If it’s not true in the real world, it’s not true on the test

Established fact: a statement can be true in the real world but still be an incorrect answer on the SAT or ACT.

Pretty much every test-prep book you’ll ever read will tell you this. So, for example, you see an answer that says that Shakespeare is one of the greatest dramatists in the English language, you shouldn’t automatically assume it’s true because that statement might not actually be supported by the passage. I’m not about to disagree with that.

What no one talks about, however, is the fact that statements are NOT true in the real world are, for all intents and purposes, NOT correct answers to SAT questions.

So, for example, an answer choice that reads “scientists have made no progress in solving problems,” or “scientific and artistic achievement are fundamentally incompatible” is more or less guaranteed not to be correct. Those answers aren’t just extreme — they’re blatantly at odds with reality. And it’s fair to say that the SAT is biased in favor of reality.

Now, theoretically there could be an exception, but the chances of one occurring are pretty darn slim. (Maybe on a “which of the following would most undermine the assertion in lines 25-37?” question. But otherwise, it’s a very big stretch).

Yet I consistently see students — even high-scoring one — pick answers like these. When I point out that these answers have no basis in the real world, they’re surprised; it never even occurred to them to look at the test that way. I suspect that at some level they’ve been so brainwashed by the whole “the SAT is trying to trick you” and “the only thing that the SAT tests is how well you take the SAT” mentality that they don’t quite realize just what the test will and will not do. This is part of why I hate the whole “tricky” thing so much — it tends to make people jettison their common sense, and much of doing well on the SAT is simply about pushing common sense to its absolute extreme.

As a side note, that’s the other thing I keep telling my students: the test is set up so that you can figure things out, even if you don’t know 100% what you’re doing. Your job is to focus on what you do know and use that to get to what you don’t.

But back to the issue at hand — why couldn’t the test just be trying to trick you by making the correct answer some bizarre thing has nothing to do with reality?

Here’s why:

One of the things no one ever seems to mention about the SAT and ACT is that they are designed to mimic the kind of academic and journalist “conversation” that happens in the real, adult world beyond high school. You know, the sorts of things you’ll tend to encounter in college (if you bother to do your reading, that is). On the reading side, at least, it’s partly a test of how familiar you are with the sort of language and ideas you find in publications like, say, The New York Times. So if you know who Angela Merkel is and what her economic policies are doing to Greece, chances are you won’t get weirded out if a sentence completion requires you to know what “fiscal austerity” is.

Standardized-test reading might feel very fake, and in many ways it is very inauthentic, but given the unavoidable limits of the standardized-testing format, it actually does a pretty good job of doing what it’s intended to do. (Passage 1/Passage 2 is based on the same principle as NYT’s “Room for Debate” series — and interestingly, commenters often exhibit the same comprehension errors that many test-takers fall prey to, most often ascribing much more extreme positions to writers than those that they actually espouse.)

It’s important to keep that real-world framework in mind in terms of “reading the test,” and it’s something I now go way out of my way to remind my students about. So as you’re reading through those answers tomorrow, trying to figure out which ones you can truly eliminate, ask yourself whether they make sense… like, for real.

Does reading help raise Critical Reading scores?

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.

The answer isn’t always *in* the passage

A while back, a student who was trying to raise his Reading score came to me with complaint: “Everyone always says that the answer is right there in the passage,” he told me. “But I feel like that’s not always the case.”

He was right, of course. He’d also hit on one of the many half-truths of SAT prep, one that frequently gets repeated with the best of intentions but that ends up confusing the heck out of a lot of people.

As I’ve written about before, most SAT prep programs spend a fair amount of time drilling it into their students’ heads that the only information necessary to answer Critical Reading questions can be found in the passages themselves, and that test-takers should never, under any circumstances, use their own knowledge of a subject to try to answer a question. They’re right (well, most of the time, but the exceptions are sufficiently rare and apply to so few people that they’re not worth getting into here).

In trying to avoid one problem, however, they inadvertently create a different one. The danger in that piece of advice is that it overlooks a rather important distinction: yes, the answer can be determined solely from the information in the passage, but the answer itself is not necessarily stated word-for-word in the passage.

A lot of the time, this confusion stems from the fact that people misunderstand the fact that the SAT tests, among other things, the ability to move from concrete to abstract. That is, to draw a connection between specific wordings in the passage and their role within the argument (emphasize, criticize, assert, etc.). The entire POINT of the test is that the answers to some questions can’t be found directly in the passage.

Correct tend to either describe what is occurring rhetorically in the passage or paraphrase its content using synonyms (“same idea, different words”). You need to use the information in the passage and then make a cognitive leap. It’s the ability to make that leap, and to understand why one kind of leap is reasonable and another one isn’t, that’s being tested. If you only look at the answer choices in terms of the passage’s content, they won’t make any sense, or else they’ll seem terribly ambiguous. Only when you understand how they relate to the actual goal of the question do they begin to make sense. In other words, comprehension is necessary but not sufficient.

