The SAT Prep Black Book
How To Train For The SAT—Mastering The Ideas In This Book
“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations—we fall to the level of our training.”
- Bruce Lee
After questions about the structure of the test itself, the most common question I get has to do with the right way to “study” for the SAT. People want to know what order they should tackle the different parts of the test in, what kind of schedule they should follow, whether they should take a practice test on the last day before the real test—all kinds of stuff.
The short answer to all of these questions is that there really is no single best way to tackle the material in this book, because no two students will have the same exact needs when it comes to prepping. Different people will have different strengths and weaknesses, different schedules, different target scores, different starting points, different attention spans, and so on. So I’m not going to tell you exactly how to manage your preparation schedule. Instead, I’m going to give you guidelines to follow and things to make sure you consider, and then it’s going to be up to you to figure out how you piece those things together in a way that works best for you.
So we’ll handle it in this order:
ogeneral concepts to govern your preparation
oguidelines for the order in which you tackle different parts of the test
oideas for drills and exercises
ogeneral notes on scheduling
Let’s get started.
The Recommended Progression
Most people measure their progress by the scores they make on practice tests, but I don’t advise that, at least not in the beginning. I’d rather see you measure your progress in terms of your overall understanding of the test. This is a subjective measurement, to be sure, but it’s actually a lot more reliable than practice test results, because those can be heavily influenced by luck and other external factors.
So your first goal is to get a general grasp of the mechanics of each part of the test. You do this by reading the relevant portion of this Black Book, following along with some or all of the sample solutions, and checking out the free videos at www.SATprepVideos.com until you feel like you can understand the reasoning behind most or all of the test.
After you have a grasp of the foundation of the test, your next goal is to understand the mistakes you make when you look at questions on your own (whether we’re talking about practice tests, practice sections, or just individual test items—more on that below). In other words, at this stage your main goal isn’t really to keep from making mistakes; it’s simply to understand your mistakes after you make them. You want to figure out what the mistake was, of course, but you also want to figure out why it happened, and what you should have noticed in the question that would have kept you from making the mistake in the first place, or would have allowed you to catch it and correct it after it was made. This is why I spend so much time in this Black Book talking about each question as a system of concepts and relationships, and explaining the ways that right answers differ from wrong answers, and the relationships that typically exist among them. Those are the things you want to get in the habit of noticing when you look at an SAT question, because if those things seem to be in order then you’ve probably understood the question correctly.
Once you have a solid grasp of the reasons you’re making mistakes and the things you could do to avoid them, your next goal is to actually eliminate those mistakes, either by avoiding them in the first place or by noticing them after they happen and then correcting them. This is where it really helps to be aware of the test’s rules and patterns, particularly when it comes to answer choices. At this stage, your goal is to make sure that you never miss a question as a result of a mistake on your part—you want to get to a point where the only reason you ever miss a question is that it might involve a word, grammar principle, or math concept that you were unfamiliar with, and that you can’t work around. In other words, your goal is to eliminate so-called “careless mistakes.”
When you have essentially eliminated careless mistakes, you’ll probably be at a point where your scores on practice tests are more than satisfactory. If not, you need to think carefully about what’s causing you to miss the remaining questions, and how to fix those issues. But be careful here—too many people jump to the incorrect conclusion that a weakness in vocabulary is the reason they miss a reading question, or that an unknown math formula is the reason they miss a math question. Remember the lessons of this book: the SAT really isn’t an advanced test when it comes to subject matter. Of course, there are definitely questions in which vocabulary plays a very large part, and it can sometimes be difficult or impossible to work around an unknown word, but there are many, many more questions in which vocabulary only seems to be an issue, and you could actually find a work-around if you thought about it. Similarly, there are many SAT Math questions that seem specialized and advanced to most students, but none of them actually are.
You may also have to think about timing issues at this stage in your progression, though most people who get to a point where they’ve eliminated “careless errors” find that timing is no longer a concern. If timing is still an issue, review the portion of this Black Book on time management, and remember that it isn’t a matter of doing a lot of work very quickly—it’s a matter of streamlining and reducing the amount of work that goes into answering each question in the first place.
The Order Of Attack
I pretty much always recommend that students start with the Critical Reading section, because it’s typically the part of the test where it’s easiest to start noticing how the SAT uses rules and patterns to make questions predictable and objective even when they might seem not to be. It’s also a good introduction to the extreme importance of reading carefully and paying attention to details.
