How to Ace the SAT: Part 1: Critical Reading (3 Part Series)

ace-the-sat

The SAT is that scary test that students generally take later in high school to get into college and hopefully get some scholarship money. The good news is that this test is “standardized,” which means that when writing the test questions, the test makers follow the same patterns, profiles, and standards by writing similar questions each time. Thus, the same skills are tested in exactly the same way without being literally the same questions. Students can then obviously learn these hidden, recurring patterns found on the test and become very test savvy, since the questions tend not to be straightforward but instead based more on logic and reasoning. Consequently, this teaches students to understand how to answer questions quickly and more correctly.

Preparation is the key to doing well on the SAT. Students should start at least in ninth grade, or earlier if they are participating in a seventh grade talent search such as the Duke University TIP Talent Search. The PSAT is also written by the same SAT test makers and can count for huge scholarships in a student’s junior year but can be taken for practice in the ninth and tenth grade years. When students start preparing early, time is on their side. Waiting until later in high school usually results in more test anxiety and certainly less time to practice.

There are three sections on the SAT: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. The test is three hours and forty-five minutes long and is offered seven times a year. There are no penalties for taking it as many times as students want, since colleges usually just take the highest scores and often will combine high scores from different tests, which can result in more college money.

The first section in the Critical Reading section is Passage-Based Reading. Most students abhor this part of the test. Often they must read four passages, work twenty-four questions, and do it all in only twenty-five minutes, which is about a minute per question, not counting the four passages. Besides that, the test makers have built in tricks to make the students pick the wrong answers. It is practically impossible for students to finish this section on time if it is approached in a typical way.

Usually, students read the entire passage, and sometimes more than once, which is a huge time waster. Once students identify the three question types and reorder them correctly, they can skip generally seventy percent of the passage and still get every answer correct. Speed reading is not the key to conquering the passages, but knowing where the answers are found is.

In this section students often second-guess themselves and change their answers to incorrect ones, something that is to be expected, since the test is designed to steer students into that trap. Since the test is standardized, it also means that the wrong answers follow the same wrong patterns, and when a student learns these patterns, he can keep from falling into the trap and missing the same question types again and again.

Another common problem in this section happens when a student overthinks a question by reading more into it or by over-analyzing each answer choice to try and make it fit. This method only leads to choosing a wrong answer. In addition, the questions seem to have more than one correct answer, which makes the test confusing. Therefore students think they must pick the best version of the answer. The truth is, each question only has one right answer, because the test is objective–not subjective.

There are also trick answer choices that appear to be correct but that actually contain one of four wrong hidden patterns. A goal on the passages is for the student to eliminate them first and be left with the one answer that does not break any of the rules. Once a student has determined and eliminated a wrong answer, he should not reread the passage again, since doing so can waste time.

Passage-Based Reading questions can be answered quickly and correctly once a student learns the recurring hidden patterns. It is not about how fast a student can read the passages but knowing how to distinguish the one right answer from the four wrong ones. Knowing this can cut passage reading time in half.

The second part of the Critical Reading section is Sentence Completion. In this section, students are given sentences that contain one or two blanks, and they must find the best word that fits inside the blank(s). Unfortunately, many students pick answers that sound good, but often those are trap answers. The secret to doing well is to understand the key elements that point to the answer, which are found inside the sentence. These are things like: scope words, strengthening words, and commas.

The goal is to predict the word that would fit into the blank and then find the word that is similar. Students also must be aware of trick answers that lure them; they should never choose an answer unless they are 100 percent sure it is correct. Often, words look like the perfect word, but in reality they have a different meaning.

Big vocabulary words often permeate this section, so having a vast word repertoire is a plus, but knowing how to figure out word definitions is more important. Sentence Completion questions can be mastered once a student learns that the sentence itself generally points him to the correct answer. Since students only have about a minute per question, it is crucial to eliminate the obvious wrong, tricky answers first and spend time only on the answers that are relevant to the question. Knowing how to approach the SAT accurately results in a better score, more confidence, and bigger scholarship money.

Editor’s note:

This article is the first in a three-part series. See the series in its entirety at http://collegeprepgenius.com/satprep/psat-prep-course-published-articles/how-to-ace-the-sat/ 

Jean Burk – has written 1 posts on this site.
As a member of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine’s Speakers Bureau, the Arlington Alliance for Youth and the DFW Business Network, Jean Burk has been invited to speak before numerous venues including book fairs, conventions, school groups, college nights, libraries, and book stores. Her insightful program and innovative thoughts have helped thousands of people overcome myths and misconceptions about getting into and paying for college.

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