SAT Test Prep


1. What Does the SAT Really Test?

2. The Eight Key Reasoning Skills

3. The College Hill Coaching SAT Power Reading List

4. FAQs About the SAT


Contrary to popular opinion, the SAT does not merely test how well you can take a multiple-choice test or write a formulaic essay. Also, it is not designed to predict your college grades (because grades are too subjective and unstandardized). But neither is it a test of overall intelligence nor of the major subject material you’ve learned in high school. Instead, it is designed to do what your school grades rarely do directly: assess a very particular set of academic skills that are central to your success as a college student. These skills include thinking under pressure, writing cogently and fluently, understanding complex prose, and tackling a wide range of quantitative problems. Of course, there are many other skills that are important to college success: creativity, organization, social intelligence, perseverance, and so on. But those skills are almost impossible to assess with a multiple-choice test. So, college admissions officers look elsewhere in your application—your essays, your recommendations, your extracurricular activities, and so on—to evaluate those qualities. But don’t take the SAT lightly or cynically: critical reading, writing, and math skills are central to success in college and beyond.


Students who ace the SAT are adept at eight core reasoning skills: mapping problems, analyzing problems, finding patterns, simplifying problems, connecting to knowledge, considering alternatives, thinking logically, and checking their work. If you practice tackling SAT problems with these skills in mind, you will find that you can break through even the toughest questions. Let’s look at these skills a little more closely.

Mapping Problems

Mapping a problem is the first step to solving it. Mapping means orienting yourself to the problem and representing its information. It’s called mapping because it is like pulling out a map to start a trip. The map doesn’t tell you how to get to your destination (you still have to find the best route), but it orients you to the problem by showing where you are and where you are going, and it represents what you can use to get there.

If you have the wrong map at the start, you’ll never solve the problem—on the SAT or anywhere else. Many students struggle on the SAT because they don’t realize what it is really testing. For instance, many students try to tackle SAT math questions with rote procedures or heavy calculations rather than looking for the elegant, simple solutions that emerge from seeking patterns and analyzing problems from different angles. They forget to read the math problems carefully, so they miss essential facts and restrictions that make the problems easier to solve. Chapters 6–11 show you how to find quick, simple, and elegant solutions to SAT math problems. On the critical reading section, students often don’t pick up essential information from the passages because they use testtaking tricks rather than solid, active reading skills. Chapter 4 teaches you how to read actively so that you can pick up the essential information and ace any questions that follow. On the essay, many students think they need to plug lots of big words, complicated language, and Shakespearean references into a standard five-paragraph formula. Surprisingly, this approach usually leads to mediocre essays. To practice the real skills that the SAT graders are looking for, read Chapters 12 and 13. On the writing section, many students think that they have to apply dozens of obscure grammar “rules” like “never start a sentence with but or because” or “never use verbs in the passive voice” or “never end a sentence with a preposition.” In fact, none of these is a rule of standard English, so don’t waste your time looking for these “violations” on the SAT. The SAT writing only tests your understanding of about 15 standard grammar rules, and they’re all discussed in detail in Chapter 15.

Analyzing Problems

Once you understand the problem, you must look at its parts and think about how they fit together. This is called analysis. To fix a watch, you have to analyze its parts and see how they work together. To solve a tough SAT problem, you have to analyze the parts of a math problem, a sentence, a writing prompt, or a reading passage. Make sure to mark up the test booklet—draw on the diagrams, underline the passages, cross out wrong answers, write out your equations, and so on.

On math problems, analyzing means understanding how equations work, what unknowns represent, and how parts of geometric figures relate to one another. Chapter 6, Lesson 2; Chapter 8, Lesson 7; and Chapter 9, Lesson 5 are particularly helpful for honing your analytical math skills. On sentence completion questions, analyzing means understanding the parts of the sentences: the clauses, the parallel elements, the modifying phrases, and so on, as discussed in Chapter 5. On the essay, analyzing means examining the issue from different angles, carefully defining your terms, and creating a cohesive outline, as discussed in Chapter 12. On the critical reading section, analyzing means seeing how the paragraphs fit together into a coherent whole, as discussed in Chapter 4.

Analysis even helps with your vocabulary. You can tackle tough vocabulary questions much more easily once you learn the common Latin and Greek roots. Knowing the meanings of the parts of a new word helps you to make a strong guess about its meaning. Chapter 3 gives you nearly 200 of the most common SAT roots and affixes, with lots of examples of how they are used.