There are only two reasons I might recommend not starting with the Critical Reading section, really. One would be if you already had a perfect 800 on that section. The other reason would be if you really wanted to work on your Math score AND just didn’t have enough time before your test date to start with Critical Reading. In all other situations, though, I’d start with the Critical Reading, even if that isn’t the part of the test that bothers you most. It’s the foundation for the rest of the test.
Once you feel like the Critical Reading section is starting to make sense, I would turn my attention to the Math section. As I will mention many times in this book, the Math section is all about basic concepts being combined and presented in strange ways, and our goal is to learn how to look at a Math question that seems impossible at first and figure out which basic concepts are involved, and then use them to answer the question. Because there’s more variation in the surface appearance of Math questions than there is in the appearance of the questions from other sections, learning how to think about them properly often takes more time than it might take for other question types. So be aware of that when you’re planning your approach to the test.
I would advise most test-takers to focus on improving the Writing Multiple Choice questions and the SAT Essay last (in either order). Of course, this assumes that your target schools will even care about those scores. If they don’t, then there’s probably no point in devoting your energy to them. You can find out if your target schools consider the Writing score by looking at their websites or contacting their admissions departments and asking directly.
Drills And Exercises
Most people get ready for the SAT or PSAT the same way they would get ready for a school test: they try to memorize stuff (vocabulary, formulas, essay examples, whatever), and then they do a lot of practice questions. After you’ve read the sections of this book that deal with the way SAT questions work, you’ll understand why the memorization/repetition approach won’t help you. The SAT isn’t a test of advanced knowledge, so memorizing obscure definitions and math formulas won’t do much. And it doesn’t repeat test items exactly, so taking tons of practice tests with the idea that you’ll see the exact same questions on test day is also a bad idea.
(This, by the way, is why you probably know so many people who work so hard on the SAT or PSAT and have so little to show for it. They’re getting ready for the test as though it were a final exam in a Geometry class, and that’s not what it is.)
Of course, that raises an important question: if you’re not supposed to get ready for the SAT by memorizing stuff and doing a million practice questions, then what are you supposed to do instead?
You’re supposed to try to understand the test instead. When you understand how the SAT works—really, truly understand it—you’ll find that it’s a very basic test, and that you really don’t need to spend a hundred hours getting ready for it. (If you’re going for a perfect 2400, you may need to spend a bit more time than the average person, but we’ll talk about that later).
You come to understand the SAT by thinking about how the test is designed and why it’s designed that way, so that you can eventually see it the same way the College Board sees it. And you get to that point by thinking about the things that we talk about in this book, and by making a conscious and intentional effort to apply them to a sufficient sample of real test questions.
This process may incidentally involve a little memorization—you’ll want to remember what kinds of patterns and things to look for, for example. And it will also involve a certain amount of practice as you learn to apply these ideas against real test questions. But our ultimate goal is to see the SAT as a coherent, predictable system of rules and patterns that we understand, instead of having to say, “I’ve memorized thousands of words and done 30 practice tests, but my score just isn’t improving.”
Ultimately, you want to realize that the SAT tests the same underlying principles according to the same rules and patterns on every test, but that each individual SAT question will appear unique to people who don’t know how the test works. And you want to be able to identify the ways that an individual question follows those rules and patterns, so that you can “decode” each question and mark the answer that the College Board will reward.
Now let’s talk about some different options for getting to that point. Here are three of my favorite exercises. I’ve given them ridiculous names to help them stick in your head, and to emphasize that they’re different from just mindlessly repeating practice questions over and over again.
1. The Semi-Structured Stare-And-Ponder
The Semi-Structured Stare-And-Ponder is a great way to begin to appreciate how the SAT is actually designed. You start out by learning the general idea of how a certain question type works by reading the relevant portions of this Black Book and looking at a good number of the sample solutions in here. Then you find a question of the same general type (Passage-Based Reading, Improving Sentences, whatever) in the Blue Book or some other College Board source.
And then you stare at the question.
And you ponder it.
You try to figure out how that question is doing the kinds of things that I talk about in this book. You think carefully about the wording, the answer choices, all that stuff. Ultimately, your goal is to understand the College Board’s motivation for writing the question in that way—why the right answer is right, why the wrong answers are wrong, and why the College Board thinks the wrong answers would be appealing to different types of test-takers who might make different types of mistakes.
