The SAT Prep Black Book

The “Big Secret” Of The SAT

“There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”
- Jean Racine

Before we get into all the strategies and advice for specific areas of the test, I want to start out by sharing something very important with you: the “secret” of the SAT.

Here it is: The SAT frustrates so many test-takers because it asks about very basic things in very strange (but repetitive) ways. The simple reason so many people struggle with the test is that they’re looking at it in completely the wrong way.

Let’s examine why this is.

Imagine that you’re the College Board, which is the company that makes and administers the SAT. Colleges use your test scores to help them figure out which applicants to admit, and they only trust your test because it consistently provides them with reliable measurements. So how do you go about making a test that can be given to millions of students a year and still compare them all in a meaningful way, despite the wide variations in their backgrounds and abilities?

You can’t just make a super-difficult test, because that won’t really provide useful information to the colleges who rely on you. For example, you can’t just focus the math test on advanced ideas from calculus and statistics, because most of the test-takers have never taken those subjects—and, even if they had, the results from your test wouldn’t really tell the colleges anything they couldn’t already learn from students’ transcripts. And you can’t make a test that relies on arbitrary interpretation or argumentation, because then the test results wouldn’t correlate to anything meaningful on a large scale, and colleges wouldn’t be able to rely on the data from your test.

So, if you’re the College Board, you need to design the SAT so that it avoids testing advanced concepts and so that it avoids arbitrary interpretation. Otherwise, your test will be useless for colleges, because colleges want to use a test that measures something meaningful about every applicant in the same way every time.

In other words, you have to come up with an objective test of basic ideas.

But then you have another problem: if you give a traditional objective test of basic ideas to millions of college-bound, motivated students, a lot of them are going to do really well on it—and then your results will be useless for a different reason, because there will be so many high scores that colleges won’t be able to use the results in their admissions decisions.

So how do you solve this problem?

The College Board solves this problem by combining basic ideas in weird, but repetitive, ways. The result is that doing well on the SAT involves the ability to look at a new test question and then figure out how it follows the rules that all SAT questions of that type must follow. And that’s what this book will teach you to do.

This is why there are so many people who do so well in advanced classes in high school but have a relatively hard time with the SAT: the SAT tests simpler stuff in a stranger way. It basically requires a totally different skill-set from high school or college. (You may be wondering why some students do well on both the SAT and school. These people are just good at both skill-sets. It’s a bit like being good at both football and wrestling: there’s enough of an overlap that some people are naturally good at both, but enough of a difference that many people struggle with one or the other. Or both.)

Now that you know the SAT’s big secret, the rest of this book—and the SAT itself—will probably make a lot more sense to you. This book is basically a road map to all the weird things the SAT does. It will teach you how to navigate the SAT’s bizarre design, and how to exploit the many weaknesses inherent in that design.