Please note: this post was written in regard to the Reading section of the old (pre-2016) SAT. While it is still applicable to some social and natural science passages, which frequently discuss old models or theories vs. new/emerging ones, the overall writing tends to be more straightforward and journalistic than it was on the old test. If you are studying for a graduate exam such as the GRE, the GMAT, or the LSAT, however, the passages on those tests continue to be more more academic in nature.  

While working with Debbie Stier this past weekend, I had something of an epiphany about the Critical Reading section (I think Debbie had a Critical Reading epiphany as well, but I’ll let her discuss that herself!). It is has to with the structure of many passages and the significance of that structure in terms of the SAT’s larger goal.

Let me back up a moment. In all the brouhaha over the “real meaning” of the SAT, it is to forget that it — like the ACT — is essentially a measure of college readiness. Regardless of what the SAT started out as, it is now recognized as a having validity only as a predictor of freshman college grades. And in my experience, a student’s comprehension of the passages on the Critical Reading section is, in general, a remarkably accurate gauge of whether she or he is prepared to handle college-level reading and thinking.

Here’s why: one of the classic structures of SAT passages — and indeed of passages on pretty much all of the graduate exams, including the GRE, the LSAT, and the GMAT — is exactly the same as one of the most common structures of an academic article.

Part I: Introduces the topic, often through an anecdote. Provides general and/or historical overview

Part II: What “they” say

Discusses the standard interpretation, “received wisdom” surrounding that topic

Part III: Problematizes the standard interpretation: raises objections, points out inconsistencies and places where the argument doesn’t hold up

Part IV: What “I” say

Offers own interpretation, either in the form of a more nuanced version of the standard interpretation or, on occasion, the complete opposite of the standard interpretation

Why is it so important to be able to distinguish these parts, to be able to understand what an author offers up as standard interpretation versus what she or he actually thinks?

Well, because that’s exactly what college-level thinking ultimately entails: being able to understand and synthesize other people’s arguments in order to be able to formulate a well-reasoned, well-supported response with precision and nuance. And it is impossible to formulate such a response without truly understand how the existing arguments work and what their implications are.

If you take an economics class and reading an article about the limits of Keynesian theory, for example, you need to be able to distinguish the description of Keynesian theory from the author’s discussion of the standard interpretation of Keynesian theory (what other people think) from the author’s own argument (what I think) in order to even begin to think up a response.

The world of academia essentially consists of an ongoing dialogue between scholars, sometimes separated by hundreds of years — sometimes the result is brilliant and sometimes it’s nothing more than inane and petty squabbles (far more the latter than the former!), but it’s a dialogue nonetheless.

This is not something one is generally made aware of in high school, where the goal is simply to memorize and regurgitate as much information as possible in the shortest period of time, but it is the underlying context for much of what shows up on the SAT. And simply having that knowledge can go a long way toward putting Critical Reading into perspective.