When you feel you’ve stared at a particular question and pondered it long enough, you move on to another one, and stare at it (and ponder it, too). You look for the same types of design elements and relationships, with the same ultimate goal of seeing the question through the College Board’s eyes, and being able to explain every aspect of the question’s design.
Then you move on to the next question. Or you eat a sandwich, or go for a walk or something—when staring and pondering in a semi-structured way gets boring, you stop. You come back to it later, when you’re interested to see how much more of the SAT you can figure out. Ideally, the process is relaxed, with no real consideration of time. You’re just letting the ideas rattle around in your head, and letting your brain get used to looking for them in real SAT questions. You don’t get frustrated if you can’t see how something works. You’re just getting used to a new way of looking at test questions in a low-pressure setting.
Of course, when you actually take the test, you won’t want to approach it in this way. That goes without saying. But that shouldn’t stop you from pondering all the different aspects of the test in this kind of relaxed way as a part of your preparation, because the more you do this kind of thing, the more quickly you’ll be able to analyze and diagnose real test questions in the future. Let things percolate a bit and you may be surprised what you start to notice in the future.
The word “postie” here is short for the phrase “post mortem,” which in this case refers to the idea of analyzing a test or a practice session after the fact. I included the word “postie” in the name of this exercise because I really, really want to emphasize that if you don’t make a serious analysis of your practice work after you finish it, then you’re really wasting the time you spend practicing.
So basically you start out by doing practice parts of a test, or even entire practice tests. You can do these practice sections with or without time limits, as you see fit (of course, the actual SAT will have a time limit, so you’ll probably want to practice with a time limit at some point, but it might not be beneficial in the beginning).
I wouldn’t recommend that you use practice sections or practice tests until you’ve made some progress in understanding the rules and patterns of the individual SAT questions—otherwise, you’ll just end up wasting lots of time and getting frustrated when you miss a lot of questions and don’t understand why.
I also wouldn’t recommend that you do practice tests or sections without doing a full post-mortem on them, in which you go through all the questions and try to understand why the College Board wrote each question the way it did, what you could have done to answer the question correctly as quickly and directly as possible, and what lessons you can learn from that question that might be applicable to future questions. This post-mortem step is absolutely critical if you want to make a serious improvement on the SAT, but it’s something that most people completely ignore, or do only halfway.
Since the whole point of your practice sessions is to prepare you to do well on test day, the most important thing you can learn from any question is how to recognize its rules and patterns at work in future questions. In other words, as weird as it may sound, the actual answer to a particular practice question doesn’t really matter that much; what matters is whether the question can teach us how to answer future questions on test day. So it’s much better to miss a practice question and learn something from it than to get lucky on a practice question and not learn anything.
And if you don’t really sit and think about the questions you’ve missed, you’re going to keep missing similar questions in the future—maybe not questions that seem similar on the surface (there may not even be any that seem similar on the surface), but you’ll definitely miss questions with similar fundamentals, and there will probably be a lot of them.
So please make sure you give some serious thought to your practice sections after you finish them. Otherwise, the time you spend doing them is basically wasted. (By the way, if you do a good job on your post-mortems you should find that you dramatically reduce the amount of practice that you need to reach your goal, so you save yourself a ton of time in the long run.)
3. The Shortcut Search
In this exercise, which can be part of a post-mortem or just an exercise on its own, you look at some real SAT questions for which you already know the answers. If you’ve already done the questions and graded them, then you’ll know the answers from that; if you haven’t, then just look at the answer key and mark them down beforehand anyway.
Our goal with this exercise is not to figure out the right answer to a question, but to figure out the fastest and easiest way to arrive at that answer with certainty. For a Passage-Based Reading Question, we want to figure out which phrases in the text support the correct answer, and we want to figure out how we could have arrived at those key phrases with a minimal amount of reading and frustration. For a Math question, we might think about ways to use diagrams or answer choices (if the question has some) to avoid using formulas in our solutions. And so on.
This abbreviation stands for “What Would Make It Right?” In this drill, you go through each answer choice in a question and ask yourself what would have to change about the question or the test for that answer choice to be the correct one. If a Math question asks for the area of a rectangle and one wrong answer is the perimeter, then the answer to “WWMIR” is something like “if the College Board had asked for perimeter instead of area here.” If the shortest answer choice in an Improving Sentences question isn’t correct, then the answer to “WWMIR” might be something like “if this noun had been singular instead of plural, or if the word ‘it’ had been ‘they.’” And so on. Forcing yourself to try to re-imagine the questions in ways that would make the wrong answers right will help reinforce your understanding of how right and wrong answers work for particular parts of the SAT.
