Nouns are the most common type of subjects. They include people, places, and things and can be concrete (book, chair, house) or abstract (belief, notion, theory).
Example: Bats are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Pronouns are words that replace nouns. Common pronouns include she, he, it, one, you, this, that, and there.
Less common pronouns include what, how, whether, and that, all of which are singular. They are typically used as part of a much longer complete subject (underlined in the second example below).
Example: They are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Example: How bats hang upside down for long periods was a mystery until it was discovered that they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Gerunds are formed by adding -ING to the ends of verbs (e.g. read – reading; talk – talking). Although gerunds look like verbs, they act like nouns. They are always singular and take singular verbs.
Example: Hanging upside down for long periods is a skill that both bats and sloths possess.
The infinitive is the “to” form of a verb. Infinitives are always singular when they are used as subjects. They are most commonly used to create the parallel structure “To do x is to do y.”
Example: To hang upside down for a long period of time is to experience the world as a bat or sloth does.
When people talk about “SAT prep,” they tend 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 (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 in part from attention and memory as well as self-management difficulties, 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 might seem like the better option (provided that a student has the necessary discipline or the family the means to pay for months and months of tutoring), the reality is that its efficacy varies widely.
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 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 just what you need.)
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 will not get you in. No admissions committee at any elite (non-technical) school would take an otherwise undistinguished kid with a 2350 when they could 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’m not a huge fan of it. Like anything else, it can work given the right circumstances, but I find that it occupies and awkward middle ground: it isn’t quite long enough to build and solidify skills from the ground up, but it’s often too long 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 an afternoon or two.
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 whatever 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 pick the path that most suits your needs and be aware that your score will be a reflection of your choice.
A lot of test-prep discussions seem to center on guessing: when to do it, when not to do it, and how many answer choices you should eliminate before trying to do it.
Interestingly, though, no one ever seems to discuss just what it means to guess. I think that this is largely because most people assume that the term is self-evident: a “guess” is what you take what you take when you’ve eliminated at least one or two option(s) but have absolutely no idea what the real answer is and don’t want to leave a question blank.
What largely gets overlooked in these discussion, however, is the fact that there are different kinds of guessing, and they are not at all alike. In general, I find that there are three major types of guesses, and I want to discuss each one in turn:
1) Wild guesses
2) “Gut feeling” guesses
3) Educated Guesses
I’m going to come right out and say that I’m not a big fan of this type of guessing, no matter how many answer choices you’ve eliminated. Not simply because I’m a cautious person when it comes to test-taking (although anyone who’s seen me work through an SAT Critical Reading section will testify that I don’t *ever* pick an answer without double-checking that it’s actually backed up by something in the text) but because also because from what I’ve observed, most wild guesses tend to be wrong — even when you’re down to two answers.
Repeated wild guessing on questions you really don’t know how to answer has the potential to drag your score down a whole lot. Especially if you’re trying to top 750 or even 700, you need to be very careful about answering questions you don’t really know the answer to (and if you have the chops to pull above a 700, you shouldn’t see more than a question or two per test that fall into that category anyway).
The other reason that I dislike wild guessing is that doing it habitually, especially for a relatively high scorer, reinforces the idea that the SAT CR is fundamentally a guessing game. It isn’t, and treating it that way can get you in a lot of trouble.
“Gut Feeling” Guesses
Interestingly enough, I find that these guesses tend to almost always be right, and more often than not I have to convince people that it’s ok to make them! In fact, I feel as if I have the “trust your instinct” conversation at least once every tutoring session. That’s totally understandable. “Gut feeling” guesses are scary because they don’t seem to be based on anything, and no one wants to ruin their score by going on a feeling. But usually people get questions wrong because they don’t trust their instincts, not because they do!
Here’s the thing: these guesses are usually based on something, even if it can’t be put into words. If you’re generally a strong reader, it’s perfectly possible to grasp in some corner of your mind what’s fundamentally going on in a passage but lack the vocabulary to put it explicitly into words. That glimmer of understanding is usually enough to get you the right answer.
For example, even if you’ve never actually learned that many words with anglo-saxon roots tend to sound clearly negative or positive, you can probably guess that “dolt” is something negative. If you have a decent ear for language, you can probably intuit that it’s bad, whether or not you know how you did so.
From what I’ve seen, the most effective way to know whether this kind of guessing will actually be effective is to take a bunch of tests and practice doing it. It can be incredibly scary to trust yourself at first, especially if you’re not 100% sure of the answer, but if you take a bunch of practice tests and consistently get questions right because you trusted your instincts, you’ll start to feel more comfortable.
If, on the other hand, you discover that your instincts tend to lead you in the wrong direction, you can learn to deal accordingly. In any case, you NEED to test this out beforehand; you can’t just wing it when you get to the real test.
Even more often that “gut feeling” guesses, this kind of guess usually ends up being correct — in large part because the SAT is test of logical conjecture, designed so that you can reason your way through the questions. In general, my rule is that if you’ve arrived at any answer by employing some sort of logical process (provided that it isn’t too farfetched), you should go ahead and pick it because it’s probably right.
There are a couple of different ways in which this type of guess can manifest itself, the first being simple process of elimination. If you can conclusively discard four answers, the remaining one must be correct. Even if you don’t know why the right answer is the right answer, you can still pick it with a fair degree of confidence.
In addition, on sentence completions, you can choose an answer that includes unfamiliar words based on your knowledge of roots. So even if you don’t know what “multifarious” and “polymath” mean, you know they probably go along with the idea of diversity or many of something. As I’ve said before, the SAT isn’t just based on how many words you can memorize — it’s also based on how you can use your knowledge about language to put words together (or take them apart). If you can relate an unfamiliar word to French or Latin or Spanish, you might not get the exact meaning, but you’ll probably get it close enough to answer the question. Furthermore, understanding how the SAT is constructed can also go a long way toward helping you make these kinds of guesses. Knowing, for example, that the correct answer to many passage-based questions will essentially be a rephrasing of the passage’s main point can help you identify the likely answer — even if you can’t find the necessary evidence to back it up and/or don’t 100% understand what the question is asking. Granted you still have to nail the main point, but provided you can do that, you’ll almost certainly be right.
This is also where the question of “implied authorship” comes into play — the idea that the writers of the test have their own set of biases to which correct answers tend to conform. That means that extreme answers are usually wrong; women and minorities are portrayed positively (and tone questions relating to them typically have positive answers); and challenging conventional wisdom, especially when it comes to science, is a good thing. Knowing that the right answers tend to slant this way does not guarantee that you’ll get a question correct, but it can significantly up your chances.
So to sum up, if you’re about to take a wild guess just for the sake of not leaving a question blank, you might want to think twice; but if you have good reason for picking the answer you’re picking, you should probably go for it.
One of the most-common issues that many SAT-takers face, particularly in Critical Reading, is the seeming randomness of many of the answers. While I do agree that the College Board occasionally does in fact come up with a set of answers choices that are uniformly awful, this is actually a pretty rare occurrence.
I say this because I have had countless conversations with students about why their (incorrect) answer was truly the right one, or why such-and-such answer could not possibly be correct. While I admire their conviction, my response, uttered from the bottom of my heart and with the greatest possible affection, is ‘Get Over It.’