Bowing Down at Mount Horeb: Preparing for the SAT®

by Jim Stobaugh

Maturation calls into sharp focus our views of reality, the meaning of life, and other existential concepts. In the book, Father Sergius by Leo Tolstoy, the protagonist Augusto Perez shakes his fist at God and asks, “Am I a creature of fiction?” This is the central question haunting modern society. In a way, too, it is the question I hear many young people ask.

In 2009 Western society, we are asking that question at the university.

The first modern university was Halle University, founded in 1694. From the beginning, universities have wrestled with accepting truth as an absolute reality or seeing truth as an objective intellectual quest. The quest, unfortunately, has led us to many dead ends.

The modern university is a hostile environment for most Christians. It appears to be King Belshazzar’s feast (Daniel 5), an undisciplined intellectual orgy of knowledge worship instead of a time on Mount Horeb, a humble recognition of God’s omnipotence. Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) freely admits his human limits and extols God’s holy name. Like Moses, present-day Christians must know who they are and Who is their God.

Christian students are called to act as if they are on Mount Horeb, even if they are in the middle of Belshazzar’s feast. They are called to be salt and light in a hostile environment.

Where do they begin? As far as college admission goes, the SAT® is a critical first step.

It is important to understand that the SAT is an aptitude test, not an achievement test (like the Iowa Basics or Stanford Tests). The SAT Subject Tests™ are achievement tests. The SAT is a math-and-English test—there is no history, science, or any other subjects on the exam (although students will need these other subjects for college admission).

The College Board claims—and I believe it—that almost four out of every five American colleges require the SAT. This is not bad news. Christian students in general, home schooled Christian students in particular, are doing very well on the SAT. I had no idea just how well Christians would do on the SAT and how important spiritual preparation was to those high scores.

Christians should view preparation for the SAT as an opportunity to grapple with an important question: Can they become what God is calling them to be? They will not have the whole answer to this vital question at the end of their SAT preparation, but this can be a first step.

Students usually take the SAT during the second semester of their junior year or first semester of their senior year. It measures their potential success in college, but it does not necessarily measure their information acquisition and assimilation skills. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with a student’s worth or esteem in God’s eyes.

The math portion and the verbal portion of the SAT are much different from the SAT some of us took several decades ago. There are more analysis questions, vocabulary is understood almost entirely in context, and there are exercises requiring students to compare two reading passages. Students will even have to write-in some answers, instead of just picking a letter! There will be no antonyms on the SAT, but double the number of reading comprehension questions. Finally, students will be allowed to use a calculator to help them with the math portion of the exam.

Vocabulary development is critical to preparing for the SAT. Analogies have been dropped, and vocabulary problems have been increased. More than ever before, it is vital that students learn the Latin/Greek roots of words. Also, they should learn to define words in context. It is a waste of time for students to memorize the 500 most frequently used words on the SAT. A better approach is to read good books. This approach is time consuming and arduous, but I cannot see any better way to learn vocabulary for the SAT. Being fluent in Latin and Greek would help our children show off at the Dunster House in Harvard Yard, but it is probably not necessary in order to do well on the SAT … as long as they know their roots. Spelling skills will also not increase SAT scores.

The best preparation for the SAT is a rigorous reading program that will both increase vocabulary and reading skills. My thirty years of coaching experience confirms to me that the student who reads more, scores higher. The single best preparation for the SAT, therefore, is reading a lot of good books. Parenthetically, a classical approach to education, based on reading classics, which includes a whole book, essay-based language arts curriculum, will ultimately generate the highest SAT scores. This approach increases reading and thinking skills that will no doubt increase SAT scores.

Higher-level critical thinking is also important in achieving high SAT scores. The SAT is a cognitive, developmentally based exam that assumes that students learn in stages. Bloom’s Taxonomy, which argues that students learn in six stages, is frequently a reference resource for cognitive developmental thinking. Most of the questions on the SAT are based on the last three levels: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As a matter of fact, unless students are able to function at these higher thinking levels, they are doomed to manifest scores below 1400.

The SAT will require abundant critical thinking skills. Therefore, any SAT preparation coaching course should be supplemented with a classical-based, critical-thinking, high school program. Inevitably, for instance, a critical-thinking-friendly language arts program will teach literary analysis of whole books, which is a litmus test for higher-level thinking. Critical-thinking-friendly math programs will offer numerous word problems.

In 2005 the College Board renamed the verbal section of the SAT “Critical Reading Section.” This change in titling shows how serious the College Board folks are about critical reading. The verbal section no longer includes analogies. Instead, short reading passages were added to existing long reading passages. A new section called the SAT writing section was added. It contains multiple-choice grammar questions as well as a written essay. That is good news to most classically educated students, who have spent years studying grammar and writing.

Students do not have to know how to solve quadratic equations to do well on the math portion of the SAT. Some algebra and basic geometry is helpful, but I have found that the key to high performance on the math portion is the same as it is on the verbal portion: critical thinking and critical reading skills. Thus, the best scores come from individuals who think well and read well—even if their math skills are average. The SAT math section not only covers concepts from geometry and elementary algebra, it also contains concepts from Algebra II. The math computation on the SAT is usually not difficult. What makes the math portion of the SAT so difficult is that it is presented in a word-problem format. Thus, strong critical thinking and advanced critical reading skills will increase SAT math as well as SAT verbal scores. The addition of Algebra II computations should not alarm good students. Good students, especially good home schooled students, usually have had or are taking Algebra II before or during the junior year, when the SAT should be taken.

The best time to take the SAT is May or June of one’s junior year. This time frame allows students to retake the SAT in October of their senior year if necessary. Coaching is very helpful if the student implements a long-term program. Without long-term coaching, there is no correlation between the frequency of taking aptitude tests (e.g., SAT and IQ tests) and increased scores. Therefore, I recommend that students take as many unofficial, old, real (i.e., from the College Board) SATs as they can. Students should avoid the high cost of taking stressful official tests at their local high schools and universities. They are much better off if they take practice tests.* Remember, there is evidence that a small percentage of colleges average SAT scores (rather than accept the highest score). Therefore, students should anonymously obtain as many unofficial scores as they can and then take the test one or two times officially.

Finally, my thirty years of coaching remind me how important stress reduction is to achieving high SAT scores. In fact, in my opinion, it is the most important preparation variable. For Christians, at least, stress reduction is best accomplished by a frequent and rigorous devotional and Bible memorization program.

I am excited about the SAT. It is tailor-made for Christian believers. Never has an exam so heavily depended on empathic stress reduction and critical thinking. Shorter, leaner, and meaner to most, to Spirit-filled Christians—particularly Christian home schooled students—the SAT is a gift from God. It is not knowledge that trips up Christian students most of the time; it is the time restrictions and inexperience with test-taking. In my wildest and fondest dreams I could not have created a better test for my brothers and sisters in Christ. With its emphasis on higher math, increased reading passages, writing samples, and grammar, the SAT should generate unprecedented high scores for students who devote themselves to a one-to-three-year discipline of preparation that includes Bible readings, Scripture memorization, critical reading samples, and test-taking strategies.

One final thought: why go through all this hassle of preparing for a man-made test? God is in control of our lives, right? Yes, but perhaps He has put this test in front of us, not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to witness for our Lord.


* Practice SATs can be obtained at, or they can be borrowed from some libraries.