Cracking the SAT

Part I

Orientation

Chapter 3

Cracking the SAT: Advanced Principles

Once you’ve mastered Process of Elimination (POE) and guessing techniques, you are ready to start applying them to the SAT. In this chapter, you will learn how ETS writes and arranges SAT questions and how knowing this can help you answer more questions correctly.

In the previous chapter, we reviewed some basic principles of the SAT. We showed you that it is possible to find correct answers by using POE, the Process of Elimination, to get rid of incorrect choices.

But how will you know which answers to eliminate? And how will you know when to guess? In this chapter, we’ll teach you how to

·        take advantage of the order in which questions are asked

·        make better use of your time by scoring the easy points first

·        use the Joe Bloggs principle to eliminate obviously incorrect choices on difficult questions

·        find the traps that ETS has laid for you

·        turn those traps into points

To show you how this is possible, we first have to tell you something about the way the SAT is arranged.

If you have already taken a practice SAT, you may have noticed that the questions seem to get harder as each section progresses. This is not an accident; ETS purposely arranges the questions this way. Why? There are a couple of reasons.

Some Do, Some Don’t

Not all question types
have an order of
difficulty. Here’s how it
breaks down:

Question types arranged
in order of difficulty:
Sentence Completions,
Math questions, Error IDs,
and Improving Sentences.

Question types with no
order of difficulty:
Long and Short Reading,
Improving Paragraphs,
and the Essay.

First, starting students with easy questions can lead to a false sense of security. Chances are, after nailing the first three or four questions you start to think that you’ve got the test beat. That’s exactly when ETS starts throwing some traps into the questions for the unwary or the overconfident.

Second, the hard questions are at the end of the section, when you have less time left. Knowing this, you may rush through the beginning of the section, making careless mistakes, just to get to the difficult and frustrating questions at the end.

Think of each section as being divided into thirds. A third of the questions should be easy. Most test takers get these questions right. Another third of the questions are of medium difficulty. Nearly half of the people taking the test get these questions right. The final third of the questions are difficult. Very few test takers answer these questions correctly.

The Math sections always follow this order of difficulty; thus, in a 20-question Math section, the first six or seven questions are easy, the next six or seven are medium, and the final six or seven are difficult. Sentence completions follow a similar pattern. Because there are fewer sentence completion questions, the difficulty level increases much more quickly: in a section with eight sentence completion questions, the first two or three are easy, the next two or three are medium, and the final two or three are hard. However, reading comprehension questions are all jumbled up—they follow no particular order of difficulty.


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There are some very difficult questions on the SAT that most test takers shouldn’t even bother to work on. On the difficult third of every group of questions, there are some questions that almost no one taking the test will get right. Rather than spending too much time on these questions, you should focus your attention on questions that you have a better chance of figuring out.

Rule #1

Any test taker scoring
below 700 on either the
Math or the Critical Reading
section will hurt his or
her score by attempting to
answer every question.

Because most test takers try to finish every section (“I had two seconds left over!”), almost every test taker hurts his or her score. After all, when you rush, you make mistakes. The solution, for almost anyone scoring less than 700 on a section, is to slow down.

Most test takers could improve their scores significantly by attempting fewer questions and devoting more time to questions they have a better chance of answering correctly. Slow down, score more.

Knowing the difficulty level of a question can help you in several ways. Most importantly, it helps you make the best use of your time. Although in terms of difficulty the questions are definitely not created equally, each and every single question earns you exactly one point. ETS wants you to waste your time on the difficult questions, while missing easy points. Don’t play their game.


Easy to Be Hard

The SAT isn’t a huge intellectual challenge; it’s just tricky. When we talk about difficult questions on the SAT, we mean ones that people most often get wrong. Flip to one of the practice SATs at the back of this book and look at the more difficult math questions. Do any of them test anything you didn’t learn in high school? Probably not. But do they all resemble the kind of straightforward questions you’re used to seeing on a regular test? Probably not. ETS specializes in confusing and misleading test takers.


Make sure you SLOW DOWN and focus your energy on the easy and medium questions before trying the difficult ones. Your job is to get the greatest number of points in the least amount of time. Don’t rush through the questions that you’re more likely to answer correctly. Get those points. Then with the time you have left, try the difficult questions (those will be loaded with ETS traps!).

Furthermore, understanding the difficulty level of a question can help you to figure out ETS’s trap answers. To do this, we first have to delve into the mind of a typical SAT test taker.

The SAT is a timed test, and ETS doesn’t give you a lot of time to work through every question. Plus, there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety associated with taking the test. In a situation such as this, many students rely on a sense of what “feels” right when answering questions. The problem is, in many of these cases, ETS is hoping you’ll fall for a trap.

Rule #2

Answer easy questions
first; save hard questions
for last. They’re all worth
the same—one raw point.

Well, that depends on the difficulty level of the question. (See, this whole discussion was leading somewhere.) When doing an easy question, you can trust your gut. But once you hit the medium and difficult questions, the answer that “feels right” may no longer be the best answer.

Rule #3

Easy questions have easy
answers; hard questions
have hard answers.

