve been up since 6am and are sure that you just completely blew the last section. Trust me: it takes a long time.
Given the time, I now treat Reading much the way I used to treat Writing and don’t even bother looking at the test until we’ve worked through the various skills that it involves. It may not be fun to spend a couple of months just discussing how passages are organized (anecdote, commentary, main point, counterargument), but surprisingly enough, it’s a whole lot easier to transfer skills to a test once you actually have them.
For students who start off scoring very well (700+), however, burnout can be a real danger. For them, it makes the most sense to focus in on their weakest areas and spend some time focusing seriously on them rather than take test after test after test for months on end (although granted, if their biggest problem is managing the whole test itself rather than any specific skill, then taking lots of practice test might be necessary.)
There is such thing as a point of diminishing returns, and it’s not pretty once someone goes too far past it — especially if their parents are demanding perfect scores. I’ve worked with some kids who kept prepping way past the point where it was beneficial for them to do so, and eventually it got to the point where it felt like an exercise in futility for both of us. They clearly no longer cared, and I was exhausted and increasingly uncomfortable trying to hold their interest when it was obvious they just wanted the whole thing to be over.
At a certain point, you either have to put in the effort to really get yourself to the next level or decide that you’re happy with what you have.
I know that some of you won’t believe me, but I feel obligated to reiterate this here:
An SAT score is only one part of your application. While a low score can keep you out, a high score alone will not get you in. No admissions committee at any elite (non-technical) school will take an otherwise undistinguished kid with a 2350 when they can take a kid with a 2250 — or, horror, a 2200 — and something genuinely interesting to contribute. It is not worth spending all your time trying to get a 2300+ if doing so will come at the expense of other parts of your application.
I’m not going to say much about medium-term prep here (4-6) months except that I find it occupies and awkward middle ground: it isn’t quite long enough to build and solidify skills from the ground up, but it is often long enough to become frustrating for a kid hovering around the 2200-2250 range and trying to break 2300/2350. If someone wants to spend time just memorizing vocabulary, that’s fine, but there are better things to do with one’s time than spend months obsessing for the sake of what often comes down to five or six questions on the entire test when simply working more carefully could accomplish the same goal in a few weeks.
For a 600-650 ish student who needs a combination of skill- and strategy-work, however, it can be very effective — assuming the time is used effectively.
I realize that this post has already become a bit long-winded (try as I might to be succinct, I just can’t get past my habitual verbosity — what can I say, I like to ramble on…), so I’ll just say this:
I’ve seen the greatest number of problems arise when people expect long-term results from short-term prep, so whichever one you choose, adjust your expectations accordingly. Take a hard look at your score, your skills, your goals, the amount of work you’re honestly willing to put in, and what you want to get out of SAT prep. If you don’t want to spend months memorizing vocabulary and your goal is to get the test over with a soon as possible, you’re probably best off looking for some short-term strategy-based prep; if you’re starting at a 550 and won’t settle for anything less than a 700, plan on a year, and expect to do a lot of work. There is no one-size fits all, and the best you can do is to choose the option that most suits your needs and be aware that your score will be a reflection of your choice.
If you look in the Official College Board Guide, 2nd edition (aka the Blue Book), you’ll see that the sample essays in the front of the book are written in response to a prompt that asks whether there is always a “however” (i.e. are there always two sides to every argument?)
It recently occurred to me that the College Board’s choice of that particular prompt for inclusion in the Official Guide was not an accident; on the contrary, it’s a sort of “clue” to the test, an inside joke if you will. And in classic College Board style, it’s laid bare, in plain sight, for everyone to see, thereby virtually guaranteeing that almost everyone will overlook it completely.
Let me back up a bit. When I took the SAT in high school, one of the Critical Reading strategies I devised for myself was, whenever necessary, to write a quick summary of the argument of that the author of a passage was both for and against. So if, for example, a question asked how a particular author would be likely to view the “advocates” of a particular idea (let’s say string theory, just for grins), I would write something like this:
Author: ST = AMAZING! (string theory is amazing)
Advocates: ST = WRONG! (string theory is wrong)
Therefore, author disagrees w/advocates, answer = smthg bad
It never struck as anything but utterly logical to keep track of the various arguments that way. As a matter of fact, I took the process of identifying and summarizing various points of view so much for granted that it never really occurred to me that keeping track of all those different points of view was actually was more of less the point of the test. Of course I knew it at some level, but not in a way that led me to address it quite so explicitly as a tutor. I assumed that it was sufficient to tell my students that they needed to keep track of the various points of view; not until about a year ago did it truly dawn on me that my students couldn’t keep track of those points of view. They were having trouble with things like main point because they couldn’t distinguish between authors’ opinion and “other people’s” opinions, and therefore I needed to explain some very basic things upfront:
1) Many SAT passages contain more than one point of view.
2) The fact that an author discusses an idea does not necessarily mean that the author agrees with that idea.