While knowing all this won’t necessarily help you figure out any answers, it can, at the very least, help to clarify just what the SAT is trying to do and just why the answers are phrased the way they are. If you can shift from reading just for content to reading for structure — that is, understanding that authors use particular examples or pieces of evidence to support one argument or undermine another — the test starts to make a little more sense. And if you know upfront that the answer is unlikely to be found directly in the passage and that you need to be prepared to work it out yourself, you won’t waste precious time or energy getting confused when you do look at the choices. And sooner or later, you might even get to the point of being able to predict some of the answers on your own.

Abstract out all unimportant information

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the SAT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perils of overconfidence (or: you won’t always recognize the right answer when you see it)

The distance between a high CR score and a truly outstanding one rarely runs along a linear path. Unlike Math and Writing, which are essentially based on a number of fixed rules and formulas and which can therefore be improved by the mastery of discrete concepts, Critical Reading cannot necessarily be improved by memorizing a few more rhetorical terms or vocabulary words. On the contrary, for someone stuck in the high 600s/low 700s on CR, raising that score into the 750+ range frequently involves completely rethinking their approach.

Given two students with identical solid comprehension skills and 650-ish scores at the beginning of junior year, the one who is willing to try to understand exactly how the SAT is asking them to think and adapt to that requirement will see rapid and dramatic improvement (often 100+ points). The other one will flounder, maybe raising their score 30 of 50 points, but probably not much higher. Occasionally, their score won’t budge at all or will even drop. They’ll get stuck and get frustrated because they just know that they deserve that 750+ score, but the one thing they will absolutely not do is change their approach. And by change their approach I mean assume that their ability to recognize correct answers without thoroughly working through the questions is considerably weaker than they imagine it to be. In other words, they have to take a step back and assume that they know a lot less than they actually do.

Let me explain: one of the things I continually find fascinating is that people can spout on for extended periods of time about the supposed “trickiness” of the SAT, yet when it comes down to it, they won’t actually take concrete steps to prevent themselves from falling for “trick” answers (i.e. answers that contain mistakes someone who is rushing or can’t bothered to fully read the question would likely make).

The best way I know of to reduce the possibility of getting “tricked” is to actually attempt to answer the question before looking at the answers — or at least to determine the general idea that is probably contained in the right answer. Working this way, however, requires you to abandon the assumption that you’ll be able to spot the right answer when you see it, even if you’ve made no attempt to figure it out beforehand.

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, answers to SAT CR questions are deliberately worded in a confusing manner. Unless you really know what you’re looking for, things that aren’t necessarily the case may suddenly sound entirely plausible, and things that are true may sound utterly implausible. You need to approach the answers with that knowledge and consciously be on your guard before you even start to read them. But in order to do that, you need to be willing to admit a few things:

1) Your memory probably isn’t as good as you think it is

Just because you think you remember what the passage said doesn’t mean you actually remember what the passage said — at least not all the time. Even if you remember well enough almost all of the time, it only takes a handful of slips to get you down from 800 to 720. Throw in a missed vocab question or two on each section and bang, you’re back at 680. If you want to get around the memory issue, you need to write down every single step of your process. It doesn’t have to be neat or even legible to someone other than you, but it needs to be there for the times you don’t actually remember.

2) Your thought process probably isn’t as unique as you imagine it to be

The test-writers at ETS are not stupid, and they know exactly how the average eleventh grader thinks — questions and answers are tested out extensively before they show up on the real test, and the wrong answers are there because enough high-scoring students have chosen them enough times. Don’t assume you won’t do the same. I also say this because many of my students are astonished when I trace the precise reasoning that led them to the wrong answer — before they’ve told me anything about why they chose it. They were laboring under the illusion that their thought process was somehow distinct to them. It wasn’t.

3) Sometimes, there is no shortcut

That’s a little secret that most people in the test-prep industry would rather not admit. A lot of students who are accustomed to using common answer patterns (e.g. get rid of anything that’s too extreme) to get to around 650-700 are shocked to discover that this technique won’t get them any further and that they actually just have to understand pretty much everything. Sometimes spotting the “shortcut” also requires very advanced skills that even relatively high-scorers don’t possess. On CR, the ability to determine the function of a paragraph from a single transition in its first sentence is a highly effective shortcut, but it involves a level of sensitivity to phrasing that most sixteen year-olds — especially ones who don’t read non-stop — haven’t yet developed.

4) Getting a very top score is hard

There’s a reason that only about 300 people – out of 1.5 million – get perfect scores each year. If acing the test were just about learning the right “tricks,” there would be a lot more 2400s.

If you really want to get your score up to 750-800 range, you need to respect that the SAT is in fact difficult and that it is your job to conform to it, not the other way around. If you don’t understand why a particular answer is correct, stop before you jump to blame the test for not making it what you think it should be. It doesn’t matter that you take hard classes. It doesn’t matter that your AP English teacher thinks your essays are brilliant. There’s something in your process that went awry, and it’s your job to identify and fix it.

Reading this over, I realize that a lot of what I’ve written in this post may sound fairly harsh. But I also know from experience that overconfidence is one of the biggest problems that can hold you back from attaining the scores you’re capable of achieving. It’s hard — I’m not denying it — but if you can take a step back and start to admit that you might not know everything you think you do, you might just have a fighting chance at an 800.