Finding Patterns in the Problem

After analyzing a problem, look for patterns—simple rules that relate the parts. For instance, if a SAT question gives you a sequence like 3, 8, 13, 18,…, you should recognize a simple pattern—add 5—that lets you keep track of the terms without memorizing every single term. Similarly, formulas such as distance = rate × time show important relationships between the parts of a problem: for instance, as the rate increases for traveling a given distance, the time decreases. Mathematical patterns are discussed throughout the math chapters in this book, but especially in Chapter 6, Lesson 3; Chapter 7, Lessons 2 and 4; Chapter 10, Lesson 6; and Chapter 11, Lesson 1.

Language patterns such as parallel structure help you to understand complex passages and to write fluently. This simple but ubiquitous language pattern is discussed in Chapter 4 (Lesson 3), Chapter 5 (Lessons 3 and 5), Chapter 12 (Lessons 6 and 7), and Chapter 15 (Lesson 3). Also, good readers and writers always pay attention to paragraph structure—how one paragraph links logically with the next. Solid paragraph structure is key to writing high-scoring SAT essays. Chapter 12 (particularly Lessons 6, 7, and 12) gives you lots of practice in structuring a top-scoring essay.

Simplifying the Problem

Another key to SAT success is simplifying tough math problems, tough essay assignments, and tough reading passages. Your working memory holds only between five and nine pieces of information at a time. If you can reduce the amount of information in a problem, you make it easier to solve. If you ever struggle to simplify tough SAT math problems, be sure to review Chapter 6, Lesson 4; Chapter 7, Lessons 1 and 2; Chapter 8, Lessons 2, 3, and 5; and Chapter 10, Lesson 5. Simplification is also enormously important to success on the SAT critical reading and writing sections. Chapter 4 shows you how to summarize complex essays so that they don’t overwhelm you. Chapter 15, Lesson 2 shows you how to simplify sentences so that you can analyze their “core structure” and catch common errors.

Connecting to Knowledge

Even though the SAT mainly tests flexible reasoning skills, you still need to have plenty of memorized facts and procedures—word and root definitions, reading strategies, basic math formulas, and grammar rules—at the tip of your brain.

Don’t worry—you don’t need to memorize a ton of facts (in fact, every SAT math section gives you most of the common formulas you’ll need), and this book will make it as easy as possible. Everything you need to memorize is right here: Chapter 3 provides an organized list of over 2,000 high-frequency SAT words and nearly 200 key word roots; Chapter 4 will hammer home the three “key questions” you must ask to understand any reading passage; Chapters 6–11 discuss all of the major math facts and formulas you’ll need (and even a few that go beyond the “reference information” on the test); and Chapter 15 discusses all of the grammar rules you’ll be expected to apply on the SAT.

Considering Alternatives

On SAT math problems, students often perform the first procedure that pops into their heads—distributing whenever they see parentheses, solving equations whenever they contain a variable, and so on. Big mistake. The SAT math isn’t testing your memorization of rote skills as much as it is testing your mental flexibility. Every SAT question is unique, and many can be solved in several different ways. Good test-takers consider their alternatives before diving in.

Some SAT math problems that look like algebra problems can be solved more simply with numerical or geometric methods, and some that look like geometry problems can be solved more simply with algebraic or numerical methods. To find the simplest method, you have to consider your options. Don’t assume that someone else’s favorite method is always the best one for you. Chapter 6, Lesson 6 discusses multiple approaches to solving SAT math problems, as do Chapter 7, Lesson 1; Chapter 8, Lesson 6; and the many answer explanations for math worksheets throughout the book.

Similarly, many students think there is just a “formula” for writing a good SAT essay with pre-set literary examples, and so don’t take advantage of their own unique abilities or the differences from question to question. (As great a book as Huckleberry Finn is, it probably won’t work so well as the basis of an essay about modern communication technology.) In fact, there are hundreds of different ways to approach any given essay question that will get you a perfect score. Carefully consider your own unique perspective and knowledge before deciding what point of view to take. Chapter 12 walks you through the writing process so that you can adapt any SAT essay assignment to your personal point of view.

Thinking Logically

Logic is one of the most powerful reasoning tools you can use on the SAT: sentence completion questions ask you to analyze the logical structure of sentences, critical reading questions often ask you to make logical inferences or examine logical assumptions based on the claims made in a passage, and SAT math questions often require you to figure out what must be true based on some given assumptions. All of these are exercises in logic.

Chapter 6, Lesson 7 discusses three logical methods for solving tough SAT math problems; Chapter 4, Lesson 7 teaches you to analyze critical reading questions logically; Chapter 5, Lessons 2 and 3 help you to analyze the logical structure of sentences; and Chapter 12, Lesson 7 helps you to strengthen your essay with logic.

