For students who are already in the 650-700 range on Critical Reading, attempts to boost their score into the exceptional (750+ range) can be an exercise in frustration. Since reading comprehension comes easily to them naturally, most have never taken the time to truly analyze their responses and instead rely on instinct, answers that “feel right,” to get them through.
In my experience, however, there are a couple of factors that typically separate relatively high scorers from exceptionally high scorers, and those factors have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. The difference between a 700 and an 800 can be as little as five questions, and it’s often the student’s approach to those questions rather than the actual content of the questions that determines the ultimate score.
So if that describes you, here are my biggest pieces of advice:
1) Study vocabulary
It’s very easy to underestimate the impact that sentence completions can have on your score, but missing just two per section will drag you down by 50+ plus points. If you don’t have trouble figuring out the logic of the sentences and simply need to learn words, put in the time and learn the words. You’ll be grateful later.
2) Spend 15-30 minutes per day reading SAT-level material…
and look up and write it down every single word you don’t know. Good sources are newspapers such as The New York Times op-ed page (it’s online if you don’t have a subscription), The Wall Street Journal, The Economist (actually a little harder than the SAT), and magazines such as Scientific American, National Geographic, or Humanities. You can also browse through the links on Arts & Letters Daily, one of my favorite procrastination sites.
The truth is that most people who don’t read challenging material on a regular basis will find it very difficult to score above 700. The SAT is usually set up to contain about seven level 5 questions, which is not coincidentally the number that takes you from an 800 to a 700. Answering many of those questions correctly requires a “feel” for how certain words and phrases are typically used in works written for an educated adult audience — uses that might be completely different from what an average sixteen year-old with minimal exposure to such works understands them to be (i.e. being “discriminating” is not a bad thing).
3) Forget that the SAT is a multiple-choice test and just answer the questions
If your reading skills are solid enough for you to be scoring at 650+, they’re probably solid enough for you to answer the questions on your own without consulting the answers first. Will this work for every question? Of course not. There are some that are impossible to narrow down at all without consulting the answer choices, but the vast majority do not fall into that category. Read the question, look back at the passage, and, as much as possible, sum up in your own words what you think the answer is. Write it down in a couple of words, but only a couple, and abbreviate as much as possible. Any more will take too much time. It’s not about being eloquent, it’s just about reminding yourself what you need to look for. This step is crucial — when you have to consider multiple ideas simultaneously, you’re a lot less likely to overlook something important if you have everything in writing. Then look for the answer that comes closest to capturing the general idea you’ve described. There’s a big difference between weighing the pros and cons of each answer choice and actually looking for something. You’re a lot less likely to get thrown off by confusing wording or wrong answers this way because you’ve already determined the general information that needs to be included in the correct answer. Plus, if you can answer the question yourself, you won’t get it wrong — the chances of you coming up with a wrong answer on your own are virtually zero. Keep in mind, however, that the correct answer may be phrased in a way that you’re completely not expecting — so if you find the wording of an answer choice confusing, stop and consider what it’s actually saying rather than jumping to cross it off.
Also remember that the SAT is asking you to think about the rhetorical role or function of various pieces of information rather than just about the literal meaning of the information. So rather than say that a particular paragraph is describing an author’s early life, for example, ask yourself what role or function it plays in the passage as whole: is it providing context for a work discussed later on in the passage? It is offering an explanation for a particular feature of the author’s work? If you can train yourself to think this way, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you start to spot answers.
4) Simplify, simplify, simplify
The SAT is fundamentally a test about the big picture. Don’t get caught up in the details unless you actually need to consider fine distinctions between answer choices. When you see a tone question, for example, play positive/negative first, and get rid of anything that clearly doesn’t fit. Do NOT worry about connotation, just cross out. If nothing left works, you can always erase and reconsider.
5) Stop going on instinct and be absolutely systematic
If you’re scoring above a 750 in Math, there’s a good chance you’re actually solving problems step by step, and, only after you’ve arrived at the solution, consulting the answer choices rather than simply plugging in numbers and guessing. You need to approach CR questions the same way.
While this goes for the entire test, the area where this is most necessary is on Passage 1/Passage 2 questions. When asked how the author of Passage 1 would respond to a particular idea in Passage 2, for example, you need to deal with each element separately. First, reiterate for yourself the main point and tone of Passage 1. You should have already written them down, so make sure to look back at them. You need to be certain of what the author of Passage 1 thinks about the topic before you can attempt to infer what (s)he would have to say about someone else’s view of it. Next, determine what function the given line in Passage 2 plays in the overall argument — chances are it simply supports the main point. When you figure that out, write it down, too. Quickly.
So now you ask yourself what the relationship is between the main points of the two passages, and once you determine it, surprise, write it down! Is one positive toward a topic while the other is negative? If so, you know that you can automatically eliminate any answer that is positive or that indicates agreement. Likewise, if both authors generally agree in their perception of the topic, you can automatically eliminate any answer that is negative or that indicates disagreement.
The bottom line is: at every step of the way, sum it up and write it down. Can working like this be tedious? Absolutely. Does it require more upfront than simply looking at the answer choices? Of course. Is there a decent chance you’ll get it right even if you just go on instinct? Sure, but there’s also a pretty decent chance you’ll get fooled sooner or later. That’s why you can score 800 on one test and 690 on the next. The more work you do upfront, the more you reduce your margin of error.
If you’ve reasoned your way through every step, chances are you’ll be able to go right to the answer without getting distracted. And that’s what can get you from making one or two mistakes per section to making none. Take it from someone who knows: the first time I took the SAT, I crashed through the CR purely on instinct and scored a 710; the second time, I reasoned my way through all of the questions, wrote everything down, took my time, and scored an 800.