Things To Think About For Scheduling
As I mentioned above, years of working with a wide variety of students have left me convinced that there is no single best schedule for every test-taker. In fact, I think it would be closer to the truth to say that no two test-takers would probably have the same optimal preparation schedule. So now that we’ve talked about general ideas to use in your preparation, let’s talk about the things you’ll need to think about when you schedule that preparation.
Do You Like To Get An Early Start, Or Are You An Adrenaline Junkie?
Imagine that you’re in a history class, and the teacher announces a massive research assignment that will be due in 2 months. There are two general reactions to a situation like this: some people rush home and start working on it right away, and some people already know that they’ll pull a couple of all-nighters right before it’s due and knock it out like that. I find that the same general tendencies exist when it comes to test prep. If you’d get started on a 2-month project when the due date is still 2 months away, then you should probably start as early as possible on your test preparation. If you’re more of a last-minute person, then you’re probably more of a last-minute prepper, too. I’ve seen both approaches work out very well tons of times, as long as the test-taker was comfortable with the particular approach.
How Long Can You Stand To Stare At The Same Page?
Some people have longer attention spans than others, and some are just naturally more interested in the SAT than others. If you really can’t coax more than 10 to 30 minutes of sustained attention to the test out of yourself, then you’ll probably want to do shorter and more frequent bouts of preparation. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who can easily spend 2 hours thinking about the SAT without wanting to scream, it may make more sense for you to do an hour or two each weekend and largely ignore the test during the week.
What Kind Of Score Increase Do You Need?
This one is probably obvious: the more points you need to score, the earlier you’ll probably want to start prepping.
How Much Free Time Do You Have?
Again, fairly obvious: the less free time you have in your schedule, the earlier you need to start prepping in order to accommodate a particular amount of prep time. (But one potential wrinkle in this part of the discussion is the fact that the actual amount of prep time you need may be significantly more or significantly less than you’d expect at the outset.)
How Many Questions/Sections/Tests Do You Need To Do?
It may come as a surprise, but there is no magic number of practice questions that will guarantee you hit your target score. Based on my fairly wide experience, I would say that over 99% of people do need to do some kind of actual practice work with the ideas in this book—it’s very rare that a person is able to implement the strategies on test day with full effectiveness after merely reading about them. So you will want to do some number of practice questions or sections. The operative question is how many.
And the issue is one of quality, not quantity. Most people will assume (very incorrectly) that if they simply do a certain number of questions they’re guaranteed to improve. But that really isn’t the case, because of the unique way in which standardized tests are designed. It’s much more important to try to understand a representative sample of questions than it is to crank out a million repetitions simply for its own sake. If you can look at a single real SAT and really, thoroughly understand what the College Board is doing in that test, and why, and how you can use the strategies in this book to beat it, then you’re ready.
Do You Even Need A Schedule?
Finally, I’d like to close by pointing out that a specific test-prep schedule might not even be ideal for you in the first place. In my experience, students are often very bad at predicting how long it will take them to master a particular skill on the SAT, because the SAT is so different from traditional tests. You may pick up the Reading very quickly and take longer to build good SAT Math skills, or the other way around, and there may not be any correlation between those lengths of time and your academic strengths. Or you might rapidly build up good test-taking instincts for all the question types, and then have a difficult time eliminating your “careless mistakes” and spend weeks perfecting that. You may be full of enthusiasm and excitement one week, and then suddenly find yourself with no time at all on the next week. And so on. An overly rigid schedule may prevent you from adapting to these kinds of situations, or to others.
My general “scheduling” advice, then, is simple. If I were you, I would try to start prepping as early as you can, even if that just means flipping absent-mindedly through this Black Book in the very beginning. The earlier you start, the more gradual the prep can be, and the more likely it is to stick. At the same time, I would recommend prepping in ways that you find mentally engaging, and taking breaks when it gets boring and counter-productive. After every practice section or full-length practice test, I would strongly recommend a serious and sincere post-mortem.
And that’s basically it. Modify it and make it your own as you see fit.