Checking Your Work

Everyone makes dumb mistakes now and then. Good students, however, always check their work for errors. Don’t wait until you’re completely finished with a problem, and don’t merely repeat the same steps to check (because you’ll probably just repeat the same mistake you made the first time). Instead, as you solve an SAT math problem, ask: Am I getting closer to my goal? Is there a quicker way to get to my goal? Do I need to find something else before I can get to my goal? Then, after you’ve found an answer, ask: Did I show my steps clearly? Are they correct? Does my solution make sense when I reread the problem? Is there another way I can look at the problem to check my answer?

On SAT math questions, estimate whenever you can to check your work. If you can make an easy estimate of the answer, then you can eliminate choices that are way off base, as well as check your work when you do it “the long way.” This and other mathchecking strategies are discussed in Chapter 6, Lesson 8. On sentence completion questions, always reread the sentence one more time with your answer “filled in,” and check that it works logically. On the critical reading section, check that your responses make sense, given the overall purpose of the passage. Chapter 4, Lesson 8 discusses some other checking strategies for critical reading. On the writing questions, check that any error you find is really one of the legitimate grammatical errors listed in Chapter 15, and not just something that sounds a little strange.


Students who ace the SAT have one important thing in common: they read a lot. Good reading habits give you an enormous advantage in life and on the SAT. One of the best ways to prepare for the critical reading section of the SAT is to dive into books like those below, which deal with the world of ideas you will explore in a good liberal arts education: philosophy, the arts, history, biography, science, and the humanities. Read books that challenge your thinking and introduce you to new ideas.

Internet Resources

Set your homepage to one of the following, and save bookmarks of the others. Some of these sites may require a subscription, but most provide a good deal of their material free of charge.

The New York Times:
Read the op-ed page every day, the Science Times on Tuesdays, and the Week in Review on Sundays.

The Atlantic:
Read the features and the Atlantic Voices.

Slate Magazine:
Read the News & Politics section.

BBC News:
Read the Features, Views, Analysis section, and the Background links to the right of the feature stories.

Read the Editor’s Picks.


One Hundred Years of Solitude, G. Garcia-Marquez

The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kozinsky

Candide, Voltaire

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

The Wall, John Hersey

Growing Up, Russell Baker

The Best American Short Stories of the Century, John Updike, editor

Baby, It’s Cold Inside, S. J. Perelman

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Metamorphosis (and other stories), Franz Kafka

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Night, Elie Wiesel

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

The Stranger, Albert Camus

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding


Drift and Mastery, Walter Lippmann

The Best American Essays, Robert Atwan, editor

The Norton Reader, Linda H. Peterson, John C. Brereton, and Joan E. Hartman, editors

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Lanterns and Lances, James Thurber

The Chomsky Reader, Noam Chomsky

The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

The American Language, H. L. Mencken

Selected Essays, 1917–1932, T.S. Eliot

The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr

Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster

Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson


1776, David McCullough

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

QED, Richard Feynman

The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen J. Gould

The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas

The Republic, Plato

Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud

The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

Freakonomics, Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond

The Double Helix, James D. Watson

The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith

The Ants, Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson

The Civil War, Shelby Foote

The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham

The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes


How Much Studying Should I Do for the SAT?

We expect our private SAT students to spend about 30 minutes every weeknight doing homework, as well as 4 hours every Saturday morning taking a practice test, for 8 to 10 weeks. This is a lot of work, but it pays off very nicely, if it is done well. Even if you only have a few hours per week to prepare, this book will help you to get the most out of it. At the very least, try your best to set aside 30 minutes at least four times per week to do the work in your weekly “SAT Study Plan,” and set aside 3.5 hours on the weekend to take a practice SAT.

What Is “Score Choice” and How Do I Use It?

Colleges that accept the SAT Score Choice option allow you to submit certain SAT and SAT Subject Test scores while withholding others. According to the College Board, this option is “designed to reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience.” But keep in mind: not every college allows Score Choice. Some will require you to release all or none of your SAT and SAT Subject Test scores. Check with the colleges to learn their policies on Score Choice. Find out more about SAT Score Choice by visiting

SAT Score Choice can help you to simplify your testing profile by submitting only the scores you like. For the SAT, you can choose which tests to submit, but not which individual subscores. For instance, if you like the Math and Writing scores from your first SAT, but you like your Critical Reading score from your second SAT, you may not submit just the Critical Reading score from the second test without also submitting the other subscores. In that situation, it is likely best to just submit all of the scores from both tests, because most colleges simply take the top individual subscores from all SATs you submit. They call this “superscoring.” (For instance, if your first SAT scores are 570CR 430M 600W and your second SAT scores are 520CR 500M 560W, and you submit both sets to a college, then that college will most likely give you credit for a 570CR 500M 600W SAT score.)

