Cracking the SAT

Part I

Orientation

Chapter 2

Cracking the SAT: Basic Principles

The first step to cracking the SAT is to know how best to approach the test. The SAT is not like the tests you’ve taken in school, so you need to learn to look at it in a different way. This chapter will show test-taking strategies that immediately improve your score. Make sure you fully understand these concepts before moving on to Chapter 3. Good luck!

The folks at ETS have been writing standardized tests for more than 80 years, and they write tests for all sorts of programs. They have administered the test so many times that they know exactly how you will approach it. They know how you’ll attack certain questions, what sort of mistakes you’ll probably make, and even what answer you’ll be most likely to pick. Kinda freaky, isn’t it?

However, ETS’s strength is also a weakness. Because the test is standardized, the SAT has to ask the same type of questions over and over again. Sure, the numbers or the words might change, but the basics don’t. With enough practice, you can learn to think like ETS. But try to use your powers for good, okay?

Our job isn’t to teach you math or English—leave that to your supersmart school teachers. Instead, we’re going to teach you the SAT. You’ll soon see that the SAT involves a very different skill set.

Be warned that some of the approaches we’re going to show you will seem weird or unnatural. Some of these strategies may be very different than how you learned to approach similar questions in school, but trust us! Try tackling the problems using our techniques, and keep practicing until they become easier. You’ll see a real improvement in your score.


How the Test Is Scored

The SAT is scored in an unusual way. For every question you answer correctly you receive 1 raw point. For every question you answer incorrectly you lose of a point. For every question you leave blank you get 0 points.

Your raw score is the combination of these raw points for each section category: Math, Critical Reading, and Writing. Each of your three raw scores is then scaled to a 200–800 score for each subject.


Let’s take a look at the questions.

What’s the capital of Azerbaijan?

Give up?

Unless you spend your spare time studying an atlas, you may not even know that Azerbaijan is a real country, much less what its capital is. If this question came up on a test, you’d have to skip it, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe not. Let’s turn this question into a multiple-choice question—just like all the questions on the SAT Critical Reading and Grammar sections, and the majority of questions you’ll find on the SAT Math section—and see if you can figure out the answer anyway.

  1. The capital of Azerbaijan is

(A)   Washington, D.C.

(B)   Paris

(C)   Tokyo

(D)   London

(E)   Baku

The question doesn’t seem that hard anymore, does it? Of course, we made our example extremely easy. (By the way, there won’t actually be any questions about geography on the SAT.) But you’d be surprised by how many people give up on SAT questions that aren’t much more difficult than this one just because they don’t know the correct answer right off the top of their heads. “Capital of Azerbaijan? Oh, no! I’ve never heard of Azerbaijan!”

These students don’t stop to think that they might be able to find the correct answer simply by eliminating all of the answer choices they know are wrong.

All but a handful of the questions on the SAT are multiple-choice questions, and every multiple-choice question has five answer choices. One of those choices, and only one, will be the correct answer to the question. You don’t have to come up with the answer from scratch. You must simply identify it.

How will you do that?

Why? Because wrong answers are usually easier to find. After all, there are more of them! Remember the question about Azerbaijan? Even though you didn’t know the answer off the top of your head, you easily figured it out by eliminating the four obviously incorrect choices. You looked for wrong answers first.


It’s Not About Circling the Right Answer

Physically marking in your test booklet what you think of certain answers can help you narrow down choices, take the best possible guess, and save time! Try using the following notations:

Put a check mark next to an answer you like.

Put a squiggle next to an answer you kinda like.

   Put a question mark next to an answer you don’t understand.

A Cross out the letter of any answer choice you KNOW is wrong.

You can always come up with your own system. The key is consistency.


In other words, you used the Process of Elimination, which we’ll call POE for short. This is an extremely important concept, one we’ll come back to again and again. It’s one of the keys to improving your SAT score. When you finish reading this book, you will be able to use POE to answer many questions that you don’t understand.

The great artist Michelangelo once said that when he looked at a block of marble, he could see a statue inside. All he had to do to make a sculpture was to chip away everything that wasn’t part of it. You should approach difficult SAT multiple-choice questions in the same way, by chipping away everything that’s not correct. By first eliminating the most obviously incorrect choices on difficult questions, you will be able to focus your attention on the few choices that remain.

There won’t be many questions on the SAT in which incorrect choices will be as easy to eliminate as they were on the Azerbaijan question. But if you read this book carefully, you’ll learn how to eliminate at least one choice on almost any SAT multiple-choice question, if not two, three, or even four choices.