3) Passages contain more than one point of view because authors who write for adults often spend a lot of time “conversing” with people — sometimes imaginary people — who hold opposing opinions. Authors are essentially writing in response to those “other people.”
4) There are specific words and phrases that a reader can use to identify when an author is talking about his or her own ideas vs. someone else’s ideas.
5) The fact that authors discuss other people’s ideas does not make them “ambivalent” or mean that they do not have ideas of their own.
6) It is also possible for authors to agree with part of someone else’s idea and disagree with other parts. Again, this does not mean that the author is ambivalent.
In other words, there’s always a “however,” and if the author of Passage 1 doesn’t give it to you, the author of Passage 2 almost certainly will.
Not surprisingly, I have Catherine Johnson to thank for this realization. A while back, she posted an excerpt from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book, They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing on her blog, and reading it was a revelation for me. I’d already touched on “they say/I say” model in a very old post (SAT Passages and “Deep Structure”), but Graff and Birkenstein’s book explained the concept in a far more direct, detailed, and explicit manner. It also took absolutely nothing about students’ knowledge for granted.
I’d already written a first draft of The Critical Reader at that point, but when I read that excerpt, something clicked and I thought, “that’s it — that’s actually the point of Critical Reading. THAT’S what the College Board is trying to get at.” To be sure, Critical Reading tests a number of other things, but I think that this is one of the most — if not the most — important. If you understand the strategies that authors use to suggest agreement and disagreement with arguments, you can sometimes understand almost everything about a passage — it’s content, its structure, its themes — just from reading a few key lines. “They Say/I Say” provided me with the thread that bound the book together. It also provided the very important link between reading on the SAT and reading in the real world (or at least in college) — a link that some critics of the SAT (!) insist rather stridently does not exist.
Then, in a colossal “duh” moment a couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the point of the quote before the essay prompt is to provide students with the option of using the “they say/I say” format in their essays (if they so wish) — it’s just that the students have so little experience with that format (if they even know it exists) that it never even occurs to them to use it!
Just how little experience students have with it became clear, incidentally, when I was working with students on the synthesis essay for the AP French exam. As is the case for AP Comp, students are given three sources and expected to compose a thesis-driven essay, integrating the sources into their writing. There’s no way to earn a high score without using all of the sources, and since the sources cover all sides of the argument (pro, contra, neutral), at least one source will contradict the student’s position. So basically, the point of the exercise is to force them to integrate opposing viewpoints into their writing.
As I discussed the essay with my students, however, I made two intriguing discoveries:
1) They did not really understand that the essay was thesis-driven and that it was ok for them to express their own opinions.
They equated having to include multiple side of an argument with not having an opinion. They were stunned — and relieved — to discover that it was ok for them to actually write what they thought instead of simply summarizing what all the various sources said. Incidentally, their teacher had told them that more than once, but I think the concept was too foreign for them to fully grasp.
2) They did not know how to integrate other people’s words and ideas into their own arguments in anything resembling a fluid manner.
Instead of writing things like “As Sorbonne Professor Jean-Pierre Fourrier convincingly argued in a May 2009 article that appeared in Le Monde, the encroachment of English into the French language is nothing new,” they would write something like this: “Jean-Pierre Fourrier, a professor at the Sorbonne, says ‘the encroachment of English into the French language is nothing new’ (Source 1).”
When I showed one of students (a very smart girl and a strong writer) how to do the former, she was thrown off guard. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know that.” “Of course you didn’t know that,” I said matter-of-factly. “No one taught you how to do it. So I’m teaching you now.”
That was another lightbulb moment for me. The thought had drifted across my consciousness before, but it hadn’t quite pushed its way to the surface. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Students who haven’t been taught how to make use of certain strategies explicitly in their own writing are therefore unlikely to recognize those strategies in other people’s writing. Ergo, when an author interweaves his or her opinions with someone else’s opinions in the same passage or paragraph, sometimes even in the same sentence, students have limited means of distinguishing between the two points of view.
I think that this is something that should be covered very explicitly and thoroughly in AP Comp class, but something tells me that it isn’t. I certainly didn’t learn it in high school; instead, I picked it up in college by reading lots of academic articles and simply copying what professional scholars did.
So what’s the solution? It is in part, I think, They Say/I Say — or something like it (note the very subtle plug for The Critical Reder here;). I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again: the only way to prepare for a college-level test is to read things meant for college students, which They Say/I Say certainly is. So if you’re taking the SAT next Saturday and are reading this in the hopes of picking up some last-minute miracle tips for Critical Reading, here’s my advice: read Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s introduction to They Say/I Say. It won’t give you any SAT-specific “tricks,” but it will explain to you clearly and bluntly, just what it is that most of the writing you’ll encounter on the SAT is trying to accomplish. Even if it doesn’t solve all your problems, but it might demystify the test a bit and make Critical Reading seem a little less weird.