So what’s the point of Score Choice if most colleges will just maximize your SAT score for you anyway? Basically, it keeps students from freaking out too much about taking any particular SAT. If you bomb it, no one will have to know!

So here’s our advice:

1. Go to the websites of the colleges you like, and find out what their policies are on Score Choice.

2. If your favorite colleges allow Score Choice, you can relax and remind yourself that you don’t have to ace any particular SAT.

3. Even if they don’t, no worries—they probably “superscore” anyway.

4. Plan to take the SAT at least twice, preferably in your junior year, well before any possible college application deadlines, so that you can maximize your testing profile.

5. Don’t—we repeat, don’t—release your scores until you’re satisfied with your overall score report.

What Do Colleges Do with My SAT Scores?

Your SAT scores show college admissions officers how ready you are to do college work. They know that students with high SAT scores are less likely to struggle with tough math, writing, or reading assignments in college. Recent studies have also shown that SAT scores correlate strongly with post-college success. Students with high SAT scores are more likely to graduate from college, and have successful careers after college.

But let’s face it: one reason colleges want you to send them SAT scores is that high scores make them look good. The higher the average SAT score of their applicants, the better their rankings and prestige. This is why most colleges cherry pick your top subscores if you submit multiple SAT results. (It’s also easy to see why some colleges have adopted “SAT-optional” policies. Although colleges like to say it’s because they like to look beyond test scores, it’s hard to deny that there are other compelling reasons. When a college makes SAT scores optional, only the high-scoring students are likely to submit them, and so the college’s average scores automatically increase, thereby improving its national rankings.)

In addition to your SAT scores, most good colleges are interested in your grades, your curriculum, your recommendations, your leadership skills, your extracurricular activities, and your essay. But standardized test scores are becoming more important as colleges become more selective. Without exception, high SAT scores will provide you with an admission advantage regardless of whether your college requires them or not. Some large or specialized schools will weigh test scores heavily. If you have any questions about how heavily a certain college weighs your SAT scores, call the admissions office and ask.

When Should I Take My SATs, and Which Subject Tests Should I Take?

The vast majority of colleges and universities require the SAT or ACT, but some have “SAT-optional” policies. Some schools require no SAT Subject Tests, and some require up to three. If you want to be able to apply to any competitive college in the country, plan to take the SAT twice, as well as a set of SAT Subject Tests, in the spring of your junior year, and retake any of those tests, if necessary, in the fall of your senior year. (Taking the ACT can also be a good insurance policy; you can submit those scores instead if they’re much better than your SAT scores.) This way, you will have a full testing profile by the end of your junior year, and you’ll have a much clearer picture of where you stand before you start your college applications.

Even if your favorite colleges don’t require standardized tests, take them anyway, because if you do well, you can use them to boost your application. Say, for instance, you’re an A student, but you got one C– in chemistry class. Submitting a strong SAT Subject Test score in chemistry will show your colleges (even those that don’t require the Subject Tests) that you’re a better chemistry student than your transcript shows.

And what if you don’t do well? If a college doesn’t require them, don’t submit them. Remember, you control when and if your SAT scores are submitted to the colleges.

Take any SAT Subject Test when the subject material is fresh in your mind. For most students, this is in June, just as courses are finishing up. However, if you are taking AP exams in May, you might prefer to take the SAT Subject Tests in May, also.

Learn which SAT Subject Tests your colleges require, and try to complete them by June of your junior year. You can take up to three SAT Subject Tests on any test date. Here are the upcoming test dates for 2012–2013:

SAT Test Dates 2012–2013*

How Do I Register for the SATs?

Check the College Board Web site,, for the most up-to-date information about registration, test sites, deadlines, fees, and procedures for applying for special testing accommodations. You can also pick up a Registration Bulletin in your school’s guidance office, which will give you all of the information you need.

What Is a Good SAT Score?

It all depends on what colleges you are applying to. Each of the three SAT sections—Critical Reading, Math, and Writing—is scored on a scale from 200 to 800. The median (50th percentile) score for each section is usually between 490 and 530. At the most competitive colleges, like those in the Ivy League, the average SAT score is above 700 on each section. Of course, only about 5% of students are in that category.