What good is it to eliminate just one or two choices on a five-choice SAT question?

Plenty. In fact, for most students, it’s an important key to earning higher scores. Here’s another example:

  2. The capital of Qatar is

(A)   Paris

(B)   Dukhan

(C)   Tokyo

(D)   Doha

(E)   London

On this question you’ll almost certainly be able to eliminate three of the five choices by using POE. That means you’re still not sure of the answer. You know that the capital of Qatar has to be either Doha or Dukhan, but you don’t know which.


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instruction, go to
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Should you skip the question and go on? Or should you guess?

You’ve probably heard a lot of different advice about guessing on multiple-choice questions on the SAT. Some teachers and guidance counselors tell their students never to guess and to mark an answer only if they’re absolutely certain that it’s correct. Others tell their students not to guess unless they are able to eliminate two or three of the choices.

Both of these pieces of advice are incorrect.

Even ETS is misleading about guessing. Although it tells you that you can guess, it doesn’t tell you that you should. In fact, if you can eliminate even one incorrect choice on an SAT multiple-choice question, guessing from among the remaining choices will usually improve your score. And if you can eliminate two or three choices, you’ll be even more likely to improve your score by guessing.

Your raw score on the SAT is the number of questions you got right, minus a fraction of the number you got wrong (except on the grid-ins, which are scored a little differently). Every time you answer an SAT question correctly, you get 1 raw point. Every time you leave an SAT question blank, you get 0 raw points. Every time you answer an SAT question incorrectly, ETS subtracts of a raw point if the question has five answer choices, or nothing if it is a grid-in.

Many people refer to the subtracted fraction as the “guessing penalty.” The penalty is supposed to discourage students from guessing on multiple-choice questions (and getting the right answer out of luck). However, let’s take a closer look at how the penalty works.

Raw scores can be a little confusing, so let’s think in terms of money instead. For every question you answer correctly on the SAT, ETS will give you a dollar. For every multiple-choice question you leave blank, ETS will give you nothing. For every multiple-choice question you get wrong, you will have to give 25 cents back to ETS. That’s exactly the way raw scores work.

What happens to your score if you select the correct answer on one question and incorrect choices on four questions? Remember what we said about money: ETS gives you a dollar for the one answer you got right; you give ETS a quarter for each of the four questions you missed. Four quarters equal a dollar, so you end up exactly where you started, with nothing—which is the same thing that would have happened if you had left all five questions blank. Now, what happens if you guess on four questions, but—for each of those questions—you can eliminate one incorrect answer choice? Random odds say you will get one question right—get a dollar—and miss the other three questions—give back 75 cents. You’ve just gained a quarter! So, guessing can work in your favor.

If you are confident that you know the answer to a question or that you know how to solve it, just go ahead and select an answer. If you are uncertain about either the answer to a question or how to solve it, see if you can eliminate any wrong answers. We’re going to give you lots of tools to eliminate wrong answers, so you’ll probably be able to eliminate answers even on the hardest questions.

But, should you guess on every question? Well, that depends. In the next chapter, we’re going to show you how to set a pacing goal for each section. The pacing goal will tell you how many questions you need to answer for each section. Your goal is to answer that number of questions. If you can get to your pacing goal without guessing, that’s great. But most students will need to guess on at least a few questions to reach their pacing goals. When you get to a question you’re not sure of, ask yourself, “Can I reach my pacing goal without this question?”

Finally, guess only if you can eliminate at least one answer choice. If you can’t eliminate one, leave that question blank.

Earning points for a guess probably seems a little bit like cheating or stealing: You get something you want, but you didn’t do anything to earn it.


Want more practice?
Check out

11 Practice Tests for the
SAT and PSAT

This is not a useful way to think about the SAT. It’s also not true. Look at the following example:

  3. The Sun is

(A)   a main-sequence star

(B)   a meteor

(C)   an asteroid

(D)   a white dwarf star

(E)   a planet

If you’ve paid any attention at all in school for the past ten years or so, you probably know that the Sun is a star. You can easily tell, therefore, that the answer to this question must be either A or D. You can tell this not only because it seems clear from the context that “white dwarf” and “main-sequence” are kinds of stars—as they are—but also because you know for a fact that the Sun is not a planet, a meteor, or an asteroid. Still, you aren’t sure which of the two possible choices is correct.