Simply put, they want you to get an average score. If ETS put too many easy questions on the test, then lots of students would get great SAT scores. Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, if you worked in a college admissions office, you might not think so. If almost every student had scores in the 700s for math, reading, and writing, you wouldn’t be able to use those scores to make decisions. The colleges would lose faith in the SAT and ETS just wouldn’t allow that.

By the way, if ETS put too many hard questions on the test and everybody got really low SAT scores, the colleges would have the same problem. ETS always wants to make sure that there are just enough easy questions to get most students into the average range and just enough hard questions to keep most students from exceeding the average. Pretty twisted, isn’t it? So, how do you avoid being average?

The average test taker always goes with his or her gut when taking the SAT. We’ve seen this average test taker so often that we’ve decided to give him a name: Joe Bloggs. Joe is the quintessential (good vocabulary word) American high school student. He has average grades and average SAT scores. There’s a little bit of him in everyone, and there’s a little bit of everyone in him. He isn’t brilliant. He isn’t dumb. He’s just average.

And he’s ETS’s dream student. He always does what ETS expects and gets an average score as a result.

Joe Bloggs always trusts his gut. Regardless of the difficulty level of the question, he picks the answer that feels right. And of course, he ends up getting most of the easy questions right, about half of the medium questions right, and almost none of the difficult questions right. That makes ETS very happy because they can give Joe an average score.

Here’s an example of a hard question. Let’s see how Joe tackles it:

20. Graham walked to school at an average speed of 3 miles an hour and jogged back along the same route at 5 miles an hour. If his total traveling time was 1 hour, what was the total number of miles in the round trip?

(A)   3

(B)   

(C)   

(D)   4

(E)   5


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Question 20 is one of the hardest questions in the math section. Most students get it wrong and, of course, that includes Joe. Can you guess which answer Joe picked? Joe picked answer choice D because it just felt right. Joe read the problem so fast that all that registered was that Graham went to school at 3 miles per hour, returned at 5 miles per hour and that Joe is supposed to find the number of miles in the round trip. Joe figured all he really had to do was to average the two speeds and ETS was waiting with answer choice D. Poor Joe. Does he really think that ETS is going to let him go to a really good college for doing something that easy?


ETS’s Favorite Wrong Answers

Take another look at question 20. Answer choice D was included to lure Joe Bloggs into a trap. But it isn’t the only trap answer choice. Other tempting choices are A and E. Why? Because they are numbers included in the question itself, and Joe Bloggs is most comfortable with familiar numbers. When ETS selects wrong answers to hard questions, it looks for three things.

1.     The answer you’d get doing the simplest possible math. In this case, that’s D.

2.     The answer you’d get after doing some, but not all, of the necessary math.

3.     Numbers that are already in the question itself (choices A and E).

ETS doesn’t use all of these every time, but there’s at least one in every set of difficult answer choices.


So, what was wrong with Joe’s approach? Well, since Graham took the same route to school and then back home, the distance had to be the same. Joe’s method, however, assumed that Graham spent half his time going to school and half of it returning home. That can’t happen if the distance is the same, right? Graham would have spent less time jogging home. Joe went too fast, made a bad assumption and fell for the ETS trap answer.

Quick note: In case you’re curious, the correct answer is (C). Don’t worry if you weren’t able to figure this out now; we’ll show you how to tackle these kinds of questions in the Math section of the book.

When you take the SAT a few weeks or months from now, you’ll have to take it on your own, of course. But suppose for a moment that ETS allowed you to take it with Joe Bloggs as your partner. Would Joe be of any help to you on the SAT?

After all, Joe is wrong as often as he is right. He knows the answers to the easy questions, but so do you. You’d like to do better than average on the SAT, and Joe earns only an average score (he’s the average test taker, remember). All things considered, you’d probably prefer to have someone else for your partner.

Joe’s Hunches

Should you always just
eliminate any answer that
seems to be correct? No!
Remember what we said
about Joe Bloggs:

1. His hunches are
often correct on
easy questions.

2. His hunches are
sometimes correct
and sometimes
incorrect on
medium questions.

3. His hunches are
often wrong on
difficult questions.

On easy multiple-choice
questions, it’s okay to
pick the choice that Joe
Bloggs would pick. On hard
questions, you can often
eliminate the choices that
Joe Bloggs would pick.

But Joe might turn out to be a pretty helpful partner, after all. Since his hunches are always wrong on difficult multiple-choice questions, couldn’t you improve your chances on those questions simply by finding out what Joe wanted to pick, and then picking something else?

If you could use the Joe Bloggs principle to eliminate one, two, or even three obviously incorrect choices on a hard problem, you could improve your score by guessing among the remaining choices.

We’re going to teach you how to make Joe Bloggs your partner on the SAT. When you come to difficult questions on the test, you’re going to stop and ask yourself, “How would Joe Bloggs answer this question?” And when you see what he would do, you are going to do something else. Why? Because you know that on hard questions, Joe Bloggs is always wrong.