Go to the Web sites of those colleges that interest you (or look up their data in one of those big college guides in your local library) and look for their “quartile SAT scores.” These are scores for the 25th percentile, the 50th percentile, and the 75th percentile of incoming freshmen. For instance, if the quartile scores for SAT math for a college are 480-550-650, then 25% of the incoming class scored below 480 on the math SAT, 50% scored below 550, and 75% scored below 650. These numbers give you a good idea of how your scores compare with those of other students who have been admitted.

Should I Guess If I Don’t Know the Answer to a Question?

In general, random guessing probably won’t help, but educated guessing probably will. If you can eliminate at least two choices, make your best guess. Although wrong answers on multiple-choice questions deduct ¼ point from your raw score, there is no penalty on “grid-in” math questions. So, if you have any kind of guess, fill it in.

Can I Get Extra Time on the SAT?

Only if you really need it. Some students with special needs can qualify to take the SAT with accommodations such as extended time. But take note: these are available only to students with professional recommendations. If you’re thinking it would just be nice to have extra time to think things over, tough luck. Surprisingly, extra time actually hurts many students, because it causes them to lose focus. If you have been diagnosed as having special testing needs by a qualified psychologist and feel that you would benefit from special accommodations, talk to your guidance counselor about how to register, or go to the College Board Web site.

When Will I Get My Scores?

You can get your SAT scores by phone or on the Web between two and three weeks after you take the test. About ten days after your scores are available online a written report will be mailed to you free of charge. Any schools you send your scores to will receive them by mail at about the same time you do. If a college needs your scores sooner, you can “rush” them for a fee.

Can I Get the Actual Test Back When I Get My Scores?

If you take the SAT in October, January, or May, you can request the Question and Answer Service (QAS) for a fee. The QAS provides you with a copy of the test booklet, a record of your answers, the answer key, scoring instructions, and information about the types and difficulty of each question. You may order this service when you register or up to five months after the date of the test. You may also order a copy of your answer sheet only, for a smaller fee. You can find information about these services in your score report.

Are Some SATs Easier than Others?

No. Some students believe, mistakenly, that the SAT is easier on certain dates than on others. Such misconceptions usually derive from student bias rather than test bias. For instance, many students are nervous and ill-prepared for their first SAT, but mistakenly blame their underperformance on the difficulty of the test. Some students also swear that the SAT scoring curve is tougher when the smarter kids or the professional SAT tutors take it. Wrong. The curve on every SAT is determined ahead of time, based on the “equating” or “experimental” sections of previous exams. These experimental sections help the ETS (Educational Testing Service) to ensure that every SAT is as “difficult” as every other recent SAT. Don’t design your testing schedule around your friends’ misconceptions about the SAT. Instead, design it around your schedule and Study Plan. Take it when you are best prepared to take it.

What About the ACT?

The ACT was developed in the 1960s as an alternative to the SAT for students applying chiefly to Midwestern and Southern vocational, mechanical, and agricultural schools. Today, it is accepted in lieu of the SAT by most colleges. Although it is more of a basic skills test and less of an academic reasoning test than the SAT, you should consider taking the ACT at least as an insurance policy for your college application. If your ACT percentile score is much better than your SAT score, you might want to submit your ACT scores instead of, or in addition to, your SAT scores. You can find out more about the ACT testing program at

What Should I Do in the Two Days Before the SAT?

The most important things to do in the two days before your exam are:

• Get plenty of rest.

• Visualize yourself being successful.

• Get some exercise.

• Don’t cram.

• Tell yourself you’re ready.

See a funny movie, grab a good dinner, and get a good night’s rest. For a truly peaceful slumber, lay out everything you need for test day the night before:

• Admission ticket

• Photo ID

• Several #2 pencils with erasers

• Calculator (with fresh batteries)

• Stop-Watch

• A light snack, like a banana or granola bar

• Your brain

• Earplugs (if you need them to shut out distractions)

• Directions to the test site (if you haven’t been there before)

What Should I Do the Morning of the SAT?

• Get a good breakfast and some exercise to get the blood and nutrients flowing.

• Dress in layers so that you can stay comfortable whether the furnace (or air conditioner) is broken or working overtime.

• Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing; stick to your own game plan. Have confidence that your practice will pay off!

• Don’t panic when you get to a tough passage or question. Expect it—this is the SAT! Just do your best and move on if you need to. You can come back later to the hard problems if necessary.

• When you feel yourself getting nervous, take three slow, deep breaths.

• Think positive, and try to have fun!