By using POE you’ve narrowed down your choice to two possibilities. If you guess randomly you’ll have a fifty-fifty chance of being correct, like flipping a coin—heads you win a dollar, tails you lose a quarter. Those are extremely good odds on the SAT. So go ahead and guess!

(The answer, by the way, is A. And don’t worry, there won’t be any questions about astronomy on the SAT.)

At school you probably aren’t allowed to write in your textbooks, unless your school requires you to buy them. You probably even feel a little peculiar about writing in the books you own. Books are supposed to be read, you’ve been told, and you’re not supposed to scrawl all over them.

Write Now

Feel free to write all over
this book too. You need to
get in the habit of making
the SAT booklet your own.
Do NOT do things in your
head. Start now by writing
the names of the colleges
you really want to attend
in the margin below.

Because you’ve been told this so many times, you may be reluctant to write in your test booklet when you take the SAT. Your proctor will tell you that you are supposed to write in it—the booklet is the only scratch paper you’ll be allowed to use; it says so right in the instructions from ETS—but you may still feel bad about marking it up.

Your test booklet is just going to be thrown away when you’re finished with it. No one is going to read what you wrote in it and decide that you’re stupid because you couldn’t remember what 2 + 2 is without writing it down. Your SAT score won’t be any higher if you don’t make any marks in your booklet. In fact, if you don’t, your score will probably be lower than it should be.

You paid for your test booklet; act as though you own it. Scratch work is extremely important on the SAT. Don’t be embarrassed about it. After all, writing in your test booklet will help you keep your mind on what you’re doing.

·        When you work on a geometry problem that provides a diagram, don’t hesitate to write all over it. What if there’s no diagram? Draw one yourself—don’t simply try to imagine it. Keep track of your work directly on the diagram to avoid making careless mistakes.

·        On sentence completion questions, you will often need to come up with your own word or two to help you answer a question. Write it down! Trying to retain information in your head leads to confusion and errors. Your test booklet is your scratch paper—use it.

·        When you use POE to eliminate a wrong answer choice, physically cross off the answer choice in your test booklet. Don’t leave it there to confuse you. You may often need to carefully consider two remaining answer choices. You want to be clear about which answer choices are left in the running.

·        When you answer a question but don’t feel entirely certain of your answer, circle the question or put a big question mark in the margin beside it. That way, if you have time later on, you can get back to it without having to search through the entire section.


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instruction, go to
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You probably think of scratch paper as something that is useful only for math questions. But you’ll need scratch paper on the SAT Critical Reading and Writing sections too. The Critical Reading sections will require almost as much writing as the Math sections: you will cross off wrong answers, underline information in the passage, and make many other marks on the passages and questions. For Writing sections, you will cross off wrong answers. Crossing off wrong answers on the page, rather than trying to remember which answers were wrong, will make you less likely to make mistakes.

Scratch work isn’t the only thing we want you to do in your test booklet. We also want you to mark your answers there. For each group of sentence completions, you should transfer your answers to the answer sheet when you come to the end of the group of questions. For all other questions (except grid-ins), you should transfer your answers one page at a time.

Mark Your Answer

When you take the SAT,
you should mark all your
answers in your test
booklet, with a big letter
in the margin beside each
problem, and then transfer
them later onto your
answer sheet.

Doing this will save you a great deal of time (and extra time = extra points), because you won’t have to look back and forth between your test booklet and your answer sheet every few seconds. You will also be less likely to make mistakes in marking your answers on the answer sheet. However, be sure to give yourself enough time to transfer your answers. Don’t wait until the last five minutes.

When you only have five minutes left in a section, go back to bubbling in your answers one at a time. This will make sure that, when time has called, you have entered every single answer you found into your answer sheet.

The only exception to this are the grid-ins, the 10 non–multiple-choice math questions. You will need to grid each answer as you find it. We’ll tell you all about grid-ins later in the book.

·        When you don’t know the right answer to a multiple-choice question, look for wrong answers instead. They’re usually easier to find.

·        When you find a wrong answer choice, eliminate it. In other words, use POE, the Process of Elimination.

·        Intelligent guessing on multiple-choice questions enables you to earn credit for partial information.

·        Use your test booklet for scratch paper. Don’t be afraid to write all over it; it’s yours.

·        Transfer your answers to your answer sheet all at once when you reach the end of each group of sentence completions, or one page at a time for all other questions (except for the grid-ins). Give yourself enough time to transfer your answers; don’t wait until the last five minutes.