Decoding the SAT
- Thursday, July 05, 2012
The SAT is that scary test students generally take late 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. This tests the same skills in exactly the same way without using literally the same questions. Students can learn these hidden recurring patterns and become very test savvy, since the patterns tend to not be straightforward but based on logic and reasoning. Understanding this teaches students to understand how to answer questions quickly and correctly.
Preparation is the key to doing well on the SAT. Students should start preparing at least in ninth grade, or earlier if they are participating in a seventh-grade talent search such as The Duke TIP Letter. The PSAT/NMSQT is also written by the SAT test makers and can count for huge scholarships in a student’s junior year; they can also be taken as 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 since students already have a full plate, with less time to learn how to take the test 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. This gives a student a higher score which can result in more college money.
The first section in the “Critical Reading” section is “Passage-Based Reading.” Most students abhor the passages found in this part of the test. Often they have to read four passages and work twenty-four questions, and they do all this in twenty-five minutes, which is about a minute per question—not counting the four passages! For most students, this section can be daunting because they are under great time constraints to finish. It is practically impossible for students to finish this section on time if it is approached in a normal way. Besides that, the test makers have built in tricks to make students pick the wrong answers. For example, a choice may be true and found in the passage, but in reality it doesn’t answer the question.
There are three types of passages in this section, followed by some related questions and five answer choices. The long passage usually contains several paragraphs. The short passage is usually one paragraph long, and the dual passage section contains two passages connected by a similar topic: they may agree, disagree or complement each other.
In school, students are often taught to read all the questions first and then read the passage, followed by reading all the questions again. This is the approach that most students take when it comes to the passages found on standardized tests like the SAT. The students then run out of time, which of course results in a lot of blank answers and a lower score.
Usually students read each entire passage, and sometimes more than once, which is a huge time waster. Once students identify the three question types (line citation, vocabulary use, and overall passage) and reorder them correctly (i.e. answer the line citations all in a row), they can generally skip 70 percent of each passage and still get every answer right. Speed reading is not the key to conquering the passages, but knowing where the answers are found is. As a matter of fact, there is very little reading involved.
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