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Decoding the SAT

  • Jean Burk
  • 2012 5 Jul
Decoding the SAT

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 edition of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more by visiting

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.

Furthermore, in this section students often second-guess themselves and change their answers to incorrect ones. This is typical since the test is designed to steer students into that trap. Since the test is standardized, the wrong answers follow wrong patterns, and when students learn those patterns, they can avoid falling into the same old trap and missing the same question types again.

Another problem is when a student overthinks a question by reading too much into it or overanalyzing each answer choice to try to make it fit. This only leads to choosing a wrong answer choice. On top of that, the questions seem to have more than one correct answer, which makes the test confusing. Students think they have to pick the best version of the answer. But 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 actually contain one of four wrong hidden patterns. For example, answers often contain some extra information that wasn’t found in the original sentence, and those answers are usually wrong. A good technique can be to eliminate all the answers that break one of the rules and be left with the one answer that doesn’t break the rules. Once a student has identified and eliminated a wrong answer, he should not waste time by rereading it.

Passage-based reading questions can be answered quickly and correctly once students learn the recurring hidden patterns designed to make them choose incorrectly. It is not how fast a student can read the passages, but knowing how to distinguish the one right answer from the four wrong ones. The answers are generally found in the same place every time. Knowing this can cut 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 have to find the best word to fit inside the blanks. Unfortunately, many students pick answers that sound good but are trap answers. The secret to doing well is to understand the eight key elements found inside the sentence that point to the answer. These are things like scope words, strengthening words, and commas. For example, if the word but is used, the students should look for an opposite answer.

After reading the sentence, students need to circle the key element and then draw an arrow to the other part of the sentence to clarify the word they are looking for. Then they can look at the five answer choices and find the perfect fit. If two answers have similar definitions, then they are both wrong since there is only one right answer. Students should always mark off wrong answers first to help them not second-guess themselves.

The goal is to predict a word that would fit into the blank and then find the one that is similar. But students also need to be aware of trick answers that lure them, and 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 have a different meaning. For example, the perfect word may be illusion, and one of the answers may be the word allusion.

Big vocabulary words often permeate this section, so having a vast word repertoire is a plus, but knowing how to figure out words is more important. There are over 171,000 words in the dictionary, and only the test makers know which words will actually be on the test. Fortunately this test is logic based, not content based, so not knowing all the words isn’t necessary for a high score. Knowing how to figure them out is more important.

Sentence completion can be mastered once a student learns that the sentence itself generally points students to the correct answer.

“Critical Reading” is an ironic name, since these two sections have less to do with reading and more with the ability to find correct answers. Since students only have about a minute per question, it is crucial to eliminate the obvious wrong trick answers first and spend time only on the ones that are relevant.

Knowing how to approach the SAT accurately results in a better score, more confidence, and greater scholarship money.

Jean Burk is a homeschool mom and author of College Prep Genius: The No Brainer Way to SAT Success. She has been the featured SAT expert for FOX, NBC, CBS, and The Homeschool Channel. Both of her children received full-ride scholarship offers because of their SAT and PSAT scores. If you would like to learn more about how to ace the SAT, go to to find out about her program, which has helped thousands of students raise their SAT scores!

Publication date: July 5, 2012