In the chapters that follow, we’re going to teach you many specific problem-solving techniques based on the Joe Bloggs principle. The Joe Bloggs principle will help you

·        use POE to eliminate incorrect answer choices

·        make up your mind when you have to guess

·        avoid careless mistakes

The more you learn about Joe Bloggs, the more he’ll help you on the test. If you make him your partner on the SAT, he’ll help you find ETS’s answers on problems you never dreamed you’d be able to solve.

Here’s a summary of how Joe Bloggs thinks:

Here is a summary of how you should think:

It’s very important to set realistic goals. If you’re aiming for a 500 on the Critical Reading section, your approach to the SAT is going to be different from that of someone who is aiming for an 800. The following charts will give you some idea of what you realistically need to do to score at various levels on the SAT. Use the chart to gauge your progress as you work through practice tests like those in this book or in The Princeton Review’s 11 Practice Tests for the SAT & PSAT.


Go Online

Take the Practice Test to
see your current score and
the score you should shoot
for at PrincetonReview.com/cracking

Now before you decide you must get a 700 in Critical Reading no matter what, do a reality check: To date, what have you scored on the Critical Reading SAT? The Writing section? The Math? Whatever those numbers are, add 50–90 points to each to determine your goal score. Then get cracking! Work through this book, practice the techniques, and, after a time, take a timed practice test. If you achieve your goal score on the practice test, great! Could you have worked a little more quickly yet maintained your level of accuracy? If so, increase your goal by another 50 points.

In other words, you must set an attainable goal to see any improvement. If you scored a 400 on the last Math SAT you took, and you immediately shoot for a 700, you will be working too quickly to be accurate and won’t see any increase in your score. However, if you use the “460–500” pacing guide instead, you may jump from a 400 to a 480! After that, you can work to score over a 500, and so on.

Rule #4

Accuracy is more
important than speed.

Come back to these pages after each practice test you take to reassess your pacing strategy. Accuracy is more important than speed. Finishing is not the goal; getting more questions right is! Besides, all the hard problems are at the end. If you are missing easy questions due to your haste to get to the difficult questions, you are throwing points away.

By the way, you may notice that the following three charts present slightly different pacing strategies for the Math, Reading and Grammar sections. (Throughout this book, we’ll refer to all the Writing sections except the essay as “Grammar” sections.) The Reading pacing chart shows that you should answer a greater percentage of the questions in the section to get a certain score than does the Math pacing chart. Why? Well, on the Math section, it’s even more important to slow down. Use the extra time to read problems carefully and to make sure that your calculations are correct. Don’t race through every problem just to get to the end. That’s what Joe does, and you know what sort of score Joe gets.


Speaking of Goal
Setting, Check out

Essential SAT Flashcards

The Best 378 Colleges

Also, the numbers of questions on the charts represent how many questions you should answer. We’ve already factored in that you’ll get some wrong answers. That’s why each line on each chart shows that you should answer a greater number of questions than the points that you need to get that score. So don’t blow past your pacing goal because you’re worried that you might have made a few mistakes.

And don’t be afraid to guess on a few questions in each section to reach your pacing goals.


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Eww! Embrace your what? POOD is an acronym for Personal Order of Difficulty. The pacing charts show you how many questions you should answer but they don’t show you which questions you should answer. So, for example, the pacing chart says that you should answer 14 questions in the 20 question section. Now, you know that the questions get harder as you go. But, what if question 10 is a geometry question and you’ve forgotten everything you ever knew about geometry? Would it make sense to answer that question? Of course not!

You’d skip the geometry question and hope that you’d know how to answer one of the later questions. That’s POOD in action.

In general, you’ll want to concentrate your efforts on answering easy and medium questions. So, if you are supposed to answer 14 questions in that 20-question math section, you need to find the best 14 questions for you to answer. Most of them will probably come from the easy and medium questions but it’s okay to skip a few questions along the way. That’s better than making a blind guess.

·        The problems in many groups of questions on the SAT (except Short and Long Reading) start out easy and gradually get harder. The first question in a group is often so easy that virtually everyone can find ETS’s answer. The last question is so hard that almost no one can.

·        You should never waste time trying to figure out the answer to a hard question if there are still easy questions that you haven’t tried. All questions are worth the same number of points. Why not do the easy ones first?

·        Joe Bloggs is the average student. He earns an average score on the SAT. On an easy SAT question, the answer that seems correct to Joe is almost always correct. On medium questions, it is sometimes correct and sometimes not. On hard questions, the answer Joe likes is almost always wrong.

·        Most test takers could improve their scores significantly by attempting fewer questions and devoting more time to questions they have a chance of answering correctly.

·        It’s very important to set realistic goals. If you’re aiming for a 500 on Critical Reading, your approach to the SAT is going to be very different from that of someone who is aiming for an 800.

·        After each practice exam, go back to the pacing chart. You may need to answer more questions on the next exam to earn the score you want.

·        Use POOD, your Personal Order of Difficulty, to decide which questions in a section to answer when trying to reach your pacing goal.

·        Always work on the page, not in your head. Add information to geometry figures, double-check calculations, cross off bad answers, and underline key words in passages. The more you mark up the test, the more you’ll eliminate small mistakes.